Book Review: Eight Plays

Eight Plays, by Moliere, newly translated, with an Introduction, by Morris Bishop

I remember first being interested in Moliere’s plays, many of which I have read before in other translations, as a college student who read drama for fun, a habit I still have [1]. In reading these plays, each of which has an individual introduction by the book’s translator, as well as a larger introduction for whole collection, I was reminded that Moliere, though he may be less familiar than Shakespeare, is well known because he still speaks to contemporary humanity. In fact, his plays have a lot to say to us, sometimes in ways that are very awkward and personal, often because he speaks about himself as an artist and a man, and in so doing says a lot about other people who are complicated men and artists like himself. After all, it is largely artists who would be most interested in reading plays that are hundreds of years old and have to be translated from their native French. The fact that we read Moliere’s plays, and the fact that his plays are still performed with regularity suggest that something is deeply worthwhile in these books, a point that Bishop makes several times, pointing out that many of the plays that are most popular to our contemporary age are not those works which resonated best with his original audience.

The contents of this book are very straightforward. There are eight plays by Moliere, of varying length, that take up almost exactly 400 pages including the introductions provided by the translator. The eight plays are as follows, with translated titles as well: The Precious Damsels, The School For Wives, The Critique Of The School For Wives, The Versailles Impromptu, Tartuffe, The Misantrhope, The Physician In Spite Of Himself, and The Would-Be Gentleman. These plays range from very familiar (Tartuffe, The Misantrhope) to very unfamiliar (The Critique Of The School For Wives, The Versailles Impromptu). They show a range between farcical comedy, like The Physician In Spite Of Himself, to works of deep and brooding sensibilities. Moliere’s plays may be light in the performance, but in the reading there are a lot of heavier elements to them, and I agree with the translator that Moliere intended it to be so, that the social commentary and ambiguity and irony of his writing is not accidental, but that even if he played for laughs as an actor, he wrote material that was deeper than meets the eye, which is why it is still read today, and debated for its meaning and significance.

Overall, one can sense that Moliere has a lot to say and chose, perhaps quite sensibly, to mostly give deep thoughts and meaning in honey rather than with bile and vinegar as is the case for some writers. Even so, these plays run a wide gamut in terms of their approach–the Critique Of The School Of Wives seems almost like a Shaw or an Ibsen play with its heavy symbolism and almost grim realism and its topicality to the philosophy and politics at the time. Tartuffe is a play about a dangerously sensual man whose religious beliefs, if not hypocritical, are certainly no match for his native pride and greed, and whose behavior tended to lead people to mock certain aspects of Christianity. The Misanthrope, by contrast, provides a false dilemma between a man who is honest and quite rudely unpleasant and a society that is hypocritically friendly in person while biting behind someone’s back, and where the drama involves a flirtatious young woman tormenting honest men, something I find a bit painful to read even in the best of times. Yet Moliere’s plays are like that–he writes about the problems he had with doctors who could not help him feel better, about his own insecurities as a bourgeois gentleman flattering the sensibilities of noble and even royal elites in order to make a living, as a man who married a much younger woman to widespread scandal and found it to be an unhappy state, and included witty inside jokes about other rival playwrights that were not always taken in stride by those he teased and poked. All too many writers, then and now, find such material hits perhaps a bit too close to home for comfort, but we do not read great literature for comfort, after all.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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