NEW YORK — It’s not every day that you see a stellar Broadway show and the name bandied about by many at intermission, isn’t a member of the cast, but the translator of the play. But, after all, few hits on the Great White Way were first performed in French in 1664. The Roundabout Theater Company’s production of “Tartuffe,” at the American Airlines Theater, has had its original Jan. 9 to Feb. 16 run extended by a week. Part of the reason is the fine cast, which includes the superb Molière interpreter Brian Bedford as Orogon and Henry Goodman doing a divinely sly turn as Tartuffe. (Goodman’s triumph in this part is a nice rebuttal to his dismissal last spring from the role of Max Bialystock in “The Producers.”) Another reason is director Joe Dowling’s quicksilver pacing. But one of the biggest reasons, it must be said, is simply the language — and for that we must thank the playwright and his brilliant translator, Richard Wilbur.
After all, few translators have been described by theater critic John Simon as creating works that are, at times, better than the original.
Wilbur, of course, has been famous as a great American lyric poet for many decades. He has been poet laureate of the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1956 for “Things of This World” and another Pulitzer in 1988 for “New and Collected Poems.” He has also won the Frost Medal, the Bollingen Prize, the T.S. Eliot Award, and many more. As a sideline, he has translated a number of French plays. His splendid, witty and wildly playful version of “Tartuffe” has as strong a presence on the stage in this terrific Roundabout production as any of the actors. The rhymes are hilarious, and the verse clips along with great brio and charm.
“I don’t pretend to be a translator,” Wilbur, 81, says. “Someone like Richard Howard is a real translator and can do general translations. I simply have this specialty of translating a couple of Racine plays in addition to the Molières I’ve done, which I think amount to eight plays by now. It’s tremendous fun to do it, and what I do is to sit all alone in my studio, writing six or eight lines in a day to my satisfaction. And all the time I’m doing it, I’m thinking of the way Brian Bedford would say the lines. I’m sitting there writing and laughing and seeing Brian. Sometimes I write 16 lines in a day, and I feel wonderful.”
For a 1964 production of his “Tartuffe,” Wilbur says, he was asked to write an introductory speech for Hal Holbrook to prepare the audience for the poetry. But in general, he adds, he’s been pleased by the way his translations have been received. “It’s been a very happy surprise to me that American audiences will adjust to rhymed verse,” he explains. “The language has to be clear and sufficiently contemporary. But it just delights me that people are not put off by it.”
In the current production, the cast seem to be having a whale of a time with the verse, but that hasn’t been the case for every actor. “I remember a very nice woman who played Célimène in ‘The Misanthrope’ years and years ago,” Wilbur recalls. “When I went to congratulate her, she said, ‘Boy, this has really worn me out. I’m a Studio actress, and I don’t think I can handle this.’”
It’s just the opposite, of course, for Wilbur. “Every poet has certain knacks, and I do have a knack for writing and a love of rhythmic movement in a metrical poem,” he says. “I have a certain natural ability, and I turn to those abilities when the drift of a poem calls.” Confessional poetry, an important part of the poetic world during an earlier part of his career, isn’t Wilbur’s forte. “I think the fact I haven’t written a great many confessional poems has to do with a certain constitutional reserve,” he says. “Emerson was right when he said that the deeper we go into ourselves, the more we’re like everybody else. I feel it’s true not only of me, but of people in general.”
Still, Wilbur, whose persona is the opposite of Byronic, speaks well of two of poetry’s wild men, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. “They were both extremely accomplished poets,” Wilbur says. “I think Lowell was good when he was young and writing in Miltonic meters, and still good when he worked in a more relaxed and prosaic form. I think in the last years he overwrote a little out of that Keatsian feeling that he was going to die, so he had to unpack everything. But he was one of the really fine talents of the 20th century, and I think the same of Berryman.
“Sometimes I think the confessional urge misled them,” Wilbur adds, noting that it made them at times, “self-conscious and stagey, behaving like actors and celebrities.” Mostly, however, he says he believes that they handled [well] the burden of the confessional that they put on themselves.”
The traps that at times ensnared them, however, haven’t tempted Wilbur. The writer, in fact, has a notably sound private life. He has been married for 60 years to his wife Mary, who Wilbur says is better at French than he is and reads everything he writes. The pair have four children, and divide their time between Massachusetts and Key West. Wilbur was actually introduced to Robert Frost, a poet to whom he’s often compared, by his wife. “Her grandfather was the first person to publish him. So even if I wrote bad poems, he had to like me, and he was always very encouraging about my writing,” Wilbur says. “He was terribly good company when he came to see us.” As poets, Wilbur says, they have “a lot of overlapping materials. The same trees and woodpiles differently treated.”
James Merrill was a great friend, and both Wilbur and Merrill attended Amherst, and spent time together in Key West. “We had a lot of things in common,” Wilbur recalls. “On the whole, we liked the same things. Jimmy would sometimes show me poems of his. I also showed him translations and he was an awfully learned fellow in literature.” Merrill, he adds, once did him a favor by rewriting a rhymed couplet that Merrill considered inaccurate on the page.
The New England landscape Wilbur shares with Frost is something that has helped keep him grounded. A favorite pastime, he says, is taking long walks in the woods. “I raise altogether too many herbs and too many vegetables, and whenever my children come to see us they are obliged to go away with many of them,” he says. Then there’s the fact that he’s spent much of his life teaching at such places as Harvard, Wesleyan and Smith. “One thing that has kept me from developing a swollen ego is my students,” the writer says. “One gets a certain amount of respect, but you get a lot of rather straightforward evaluation and disrespect, too. They keep you honest.”