A Man for All Moliéres

A Man for All Moliéres A master at Molière, Brian Bedford returns to Broadway in the Roundabout Company's new production of Tartuffe
Brian Bedford
Brian Bedford

As one of the most prodigiously employed of classical actors, Brian Bedford has covered the waterfront in terms of major playwrights, but Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Moliére) occupies a sizable hunk of his gallery of characters — if not a whole wing.

The British-born, Canadian-based Bedford has always had an affinity for the seventeenth-century French satirist, and acting brilliantly on it has paid dividends: The author earned the actor a 1969 Drama Desk Award (for The Misanthrope), the 1971 Tony and Drama Desk Award (for The School for Wives) and a 1995 Tony bid (for The Molière Comedies, a combo of The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold ).

Bedford knows why he is moved so much to Molière — two words, and they both follow "Translated by": Richard Wilbur. "I think it was John Simon who said that in the translations of Molière, not only is Wilbur's contribution as great as the original dramatist's but he turns them into contemporary American plays. I'm paraphrasing, but this is what Richard does.

"Richard is to Molière what Julia Child is to introducing French cuisine into this country. Her influence has changed all our lives with regard to our appreciation of food. I wish other classical playwrights had their Wilbur. I wish Chekhov had. Occasionally we get a decent Chekhov translation, but usually we don't. Ibsen? Ibsen needs a Richard Wilbur."

Player and playwright are currently up to their old theatrical abracadabra in the new Roundabout go-around of Tartuffe — but not in the title role, as you might assume from their past productions. Tartuffe — the conniving charlatan who cons himself into the home and heart of a gullible merchant, Orgon, and promptly turns that household upside down — is one of Bedford's best, and most frequently played, cards, but it turns out to be one he'd happily forfeit for a fresher hand. In the dark edition reimagined by director Joe Dowling, he's reassigned head-of-the-house duties — playing trusting foil for Tartuffe's treachery — while retaining, thank you very much, top billing. "I haven't played this part before — that's one of the really nice things about this version," Bedford announces with a British chipperness that suggests a kid in a candy store. "I find — way too often now — I'm playing stuff I've played before. This is what happens when you get older! I've been wanting to play Orgon for a while now. In fact, the last production when I played Tartuffe at Stratford Ontario, the idea was I'd play Orgon and we'd get a younger actor to play Tartuffe. We offered the part to Toby Stephens - he comes from good stock [meaning Dame Maggie Smith, Bedford's Private Lives mate, and the late Robert Stephens] — but he, or his agent, decided he should pursue movies — and I ended up playing Tartuffe, yet again."

This time Tartuffe is played by Henry Goodman. The Olivier Award-winning Brit bowed here in the first replacement cast of Art and was circling for another opening (following Nathan Lane into The Producers) when he was unceremoniously sacked and sent back across The Pond. Tartuffe is proof that you can't keep a Goodman down, and Bedford is happy to return the serve.

"Orgon is the part that Molière himself played, and so I'm having a go at it. Whereas the motivation of Tartuffe is very clear, Orgon is an immensely complex character, very mysterious. That a late-middle-aged man with two children from his first marriage and a new young wife should become obsessed by another man is interesting to me. We are trying to go deep into it this time — not play it as anything like a farce.

"It's a very dark comedy anyway, just a breath away from tragedy. Molière was a great admirer of Racine and always wanted to write a tragedy but failed. Nobody remembers the names of his tragedies. They were written when he was young, and they flopped big-time in Paris. Then he went out into the provinces, came under the influence of the commedia dell'arte, took up that tradition and just ran with it, adapting it to his own genius, and suddenly it revealed him a magnificent writer."

If there is a contemporary playwright that commands as much of Bedford's time, art and energy as Molière, it would be his friend Peter Shaffer, for whom he has played Equus, Amadeus, The Private Ear and The Public Eye. Indeed, he made his Broadway bow in 1959 as a fictional facsimile of Shaffer in the autobiographical Five Finger Exercise.

"When I came to the States, I had this feeling that I was coming home, for the first time," Bedford recalls. "I knew that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, but I also had this instinctive desire, an inherited desire, to have an English actor's career. I wanted to be in the classics. If I'd stayed in England, I'd be at the National Theatre or the RSC. I wanted that to happen in the States, and I've been lucky. I don't know how I've done it, but I've managed to do that — in an itinerant sort of way.

"I've played all these parts and directed all these plays in all these different places. Stratford Ontario has really changed my life. I've done over 20 seasons there. I have a house there, and I have a house in New York, too. And I've spent time in California. Chicago is a new place of mine — the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I love working at the Mark Taper in L.A. What's terrible is that there is no national theatre here.

"But what's wonderful, in point of fact, is that there really is a national theatre here, and it's spread out all over the country. It's Todd [Haimes]'s Roundabout, it's Lincoln Center, it's Jack O'Brien's Old Globe in San Diego, it's Gordon [Davidson]'s theatre in L.A., and Michael Kahn's theatre down in Washington. If these little duchies would get together, it would be a wonderful organization — like Stratford Ontario — where the country can say, 'This is our best.' We would have a magnificent example of our best theatre."