- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 58.2 (2006) 352-355
[Access article in PDF]
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
Nancy Bell, Annalee Jefferies, and Pamela Payton-Wright in The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
A classical play may be adapted for one of two reasons: either to modernize a work for a contemporary audience, or to explore a work whose richness has not been fully mined. David Grimm's free adaptation of Molière's Les Femmes Savantes falls into the first category. Supported by a commission from Hartford Stage, whose mission includes the development of masterworks, Grimm returned to one of Molière's less frequently performed plays and cast it in New York City, 1936, during the Great Depression. He transforms Molière's seventeenth-century bourgeoisie into a glittering Jazz Age family untouched by the stock market crash. Defining his translation as "a riff on Molière" permits Grimm certain liberties; he replicates Molière's plot and characters, but deviates from the dialogue whenever he feels necessary. The places where The Learned Ladies succeeds reveal the mastery of Molière's original; those where the performance comes up short illuminate the troublesome nature of adaptation.
Molière's play, Les Femmes Savantes (1672), has two objects of satire: a man who has lost control over his own household and a group of women who flaunt their erudition. Molière does not satirize knowledge per se, but the outward show of an educated mind. He ridicules the Parisian salons of his day, where participants superficially discussed literary, philosophic, and scientific topics without any true intellectual inquiry. Critics marveled that Molière could make a satire out of a subject as thin as pretentious intellectualism, and indeed Grimm supplements his play with a third satirical target: wealthy individuals who perform compassion for the poor. Grimm designates his learned ladies as the charity set who strategize social betterment, all the while eating canapés in penthouse apartments and tsk-tsking the maid's moral escapism in the movies. The hero, Dicky Mayhew, rebukes the pompous Upton Gabbitt for glorifying the struggles of the poor as subject matter for his poetry even while he ridicules them behind closed doors. The opportunistic use of the lower classes bears particular relevance today, with an administration adept at trotting out survivors of Hurricane Katrina for photo opportunities and political cachet.
Grimm's adaptation recreates commedia dell'arte characters, reminding us that a central feature of Molière's comedies is the overblown caricatures and their idiosyncractic foibles. The young daughter, Betty, wheezes uncontrollably when upset; her fiancé Dicky Mayhew speaks with a James Cagney earnestness; her Uncle Rupert soft-shoes his way onto the stage, and the vampish Aunt Sylvia tries to seduce her niece's fiancé, convinced that all men secretly lust for her. The monochromatic set design, a glossy white art-deco set accentuated with black and metallic furnishings and white moiré fabric, serves as a blank canvas for this colorful cast.
Molière also established linguistic differences between his characters, differentiating between plain or pretentious diction, polite or outré speech. Grimm likewise creates diverse characters through their linguistic tics. Note the contrast between Betty's earnestness after discovering her fiancé had first pursued her sister: "He swore on his soul that he was telling the truth," and Ramona's sassy response: "Well OK, but you're not some dumb hick from Duluth." Closely following the neoclassical dictates of writing in verse, Grimm writes his dialogue in French Alexandrines instead of using the iambic pentameter line which is better suited to the English language. Listening to rhyming couplets takes some getting used to; as one journalist notes,[End Page 352]
Click for larger view
| Figure 2 |
Pamela Payton-Wright, Annalee Jefferies, Nancy Bell, and (standing) David Greenspan in The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
the effect is "Seussical." And...