The Death of the Text

In Justin Fleming’s new translation of Molière’s The School for Wives, commissioned by Bell Shakespeare, “trifecta” rhymes with “suspect her” and the biggest laughs come from non-Molière lines like “size is everything”, “still dream of your pussy”, “sandwich short of a picnic”, “you are a dickhead”, “my little piranha fish”, and “Horace must be huge”. Audiences enjoy it and the Australian’s review praised Fleming’s renovations, noting “the surge of vitality his touches of Australian vernacular bring to this classic”. The writer was indirectly drawing attention to the fact that it is the tacky additions which generate the most laughs. The same critic also suggested, “If Bell Shakespeare similarly unleashed Fleming on one of the Bard’s plays, would it lead to cries of horror or audacious new insights? Either way, the risk might be worth it.” While waiting for that to happen she may have enjoyed the insights of a Queen Lear in Melbourne or a 100-minute Hamlet in Sydney with a phone-hacking Polonius. There were no cries of horror, for these are now almost the only ways of seeing “classic” theatre on Australian stages. There is enthusiasm for these stagings in our subsidised theatres and amongst theatregoers who have never read or seen “real” productions and enjoy the tarted-up plays and the rewritten texts they are being offered.

The School for Wives is billed as a translation. In a program note Fleming notes that most French translates directly into English. He also says that he first did a line-by-line translation then sought “to find the rhythm and rhyme which sits comfortably with contemporary Australian English, while keeping the sense of the original”. The Australian critic described it as a “masterpiece of translation” and at least one other reviewer seemed to actually believe that they were seeing a faithful translation of Molière. The following example (the Fleming text is taken from the Bell Shakespeare “Online Learning Pack” for schools) illustrates his technique. Fleming’s lines are from a speech by the Notary and those of Molière are, I think, the ones being translated. For comparison the original Molière is followed by a translation by the American poet Richard Wilbur—who aimed for “thought-for-thought fidelity”:


Pourquoi hausser le dos? Est-ce qu’on parle en fat,

Et que l’on ne sait pas les formes d’un contrat?

Qui me les apprendra? Personne, je présume.


Why shrug your shoulders? Am I talking rot?

Do I know contracts, Sir, or do I not?

Who could instruct me? Who would be so bold?


I see you’re a little confused. Your eyes appear somewhat glazed.

Oh, I know this kind of jargon can leave the layman fazed.

When I was at college, they used to teach it all in Latin,

A language which, sadly, I was an absolute twat in.

The differences between what Molière wrote and what his translator has produced are so great that it is impossible to compare other examples of the translation against the original without knowing where they are supposed to have come from. This, spoken by the manservant Alan in Fleming’s translation, illustrates the problem: 

A woman is like a Pizza Supreme that another bloke is looking at.

She’s part Prawn, Bacon and Feta, part Satay Veg, part Pepperoni,

She’s Meatlovers’ Special and Chicken Monaco, though in his case, she’s Create-Your-Own-i.

But if another man steals the tiniest bite, if it’s just half an olive he’s got,

The jealous man becomes a Fire Breather, ’cause he thinks he’ll eat The Lot.

In 1967 Roland Barthes wrote an influential essay called “The Death of the Author”, which suggested critical focus should be on texts, not their authors. Justin Fleming’s much praised treatment of Molière’s play (look for it in next year’s Helpmann Awards) indicates it’s time to prepare obituary notices for the death of the text.

What Bell Shakespeare calls The School for Wives has been deported from its provincial French town setting in the seventeenth century and moved to 1920s Paris. Well, the program says so, a big slide onstage says so, but nothing that happens on the stage or comes out of the actors’ mouths seems to have the least relevance to either Paris or the 1920s. Instead it’s the familiar land of 1960s Bell Shakespeare burlesque.

When the play begins there on one side is a piano, and Mark Jones the pianist and sometimes sound-effect maker. Centre stage there is a screen, with a silent-film-style title telling us we are in Paris somewhere in the 1920s. When this disappears we find the setting for the first scene. There is a seated goggled chauffeur, Andrew Johnston, holding a steering wheel and staring wildly out at us through a big old-fashioned rectangular windscreen which hangs before him with a big rubber-balled car horn in easy, noisy, reach. Standing behind are his jovial champagne-drinking passengers, John Adam as Arnold (Molière knew him as Arnolphe) and Damian Richardson as his friend Chris (aka Chrysalde). Behind them a film screen shows the passing landscape in flickering black and white. With the chauffeur wild-eyed and grimacing it’s Mr Toad on a wild ride through the Bois de Boulogne. As the car brakes, avoids collisions and plunges along its route the passengers twist and turn as they talk high-spiritedly while clutching glasses and a bottle. Chris mimes winding down his window and Alexandra Aldrich, who plays a servant and also acts as scene and prop changer, reaches in and unfurls his long, long white scarf and then stands shaking it as though it is flying in the wind—so it’s therefore probably before Isadora died in 1927. For the audience this is a lively and amusing beginning, but as we laugh many of Fleming’s words, and Chris’s discussion of cuckolds, are blown in the wind.

In Molière’s play Arnolphe and Chrysalde are talking in the square of a provincial town. Arnolphe is planning to marry. The two men talk of women and marriage and fidelity. Arnolphe is to marry Agnès, a young girl whose ward she has been since she was four and who now, thirteen years later, and after he has deliberately educated her to be simple, he plans to marry. There is a longish discussion of marital unfaithfulness and the women who cause it.

Lee Lewis’s direction offers audience-pleasing and lively stage pictures at the expense of the text, and the playing. In this scene the two most important actors, who are setting out the dramatic situation, are nailed to the floor and are physically responding to prompts that have nothing to do with the text. The two men are imprisoned in the pretend car. We laugh at their reactions as they are thrown about but the use of their bodies in movement around the stage and the gestures that should accompany their speeches, and even their facial expressions, are not being used to develop the text but are mainly being dictated by their wild ride, which is director decoration and has nothing to do with the play. We are further amused and distracted by the irrelevancies of the grimacing, wheel-hugging chauffeur and the waving scarf. Given a freer staging the actors would discover in Molière’s words their clues for the playing of the scene, but the Bell method of adding pointless sight gags, and using rewritten texts, is rigid and tone deaf to the voices of classical drama.

Lewis says her production is “a new work by a great Australian writer [Justin Fleming] and a classic play all rolled into theatre adventure”. Praising Molière for his “caustic wit, the cruel eye for the details of human vanity, the perception to skewer the pretensions of the aspirational classes of his time, of our greatest comedians”, she says he reminds her of Ricky Gervais. And then they change his words! Though you do wonder if she has read any non-Fleming Molière.

In the second scene of the play Arnolphe knocks at the door of his house and yells at his servants to open. Words volley backwards and forwards as they answer him and argue between themselves over who should open it. It’s funny to read. In this production the scene-one car disappears and the framework of screens which are standing centre stage are arranged so that we see both sides of the door. As Arnold knocks on one side, on the other the two servants, the versatile Alexandra Aldrich and Andrew Johnston, appear wound about each other on a double bed. For no dramatic or textual reason they have funny Spanish accents and they play as Mr and Mrs Manuel from Fawlty Towers. We have already been told that they have been chosen to look after Agnès and keep her ignorant of sexual matters because they are just as naive as she. The bonking duo is another bit of added slap and tickle, funny business that comes from the director and has nothing to do with Molière’s play and everything to do with the Bell house style of play production.

Another simple scene, again redecorated by the director, is a conversation between Arnold and Chris. All they are doing is talking. To stop the audience getting bored, more Bell fun is introduced. Setting her scene, Lewis produces a sign saying “Café” and some tall tables. As the two men talk, a waiter, Jonathan Elsom, comes in and does a genuinely funny routine of serving or not serving them. It’s a scene-stealing moment. Elsom assumes the face of Charles de Gaulle and Fernandel squashed into one. He completely takes our attention. He gets a photo for this in the program but the part does not even receive a mention among his roles—which is a pity. What is wrong is that his performance takes our attention away from the conversation between the two men. Unless those who are staging the play discover the joy and humour within the text, and not in the bits they add on, the work is not worth presenting.

This production lacks the inner logic which should link the director’s inventiveness to the text. There are silent-film trappings which don’t make any sense. Arnold drinks a lot, and there is a lot of business of glasses being filled, but he doesn’t seem to be a drunk and there seems no point except it’s visually amusing for it brings other players on stage to do funny business.

Lewis’s direction is heavy-handed in places where it should be light or even unnecessary. Late in the play as Arnold’s plans are coming unstuck he appears in dirty clothes so that we can see things are going badly. As soon as we see his clothes in disarray we get the idea, but it should be the actor showing us this, not his dirty shirt. 

As Arnold, John Adam is onstage almost for the entire performance. He is an accomplished actor but unfortunately his Arnold goes in only two directions. At first he is assured and somewhat pompous, and then when his plans begin to unravel he becomes unsure and disconsolate. At times he, and others in the cast, are prisoners of the poetry, and give a rhyme-bound delivery. The bright and brassy Bell Shakespeare method of acting is all on the surface. This is a serious play, this is a serious comedy. At some points when he makes remarks critical of women Arnold talks directly into the auditorium. Get it?, says the director, The play is called School for Wives and this is what it’s about. That it could be about more than that fails to get as far as the stalls.

As Agnès, Harriet Dyer is at times uncertain how her character should be represented. What has really happened to her at school? There are moments where she walks clumsily as though her dumbing-down education has also physically retarded her, and times when she appears as a young sophisticate.

As the young lover Horace, Meyne Wyatt, who enters on his bicycle wearing a cap, brown suit and open-necked white shirt, resembles someone who has just cycled in from a hip-hop production of The Sentimental Bloke. He has a funny gesture with extended arm and cocked hand which he uses over and over so that it becomes a pointless actor’s affectation. When he is called on to leave Arnold onstage and then return and then repeat the action he does so on his bicycle—which is the only reason why the two-wheel transport was involved. The bike is a visual joke. As in other Bell Shakespeare productions, roles are stripped of their complexity. His performance, and especially his speaking of the verse, reduces the complexity of the role which could or should move from the representation of an opportunistic show-off flirtation to a deeper level of love. In this comic-book production this may not be important, but in a mature production it could be essential. That real love exists between the two seems highly unlikely.

Actually, Horace’s bicycle may be more typical of Parisian life during the occupation than the 1920s. Maybe Bell would like a new production of School for Wives? I see it with a big black, white and red swastika hanging at the back. Arnold could be a collaborator—and the set could have lots of photos of Pétain. Chris could be an SS officer in smart black uniform—sorry, no scarf. Horace could be a crashed Free French flyer hiding from the Nazis when he sees Agnès. The two funny servants could be Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf (just a thought). At the end when Agnès’s father reappears at the time of liberation it turns out that he was Jewish and had fled France with the coming of the Germans, and the nuns had actually been sheltering young Agnès for him. Then a great bit at the end when the swastika turns into a huge tricolour flag and the cast gather round the old Bell piano as Arnold does a rap version of “La Marseillaise” (translation by Justin Fleming?) and, of course, cut all those wordy bits about marriage and faithfulness. Maybe, if he’s free, Jonathan Elsom could do a cameo as de Gaulle.

As the two servants, and scene changers, Alexandra Aldrich and Andrew Johnston are funny and lively and very Fawlty Towers—which is either a scream or woeful and wasted misdirection. Audiences love them, and both actors have seriously good comic talents. 

Bell Shakespeare is active in introducing theatre and actors to schools. A nice review on the company website praises the production as a “masterpiece” (another one) and it will introduce many to this very strange faux Molière. Arnold talks to his servants about Horace and rehearses their reactions should the young man try to get them to allow him contact with Agnès. In Richard Wilbur’s translation, Georgette’s supposed responses to Horace range from “Fathead!”, and “You’re crazy!”, to “Out of my sight!” In the Fleming translation she says, in ringing Fawlty Spanish tones, “May your ears turn to arseholes and shit on your shoulders.” The Bell audience laughs, the critics approve. If you want to see classic theatre in Australia in 2012 this is how it is served in our professional theatres.

What is wrong will not be corrected by adding ruffles and feathered hats and foppish hand-waving to Molière, or playing Shakespeare in tights. It is a matter of respecting the text, and the period in which it was written. When the canon fires back, there is enormous room to move for creativity within the classical repertoire. There are several French filmed versions of L’École des femmes. Amongst them you will find Michel Galabru as a spluttering comic Arnolphe or Pierre Arditi discovering both humour and tragedy in the role. This is an adult world of theatre, a world away from Bell Shakespeare presentations.

Perhaps the future lies with readers. In Alan Bennett’s marvellous little novel The Uncommon Reader HM the Queen is the main character. At one point she sits down with her private secretary and points out to him the difference between a briefing paper and reading: 

Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.

Bell Shakespeare is affected, ritualistic, and stuck in a rut. Until a new theatre turns up, the way forward for the classics may not be in the hands of theatre practitioners but in the eyes and dreams of readers.

The School for Wives played at the Theatre Royal, Hobart, from August 29 to September 1, and is touring nationally until November 24.

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