Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811
For more than half a century, Richard Wilburone of America’s leading poets and poet laureate of the United States from 1987 to 1988has been translating plays by the giants of the seventeenth century French theater, Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière. His translations of Le Cid and The Liar, paired in a single volume, display not only Wilbur’s versatility as a translator but also the brilliant range of Corneille’s dramatic genius. Both plays hold places of distinction in the Corneille canon. Corneille scholar Peter Nurse calls Le Cid the first masterpiece of French drama. Its maiden production, in late 1636 or early 1637, ushered in the great age of French theater, which was dominated by Corneille, Racine, and Molière. The Liar, meanwhile, has become a long-term staple of the repertoire of the Comédie Française, the Paris acting company founded by Louis XIV in 1680 and still operating today.
Corneille drew his inspiration for these plays from two Spanish dramas on the same subjects, but in both cases he transformed them for the French stage. In Le Cid, he restructured the play to conform to the classical unities; in The Liar, he incorporated French customs and values into the story. Although both plays were intended for the stageand have been successfully produced at various times for nearly four centuriesmerely reading them in Wilbur’s translation gives some indication as to why they have remained favorites among playgoers and critics.
Based on a legend about the eleventh century Spanish nobleman and warrior Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, Le Cid focuses on the dramatic conflict that emerges between the young Rodrigue, not yet known for his prowess as a warrior, and Chimène, the beautiful daughter of Don Gomes, the count of Gormas. The two are deeply in love and planning to marry when Chimène’s father insults Rodrigue’s father, Don Diègue. To defend the family honor, Rodrigue kills Don Gomes, immediately creating enmity between him and his beloved.
Chimène feels bound to avenge her father’s murder, but before she can extract revenge, Rodrigue is called away to fight the Moors. His bravery earns him the sobriquet “Le Cid Campeador,” or the lord of military arts. Nevertheless, although she still loves him, Chimène demands that Rodrigue be punished for killing her father. Rodrigue, also still in love, insists that he must die to preserve his honor in her eyes. Chimène convinces a former suitor to challenge Rodrigue to a duel; Rodrigue vanquishes this rival, even though he wants to die, because he feels that to lose intentionally would demean him in Chimène’s eyes.
Royal intervention seems to provide a solution to the lovers’ dilemma: Don Fernand, the first real king in Castile, wants Rodrigue to remain alive so he can serve the state. In the final scene, the king demands that Chimène marry Rodrigue, but he agrees to let them wait a year so Rodrigue can earn even greater honor on the battlefield.
The ambiguous ending of the play has bothered critics since it was first produced. Knowing whether Chimène really intends to marry Rodrigue is key to understanding her character, but her internal decision is not revealed. Although Le Cid was a box-office sensation, Corneille was chastised severely by contemporary critics for violating an essential element of tragedy, the consistency of a tragic figure’s commitment to high moral principles. So violent was the outcry against Chimène’s apparent acquiescence to the king that the “Querelle du Cid”the quarrel over Le Cidwas referred to the new Académie Française. This French academy was established in 1635 to arbitrate matters concerning French language and literature.
Despite this contemporary controversy, what tends to stand out for readers four centuries later is the unrelieved tension created by the clash of values represented in the drama. Both Chimène and Rodrigue are committed to the feudal code of honor that demands they avenge slights to their family. At the same time, they are passionately in love with each other. To honor one commitment necessitates violating the other.
At the time Le Cid first appeared, audiences were accustomed to seeing tragicomedies, a mixed genre in which people of high stature engage in actions both comic and tragic. Corneille, however, wanted his work to be viewed as a tragedy in the classic mode, and he maintained a high level of decorum, sharply focusing attention on the tragic dilemma faced by both his hero and his heroine. Stripping away materials about El Cid’s exploits as a warrior, he focused on the conflict between love and duty, highlighting the role that both fate and custom play in bringing about the play’s tragedic events.
One can see precedents in classical drama for both Don Rodrigue and Chimène, specifically in the plays of Sophocles. Rodrigue is reminiscent of Oedipus, whose actions to defend his honor after a seemingly trivial incident have long-term consequences in the Oedipus trilogyOidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729), and Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729). Chimène is much like the title character of Antigone, torn between obeying the state and honoring her family. Her problem is further complicated, however, by the intense love she feels for the man who dishonored her family. The ambiguous ending of Le Cid only serves to emphasize the ongoing tragedy that prevents its two passionate lovers from realizing their happiness.
The contrast between Le Cid and The Liar could not be more pronounced. The latter is a light comedy in which Dorante, a law student from Poitiers, comes to Paris and immediately decides to pose as a seasoned warrior in order to impress the ladies. A chance encounter with Lucrèce and Clarice causes him to fall in love with the latter, but, when told that the name of the more beautiful of the two is Lucrèce, he believes Lucrèce is the name of his new love. Throughout the play, Dorante makes up a series of storiesfirst to impress Clarice and later to avoid having to go through with a marriage arranged by his father. Ironically, the intended bride is Clarice, but, because Dorante remains under the impression that the object of his affection is named Lucrèce, he schemes to avoid the union.
As he becomes more enmeshed in a web of falsehoods, Dorante is constantly reminded by his valet Cliton that he will eventually be found out and will suffer for having misled so many people. In the denouement, however, when Clarice and Lucrèce meet Dorante and confront him about his lying, the hero engages in a deft bit of verbal legerdemain: He declares his willingness to marry Lucrèce, who is actually a better match for him.
The Liar is very different from Le Cid in theme and in its representation of individual character: This is a play about self-preservation and self-advancement. If the hero and heroine of El Cid remind one of Oedipus and Antigone, Dorante calls to mind William Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a master of self-preservation and a braggart who seems to bounce back from temporary setbacks. In The Liar, Corneille explores the relationship between illusion and reality in seventeenth century society, where appearance was all-important; people in this drama define their self-worth by what others think of them. The play also addresses a theme that has great appeal to modern audiences: the idea that one can reinvent oneself, especially if one moves physically to another locale where one is unknown.
Some twenty-first century readers or playgoers might be annoyed or even outraged by the apparent moral tone of The Liar. Throughout most of the play, Dorante gets away with his lies. When he is eventually caught, he manages to extricate himself from his predicament by casually abandoning his original choice of a lover and agreeing to marry a girl who is both more attractive and better connected socially. Others will recognize, as Corneille’s original audience probably did, that Dorante is portayed as someone to be laughed at throughout, and they will be satisfied that he is not ostracized from his new social circle at the play’s end.
The original English translation of Le Cid was commissioned by Corneille himself, along with translations into other European languages. Over the last three centuries, numerous new renderings into English have been produced, including several in the twentieth century. The same can be said to a lesser extent about The Liar. Wilbur’s translations may be the first, however, in which the translator’s own poetic genius is evident throughout. As a consequence, he is able to capture the spirit of Corneille’s originals.
For Le Cid, Wilbur translates Corneille’s elevated French alexandrines into English heroic couplets, reminiscent of those in English Restoration plays such as John Dryden’s All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (pr. 1677, pb. 1678), which tells the story of the ill-fated affair of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. For The Liar, Wilbur also uses heroic couplets, but the tone of the drama mirrors the sprightly comedies of the English Restoration and the eighteenth century. In both cases, however, Wilbur modernizes the dialogue, avoiding the stilted phraseology that makes some theatergoers and readers uncomfortable with plays of earlier periods.
Corneille’s moral maxims and grand statements about love and honor lose little in translation. For example, when Chimène is misled into believing that Rodrigue has died in battle, she laments that the man who slew her father will now be glorified: “To die for king and country is no shame;/ by such a death one gains a deathless name.” When the king insists she marry Rodrigue, Chimène replies with a question that reveals both her medieval sensibility and a surprisingly modern complaint about women’s role in a patriarchal society:
If Rodrigue is now essential to the State,Must I, for salary, become his mate,And bear an endless guilt because the stainsUpon my hands are from my father’s veins?
By contrast, the combination of coquettishness and good sense in Clarice’s reply to Dorante’s father when he proposes to arrange for her to marry is aptly captured in Wilbur’s translation:
That he’s a son of yours, sir, is no meanAttraction, yet to wed him sight unseen,Though you assure me he’s extraordinary,Would show a strange anxiety to marry.
Numerous additional examples could be drawn from both plays to demonstrate further how adept Wilbur is in rendering both the content and sense of seventeenth century French into modern English. Readers fortunate enough to pick up a copy of“Le Cid” and “The Liar,” and audiences who get to see stage performances using these texts as their basis, are sure to find the experience most rewarding.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7
Booklist 105, no. 22 (August 1, 2009): 21.
Library Journal 134, no. 12 (July 1, 2009): 98.
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