5 Questions with Robert Caisley

By October 21, 2016 Tartuffe No Comments

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Have you had any prior experience with this play?

You can’t be a playwright (at least not a comedy writer) without an acute awareness of Moliere’s contribution to the field of dramatic literature. There are so many standard comedic set-ups that first make their appearance in one of his plays.

My first experience with Moliere: I was probably 18 or 19 years old when I was cast in drama school in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, playing one of the servant roles (they all seem to have the same name!) Two things remain vivid in my recollection: during one performance, I tried to exit the stage and the doorknob fell off in my hand, essentially trapping me onstage. That was when I first learned the art of ad-libbing. The second memory, is that the words and the comic situation was just so delicious. I’ve long had an interest in 17th and 18th century drama. I think Comedy of Manners is one of the most exquisite enjoyable forms of drama—and I see it traced in a direct line from Moliere to Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward and up to the present.

I directed a production of Tartuffe in 2008.  It also helps that I teach dramatic literature at the University of Idaho, and Tartuffe is a standard fixture of the curriculum, like Hamlet, A Doll’s House and The Cherry Orchard. So when Stephanie asked me to work on a new adaptation, my enthusiasm for the project was predicated upon the fact that I felt I was in fairly familiar territory. Having said all that, of course, the greatest limitation you can have as a translator or adapter of any play, are the many other translations and adaptations that you’re familiar with. So the actually writing phase, is one of erasing your own memory and trying to find a vocabulary that fits the given circumstances of the scene.

 

What specific challenges did you face adapting a play written in 1664 France to present day America?

The first question facing the translator or adapter of Moliere’s plays is one’s approach to prosody—the intonation, tone, stress and rhythm of the language employed. Moliere wrote his verse plays in the popular poetic form of the day—the Alexandrine, a line of 12 syllables. But this metrical form, particular if it comes relentlessly in rhyming couplets, can prove a painfully monotonous experience to the English-speaking ear. Not to mention how a translator has to awkwardly shoehorn words into a meter to fit the rhyme scheme rather than the meaning of the line. So when approached by American Stage’s Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte to write a contemporary reworking of this classic 17th century play, I was quite relieved when the mandate given to me was (and this is not a quote, per se, but the notes I jotted down on the hotel notepad during my first phone call with Stephanie): “Above all, a text that preserves the intentions of the plays and the play’s characters; a text that is funny; easily understood by the audience; dialogue enjoyable for the actors to say; and … in prose.”

 

What are some of the parallels and differences between Moliere’s world/characters & this present day version?

The word Progress always makes me smile. We like to think that we have evolved as a species, that all the problems of the past are resolved with the progression of time and the advance of science and technology. But human beings, especially in the ways we interact with one another on a personal, are essentially unchanged. We’re as neurotic today as we were 300 years ago; we agonize over the same petty issues; we are possessed of the same insecurities. So the similarities that a contemporary audience shares with these 17th century characters are greater than the differences. While working on the script I was struck by how often something penned in 1664 could feel like it was winking so cleverly at current events. Moliere is an incredibly modern writer.

 

What are some of the major themes presented in TARTUFFE?

The obvious answer is religious hypocrisy. But the play is actually less about religion and more about ambition (economic, sexual, and in our case political), loyalty and family. Moliere was trained as an actor, and so he knew how to enthrall and win and audience over. But he was, like all great dramatists, also an acute observer of human behavior, and a serious critic of what can corrupt a society. The play is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you suspend your critical judgement and allow yourself to be taken in by someone who is clearly acting in their own best interests, while paying lip service to what everyone around them wants to hear.

 

What are you hoping audiences will get out of this new adaptation of TARTUFFE?

Well, first and foremost, and evening of buoyant entertainment—one in which we can laugh at ourselves and the lunacy of our current political landscape, regardless of which side of the politics you’re on.