Friday, 5 May 2000
Molière: The Learned Ladies (1672)
Edition: Nick Hern, 1996
Review number: 493
Molière's last but one play is not among his best known and is perhaps unlikely to become so given its subject (the absurdity of women pretending to philosophical knowledge - though it could easily be present as an attack on those in general who pretend to be learned). As the type of knowledge which is associated with intelligence has also changed (from Greek and Latin to science), it may also seem to a modern audience to attack its target rather obliquely. (Mind you, it would be easy to write a modern version of this play using the kind of rubbish people often talk about science.)
Another reason why this play is less well known is that in many ways it is very similar to the harder hitting Tartuffe: both plays are about hypocrites whom one parent wants to force a daughter to marry rather than the eminently suitable young man that she loves. The hypocrisy is of a different kind, pretending to excellence as a poet rather than religious piety (and the poetry he produces is a parody of some by Molière's enemy Abbé Coth). The Learned Ladies is in parts very funny, and has some interesting characters. (I liked the elder daughter Armande, who rejected her lover for the pure life of philosophy only to become piqued with jealousy when he transfers his attentions to her sister.)
The translation is excellent, written in accordance with a theory that the best way to achieve a similar feel to the original's for a native speaker is to make the translation an imitation of a similar writer in the new language. In this case, Waller chose Sheridan as the model, and has produced an excellent version in his style. The updating has removed any old fashioned phrases (I noticed none); my only quibble is that I don't think that Sheridan is all that like Molière. In particular, I feel that the commedia tradition was far more important to and present in the work of the French author.