The year 2022 marks Molière’s 400 birthday. While this is a much-celebrated event in France, with theatre productions and academic events galore, in Britain, it is met with relative indifference. This is not so surprising; a certain cultural isolationism characterises the British stage: only 3% of the productions are based on foreign plays (The British Theatre Repertoire Survey, 2013). Furthermore, several British critics have lamented a certain cultural imperviousness to Molière’s comedy: ‘Molière could become one of the obstacles to a united Europe. How can you trade freely, let alone merge with a nation whose best comedy never travels?’ (The Sunday Times, 1987). In Britain,Molière has more the status of an obscure figure than of a popular playwright.
When, however, one digs beyond popular opinions on the French playwright (or lack thereof), and delves into Molière’s reception on the British stage, one discovers a surprising number of successful productions on the commercial stage and more than 450 published translations to date. Although most of Molière’s successes are free adaptations more attuned to the theatrical codes of the target culture, this hidden presence is evidence that the French playwright offers material that still resonates with a contemporary Anglo-Saxon audience.
Likewise, in Radley College, Molière has not been as underrepresented as one may think. From 1868 (the earliest record we have) to the beginning of the 20th century, Molière became a regular name on the programmes for the school’s drama productions, taking place each All Saints Day as part of the school’s major annual celebration.
The College Bulletin records 13 productions of extracts from Molière plays that were performed during these 30 years to an audience of old boys, parents and visitors from Oxford, alongside a full play performed in Latin and extracts from a Shakespeare play.
The plays were performed in French, and the audience was expected to understand them. The presence of Molière in Radley College was in part seen as an academic exercise; the reviews always spared a few lines to comment on the French accent and the intonation. The linguistic performances were mostly met favourably, but when the French fell short of expectations, the reviewer found himself wondering why one should “perform in a language whose pronunciation differs from that of the vulgar to such an exasperating degree as French” (1886). This was, however, the exception rather than the rule; the French Don Mr Bryans scrupulously saw to the impeccability of la langue de Molière, and deservedly received several accolades in the College’s publications.
However accomplished the Radleian linguists of the time, seventeenth-century language does pose some challenges, even for a French audience. Molière’s verse plays, written in classical alexandrines (twelve-syllable rhyming couplets), have understandably not been chosen by any of the casts. The boys went for the prose plays instead. Not only is the language more straightforward, but in the prose plays, the comic spirit stems from the Italian comedia dell’arte tradition, full of slapstick and brisk situational comedy that is more readily enjoyed by a foreign audience. Notable Radleian performances of selected scenes from Molière include Le Médecin malgré lui (1869, 1883, 1949), Les Fourberies de Scapin (1885, 1889), Le Malade imaginaire (1946, 1966), Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1881, 1884), L’Avare (1882, 1886, 1892).
Being performed in the original language, the farcical elements of Molière’s plays were probably slightly overemphasised. The productions were usually a montage of the most slapstick scenes of Molière’s repertoire. Notably, the famous scene where Scapin hides old Géronte in a bag, and gives him violent blows, while pretending to protect him from the swordsmen who are looking for him, has won over the Radleian audience several times.
There is of course much more to Molière than farce. Molière is regarded as the inventor of la comédie de caractère, a genre meant to expose and ‘correct the mores through laughter,’ by endowing the main character with a mania, an obsession which opposes him to the other characters and makes him ridiculous. The downplaying of this more noble genre of comedy has been regretted by a reviewer of a production of L’Avare: “we think the comedies of Molière should be played strictly as comedies and not as farces” (1866).
Be that as it may, even if the versality of Molière’s oeuvre failed to be exploited, and his verse masterpieces (Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, L’Ecole des femmes etc.) have remained absent from the Radleian stage, one may still salute the many triumphs Molière enjoyed. Les Fourberies de Scapin “never fails to meet with an appreciative welcome” acknowledged the 1889 edition of The Radleian.
Molière provided a welcome light touch in a usually heavy programme featuring a Shakespeare tragedy and Latin play (whose reviews, incidentally, were much less celebratory):
“Then followed Shakespeare, noble words recall
All the grand pathos of great Wolsey’s fall.
The curtain rose again on Molière’s play,
Our youths were charming, lively, witty, gay.” (1882)
“After the sterner comedy of Rome, and the massive poetry of Shakespeare, it is to Molière that we look for the farcical humour which may send us off to bed in the best of tempers” (1884).
At the very end of the 19th century, there were mounting complaints about the tradition to put on a play in Latin. There were calls to replace it with a work by celebrated continental playwrights “rendered into English” (1898). Molière was one of the suggested names. However, if a full Molière play was to be chosen as an alternative, English would be preferable. Opinions in favour of English translations of foreign plays were becoming more prominent amongst the Radleians:
‘Most of them, as they parade in the classrooms, are dry bones to boys. Why? Because they are not able to penetrate the social atmosphere which the unfamiliar language spreads round the mere outline of the plot […] Rendered into English, and animated on the stage, it would become more comprehensible to them why these dreary productions are called famous” (ibid).
The discontinuation of the demanding exercise of performing in French certainly led to the withdrawal of Molière on the Radleian stage. The twentieth century only records four productions of Molière’s plays. 2022 marks the return of Molière in Radley College after 30 years absence. Molière is back on the syllabus for French A level and a production of selected scenes in French from Tartuffe is in preparation.