The Demystification of Molière

Molière’s work is French, dense, and 400 years old. explains why the new translations of his work, by poet Roger McGough, are keeping the magic alive

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It’s easy to forget that the words Classical Literature weren’t invented to refer to all things English. At the mere mention of the words “great playwright”, Mr Shakespeare saunters to the forefront of the English imagination, quill in hand, and curls ruched to perfection. His characters have even taken on their own global presence; Romeo and Juliet have become universal currency for moronic teenage romance, sorry, ‘star-crossed lovers’, and there is no character with a darker past than Othello, the original wife-beater. Move further ahead and we, in England, feel we are the homeland of a plethora of genres and playwrights – from tragedy to farce to obscurist fantasies.

Yet, loath as we are to admit it, Shakespeare was not the only man to present hours of immaculately tailored iambic pentameters. Even more catastrophically, Oscar Wilde was not alone in his merciless mockery of the upper classes. In fact, if Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare had a love-child, he would probably be Molière – one of the most established French playwrights of all time, whose work has just been beautifully re-mastered by a much more contemporary wordsmith, Roger McGough. Dubbed as McGoughiere (or #McGoughiere, as is the official slogan), the Liverpudlian author, poet, playwright and performer has painstakingly taken on the seemingly insurmountable task of rejuvenating some of these 17th century texts.

France in the 1600s was a world of the complete bourgeoise. King Louis XIV was a man of high fashion, style and decadence, and Molière’s infamy lies his unrelenting ability to gently satirise virtually every area of 17th century France that the King made stylish. His farcical chef-d’oeuvre (that’s ‘masterpiece’ to you and me) Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (or The Bourgeois Gentleman) quite plainly pokes fun at the simply ridiculous fashionable attire of the age (namely ribbons – a man was just not a real man if he didn’t have a dazzling array of small ribbons adorning his every garment), and his most famous piece Le Tartuffe defies his Jesuit education and caricatures religious impropriety. His wonderful aping of society may be drawn parallel with Oscar Wilde, but Molière’s pieces, though doused in lashings of farcical humour, are not quite as outrageous as Wilde’s and at their core is a grounding in human emotion.

This ability to both mock and endear gives Molière a timelessness which makes his resurrection all the more welcome. The task lies, however, in shedding the 17th century texts in a 21st century light, whilst retaining the inexorably French je ne sais quoi. There are dozens of pre-existing translations of Molière, but McGough wanted to take the verse, and allow each of the characters to shine through the daunting, intricately crafted verse. In an interview with The Guardian, McGough said that “I wanted the audience to focus more on what an actor is saying rather than on how it is being said, I sought to give each character a different voice, whether elegant, bombastic or cheeky, by varying line lengths, rhythm and rhyme”.
Most recently McGough has taken on the challenge of Le Misanthrope (or The Cantankerous Lover), which is one of the most famous, and least farcical, of Molière’s plays, which satirises the hypocritical and false behaviour of the upper classes. As his hardest challenge yet, McGough realised that “adapting Le Misanthrope was never going to be easy, though: this time, all those witty servant girls, broad elements of farce and implausible happy endings were thin on the ground”. But despite the discrepancies between the pervasive image of farce, and the more gritty reality, Le Misanthrope has been an unremitted success which is now touring the country (and playing at York’s own Theatre Royal from 21st-25th May).

This success, as with so many of Molière’s plays, rests in his ability to maintain a focus on human nature, and though many productions are a rip-roaringly raucous affair, at their heart is always a message about honesty and faithfulness, keeping Molière a perpetually relevant playwright, with as much of a claim to the canon as Shakespeare himself.

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