A book called Molière notre contemporain was published in 1929, and of course in one sense Molière will always be everyone’s contemporary. Not so much, I think, because he portrayed timeless types—because misers, misanthropes, hypocrites, hypochondriacs, and pretentious poets are always with us—as because he understood so well the intricate and multiple connections that link such types to their societies. Alceste, for example, Molière’s misanthrope, rails against the insincerity of a world which he loves in the person of Célimène, a flirtatious widow. Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite, requires, and finds, a religious fool to exploit. Trissotin, in The Learned Ladies, is a trivial and flat-footed poet who is admired by a whole ecstatic, fawning salon.

Molière often seems surprisingly modern in yet another sense—his Critique de l’Ecole des Femmes is a comedy about a group of people who have just been to see Molière’s latest comedy, and in Le Malade imaginaire a character (played by Molière himself in the original performance) speaks slightingly of “your Molière and his plays.” But we should remember that the most up-to-date devices are also found in Cervantes and other Renaissance writers, and that our “modernity” goes back a long way. W.G. Moore, in his elegant and authoritative little book,1 suggests that Molière may well have been directed by Montaigne to a crucial fact about “the modern world”: the fact that truth in this world “is not indubitably revealed but claimed by conflicting parties.”

Twentieth-century literature tends to be more interested in the parties (especially if they are parties of one) than in the conflicts, but the Renaissance remains close to us in certain ways. Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Molière pictured the world not as our literature pictures the world, but as we picture our politics: as the battle-ground of rival claims to truth and virtue. The question, in Cervantes, is not whether a barber’s basin is a legendary helmet or not—everyone, including no doubt Don Quixote, knows it’s a barber’s basin. The question is how much power and persuasion can be mustered for the view that it is a helmet. In Tartuffe, the question is not whether Tartuffe is a rogue or not—the first time we see him he is making a pass at his protector’s wife—but whether anyone can stop him from taking over. Accused by his protector’s son, who has actually overheard his attempt at seduction (“You are my peace, my solace, my salvation”) and his promise of discretion (“In short, I offer you, my dear Elmire, / Love without scandal, pleasure without fear”), Tartuffe decides on the strategy of confessing more than everything (here and throughout this piece I use Richard Wilbur’s translations):

My life’s one heap of crimes, which grows each minute;
There’s naught but foulness and corruption in it;
And I perceive that Heaven, out- raged by me,
Has chose this occasion to mortify me.
Charge me with any deed you wish to name;
I’ll not defend myself, but take the blame.
Believe what you are told, and drive Tartuffe
Like some base criminal from be- neath your roof….

Orgon, Tartuffe’s protector, dazzled by so much humility, refuses to believe his own son, drives the son out of the house, and makes Tartuffe, whom he is already planning to marry to his daughter, his sole heir.

Tartuffe’s skill is considerable, of course, but Orgon’s mania is extraordinary. If reality becomes a matter of manipulated illusions, it is partly because reality, as Borges says in another context, longs to give way. Orgon speaks of Tartuffe as the New Testament speaks of Christ (“To keep his precepts is to be reborn”) and his infatuation with the man is a parody of Christian devotion. “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household,” Christ says in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” In Orgon’s enthusiasm, this becomes: “My mother, children, brother, and wife could die, / And I’d not feel a moment’s pain.”

It’s hard to see how Tartuffe can be unthroned in such a mind, and yet of course this unthroning is the central business of the play. Elmire, Orgon’s wife, offers to prove Tartuffe’s roguery by pretending to reconsider his offer of seduction, and Orgon hides under a table to witness the encounter. Tartuffe duly gives himself away, but the comic point of this scene is Orgon’s long, silent, invisible hesitation under the table. Elmire keeps coughing to warn him she’s had enough, but he doesn’t budge, and for a moment it looks as though nothing short of actual intercourse will persuade Orgon that Tartuffe really fancies Elmire—and even that, Tartuffe thinks, might be negotiable: “If he saw the worst, he’d doubt his sight.”


“What, coming out so soon?,” Elmire says sarcastically when Orgon finally appears. “How premature! / Get back in hiding, and wait until you’re sure.”

The point is made again when Orgon tells his pious mother what he saw. “Appearances can deceive, my son,” she says, and adds, “Till his guilt is clear, / A man deserves the benefit of the doubt. / You should have waited, to see how things turned out.” The argument acquires a wonderful twist from the fact that both Orgon and Tartuffe desire proof and expect it from the same event. Tartuffe wants more than pretty speech from Elmire, he wants what he calls “realities.” Orgon, it seems, will be satisfied only by the very same concession, and Elmire’s increasingly flustered speech applies to both men:

Since you are so determined on it, since you
Will not allow mere language to convince you,
And since you ask for concrete evidence, I
See nothing for it, now, but to comply.

There is a splendid comedy of verification here, a late and subtle version of the story, found in Ariosto and Cervantes and Molière’s own School for Wives, of the man who wished to know for sure that his wife was faithful. In this variation, Orgon doesn’t care about his wife’s fidelity, except as an extension of his pride, and what he wants to see proven (or rather, not to see proven) is the crookedness of his cherished Tartuffe. Of course, the target in all of these stories is the folly and the inhumanity of longing for absolute certainty where a modest and well-grounded trust ought to be enough. I think of a very funny passage in J.L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, where A.J. Ayer, in a role much like Orgon’s, is unkindly imagined as hankering for improper proof. Orgon hopes that his hypocrite won’t be proved to be a hypocrite while Ayer, in Austin’s view, thinks a telephone can’t be proved to be a telephone:

If, for instance, you tell me there’s a telephone in the next room, and (feeling mistrustful) I decide to verify this, how could it be thought impossible for me to do this conclusively? I go into the next room, and certainly there’s something there that looks exactly like a telephone. But is it a case perhaps of trompe l’oeil painting? I can soon settle that. Is it just a dummy perhaps, not really connected up and with no proper works? Well, I can take it to pieces a bit and find out, or actually use it for ringing somebody up—and perhaps get them to ring me up too, just to make sure. And of course, if I do all these things, I do make sure; what more could possibly be required? This object has already stood up to amply enough tests to establish that it really is a telephone; and it isn’t just that, for everyday or practical or ordinary purposes, enough is as good as a telephone; what meets all these tests just is a telephone, no doubt about it.

But Molière, in spite of all the drearily reasonable speeches dotted about his plays, does not simply urge a return to common sense, and he would probably have had no more patience with Austin’s tests than with Ayer’s doubts. If there had been telephones in Molière’s world, or in that of Cervantes or Rabelais, they would regularly have been swept up into powerful interpretations calling them something else, and it appears to be an axiom of the comic writers of the Renaissance that there is no truth, small or large, that cannot be turned into nonsense or worse by a change of context.

“An honest man, and of good judgment,” Rabelais says, “believeth still what is told him, and that which he finds written.” A sound enough principle if a few precautions are taken, and this is what sensible people in Molière say. A girl in The Learned Ladies is asked if she really believes that a man loves her. “Yes, Sister,” she says, “I believe it—he’s told me so.” She’s right, he does love her. But Rabelais is talking about the birth of Gargantua via his mother’s ear, and compounds our difficulties by saying that he can find nothing in Holy Scripture which contradicts this story. He means, of course, that Holy Scripture is full of stories of this kind, and he goes on mischievously to quote Proverbs (“The simple believeth every word”) and St. Paul (“Charity…believeth all things”). There is a similar joke in Cervantes, when Don Quixote rebukes a group of merchants for refusing to say that Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world without first seeing her.


If I were to show her to you [Quixote says], what merit would there be in your confessing a truth so self-evident? The important thing is for you, without seeing her, to believe, confess, affirm, swear and defend that truth.

Cervantes, like Rabelais, offers a definition of faith, perfectly correct and perfectly ludicrous; and a world where crucial values can be so brilliantly misconstrued is plainly Tartuffe’s kingdom. When Tartuffe pretends to feel guilty because he has killed a flea in anger, he is carefully playing the hypocrite. But Molière took the detail from the life of a real saint. Now common sense will help us in a world like this, but it will not get us far, and we shall also need wariness, agility, intelligence, kindness, trust, a sense of humor, and a genuine belief that other people’s lives are not merely tokens in a game we happen to need them for.

Molière’s Misanthrope is an even more subtle investigation of the subject of fraud and faith. Alceste hates the hypocrisy of polite society, which he characteristically takes to represent humanity in general: “Mankind has grown so base / I mean to break with the whole human race.” Does this mean, a friend asks, that he will tell people when they are boring, or idiotic:

Then you’d tell old Emilie it’s pathetic
The way she daubs her feature with cosmetic
And plays the gay coquette at sixty- four?

“I would,” Alceste says. But he wouldn’t, and doesn’t. He wishes to be frank, but he is not cruel, and when an acquaintance asks him his opinion of a sonnet he’s dashed off, Alceste delivers his truth indirectly: “Once, to one whose name I shall not mention, / I said, regarding some verse of his invention….” It is only when the sonneteer is fatuous enough still to insist on Alceste’s views that Alceste tells him to his face how bad he thinks the poem is. The two men quarrel, but even as they part they continue the social charade. “I am your servant, Sir, in every way,” the other man says. Alceste replies, “And I, Sire, am your most abject valet.” The sneer in his voice saves him from insincerity, but his language is nevertheless that of the world he despises.

Alceste loves Célimène, and here his longing for frankness becomes a quest for certainty. What can’t be known for sure, in this play, is how Célimène feels about Alceste, and the play is actually structured around a series of evasions of the question. Alceste calls on her, and they appear to be about to discuss the matter seriously, when visitors arrive and interrupt. Alceste decides to wait the visitors out, and to force Célimène to choose between him and them, but he is called away on urgent business. The sonneteer, who is also Célimène’s suitor, later appears with Alceste, and both men urge Célimène to indicate her preference. At this point, there is another interruption, and certain letters of Célimène’s are produced, in which she has been funny and malicious about everyone. She has, in other words, been practicing Alceste’s misanthropy on a frivolous social level, and everyone now leaves her, except Alceste. He offers to marry her if she will come away with him to a “wild, trackless, solitary place,” and she shudders at the thought of renouncing the world (“Alas, at twenty one is terrified / Of solitude”). Alceste takes this as proof that she doesn’t love him—that she doesn’t see “everything” in him, as he does in her—and abandons her.

Célimène seems to prefer Alceste to all her other suitors, and she says she loves him—more precisely, she says he “is loved.” Confronted with Alceste and the sonneteer, she insists that she knows whom she loves and has no difficulty in making her choice, but refuses to declare her decision. “I think it altogether too unpleasant,” she says in one of Richard Wilbur’s wittiest couplets, “To choose between two men when both are present.” Her cousin says Célimène doesn’t know her own heart, and that sounds plausible. We know at the end that she doesn’t love Alceste enough to go off into the metaphorical desert with him, but she could love him quite a bit and still draw the line at that. Célimène is clearly a coquette, but she may also be a woman who doesn’t like to be hurried or bullied, who is amused by the social world but not defined by it. This ambiguity seems to be essential to Molière’s meaning. He knows we are likely to want Célimène to love Alceste and to show us that she’s not a shallow creature, but he won’t give us this pleasure. He knows that a thoroughly silly Célimène would also be reassuring in a way, but he won’t make her that either. Célimène is uncertainty itself, she is everything Alceste loses when he goes off into the unambiguous clarity of his exile.

Uncertainty in the Renaissance appears to have been felt as a challenge to a lively sanity rather than a sign that things are falling apart, and in this sense, of course, Molière seems fairly distant from us. In other respects, though, as I suggested earlier, his contemporaneity is almost too blatant. It takes only the smallest of efforts of the imagination to see our world as crowded with Tartuffes and to find in Alceste’s retreat to the desert a promising moral option. But Molière is not quite so comfortable a contemporary as those pictures suggest. If Tartuffes are all around us, then we ourselves are cast in the role of Orgon—don’t we vote for Tartuffe, regularly?—and Alceste’s desert is attractive only if we forget how much he loves Célimène and how much of his own social complication he will take into the desert with him. Alceste is Molière’s most moving creation because the purity of his thought is so expensive, and because genuine as it sometimes is, it is riddled with the impurities he rightly resists.

The production of Tartuffe at the Circle in the Square, directed by Stephen Porter, is expert and lively, and done in full Three Musketeers fig. The acting styles are a trifle miscellaneous, and some of Molière’s more formal set pieces are played perhaps too slowly. A young couple has a highly stylized quarrel which is long in the text, but seems to take forever on the stage, and Orgon’s famous inquiries about Tartuffe—“And Tartuffe?” he asks repeatedly on his return home, and learning that his wife has been ill while Tartuffe has been eating and drinking like a pig, keeps murmuring “Poor fellow”—need more pace, both in the questions and the answers, to be as funny as they ought to be.

Richard Wilbur’s verse translation seems to cause a little trouble. It is well spoken on the whole, but one is very conscious that the cast is working at it, and working at it in different ways. John Wood is a marvelously unctuous Tartuffe, with a lot of range in his voice, and a casual way of catching up the rhymes of the verse into a flowing eloquence. Patricia Elliott, as the sensible, bossy maid Dorine, naturalizes her verse into an approximation of ordinary diction. Tammy Grimes, on the other hand, as Elmire, hits her couplets in a sort of flamboyant monotone, and generally plays the part, strangely but rather successfully, I thought, as if she had wandered in from Alice in Wonderland.

I don’t feel this array of styles harms the production too much, and I thought for a while that the awareness of the verse might be my problem rather than the actors’. Then I saw The Misanthrope at the Anspacher Theater, found that no one there was anything but fluent and easy with the verse, and concluded that there must be a difference in the language of the English versions of the two plays. There is.

Molière’s verse plays are written in rhymed couplets, but we need to remember that French is a relatively unaccented language—verses are scanned by counting syllables—and that it is rich in rhyme. Rhyme in English is scarcer, and easily becomes flat; and rhythms are stronger, so that what Wilbur calls the “metronomic” effect is hard to avoid. Wilbur’s decision to translate Molière into rhymed English verse—pentameters, which I suppose are the closest thing we have to the French alexandrines—is more than justified by the results, since his translations generally are triumphs of tact and intelligence and ingenuity. A complicated rhyme in The Learned Ladies, for example (amarante / de ma rente) is wonderfully rendered (vermilion / her million) and a character in the same play worries about her servant’s grammar and syntax in this fashion:

It’s true, her talk can drive one out of one’s wits.
Each day, she tears dear Vaugelas to bits,
And the least failings of this pet of yours
Are vile cacophonies and non se- quiturs.

One could fill pages simply by listing Wilbur’s successes in the four plays he has now translated. Let me say simply that the following lines are gracefully exact versions of intricate originals—

Thinking is all this household thinks about,
And reasoning has driven reason out….
[The Learned Ladies]
Doesn’t it seem to you a trifle grim
To give a girl like her to a man like him?

—and that Wilbur occasionally excels Molière in poise and pointedness. Molière was a great poet, but not all the time, and Wilbur manages quite often to turn mere workmanlike bits of versifying into elegant Augustan poetry:

No, no: no self-respecting heart would dream
Of prizing so promiscuous an esteem;
However high the praise, there’s nothing worse
Than sharing honors with the universe.
[The Misanthrope]2

And at one point Wilbur is even able to achieve a “French” antithesis where the French text has none:

Sir, I believe in frankness, and I’m inclined,
In matters of the heart, to speak my mind.
[The Misanthrope]3

Now the translation of Tartuffe has some fine moments—

That’s what becomes of old co- quettes today:
Distressed when all their lovers fall away,
They see no recourse but to play the prude,
And so confer a style on solitude.

—but generally it goes in for broader effects, lumpier rhythms, and more predictable rhymes, including one borrowed from Eliot’s “Prufrock” (“is it / visit”). A look at the text suggests that the difference in acting styles at the Circle in the Square may spring largely from the distribution of language in the translation. John Wood has lines that will flow, Patricia Elliott has lines that can be naturalized, but what is Tammy Grimes to do with lines like these:

We merely pay you the respect we owe.
But, Mother, why this hurry? Must you go?….

I thank you for that pious wish. But please,
Do take a chair and let’s be more at ease….

I’m sorry to have treated you so slyly,
But circumstances forced me to be wily….

Wilbur’s rhyming Tartuffe with spoof and roof implies rather a knockabout sense of the play, which takes it further from Wilbur’s Misanthrope or his School for Wives than Molière’s plays are from each other.

The Misanthrope at the Anspacher Theater has some graceful and witty music by Margaret Pine, with additions by Jobriath Boone, and the provision of music for Molière reminds us of the ballets in some of his plays, and points us in the same direction as the more elegant moments in Wilbur’s versions: toward a consciousness of all the symmetry and balance in these works, all the conceptual dances that go to make up their plots. Alceste, for example, who dislikes the world too much, loves Célimène, who likes it more than she should. Society in The Misanthrope thrives equally on excessive politeness and excessive chattering behind people’s backs. This production—which I saw in a preview—doesn’t always follow the cues its music gives. When Célimène’s prudish friend Arsinoé is announced, Célimène performs a quick bit of character butchery for the visitors who are already with her—then she turns in mid-sentence as Arsinoé enters, and greets her warmly—

In short, she’s just as stupid as can be,
Vicious and arrogant in the last degree,

Ah! What happy chance has brought you here?

The director of this production has Arsinoé enter while Célimène is talking about her, which replaces Molière’s refined comedy of social skills—which are after all at the center of the play—with the clumsy comedy of a gaffe.

There is a little too much of such muffed stage business in this Misanthrope, and the costumes here look as if they have been lifted from a pile of chocolate boxes. But the production survives such things royally, largely thanks to John McMartin, as Alceste, who is plainly not as angry as his language, and to Virginia Vestoff, as Célimène, who somehow manages not to be as flighty as the production seems to want her to be. The Misanthrope is a delicate, mournful, funny play, far more easily spoiled than Tartuffe. It is not spoiled here.

As a translation, Wilbur’s version of The Learned Ladies is close to his Misanthrope and School for Wives; a remarkable achievement, as my quotations from it have perhaps illustrated. As a play, it is late, sour Molière, first performed in 1672, just under a year before the playwright died. Philaminte, a stupid, intellectual lady, has been taken in by the precious mannerisms of the poet Trissotin, and plans to marry her sensible daughter to him. The poet is put off by an apparent decline in the family’s substantial fortune, and all ends well, but the play leaves behind rather an acrid taste. Its targets are cruelly and clumsily chosen, and its laughter is often cheap. This flavor seems to have crept into Wilbur’s introduction, where he speaks of rancor and envy and the “ruthless egoism” of Philaminte’s project for founding a women’s Academy. Is it far-fetched to see in the rather cramped spirit of this play a sign not only of Molière’s stiffening mood but also of the end of an age—the last days of a time when even the wily and vicious Tartuffe could be seen as a cousin of the generous Don Quixote, because both of them were figures who could turn the world upside down without frightening their authors?

This Issue

December 8, 1977