When Richard Wilbur undertook in 1952 to translate Molière’s The Misanthrope, it was as compensation for his inability (despite having received a grant for the purpose) to write verse plays of his own: “They didn’t come off. They were very bad, extremely wooden.” With his first two books of poetry, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony (1950), Wilbur had been promptly recognized as an important young poet working with total confidence in traditional forms, and in the age of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry verse drama seemed a promising move. As it turned out, translating Molière became a lifelong commitment, an opportunity virtually to inhabit a thoroughly congenial alternate identity.

An exciting production of The Misanthrope at the Comédie Française in 1948 had first drawn Wilbur to the work, but his involvement with France and French theater went further back. As a teenager he was impressed by Walter Hampden in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, in Brian Hooker’s rousing verse translation; during World War II he had come to know France when serving for three years with the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division; and afterward, at Harvard, he became more deeply involved with French poetry through his friendship with the poet André du Bouchet.

The Misanthrope translation was produced with great success by the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955, and when Eric Bentley included it in his anthology The Classic Theatre: Six French Plays (1961) he described it—voicing an opinion widely shared—as “perhaps the first Molière in English to be a delight from beginning to end.” Over the next five decades Wilbur (who died in 2017) translated nine more—all the major verse plays along with the prose Don Juan—which are now collected in a two-volume set from Library of America, along with his illuminating introductions.1

These are not the first translations to figure in Library of America; previous volumes include Tocqueville’s Democracy in America newly rendered by Arthur Goldhammer and Ezra Pound’s Poems and Translations, containing those versions from the Chinese, Greek, and Provençal that in so many ways expanded the possibilities of American poetry. But this new set seems to open wider the welcoming prospect of more volumes addressing literary translation as an art not marginal but central, and still too rarely recognized as such.

In Pound’s case, translation and original poetry were mutually enmeshed, different facets of the same project. For Wilbur, while translation was likewise a constant practice—his poetry collections are interspersed with versions of poets from Villon and Baudelaire to Borges and Brodsky—a line of separation was clearly drawn. If Pound sought the freedom of radical recasting, not only of the original text but of English poetic diction, Wilbur asserted that “one shouldn’t bother with it at all unless one is willing to be slavish to try to get over into English everything that’s there in the original.” Characteristically, he chose to approximate Molière’s rhymed couplets as closely as possible, only substituting iambic pentameter for alexandrines. He saw this as far more than a matter of personal preference, laying out in his introduction to The Misanthrope a multitude of aspects otherwise lost, not least

the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.

His translations even on the page suggest an operetta whose music resides entirely in the volleying of words. They capture precisely Molière’s sustained cadence of argument and counterargument, punctuated by the percussive thrust and counterthrust of monosyllabic interjections and ripostes. There are no rests—even when Molière’s characters hesitate or temporize, they do so with urgency—and it is easy to move through these volumes, from scene to scene and play to play, as if on a single gust. The particular merit of Wilbur’s versions is the cohesive fluency with which they progress from beginning to end, a fluency that encompasses, beyond meter and rhyme, textures of speech and movements of thought. “I spent so much time,” he once commented, “trying to figure out how to translate lines that an actor would like to speak.”

His language neither updates nor historicizes: “The diction mediates between then and now, suggesting no one period.” There is a ’twould here and a naught there, but the overall tone is never antiquarian. On the other hand, Wilbur was resistant to aggressive attempts to drag Molière into the present day, complaining about productions recasting Tartuffe as a beaded 1960s guru or The Misanthrope’s Alceste as “a hippie who ‘tells it like is.’” As much as possible he goes for a pointed, plainspoken exactness:

You could at least have beaten me more gently. (The Bungler)
We have but one death, and it lasts so long! (Lovers’ Quarrels)
Let’s put off friendship, and get acquainted first. (The Misanthrope)

He manages to make speaking in rhymed couplets the most natural thing in the world:

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All this fine talk, so flowery and so polished,
Is something I’d be glad to see abolished.
It’s a vile custom: most men waste two-thirds
Of every day exchanging empty words. (The School for Wives)

And he achieves the uncluttered transmission of lines of argument, so that even the most elaborate speeches of The Misanthrope do not get lost in syntactic thickets, as in Célimène’s mocking observations on a frequenter of her salon:

A man of mystery from top to toe,
Who moves about in a romantic mist
On secret missions which do not exist.
His talk is full of eyebrows and grimaces;
How tired one gets of his momentous faces;
He’s always whispering something confidential
Which turns out to be quite inconsequential;
Nothing’s too slight for him to mystify;
He even whispers when he says “good-by.”

Wilbur’s aim was “thought-for-thought fidelity,” and, given his self-imposed limits of lineation and rhyme scheme, any gloss or clarification must fit within a narrow groove, never weighing down the life of the line. He achieves this with acrobatic grace. A similar mastery can be found in his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, with “Glitter and Be Gay” a supreme example. One might also bear in mind his training as a military cryptographer and his predilection for crossword puzzles. He spoke more than once of an entire day spent translating a couple of lines, but the results convey an air of spontaneity.

In its modes and imagery, Wilbur’s own poetry could not be more remote from what is found in Molière. His first books especially bring an almost rococo artifice to bear on matters of life and death; in “The Death of a Toad,” he opens on “A toad the power mower caught,/Chewed and clipped of a leg” and within a few lines has him gazing “Toward misted and ebullient seas/And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia’s emperies.” The elegance establishes the poem as a separate realm of language into which the evidence of the senses is translated: bird voices “fountaining in air,” fallen leaves “held in ice as dancers in a spell.” Even while he preserves an ordered surface, he does not deny the deceptiveness of surfaces, as in “Mined Country,” where French children after the war walk cautiously through tranquil countryside in fear of land mines: “Some scheme’s gone awry./Danger is sunk in the pastures, the woods are sly.”2

Molière’s verse, as Wilbur notes, is “almost wholly free of metaphor.” It is free of natural imagery as well. His plays are restricted to the human sphere (putting aside the antique gods of Amphitryon and the supernatural visitations of Don Juan). Neither weather nor flora nor fauna enter into them, nothing but human cravings and anxieties staged in a generic setting, city street or drawing room, for maximum comic effect. Of schemes gone awry there are many—almost their whole concern is schemes gone awry—but as long as the play lasts, there is no harm done. This is not life but comic theater, where lovers can be expected to scamper off happily freed from all obstacles and clever servants to be left relishing the success of their stratagems.

If it were not comic theater, of course—and by the time Molière got to Tartuffe and Don Juan and The Misanthrope he was testing the limits—it would end not with a last-minute revelation or ingenious bit of trickery to save the day, but in the harsh reality of bitter old men marrying reluctant wards, hypocrites engaged in predatory seduction and property theft in the name of religion, honest men vengefully accused of political disloyalty, and children sacrificing their own happiness to the irrational demands of authoritarian parents. When Wilbur writes of Molière’s words “dancing within such patterns,” he provides by extension a definition of the playwright’s singular genius for durable comic delight in a world whose patterns were, as the plays constantly imply, laid down with capricious ferocity.

The plays Wilbur translated do not constitute the full range of Molière’s theatrical life. Clearly he preferred the particular challenge of verse translation, but it would have been interesting to see what he did with The Ridiculous Précieuses, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, The Trickeries of Scapin, George Dandin, and the great final trio of comically unbalanced protagonists in The Miser, The Bourgeois Gentleman, and The Imaginary Invalid. I particularly regret that he did not turn his hand to those two one-act pendants to The School for Wives (written in response to the controversy stirred by that play’s alleged lewd suggestiveness, insults to women, and mockery of the sacredness of marriage), The Critique of the School for Wives and The Versailles Impromptu. In the first of these Molière put on stage a salon full of his own fiercest critics (with himself playing the most fatuous), and in the second his own troupe in chaotic and constantly interrupted rehearsal, offering a glimpse of himself as a harried professional, beleaguered by his actors’ complaints and struggling to keep up with the demands of his royal patron—the patron who at the play’s end rescues him by granting more time to rehearse.

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The plainness of the dialogue might be taken for realism, while bearing in mind that the production was staged for the Sun King in the first place. One presumes that Louis XIV was sufficiently amused by Molière’s long speech to his actors about the urgency of getting the show in shape: “What kings like is prompt obedience…. We shouldn’t consult our own convenience in the things they ask us to do. We are here only to please them.”3 Molière’s ability to keep the king amused was essential to upholding his always precarious position as favored entertainer, at once actor, writer, manager, and impresario.

Such a position must often have seemed a remote prospect during the long stretch when, after the failure of his Parisian company L’Illustre Théâtre in 1645 and a very brief imprisonment for debt, he toured the provinces with his fellow players for a dozen years. He had walked away from the career his family intended for him—to inherit his father’s profession as a master upholsterer—and definitively chosen the theater, evidently with the ambition of succeeding as a tragic actor. By the time the troupe returned to Paris in 1658, Molière had long since assumed its leadership, absorbed a vast amount of repertoire and technique in all genres, and begun to supply the company with scripts of his own, steeped in the influence of commedia dell’arte.

The earliest plays translated by Wilbur, The Bungler and Lovers’ Quarrels, draw directly on Italian sources. From the outset Molière was a perpetual scavenger of plots, character types, situations, and jokes, mined in Plautus or Terence or his Italian, Spanish, and French predecessors and contemporaries. French scholars have dutifully tracked down every appropriated scene or line, although few have contested that out of that mass of borrowed material something distinctly and consistently original was made. This was not a body of work created in leisurely calm. The Versailles Impromptu’s self-portrait of an overworked showman is no exaggeration, given that in addition to the steady stream of plays supplied to Parisian theaters in the 1660s, Molière was on call to produce material for ever more elaborate celebratory royal pageants. These were full-fledged musical affairs with ballet and song, framed by the deployment of fireworks and immense stage machinery, and at times cameo appearances by king and courtiers. One can think of the playwright as a perfectionist working under extreme pressure, taking whatever he needed from his capacious store of materials and devices to achieve the precise effect envisioned.

Molière was insider and outsider, at once royal favorite and someone who, being an actor, was deemed unworthy of burial in consecrated ground; a merchant’s son mingling with nobility and sometimes taking mockery too far. Surviving by talent alone, dodging scandalous allegations and accusations of impiety, he imparted to his plays the dynamic of a balancing act in circumstances always fraught. If he celebrated anything it was the triumph of intelligence over pedantic obscurantism, and clear-sighted honesty over delusion and obsession; but the plays resist being reduced to any simple formulation, and he was too wary a strategist to be easily pinned down. When Tartuffe was repeatedly banned as “absolutely injurious to religion and capable of producing very dangerous effects,”4 he asserted vigorously that it was nothing of the kind, and then followed it in 1665 with the quickly prohibited Don Juan, whose fascination consists precisely in the way it provokes opposite readings that resist resolution.

The Don is “indeed a monster,” as Wilbur has it, a libertine foreshadowing the protagonists of Laclos and Sade. Consider his declared intentions regarding a couple he has just caught sight of: “Never had I seen two people so enchanted by each other, so radiantly in love…. From the moment I saw them I found their shared happiness intolerable;…I began to consider how I would mar their felicity.” Yet he totally dominates a play in which there is no one else to root for except, at moments, his clownish servant Sganarelle (played originally by Molière), whose seemingly sincere expressions of naive goodwill and religious faith are undermined by his submissive complicity and transparent corruption. Master and servant seem locked together; even the exuberant nihilist Don Juan needs someone to talk to. When Sganarelle undertakes to refute the Don’s atheism—“I’d like to ask you who made those trees, those rocks, this earth, and the sky we see up there, and if all those things created themselves?”—he becomes caught up, like one of Molière’s farcical doctors or philosophers, in his own argumentation:

Isn’t it marvelous that I’m here,…and can make my body do whatever it likes? I can choose to clap my hands, lift my arms, raise my eyes to Heaven, bow my head, shift my feet, move to the right, to the left, forward, backward, turn around…

In so doing he falls to the ground, giving Don Juan the punch line: “There lies your argument with a broken nose.” The gag surely got a laugh, but for some must have left an unsettling aftertaste.

To execute such a gag effectively required a virtuosity acquired over decades, applying the techniques of farcical pantomime to a very different end: a pratfall embedded in a theological discussion. By contrast, in The Misanthrope, the highest of high comedies, Molière avoids low devices entirely except for some patented vaudeville involving Alceste’s dim-witted valet to bring the curtain down on act 4. The Misanthrope—admired but not especially successful in its day—represents an ultimate refinement of style, going beyond jokes and even plot to sound out the nuances of its characters’ interrelations. The stage becomes a prism where everyone can be viewed from multiple angles; above all Alceste, the most sympathetic of Molière’s obsessives, who insists on an honesty of speech that would upend all ordinary social relations, yet can hardly be faulted for disdaining the fawning, complacent, and finally treacherous aristocrats who flutter around the irresistible but thoroughly unreliable Célimène. Wilbur makes the most of the marquis Acaste’s third-act monologue, turning it into a patter song of inane self-regard:

I’ve wit, of course; and taste in such perfection
That I can judge without the least reflection,
And at the theater, which is my delight,
Can make or break a play on opening night,
And lead the crowd in hisses or bravos,
And generally be known as one who knows.
I’m clever, handsome, gracefully polite;
My waist is small, my teeth are strong and white.

The play’s delicacy can be gauged by how much it hinges on Alceste’s unfavorable critique of a sonnet, and its force by an ending that for once refuses to restore even a semblance of harmonious resolution. After everyone’s bluff has been called, and Célimène has finally told Alceste that she really is not prepared to live alone with him in a “wild, trackless, solitary place,” he simply bolts, leaving his friends with the unlikely hope that they might somehow change his mind.

In his introductions and interviews, Wilbur emphasizes that the plays, being “thoroughly written,” need not rely on physical business to make their points or get their laughs. This is certainly the case with the verse plays he translated. They are woven of argument, quarrels, pointed accusations and rebuttals, coaxing and protests. Much crucial action occurs offstage, like the slapstick episode in The School for Wives of Horace falling from a ladder as he attempts to climb into the bedroom of his beloved Agnès. In Tartuffe, we learn only at second hand how the religious hypocrite gained his ascendancy over the affluent bourgeois Orgon; by the time Tartuffe finally appears onstage (in the third act) we’ve been given, from various sides, an almost novelistic sense of what he has wrought in this particular family. Later, when Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife, Elmire, the dramatic effect lies not in his frustrated gropings, however much they lend themselves to sight gags, but in her calling him out in words as he does so, and he in turn unloading a series of outrageously specious justifications for his predatory moves.

In the one-act farce Sganarelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold, Wilbur notes, “much of what might have been expressed by physical violence…is realized instead on the verbal plane.” Yet the Punch-and-Judy threat of physical violence is always latent. In Molière’s vocabulary one word recurs frequently at crucial junctures: batôn. To beat someone with a stick, or threaten to do so, is the last resort after verbal persuasion has failed: this world is thoroughly accustomed to husbands beating wives, fathers beating children, masters beating servants. In Amphitryon a god beats a mortal, and in Tartuffe a female servant even threatens a bailiff serving a legal writ: “Monsieur Loyal, I’d love to hear the whack/Of a stout stick across your fine broad back.”

Language has its limits, and Molière tests how far it is possible for his characters to go before transgressing them. We are given speech as combat, seduction, sales pitch, con job, menacing aggression, calculated outburst; a virtual taxonomy of the uses and misuses of language. Specialized jargons are brought into play, of law enforcement, real estate, religious precept, philosophical speculation, formal etiquette, and literary pretension. The literary vanity of the strenuously ungifted, male or female, coupled invariably with the snobbery of the fierce social climber, was a frequent target. It is a repertoire of routines, deployed in successive episodes that are (in the playwright Jacques Audiberti’s phrase) “traps for characters.”5 Some fall into the trap; others wangle a way out; others, having set one trap, go about setting another. (“Long live chicanery and artifice!” declares Mascarille in The Bungler.)

Characters regularly misunderstand, or mishear, or do not hear at all. “Thinking himself alone” (a favorite stage direction), a dupe will reveal his thoughts in monologue to a nearby eavesdropper or, fooled by appearances, will enthusiastically help to bring about the outcome he least desires. A self-absorbed person will mistake terse noncommittal interjection for heartfelt agreement. A coward will stoutly resolve to face up to a confrontation before predictably caving in. Two people will endlessly delay coming to the point by means of exaggerated politeness. And then there is the nonanswer answer, brought into play when the real answer is not known, or if given would lead to a beating.

The casual bravura is breathtaking. At the end of Sganarelle, as Wilbur notes, “the four principals converge, each speaking out of a different—or differently weighted—misunderstanding of the situation,” all this interwoven with as much musical deftness as a Mozart quartet, but a lot more noisily. In The School for Husbands, Isabelle, engaged against her will to her detested guardian Sganarelle, must reject her preferred suitor Valère while her guardian watches. She manages this by delivering a long speech perfectly contrived to mean one thing to Sganarelle and the opposite to Valère.

Balzac, who alluded to Molière more than to any other writer, admired his ability to present both sides of a given situation.6 The audience is invited to laugh at the gulling of the self-beguiled, yet the plays strike a tenuous balance between derision and sympathy. Arnolphe in The School for Wives is a middle-aged bachelor so consumed with the fear of being cuckolded that he adopted a four-year-old girl to be his future wife, raising her in total ignorance—“I told the nuns what means must be employed/To keep her growing mind a perfect void”—on the theory that a clever wife is “unbeatable at plots and strategies.”

From the start it is clear his plan will come to nothing, as the innocent Agnès displays a natural gift for plots and strategies to unite her with young Horace; Arnolphe, even when apprised of Horace’s desires, is so blissfully confident of controlling the situation that he deigns to feel pity for the young man doomed to disappointment in love. While Arnolphe thinks he has the upper hand, the spectators know he does not: a double cruelty, with both audience and lovers in league against him. The domineering ogre thus becomes a victim and unavoidably an object of some sympathy, especially when he realizes that he has truly fallen in love with Agnès and tries fumblingly to woo her in a romantic rather than domineering spirit. Not being of the servant class, Arnolphe will not be beaten with a stick, but he will undergo the excruciating alternative of public ridicule.

Many of the plays describe conspiracies to thwart the overreaching authority of the seriously deluded and unbalanced, conspiracies in which those with nothing to lose—desperate lovers, oppressed wives and daughters—often rely on the assistance of cunning servants with a talent for deception. Since the authority of parents cannot be legitimately defied, it must be evaded and subverted by every form of subterfuge. After all the concealment, impersonation, and sleight of hand comes the scandal of truth-telling. This moment may arrive through perfunctory means: an improbable revelation of hidden parentage, or a last-ditch bit of mischief involving veils or forged documents. All that matters is that, at last, deference and circumlocution are sidelined, the truth cannot be denied, and as a result monomaniac guardians lose their power and hapless dupes have their eyes opened. What has been going on all along is out in the open and the comedy is done.