Poet's Translation Is a Tour De Farce; 17th-Century French Comedy Is Proving a 21st-Century UK Hit for Roger McGough. the Celebrated Writer Tells BARBARA HODGSON Why He Hasn't Had Time to Get Depressed Enough to Write Poetry

The Journal (Newcastle, England), September 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

Poet's Translation Is a Tour De Farce; 17th-Century French Comedy Is Proving a 21st-Century UK Hit for Roger McGough. the Celebrated Writer Tells BARBARA HODGSON Why He Hasn't Had Time to Get Depressed Enough to Write Poetry


WHEN Roger McGough was asked to take on Tartuffe - one of Molire's most famous plays - it's little wonder he hesitated.

The Liverpudlian performance poet wasn't just mindful of the scale of the task of translating the French playwright's rhyming couplets into equally funny English rhymes, but he recalled how he'd begun reading the text once and couldn't finish it.

The 74-year-old, dubbed Liverpool's poet laureate, tells how the play was a set text on the French course he studied as a university student.

"I didn't finish reading it and never ever saw a production," he tells me. "I found it hard work, to be honest.

"Having said that, something must have stuck in me - a reverence for Molire, even though I didn't understand it!" When he was asked to come up with a reworking of the play to mark his home city's winning of the Capital of Culture title in 2008, he decided: "OK, I'll have a go.

"And, once I started, I fell into it." The story revolves around Tartuffe (meaning hypocrite), Molire's seemingly pious imposter who cons merchant Orgon in his own household, lusting after his wife while the rest of the family try to expose him for what he is.

The humour of French farce appealed to McGough and he's enjoyed opening up the play to modern audiences.

"I started off thinking, I don't want to do this.

"I kept the Molire in French by my side to refer to and first did a precise translation, telling the story.

"I then checked other people's translations but not for too long, so I put them aside and let the characters speak, as it were, and I found I was able to give a voice to them."

The characters, such as the charlatan, the pompous mother, the housemaid and the pair of lovers, are all recognisable today, and McGough made different voices come alive from the page.

"Madame Pernelle (Orgon's mother) will say 'one' instead of 'I'; the maid speaks very fast and, with Tartuffe, I decided, for some reason, that he should not speak in verse but in leaden prose.

"That marks him out as different right away."

While wanting to be true to Molire, and not make it "Scouse", his colloquialisms and hilarious rhyming couplets (going for the surprising over the obvious) have struck a chord with theatre audiences, while also satisfying the purists.

"Scholars have told me it's close to the original and that I've done a good job, and that pleases me," says McGough.

"I enjoyed playing with the language.

"Dorine the maid, for instance, might say four lines in rhyme and I'd say that in my own way with four lines of different rhymes, making fun of it sometimes - like making 'faux pas' rhyme with 'imposter'.

He adds: "I've written plays before and stuff for the stage but have never quite pulled it off as I didn't have the dramatic sense and structure. …

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