(Michael Cronin’s articl appeared in the Irish Times, 12/20; Photo: Lady Gregory; the Irish Times.)
Molière became a mainstay of the early Abbey stage, but not all critics were impressed by French playwright’s characters speaking Hiberno-English
On January 15th, 1622 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was baptised in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. Four hundred years later the birth of the playwright, who later adopted the stage name Molière, is being celebrated by performances, exhibitions and academic conferences in his native France and around the world.
Molière, whose posthumous reputation has fared better internationally than that of his more classically oriented contemporaries, Racine and Corneille, has indeed become so famous in French that the language itself is often referred to as the ‘language of Molière’ just as English is dubbed the ‘language of Shakespeare.’ His creation of memorable stage types (the miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac); the inventiveness of his comic repartee; and his resolute aversion to all forms of social pretension and hypocrisy have ensured his enduring popularity centuries after the first performances of his works, where he often played the leading role.
The attractions of Molière were not lost on one of the major figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Lady Augusta Gregory. When the Abbey Theatre received its legal patent in 1904, one of the conditions was that it would confine its productions to contemporary Irish drama and European theatre classics. The idea was to not antagonise the owners of existing commercial theatres, who made their money from more standard fare.
As the Abbey sought out European dramatists who might fulfil its mandate, the choice fell on Molière, because, in the words of Gregory, ‘his affinities with folk drama have made [his plays] easier to our players.’ The Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte, with its repertoire of recognisable types, had strongly influenced Molière. This was mirrored in the folk drama favoured by Lady Gregory which drew on the recurring characters and story types of Irish folklore.