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...
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