Richard Wilbur has some free advice for the actors who open in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of Molière's The School for Wives this weekend. "Speak naturally," he cautions during a phone conversation from his Massachusetts home. "Even when Molière's characters are witty and artificial, their speeches tend to be more conversational than stilted. An actor needs to acknowledge the rhymes without hitting them too hard."
Wilbur should know whereof he speaks: For the past half-century, his translations of Molière's classic comedies have enjoyed international success and acclaim. As recently as this past season, his Tartuffe once again was a New York hit. When Wilbur's version of The School for Wives was first produced on Broadway in 1971, it was the only nonmusical that season to receive unanimous rave reviews. Its star, Brian Bedford, credited the production's commercial success to the fact that "Wilbur has written a very contemporary play. His contribution is almost as great as Molière's."
Yet professional productions were the last thing Wilbur sought when he first tackled Molière's The Misanthrope in 1952. He was a graduate student at Harvard; the translation was simply an exercise in how to write a verse play. But both The Misanthrope and the Tartuffe that followed were so "surprisingly well received" that Wilbur never got around to writing his own play. Instead, his mission became to compose "workable, actable and faithful English translations" of Molière.
While to most theatergoers Molière is little more than an amorphous name synonymous with barbed comedy, to Wilbur Molière is a presence. "I certainly have a strong illusion that I know the man," the translator confirms. "To me he was a vibrant personality with decided prejudices and preferences. As I worked on his plays, I would read the occasional book of French history to get a feel for the period. But really, my eyes were always on the play itself, and on the understanding of its characters by means of what they said." What they say is usually funny and surprisingly identifiable.
Wilbur, of course, is not solely, or even primarily, a translator. He is also a distinguished, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. In 1988 he was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to a one-year term as the United States' Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. As Wilbur explains, the poet laureate then uses his "outrageous title" to serve as a highly glorified front man for the Library of Congress, "a wonderful outfit," while doing his utmost to steer clear of Washington politics.
"I think one feels in the job of poet laureate that one is a servant, not of the party in power, but of the electorate," Wilbur says. "One represents all the people in America who can put up with poetry. People used to ask me, 'Why don't you write loyal, patriotic poems for public occasions?' I would answer by quoting my predecessor, Robert Penn Warren. He said he was damned if he was going to write any get-well-quick poems for Ronald Reagan's sick horse."
At age 81, Wilbur still writes poetry, "not as often as I used to, but in my always slow way, I'm continuing to work, and I wouldn't know myself if I weren't doing so." But this week and next, local theatergoers will be rejoicing in the iambic pentameter of Wilbur the translator, not the poet. Nearly 350 years after it was written, The School for Wives is still a devastating satire about the futility of selfish calculation.
"If it's done right, I think that people will respond with remarkable ease to Molière's rhymed comic verse," Wilbur says. "They'll find a lot to laugh at and a lot to laugh with. In this respect, little has changed since the seventeenth century: A distorted personality who tries to impose his wishes onto others can still disrupt the world."