Poet Richard Wilbur's a Translator's Tale: 50-Plus-Year Relationship with Moliere Is One of the Theatre's Great Love Affairs

By Gioia, Dana | American Theatre, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Poet Richard Wilbur's a Translator's Tale: 50-Plus-Year Relationship with Moliere Is One of the Theatre's Great Love Affairs


Gioia, Dana, American Theatre


NO MAJOR AMERICAN POET TODAY HAS HAD a longer or closer relationship with theatre than Richard Wilbur. He has been active in the field for six decades--ever since his translation of Moliere's The Misanthrope opened in 1955 at the legendary Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. But Wilbur's sustained and prolific involvement in theatre has been unusual. He has not written plays, not even verse drama. All of Wilbur's theatrical works, with the notable exception of lyrics for one Broadway musical--Leonard Bernstein's Candide--have been translations of classical French theatre, especially the comedies of Moliere.

The son of a painter, Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921 but was raised in rural New Jersey. He attended Amherst, where he chaired the college newspaper--an activity that seems typical for a future writer--but he also spent two summers riding the rails as a hobo in Depression-era America. Graduating in 1942 as America entered World War II, Wilbur his married his college sweetheart Charlotte Ward and joined the U.S. Army. He initially trained as a cryptographer, but his leftist associations led the Army to transfer him to infantry. For the next three years he experienced some of the war's most brutal combat, from the Allied landing on the beaches of Italy to the final push into Germany. He often read in the lulls between battles and once even wrote a poem in a foxhole.

After the war Wilbur started graduate school at Harvard, where he became friends with Robert Frost. He had written poems since childhood, but the aspiring scholar now began working on them seriously. His literary success was almost immediate. He was from the first a natural poet with a distinctive and powerful personal style. With the publication of his first two books, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony (1950), Wilbur was recognized as one of the finest poets of his generation, a judgment that has never been seriously challenged. Even his occasional detractors recognize his abundant talent; their complaint is only that he has not been sufficiently ambitious in exploring it. His champions have no hesitation in acclaiming him one of the major American poets of his age.

Awards came early in his career and have never stopped. Wilbur is the only living American poet to have won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He has also been awarded both the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize, and he served as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Wilbur's work is elegantly formal and deeply intelligent--two literary qualities that in a lesser talent might undercut the poetry's emotional immediacy or lyric force. But Wilbur's language is so fresh and sensuously alive that his poems never seem stiff or preordained. He has the lyric poet's irreplaceable gift of bringing the reader directly into an experience in all its heady complexity. While Wilbur is alert to the dark side of human existence, he is more receptive to the brighter emotions of compassion, love and joy. Few American poets since Walt Whitman have offered such compelling optimism.

Wilbur's involvement with the theatre began in 1952 when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to write an original verse drama. Working on his own plays, he despaired. "They didn't come off," he later admitted. "They were very bad, extremely wooden." To learn the craft of verse drama, Wilbur decided to translate an acknowledged masterpiece of the genre, The Misanthrope by Jean what would eventually grow into a major part of his life's work as well as one of the great translation projects in American literature.

Over the next 40 years Wilbur would produce lively, sophisticated and eminently stageworthy versions of Moliere's verse comedies--The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971), The Learned Ladies (1978), The School for Husbands (1992), Sganarelle or The Imaginary Cuckold (1993), Amphitryon (1995), Don Fuan (1998), The Bungler (2000) and Lovers' Quarrels (2005). …

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