Let’s Hear a Play!, Part I: A Review of SGANARELLE, OR THE IMAGINARY CUCKOLD by Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere (translated by Richard Wilbur)

This is the first in an ongoing series of reviews of plays from the Western world, written before the Romantic era.  It will include any play from Ancient Greece up to the late eighteenth century.  I passionately love theater.  I am at least interested (usually more) in any theater, regardless of culture, time period or aesthetic movement.  However, my favorites are to be found in the many eras this series will focus on.  Why?  Can’t say!  The heart goes where it goes, in life and in literature.  The title of this series is an adaptation of a line in Shakespeare’s HAMLET.  For me, it has always encapsulated the indefinable aspects I love about this kind of theater.

Like many, I had always heard that Moliere was practically beyond translation.  Except, of course, for Richard Wilbur.  Most experts seem to think the American poet’s skill at least partially breaks through the language barrier when it comes to France’s great comedian and, arguably, greatest dramatist.  Not knowing French, I can’t say for sure.  What I can say is that, when I read Wilbur’s translations of Moliere’s The MisanthropeTartuffe, and Don Juan I immediately came to believe that they were among the greatest plays ever written.  Whatever Wilbur does, he brings something of Moliere to the English speaking world and for that we should all be eternally grateful.  No one should be without Moliere!

So what about this play?  Apparently, it was the biggest success of Moliere’s career.  It’s easy to see why.  Of course, it’s funny but it’s also fast and easy to read and perform.  If you love older styles of comedy, you will have a particularly great time with this play since it includes practically every old comedy leitmotif you can think of.  Even more charming is the way Moliere squeezes them all into a tiny little box, simultaneously demonstrating their utter banality and their immense appeal.

Despite these virtues, I don’t think this play is one of Moliere’s masterpieces.  There are few of the jolting insights into human folly from the other plays of his I’ve read.  The characters are not particularly memorable, except for the humorously annoyed maid.  The finale feels almost absurdly rushed, even for a short play.  While Wilbur’s translation seems rock solid, he resorts to more sing-song verse than he does in the other translations I’ve read.  Since he seems to usually avoid this, I’m guessing it happens more here because of the play itself, although I could be wrong.  In short, a fine, fun play!  Still, if you don’t know other Moliere, don’t stop here!  Intoxicating delights await you!          

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