Modern Molière

Exploring contemporary treatments of the godfather of classic French comedy

Molière (source: Court Theatre)

Onstage at Lantern Theater Company now through December 16, The Heir Apparent is an irreverent update of an already outrageous classic French comedy. The 17th and early 18th centuries saw farce, slapstick, satire, and commedia dell’arte dominate the French comedy scene, giving rise to playwrights like Florent Dancourt, Alain-Rene Lesage, and Jean- François Regnard — author of Le Légataire universel, which served as David Ives’ source material for The Heir Apparent.

But these writers had one giant to thank for their success: Molière. A skilled actor and a master of both new comedic forms and classical plays, Molière’s large and varied cannon includes physical humor and wordplay alongside piercing social satire. From 1645 to 1673, he mastered and elevated the comedy of manners, and delighted in skewering the hypocrisy of French society in his day. In comedies like Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and The School for Wives, Molière set his satiric sights on religion, marriage, and social appearance.

Molière was so inextricable from French comedy that even his death has taken on a theatricality. He collapsed onstage in 1673 while performing in his final play, The Imaginary Invalid. Legend says he died there on the stage, but history is even more dramatic: he got up and finished the show before going home and passing away hours later. The show, of course, must go on.

Molière’s collected words (Source: ThoughtCo.)

While David Ives’ The Heir Apparent is among the first major English adaptations of Regnard’s work, Molière has enjoyed a number of modern translations and adaptations. More than 300 years may have passed from Molière’s time, but his insights and antics continue to appeal to playwrights and audiences today.

To start, modern translators must all grapple with the same question: the verse. Molière and the other playwrights of his day wrote rhyming couplets in the alexandrine rhythm, in which each line has twelve syllables with emphasis on the middle and final syllable. While this worked well in French, in English it can quickly get monotonous and tiresome. So the first decision a modern translator must make is what to do: keep the alexandrines, use prose instead, or split the difference and choose a more English-friendly meter like iambic pentameter, the verse form used by Shakespeare.

A modern adaptation of Tartuffe at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (source: WBUR)

Once the rhymes and meter have been decided, translators and adapters must decide whether to remain faithful to the original or relocate the story to another place and time. Tartuffe, a comedy about religious hypocrisy and greed that was banned in France for five years, is still the most produced play at the Comédie-Française and has had nearly 20 major worldwide productions in the last 100 years alone. While many modern productions leave the story in 17th century France, others have moved it in space and time.

For modern translators looking to put a stamp on Molière’s original, the religious angle has proven useful. A 1995 version called Tartuffe: Born Again stays quite faithful to the events and relationships of the plot, but relocates the action from a wealthy French household to a religious TV studio in Baton Rouge. And in 2013, a version called Tartuffe — and all That Jazz! was published, moving the action to Prohibition-era St. Louis. In both cases, modern verse was used to connect the new setting to the original form without alienating modern-day audiences.

The Misanthrope is another classic Molière play that has had many translations and adaptations. Molière’s send-up of social structure has been translated into both verse and prose, and moved all over the globe. A 2009 London production starring Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in a translation by Martin Crimp kept the rhymes, but moved the action to present-day London. In this new version, the original play’s heroine, Célimène, is no longer the host of an in-demand salon but a successful film star named Jennifer. This version roasted the media and the celebrity-industrial complex, as well as the modern propensity to complain about the system without offering an alternative. And this year in Sydney, a new translation swaps the genders, making the title misanthrope a woman.

Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in a 2009 modern-dress adaptation of Tartuffe (source: Londonist)

There is another major adaptation: David Ives’. Before The Heir Apparent, Ives adapted and translated The Misanthrope and called it School for Lies (a play on Molière’s School for Wives). Like The Heir Apparent, School for Lies is an affectionate, freewheeling riff on its source material, keeping the period setting, bones of the plot, and rhyming couplets, but updating the language to be wildly, uproariously modern. And like The Heir Apparent (and unlike many other translations and adaptations of The Misanthrope), Ives reworks the ending, translating the surprising darkness of Molière’s original into a satisfying and effervescent close.

Through the years and across the continents, Molière’s work has continued to illuminate the shadows of society. And his genius and mastery paved the way not only for the translators and adapters who turn to his work, but for a new generation of classic French playwrights with their own viewpoints on their time — and lessons to teach for ours.

The Heir Apparent is onstage at the Lantern November 8 through December 16, 2018. Visit our website for tickets and information.