- The Cambridge Companion to Molière
Cambridge University Press has published hundreds of titles in its "Companion" series, from "Abelard" to "Zola," so it would appear that these collections of essays are exceptionally marketable, although I am not exactly clear as to the nature of the market. In the case of the Companion to Molière, the potential buyers are presumably students and general readers of the plays of the celebrated seventeenth century French actor/playwright. The first and last sections of the collection seem better designed for the needs of such nonspecialists, while the middle section of critical studies assumes an academic reader.
The first section of three essays introduces the nonspecialist reader to Molière's life and career as a playwright, to the physical theatres of Molière's time, to the ways in which troupes were organized and plays produced, and to Molière as an actor. In the first of these, Marie-Claude Canova-Green begins with the usual assertion that little or nothing can be known for sure of Molière's life, and then follows the trajectory of his career from Paris to the provinces and back again to Paris. Although she promises an analysis of his "career strategy," in fact, her effort to go beyond chronology does not yield very much, and such a statement as "Molière's strategy was to recycle the ingredients of his first comedies, turning them into longer plays" (7) is problematical, to say the least. The second essay by Jan Clarke is a perfectly reasonable short introduction to what she calls "the material conditions" of theatre production in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, although the misleading tables that she uses to demonstrate the "success" of Molière's various plays could well have been left out. The third essay in this section, Stephen Knapper's effort to demonstrate the connections between the acting style of the Italian commedia dell'arte actor Tiberio Fiorillo (Scaramouche) and Molière's own style, is disorganized, poorly written, and ultimately unsuccessful. The book would have been far better served by a general discussion of seventeenth-century acting by someone like Sabine Chaouche as a companion piece to Clarke's essay on production.
The last third of the book, four essays that consider: (1) productions of Molière's plays on the British stage since 1660, (2) "landmark" productions of Molière, (3) productions of Dom Juan, and (4) Molière's influence on the modern experimental theatre are all of interest to theatre scholars and practitioners, although most of them have too broad [End Page 320] a compass to describe the productions they mention in any detail. Noel Peacock takes up problems of verbal and cultural translation as translators and directors attempt "to make Tartuffe accessible to British audiences" (177), but I am curious about his dismissal of Richard Wilbur's translation, almost canonical in the United States, with quotations taken from scathing reviews by British newspaper critics in 1967. He counters this dismissal only with an undocumented statement that "recent productions of the play . . . have given Wilbur the accolade of 'Prince of Translators'" (182). Jim Carmody, whose article on "landmark productions" is an addendum to his 1993 book on the same subject, also picks on Wilbur's "familiar, superficial, literary wit and predictably rhymed iambic pentameter," preferring Neil Bartlett's "larger frame of cultural reference" (198), which set The Misanthrope in the media culture of twentieth-century London or, for America, on the fringes of Hollywood. Carmody also takes up the "historiographical difficulties" of studying production history. David Whitton's essay on modern productions of Dom Juan seeks to relate specific "stage interpretations to their respective contexts" in order to understand "how a text composed in 1665 can . . . resonate . . . in different and varied cultural contexts" (201). These three essays offer fodder for theatre teachers and students to debate issues of translation, adaptation, and interpretation. The final contribution, by editor David Bradby, is something of a summary...