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The Liar: Seventeenth Century Fake News

The Liar: Seventeenth Century Fake News

By Lawrence D. Henley

With all of the current discussions concerning “fake news” and questionable truth in leadership, it’s fair to ask this question: is our society suffering from fatigue from all of these incessant discussions of verisimilitude? If your answer is “yes,” you’re probably not alone in your opinion. Fortunately, Corneille’s magnificent farce The Liar brings us a timely, first-rate comedy with renewed social relevance. The play focuses on the remarkable ability of Dorante, a pathological liar, to land on his feet despite his constant need to evade consequences stemming from the proliferation of his outrageous claims. Fans of the Utah Shakespeare Festival have contemporary scriptwriter David Ives (Venus in Fur) to thank for this zestful, updated translation of a French classical gem.

In The Liar, the title character is a compulsive teller of tall tales who believes he can employ his sharp, duplicitous wit and evasive wiles to achieve satisfactory outcomes. His unabashed fibbing generally, and sometimes unintentionally, has a mitigating effect. In his own mind, this serves as justification for his devious behavior. Put simply, “These lies are okay because I usually get away with them. Let the ends justify the means!” As Dorante redefines the concept of living on the edge, his far-flung assertions are so clearly and outrageously false that audiences have no alternative but to laugh at them. They’re too stunned to react otherwise! For those who don’t pick up on all of Dorante’s audacious falsehoods, they’re deftly pointed out by the witty Cliton, his servant and confidant.

Dorante’s lying is relentless throughout the majority of this play. Desperate to become a grandfather, his father, Geronte, wishes to see the young bachelor married as quickly as possible. Quietly, he makes covert plans for Dorante to marry the lovely and (ostensibly) eligible Clarice. Without knowledge of that arrangement, Dorante arrives in Paris and by accident meets Clarice, out on a walk with her “bestie” Lucrece. Instantly taken by Clarice’s beauty and charm, the law school dropout re-invents and represents himself to the ladies as a great military hero newly returned from the Germanic wars. There’s one small problem here for Dorante: he mistakes Clarice for the more bashful Lucrece, despite Cliton’s attempts to correct the mixup. There will be a significant price to pay for this error later on in the play.

Proceeding down this erroneous path, Dorante perpetuates the rampant fiction by concocting additional alternate realities. He enrages Clarice’s clandestine suitor, Alcippe, with his flippant description of a romantic boat ride taken with her at midnight, flaunting lavish food and drink served by virgins, fireworks, and accompanied by heavenly cathedral choirs. He then conjures up a fictitious duel in which his rapier “finishes off” Alcippe, leaving him “face down in gore.” Naturally, Alcippe immediately appears, disproving that crooked yarn. Best yet, in order to keep Geronte off of his back, Dorante invents a shotgun marriage to an imaginary wife (“Orphise”), and then doubles it down by inventing “her” pregnancy!

The false tales begin to snowball, and the resulting complications reign supreme. This begs an examination of Dorante’s modus operandi. Is he really so misguided? How does he justify all of his false assertions and incessant loud-mouthing? Here is a sampling of Dorante’s rationalizations:

     Cliton, the unimagined life’s not worth living.
     When someone’s got a juicy tale to dish,
     I have to add some sauce, re-spice the fish.
     A man starts spooning tales of sweet amour,
     I have to make that man my dupe du Jour

(David Ives, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille, The Liar [New York City: Dramatists Play Service, Inc.], 22).

     He further pontificates:
     “Let truth be told, but let your lies be sung!” (79).

While abundantly arrogant, these lines prove that there’s some method to Dorante’s madness. In the final analysis, will Dorante be the one schooled by thorny lessons delivered by the very people he attempts to hoodwink? Will the tables turn on The Liar?

It can be surmised that certain elements of Dorante’s character were modeled on the early life of the author. Born in 1606, Pierre Corneille was the first of the eminent seventeenth century triumvirate of French dramatists. Raised in the town of Rouen, Northern France, Corneille studied acting while at college, but his initial profession was the law. A mediocre attorney, he showed significantly greater enthusiasm for his avocation, writing for the stage. In The Liar, his lead character returns to Paris after abandoning law studies in provincial Poitiers.

During the reigns of Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV (a.k.a. “The Sun King”), France had become envious of the stunning litany of cultural achievements in neighboring England and Spain, most notably in literature and the arts. Not to be left in the dust, the French were competitively motivated to rise to the level of their geographic rivals. The prime mover for much of this effort was the famed Bourbon minister, Cardinal Richelieu, later immortalized as the villain of Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Not surprisingly, a number of Corneille’s plays were based on plots or ideas either proposed by Richelieu or adapted from Spanish playwrights such as Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderon, and Miguel de Cervantes. The Liar is generally considered to be a derivation of the plot from Vega’s Amar sin saber á quién.

Today, we hail Corneille as the “Father of French Tragedy,” a title that can be somewhat misleading. Actually, the majority of his early work favored comedy, in contrast with the more serious titles that are his legacy. Known mostly for epic tragic works such as Le Cid (1637) and Horace (1640), Corneille’s early plays were primarily lighter fare, such as his first, Melite (1629). The Liar (1643) is his comic masterpiece, a smashing success in its day. While less performed in later centuries than his tragedies and tragicomedies, Corneille’s works were a major influence on the writing of Jean Racine and Molière, the master of French comedy.

Corneille’s career in the theatre wasn’t without controversy. Richelieu and his governing French Academy mandated that plays written for the French Court should strictly adhere to the classical “unities” of time, place, and action, derived and descended from Aristotelian theory and ancient Greek and Roman drama. These principles dictated that every scene in a play should occur within a twenty-four-hour period and take place in the same general locality. Multiple and parallel plot lines were frowned upon. Corneille did not initially believe that the unities were essential, and his early works tended to bend the rules of the period. Eventually, he was “encouraged” to revise some of these plays to more closely adhere to the tenants required by the Académie Française. Ironically, Corneille later became a member of the governing body. 

Le Menteur, or The Liar, was written in poetic verse, derived from the classical format handed down from ancient Greek and Roman poets. The new David Ives translation deliciously employs the phrasing technique known as iambic pentameter. That format divides each line into five segments called “feet,” or “iambs.” This measurement is known as “scansion.” In pentameter form, speaking emphasis is placed on the second beat or syllable (da-DUH da-DUH da-DUH da-DUH da-DUH). As an example, here’s a snippet of dialogue between Dorante and Cliton:

     I’ve had adventures with the tender sex.
     There was my time with – let’s say, “Princess X.”
     That night at Cannes with her cockatoo…
     But you don’t want to hear.

     Oh, yes, I do! (11).

In addition to his delightful, lithe interpretation of Corneille’s text and rhythm, Ives’s translation tosses out frequent modern references, making this four-century old play more relatable to today’s audiences. The script often refers to historically misplaced words such as “Rastafarians,” “Chateau Laffite,” “schizo,” and the baseball reference “innings.”

The Liar employs other theatrical devices typically found in classical French comedy. Influenced by the travelling troupes of the commedia dell’arte, Corneille’s characters resemble several recognizable commedia personality types: the status obsessed father (Geronte); the mischievous zanni (Dorante); clever fixers and interloping servants (Cliton for Dorante and Isabelle/Sabine for Clarice/Lucrece); the jealous suitor (Alcippe); and the courting young lovers. Also used here is the device of mistaken identity, exacerbated by Dorante’s nominal failure to pursue the correct lover. This leads to a bevy of mistruths and mischief prior to Dorante’s “coming to Jesus” scene at the play’s end.

There can be little doubt that The Liar is a play that has withstood the test of time. Easily as funny today as it was when presented at the French Court in the seventeenth century, Corneille’s hilarious poke at the foibles of human fraudulence delights with its mellifluous verse, vivid characterization, and an emphatic lesson for those who ritually seek to transform the truth. Come see it. You’ll laugh your head off—and that’s no lie!