Canada’s two official languages may, unofficially, be dubbed the language of Shakespeare and la langue de Molière.
But compared to the near-constant celebrations in this country connected to the former playwright’s 450th birthday (in 2014) and the 400th anniversary of his death (in 2016), the latter’s quadricentennial this year is certainly starting as a much more subdued affair.
Few in Canada have yet clocked that Jan. 15 marks the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the 17th-century French actor and playwright who would later rechristen himself Molière so as not to embarrass his father too much.
His comedic masterpieces in verse and prose such as Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope and Le malade imaginaire are certainly not any less relevant now than Shakespeare’s canon was in the 2010s; indeed, Molière’s satirical yet humanistic depictions of deluded and obsessed men who fall for hypocritical leaders, absurd ideologies and quack cures are almost too au courant in our Internet (and Ivermectin) era.
Alas, the iconic Comédie-Française playwright who fought off clerical censorship in the court of Louis XIV has simply had the misfortune of turning 400 after a year and a half of theatrical chaos caused by the pandemic.
Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM), the closest Quebec has to a Maison de Molière, was born in 1951 out of a hit production of L’Avare (The Miser) directed by and starring Jean Gascon – but, this month, due to COVID-19, all it has on the agenda is a video that will be posted on social media.
A planned stage adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Life of Monsieur de Molière at TNM, directed by artistic director Lorraine Pintal, has been pushed back to the fall of 2022 – and a production of Le Misanthrope to 2023. “It’s too bad – it’s not every year that a major playwright has his 400th birthday,” says Pintal, noting there’s little else going on in Quebec to celebrate the quadricentennial, amid cultural and health crises.
Instead, it has fallen, by accident, to the Stratford Festival in Ontario to mark this year’s Molière milestone properly in Canada with a major production of one of his plays – if Omicron allows.
The Miser, in a version by the British translator Ranjit Bolt, directed by artistic director Antoni Cimolino, is set to grace the Festival Theatre stage this summer – a postponed production that was actually originally planned for 2020.
That doesn’t mean that the moment does not have meaning for Stratford, however: Molière has always been the theatre company’s second-most important playwright after Shakespeare, an underappreciated fact this year’s anniversary affords an opportunity to revisit.
Stratford’s history with Molière dates back to 1956, when its second artistic director, Michael Langham, invited a group of TNM actors (including Gascon) up from Montreal to play the French characters in a Henry V that starred Christopher Plummer. They agreed to do so as long as they could also put on a selection of Molière plays they had recently toured to France, in French.
It was a request that changed the future of the festival.
The Avon Theatre – a local vaudeville house and cinema, dormant at the time – was cleaned out for the TNM actors, and that was the beginning of the Stratford festival’s use of that second stage.
But even more significantly, it led to Gascon being invited back to introduce the theatre company’s audiences to Molière in English translation by directing Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in 1964, cementing a relationship that culminated in his appointment as the company’s first Canadian-born artistic director.
The Gascon years at Stratford, which ran from 1968 to 1974, began with him directing a Tartuffe (in American poet Richard Wilbur’s elegant verse translation) that received a true rave review from the New York Times. It starred a dream team of William Hutt as the religious conman Tartuffe, Douglas Rain as his dupe Orgon and Martha Henry as Orgon’s shrewd wife Elmire – and was revived again the following year.
Tartuffe has since proven to be the single play that Stratford has had the most consistent success with, rather than any of Shakespeare’s. Artistic director John Hirsch was the next to direct the Wilbur version in 1983, with Brian Bedford as the titular hypocrite; that production, too, played two seasons in a row – and Bedford would reprise the role again one final time at Stratford in 2000.
More recently, director Chris Abraham’s 2017 production of Tartuffe, in a muscular new verse translation by Bolt, was one for the books starring Tom Rooney; it too returned for a victory lap – in Toronto at Canadian Stage.
The popularity of M. Poquelin’s work at Stratford, originally sparked by Gascon – which extended beyond its Tartuffes, to productions of The Imaginary Invalid and The Miser that toured in 1974 and 1998, respectively – played an important role in keeping the playwright’s reputation alive and well in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century, when many English theatre creators had started to turn on him.
(The divide that existed at the time is perhaps best illustrated by a famous anecdote that Hume Cronyn, the great Canadian actor who was married to Jessica Tandy, related in his memoir about an encounter he had with the English stage legend Laurence Olivier. When Cronyn mentioned that he was about to star in a production of The Miser in 1963, Olivier responded: “Molière? Funny as a baby’s open grave.”)
It’s even been (perhaps spuriously) theorized that the British dislike of Molière then is part of the reason why the country’s integration into Europe never fully took. According to a recent Agence France-Presse article, a Sunday Times theatre reviewer opined in the 1980s: “How can you trade freely with a nation whose best comedy does not travel?”
Molière’s reputation in Britain, however, has done a U-turn in the 21st century, thanks to theatres commissioning a fresh round of translations of his plays – and also hiring well-known playwrights such as Richard Bean and Patrick Marber to adapt him. The result has been a revival based more on the endurance of the satirical eye than on the wit of his original words.
That approach has filtered back over to Stratford in the past decade, where directors have (with permission) tweaked the more recent British versions to help Moliere’s themes connect with audiences more immediately amid the rise of anti-vaxxers (in the case of Cimolino’s The Hypochondriac in 2016) or Donald Trump (in the case of Abraham’s Tartuffe in 2017).
It’s only too bad that it is not British theatres that are tweaking Canadian translations rather than vice versa at this point – given that la langue de Molière is officially one of ours.
In its close to 70 years of existence, Stratford has used a number of American and British translations/adaptations of Molière, but has only ever staged a fully Canadian translation once: Don Juan, in 2006, was translated by David Edney, a University of Saskachewan French professor emeritus (who has translated 21 of Molière’s plays).
The reason for that is simple: Stratford, as with other English-language theatre companies in this country, focuses its limited translation resources on Quebecois and French-Canadian plays rather than classics or contemporary plays from France (or anywhere else in the Francophonie).
But it’s nevertheless a sharp contrast to the case of Shakespeare in Quebec: Since the Quiet Revolution, theatres there have mainly mounted homegrown translations, some of which, by the likes of Normand Chaurette and Michel Garneau, have become “classics” of their own.
Molière, for all his rich history in English Canada, does not yet hold the same status as one of our own; maybe give him another 100 years.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.