Pants on Fire
Betsy Mugavero (left) as Clarice and Katie Cunningham as Isabelle in The Liar
By Kathryn Neves
When we think of mistaken identities, identical twins, disguises, and all-around merriment, we may tend to think of William Shakespeare’s plays. But he wasn’t the only one to come up with gut-busting, confusing comedy. Starting September 14 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, you’ll get the chance to see The Liar: a hilarious French play by Pierre Corneille, with a new translation by David Ives.
As the title might suggest, the play focuses on a character who never tells the truth. Dorante, a cocky and charming young man new to town, uses his lying and manipulation to get whatever he wants— especially women. So when he first meets Lucrece and Clarice, he lies to impress them—and he lies to everyone else. And, of course, some of the funniest scenes in theatre result. But there’s one question that sticks out. Why is The Liar so funny? What makes it so interesting to audiences, from Corneille’s time to now?
No matter where you stand or what you believe, you’ve been lied to. Everyone has! Lying and exaggeration are not new to our times. For as long as people have existed, we have relied on our bluffs and our fibs to get us through our daily lives. For most people (I hope), the lies are simple: “No, you don’t look fat in that shirt.” “Yes, I will do the dishes.” These little white lies don’t usually hurt anyone. These are the kind of lies that we are used to: harmless and small.
So it seems it would be hard to relate to Dorante in The Liar. I mean, all of his lies are complex, outrageous, and even downright silly. It’s amazing. How can Dorante lie like this? How can anyone? It’s not realistic. And yet we keep watching, for centuries now! And when you think about it, it makes sense. We might not be anything like Dorante. Most of us never get the chance to lie like that. Maybe The Liar is so popular because it’s a way for us to see what it’s like to be a dirty rotten liar, and we can cheer for someone we should probably despise.
After all, who hasn’t ever been tempted to invent something, just for the bragging rights? Or who hasn’t wanted to lie to get out of an unpleasant situation? Maybe none of us lie like Dorante, but we sometimes wish we could.
Yet in the end, lies don’t work. They don’t win. Dorante might get away with his lies for a little while in this play: it’s amazing and crazy, but, for a while, the other characters believe his fibs. Clarice and Lucrece fall for him, and his father Geronte comes to believe that he has a daughter-in-law and a grandchild on the way. But by the time the curtain drops, Dorante’s lies don’t get him anywhere. In the end, it’s telling the truth that gets him the girl of his dreams and earns his father’s trust.
So is The Liar a morality play? Is it just a lesson in telling the truth and toeing the line? Or is the play a way that we as an audience can live vicariously through Dorante—a way for us to see what it’s like to be that outrageous? Who can truly say? But either way, The Liar is a wildly entertaining show that’ll have you in stitches. And who knows? Maybe Dorante will give you a few tips on how to get away that little lie you just have to tell.