What do Molière and Kansas City have in common? On the surface, not much. But by combining celebrations of the French playwright’s 400th birthday and the State of Missouri’s bicentennial, organisers of a festival commemorating Molière's birth are hoping to revive classical theatre, and to show a new generation that Molière still resonates today.
“It's something about the way everything clicks together and the recognition of human foibles. We can see that 400 years ago people were just as stupid as they are today,” says Felicia Londré, a retired theatre professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Kansas City was founded as a fur trading post in late 1821 by members of the Chouteau family, which had founded the city of St Louis some 60 years earlier.
And while there is no proof by that the Chouteaus in Kansas City read Molière, they were literate, according to Londré, and it is possible they had copies of his plays in their library.
Today, in a city whose French roots are two centuries old, Londré was hoping to use the anniversary of Molière’s birth to encourage performances of the classics.
“Kansas City is a great theatre city, but it’s almost exclusively new plays. There is less interest in the classics. Celebrating Molière was partly a way of bringing back the classics and showing that they're relatable,” she says
Over the past few theatre seasons, throughout the pandemic, the festival has been encouraging theatre companies - professional and amateur – to put on performances of Molière’s work.
One was of Les Fâcheux, in a translation by Londré herself, who realised there was no English version of Moliere’s first ballet-comedy performed for Louis XIV in 1661.
Though she had translated plays from French into English, taking on Molière was daunting, especially in the shadow of Richard Wilbur, the poet who translated much of the playwright’s oeuvre into English, using rhyming couplets that respect the original rhythms.
Londré’s translation, The Pests, is in rhymed couplets, and she took creative liberties with the original text, shortening some of the speeches to accommodate “American attention spans”.
The play was well received, because Molière works for American audiences, she says: "The physical and the verbal work together so beautifully. Americans love rhymed couplets, Americans get a giggle out of a clever rhyme, so that's part of the fun."