Well, things do keep happening, don't they? I saw Tartuffe on Friday, October the 13th , at the Stratford Festival Theatre. .Richard Wilbur, the American poet, whom I loved for his elegant, witty translations of Moliere plays, died on the 14th, at the age of 96. He was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (1957 and 19889), and U.S. Poet Laureate (1987-88), among other distinctions. I knew him for his Moliere plays, so well done at Stratford over the years.
So I was surprised to see, on reading the program prior to the performance, that the translation of Tartuffe being used was by someone new to me: Ranjit Bolt. b. 1954, Anglo-Indian, born in Manchester, a gifted writer and translator and an addicted gambler who cured himself of his addiction by writing limericks: A Lion was Learning to Ski (2015). He peddled it on the street. It became a best-seller and made him famous, whereas before he was jet well-known.
Poetry doesn't sell these days, you think. Rajiit Bolt is quoted as saying that it does if it's funny. Wilbur made it funny onstage. Well, of course, you say, it was Moliere: not old-fashioned, not old hat, but character-driven, and as fresh as tomorrow's milk. Moliere's plays were written in alexandrines, rhyming 12-syllable lines that came to characterise French drama in English minds. Wilbur handled them well - I think 10-syllable - but maybe iambic pentameter in Tartuffe's case, anyway classic and always with a kicker of a rhyme, witty and apt and surprising, delightful to listen to.
Bolt uses 8-syllable lines but still rhyming. I read that his is a verse form verse known as trochaic octameter. His wit and terribly (!) contemporary rhymes are not only contemporary but also profane. According to the history of Bolt's Tartuffe translation, it was last revised in 2002. Well, he (or someone?) had a lot to do with the script used by Stratford, with up-to-date Trumpisms, including covfefe!
What about the cast of the Stratford production? Brilliant, great ensemble playing, and the director, Chris Abraham, gave them lots of leeway and lots of schtick. I'm so old, I remember Bill Hutt's Tartuffe, very different from the sleazy, outrageous con man Tom Rooney plays. Rooney is snake oil; Hutt promised salvation. It's a bit of a surprise that Rooney's Tartuffe turns out to be such a shrewd rogue. He played coloured smoke and two-way mirrors up to that revelation and you didn't realise he was that smart. Hutt's performance as more subtle, and seemed more inhibited, but it was more layered. Orgon (Graham Abbey), Tartuffe's dupe, is not so much an object of contempt for his blind intolerance of his family's objections but finally, of irritation. All the players play their parts with frantic, despairing conviction. The only one, Dorine, deliberately singled out by Moliere and deliberately, delightfully played by Anusree Roy (a published, award winning playwright herself) carries out her assigned role of gadfly to perfection. And I remember Pat Galloway. That's what happens. Great performances get locked in the treasure house of one's memory.
I note that Bolt did a translation of George Dandin, one of Moliere's lesser-known plays. About half a century ago, I did my own translation and adaptation, transporting 17th century France to 19th century rural Manitoba, with the eponymous peasant, George Dandin, transformed into a Metis, and the French aristocracy into French-from-France landed immigrants. I wrote songs for the production, that is, new lyrics set to French-Canadian tunes. It was produced by the Manitoba Theatre Centre, directed by John Hirsch, who invited the French-Canadian actors from Le Cercle Moliere, across the river in St. Boniface, to come and play. The show was a hit, held over in Winnipeg and then touring southern Manitoba, a French-Canadian enclave.
Long memories. I'll be briefer next time.