For my “This Old Thing” square I finally bit the bullet and took this binding of two plays with me to jury duty to ensure I wouldn’t be tempted by more modern works, and shut my phone off. I needn’t have worried; it’s not like this would get mistaken for a written transcript of This Week Tonight or anything, but Moliere is not just remarkably readable, his views aren’t as antiquated as you might expect for someone writing in the mid 1600s.
I picked these plays up on the cheap at a used bookstore (bound in one volume but two distinct narratives, counting it as two books, fight me) after reading Tartuffe in college and being thoroughly entertained. Moliere’s not as stuffy as Shakespeare can be, though I’d imagine some of that is attributable to the simplifications that occur in translation – Tartuffe was a 17th century bourgeoisie “What About Bob?” but you get to feel clever and cultured while reading it. Hell yeah, pretentiousness AND middlebrow humor AND poking fun at religious zealotry?! I’m there. Three bucks for not one but two similar plays? Score!
So, college was a long damn time ago. As a result I’m not sure if Tartuffe was different or I just don’t remember, but these two are written in rhyming couplets. The. Entire. Way. Through. It’s impressive on the translator’s part, but I feel like a third of my time reading was spent doubling back to make sure I was following the plot and not just carried away by the meter. The jokes still scan too, so golf clap for making that work from French to English.
The ideas are surprisingly applicable to modern times as well, even if you have to grind your teeth and take it all with a “times were different, this was written before the US was even a country” grain of salt.
The School for Wives revolves around a man so paranoid of being cuckolded (ew) that he tries to ensure he won’t be by marrying a simple innocent girl (EWW) whose innocence is assured by his having taken her on as a ward from the age of four (everts stomach like a starfish). We have the Polonius problem here though, yeah that’s all UNBELIEVABLY gross, but Moliere thinks so too, Adolphe is no one’s hero and gets his comeuppance, even if Agnes is a Docile Pixie Dream Girl who’s just clever enough to rebel and pick the correct man to submit to, not the one she was groomed for.
The Learned Ladies takes aim at pretentiousness (hey! I thought we were friends, Moliere!) with a group of bourgeois women in love with pseudo intellectualism and the costs of not noticing the emperor is wearing no clothes. Yeah, it’s irritating reading about the “natural order” of things and “who wears the pants” nonsense, but at least Moliere saves the bulk of his ire for the men posturing as geniuses rather than the women who fawn over them.
Again, this was written 370-odd years ago. It’s definitely of a time, and the gender roles are imperfect. However, they’re more encouraging than the time would suggest, the plays are engaging and funny, and Moliere’s heroines are surprisingly clever, industrious, and written with affection.