Translating Tartuffe

In March, theatregoers at Sarah Lawrence’s Suzanne Werner Wright Theatre will see OBIE Award-winning playwright Amlin Gray’s recent translation and new ending to Moliere’s masterpiece, Tartuffe. Like Moliere’s original, Gray’s translation is written in rhyming verse.

Historians have long pondered the ending of Moliere’s classic comedy, which was censored for several years by King Louis XIV after its controversial premiere in 1664.

“Amlin has reconstructed what he thinks might have been in the original text,” says John Dillon, director of the Sarah Lawrence theatre program. “What we are trying to create is a possible scenario before the church censorship occurred. This production both honors the masterpiece and attempts to create something that no American audience has ever seen.”

“It’s highly speculative, very presumptuous, and great fun,” says Gray, a member of the College faculty. “It will be interesting. And I want to warn people that I’m going to take liberties.”

Some historians believe Moliere rewrote the ending to please the King, who had bowed to criticism from powerful clerics in Paris and the city’s upper crust. After a three-year hiatus, the play was presented only once in 1667, ordered shut down, and then presented again in 1669. It is the 1669 version, which was expanded to five acts, that has stood the test of time.

The play, running March 4–6, will be performed by Sarah Lawrence students and directed by Dillon, who says he looks forward to presenting Gray’s adaptation. Scholars have long wondered how Moliere’s earlier version differed from the published play that has survived for more than three centuries. No copies of the three-act 1664 version, performed in Versailles, have ever surfaced.

The play focuses on the action of Tartuffe, a man of great religious zeal who turns out to be a scheming hypocrite. He ingratiates himself with a wealthy family man named Orgon, played by Moliere in the 17th century. Orgon is taken in by Tartuffe’s words, and plans to force his daughter to marry him. While Orgon’s friends warn him about Tartuffe, he ignores their pleas. Not until Tartuffe is caught seducing Orgon’s wife does he becomes aware of Tartuffe’s true character. Tartuffe attempts to seize Orgon’s property, and have him arrested.

The published play ends through the intervention of the King. In the final act, one of his messengers arrives to tell of the omniscience of the king, who sees into the hearts of his subjects. He knows Orgon is a good guy, and Tartuffe a con-man who is then arrested for his crimes.

“I’ve adored the play whenever I’d read it, but when it goes into the fifth act, it’s not about anything that the play is about,” Gray says. “It’s straight melodrama and it’s brilliantly effective. But I just don’t think that ending is part of Moliere’s original intent.”

Gray, who has translated plays from Greek, Spanish, and German, says this is the first play he has translated from French. He won an OBIE in 1981 for his play, How I Got That Story, which was set in Vietnam.

Amlin Gray’s Tartuffe will be presented Thursday and Saturday, March 4 and 6 at 7:30 p.m., and on Friday, March 5 at 8:30 p.m. The play is free and open to the public. Call (914) 395-2412 to reserve seats.

—David McKay Wilson

Originally published in the spring issue of InTouch