When Richard Wilbur’s translation of The Misanthrope appeared in 1955, a reviewer wrote: “For the first time in 300 years, a play by Moliere has the English translation it deserves.” The odd thing is that this was not only praise but plain fact. Though Moliere’s plays have been, from the time he wrote them, repeatedly “adapted” or turned more or less literally into English prose or blank verse, they have never before been faithfully translated into rhymed English verse by a poet who knew how to write for the theater.
The obstacle to getting Moliere into English has always been rhymed verse. His verse plays are written in couplet rhymes and cannot be translated into English with anything like their true life except in couplet rhymes. The catch is that, historically, the heroic couplet never became the standard English medium for the stage, whereas the alexandrine couplet has dominated the history of the French theater. So, to translate a French classical play into rhymed English verse is to risk turning something more or less contemporary into something rather eighteeneth century. Not until our time have translators been willing to accept this handicap and make the most of it.
The first Moliere in English came straight from the Palais Royal theater while Moliere was still in full production there. Early in his great Paris period (1658-73). often had English exiles in his audience, including Charles II himself and several English playwrights—D’Avenant, Etherege Wycherley. When the London theaters opened again after 1660, these men brought Moliere’s plays home in their baggage and put him on the London stage. But not in translation. They simply used him—borrowing his ideas, his scenes, and his tricks, adapting his themes to English life, giving his characters English names, making his wit bawdy to suit the taste of the London audiences of the time. Sir William D’Avenant seems to have begun it with The Playhouse To Be Let (1663), using Moliere’s Sganarelle. But Dryden started a rage a few years later with Sir Martin Mar-All (1667), an adapton of L’Etourdi’s Etherege drew from Les Précieuses Ridicules for The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Slutter (1676). And what would Wycherley’s art have been without Moliere? The Country Wife (1675) was his L’Ecole des Femmes; The Plain Dealer (1676) his version of Le Misanthrope. The rage lasted for twenty years. In its way, it was Moliere’s great period in English.
Voltaire in England fifty years later remarked that “The English have taken over, disguised, and spoiled most of Moliere’s plays.”
But this burst of adaptations which accounted for so much of Restoration comedy produced only one play that can be called a translation: Tartuffe, or the French Puritan (1670), an altered version in bad blank verse by an actor named Matthew Medbourne. In the eighteenth century the adaptions continued (Colley Cibber, Henry Fielding), while for the first time the whole of Moliere—verse plays …