Un Monstre étrange

To translate a play by Corneille (1606-84), one of the “big three” dramatists (along with Racine and Molière) of the classical period in France, is to challenge most trends of contemporary American taste, starting with the reigning, and deplorable, standards of behavior and language.  Corneille’s plays are in rhymed alexandrine couplets; the diction is elevated and marked by classical rhetorical devices, including parallelism, metonymy, periphrasis, litotes, and chiasmus; the range of social types is limited; les bienséances (proprieties, dictating what may be shown and said) are normally respected; the three unities of time, place, and action ordinarily pose restrictions on plot; and dominant concerns often include honor, standing, and matters of state.  That L’Illusion comique departs from this model in significant ways does not make it, at first glance, less alien to current taste, which it challenges in some ways even more than a tightly knit tragedy such as Racine’s Phèdre.  Richard Wilbur, who has received Bollingen and PEN awards for previous translations and who, for his own poetry, won the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, deserves thanks, along with the publisher, for putting out this very artistic translation.  In recent years, several other renderings have appeared in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, including...

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