On January 15th, 1622 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was baptised in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. Four hundred years later the birth of the playwright, who later adopted the stage name Molière, is being celebrated by performances, exhibitions and academic conferences in his native France and around the world.
Molière, whose posthumous reputation has fared better internationally than that of his more classically oriented contemporaries, Racine and Corneille, has indeed become so famous in French that the language itself is often referred to as the ‘language of Molière’ just as English is dubbed the ‘language of Shakespeare.’ His creation of memorable stage types (the miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac); the inventiveness of his comic repartee; and his resolute aversion to all forms of social pretension and hypocrisy have ensured his enduring popularity centuries after the first performances of his works, where he often played the leading role.
The attractions of Molière were not lost on one of the major figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Lady Augusta Gregory. When the Abbey Theatre received its legal patent in 1904, one of the conditions was that it would confine its productions to contemporary Irish drama and European theatre classics. The idea was to not antagonise the owners of existing commercial theatres, who made their money from more standard fare.
As the Abbey sought out European dramatists who might fulfil its mandate, the choice fell on Molière, because, in the words of Gregory, ‘his affinities with folk drama have made [his plays] easier to our players.’ The Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte, with its repertoire of recognisable types, had strongly influenced Molière. This was mirrored in the folk drama favoured by Lady Gregory which drew on the recurring characters and story types of Irish folklore.
The idea of translating Molière first arose in late August 1905. Yeats was enthusiastic and wrote to Synge, one of the other artistic directors of the Abbey, requesting his support, which was duly granted. The problem was that the translation, an 18th-century translation supplied by Annie Horniman, proved to be a dud. Gregory lamented the fact that the existing translations in English failed to “go across the footlights”.
She decided to do the work herself and put The Doctor in Spite of Himself into ‘our own Kiltartan dialect.’ The Kiltartan dialect was Gregory’s rendering of the English spoken by the inhabitants of southeast Galway in the district around her residence at Coole Park. This poeticised idiom bore strong traces of the language shift from Irish to English and was co-opted into a more general movement explored by Yeats, Synge and others to find a form of English that would adequately express Irish cultural distinctness.
Gregory’s translation, which Synge found “admirable”, was first performed on February 9th, 1907. Such was the enthusiasm of the reaction to The Doctor in Spite of Himself that Gregory proceeded in short order to translate two further plays by Molière. The Rogueries of Scapin opened in the Abbey on March 12th, 1909 and The Miser premiered on October 20th, 1910.
The Rogueries proved to be particularly popular and the reviewer of the Freeman’s Journal was unstinting in his praise: “Lady Gregory’s translation of Les Fourberies de Scapin is most admirable in every respect.” Gregory had learned the basics of French from tutors at the family home in Roxborough House in Galway and perfected her knowledge of the language when accompanying her invalid brother on trips to the French Riviera from 1875 onwards.
Though she herself referred to her translations as “adaptations”, the three translations produced between 1907 and 1910 are close renderings of Molière’s texts, with little omitted from or added to the originals. Gregory often used her chosen idiom to great effect: “Ne m’assassinez point” in The Miser is translated as “Don’t make an end of me altogether,” while a line from The Rogueries of Scapin, “Je lui donnerais tout à l’heure de l’épée dans le centre” is crisply turned into, “I’ll split him on my sword”. The three translations were published as The Kiltartan Molière by Maunsel and Co in 1910.
Gregory’s decision to translate the language of the great French master into the spoken English of the Irish countryside was not as odd as it later came to be believed. If Tudor England and Romantic Germany, for example, were eager to translate the Greek and Roman classics into their respective vernaculars, it was because translation was seen as a part of nation-building.
Making Homer or Virgil available in English or German showed that these countries were capable of the highest levels of poetic expression and, also, that the literature of past civilisations could be confidently absorbed into new national cultures. These cultures gained through the associations of past greatness.
Translating Molière into ‘Kiltartan’ was an act of cultural self-confidence. It implied that the English of Ireland was a vehicle fit for one of the greatest playwrights of the European literary tradition. The language should no longer be a marker of shame, the comic inarticulacy of the “stage” Irishman. Ironically, it is the translated language of a rural population whose syntax and speech habits are profoundly shaped by Irish Gaelic which is central to the emergence of this new literary language in English. Translating Molière into Irish English rather than British English mirrored the initial Tudor “conquest” of the classics through translation which was at the heart of rising linguistic self-confidence in 16th- and 17th-century England.
Lady Gregory would return to Molière in 1924 at the age of 72 when she set to work on translating Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The famous Abbey actor Barry Fitzgerald had seen a production of the play in the Comédie Française in Paris and was keen to have Gregory produce her own version of the play in English.
The problem for Gregory was that the play is part comedy, part ballet. While the Abbey company could sing if the occasion demanded, dancing was not generally part of their skill set. Gregory dealt with the problem by eliminating the ballet scenes and restructuring the play so that the absence would not be obvious. She introduced her own versions of songs into the translation and was not slow to cut lines she felt would not directly advance the action of the plot.
The Would-Be Gentleman opened in the Abbey Theatre on January 12th, 1926 and it would be Gregory’s last foray into translating the work of the pre-eminent French playwright. In it she drew less heavily on the language of Kiltartan. This may have been in reaction to the scepticism expressed years earlier by reviewers in The Irish Times and the Irish Independent. Commenting on the first performance of The Miser, they doubted the plausibility of Molière’s characters speaking in the English of southeast Galway. The Irish Independent critic was emphatic: ‘It was not Molière.’ The critic was wrong. Gregory had been painstaking in her attention to the original text. It was just not Molière in a form that was familiar to the reviewer.
The Irish translator Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, was a contemporary of Molière and in 1684 he published his widely read Essay on Translated Verse. In it he told budding translators, ‘Then, seek a Poet who your way do’s bend/And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend.’
Gregory appears to have taken Dillon’s advice as she had much in common with Molière. They were primarily interested in the genre of comedy, were drawn to the drama of common life, and were heavily involved in the practical business of theatre, Gregory with the Abbey and Molière with l’Illustre Théâtre (which he founded in 1643 and subsequently with Molière’s Company (La Troupe de Molière).
In putting France’s great playwright on the Irish stage at a crucial moment in the emergence of a new national awareness, Lady Gregory was reminding her audiences that Europe was a lived reality, not an empty abstraction and that identities are always stronger for being open and connected. As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of the French theatrical prodigy, we might also salute the memory of an Irishwoman whose skill, knowledge and energy were used to forge a new language for European drama translation in Ireland.
Michael Cronin is 1776 Professor of French in Trinity College Dublin