By Lisa Larson
When one considers the plot of this year’s production of The Liar, it is positively Shakespearean in its farcical portrayal of lovers, liars, and mistaken identities. But this is one of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s productions that cannot be attributed to the Bard. Rather, The Liar is an updated version of the French play Le Menteur—originally written by Pierre Corneille and adapted by David Ives.
The French version first hit the stage in 1644. More than 300 years later it came to light in the modern era when it was produced in 1990 based on a translation by Ranjit Bolt. However, it was David Ives who was handed the project in early 2000s, bringing this well-kept French secret into the light of modern theatre by translating and adapting The Liar for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
While the main plot points are courtesy of Corneille, the translation is so thoroughly updated that Ives gets much of the credit for the production that will be gracing the Utah Shakespeare Festival stage this fall.
“I took a lot of Corneille, I took the fundamental structure of the play, but I embellished here and there, I cut when I needed to. I added things,” Ives said in an interview with National Public Radio in 2010. One of those additions is an “entirely new ending” since the original ends in what seems to be “typical French fashion,” Ives said with a laugh.
Although Ives says he was unfamiliar with the play when he was asked to adapt it, he was immediately struck by the “rippling purity of the language.”
“I could just feel this sort of silvery language,” Ives says. He did his best to stay true to the poetic nature of the writing throughout the adaptation and translation.
Being handed an entire package including a well-written plot and delightful comic turns was a real boon for Ives as he began the process. “All I had to do was . . . increase the comic turns,” he said.
One of Ives’s additions is the manservant to the lead character Dorante. While Dorante suffers from a seemingly insatiable desire to avoid telling the truth, his servant, Cliton, has the opposite problem and simply cannot tell a lie. It is from this basic premise that a wellspring of fine-tuned comedy and glittering romance emerges to delight audiences on numerous levels.
Born in 1950, Ives wrote his first play when he was just ten years old. However, it wasn’t until he was seventeen that he had a “life-changing” moment while watching A Delicate Balance at Chicago’s Studebaker Theatre that compelled him into a life of writing for the theatre. Since that time he has earned a name for himself by writing his evening of one-acts, collected as All in the Timing and Time Flies. His resume also includes dramatic works, narrative stories, screenplays, and the adaptation of more than thirty musicals. His list of full-length plays includes Polish Joke, Ancient History, Don Juan in Chicago, and more.
Ives’s experience and passion for theatre has led him to write the following as part of an article for Zoetrope Magazine November 2000 issue: “If you want to work in the art form that most profoundly sets up a glass to human life, then the theatre is for you. After all, the world doesn’t present itself to us in printed words, or pigment on canvas, or sculpted marble or bronze, or dancers moving to music or fixed two-dimensionally on looping celluloid, but as human bodies, moving three-dimensionally in space and real time, talking to each other or to us or to themselves, working something out to the music of the human voice.”
Ives’s contribution to this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival is an example of what he calls, “translaptating”—combining the words of translation and adaptation. He doesn’t delineate much between “original” work and “translaptation,” particularly with something like The Liar, because, as Ives says, Corneille adapted his “original” version from the work of a Spanish piece. And even Shakespeare, Ives says, was “translaptating” people in the vast majority of his plays.
Regardless of how one chooses to define it, Ives says ultimately his work is something that brings him pleasure; if not, he abandons it immediately. Audiences who choose to take part in this season’s The Liar will be grateful Ives had pleasure in translaptating it — for their own enjoyment.
Although he is often known as the father of French tragedy, Corneille’s Le Menteur is among his comedic contributions as a playwright in the seventeenth century. He is considered one of the great French dramatists, along with contemporaries Moliere and Racine.
After writing his first play at age twenty—an elegant and witty comedy drawing upon his personal love experience—he moved on to generate some thirty plays, including Le Cid, Pompee, Atilla, and more.
Prior to his work as a playwright, Corneille completed his education and law studies and became a lawyer in 1624. He discharged legal duties as the king’s advocate in Rouen, France. But his true passion was literature. It was sometime between 1625 and 1629 that he wrote Melite, which became a great success in Paris.
Arguably one of Corneille’s most well-known pieces is The Cid, as it came to be known. It is positioned as a landmark in dramatic history. Author Martha Fletcher Bellinger referenced it as a play that “contrived to produce a tragedy which, in the depth of passion, poetic fervor and vigor, far surpassed anything that had been seen on the Parisian stage.” Just as Corneille’s “Le Cid” is an important tragedy, Le Menteur (The Liar) is known as an important first comedy.
His success as a playwright became less consistent in the latter part of his life, and he spent much time trying one method and then another to generate a comeback. Ultimately, he became embittered by the process, according to his biography on YouDictionary.com His final play, Surena, in 1674 was a skillful imitation of the playwright Racine, whose work began to eclipse his own. He lived ten more years, but wrote nothing more for theatre.
For Ives, the opportunity to revive the work of this important playwright, is a way of paying homage. And Ives says he believes Corneille would be glad to have his work brought into a modern age. Audiences at this fall’s Utah Shakespeare Festival will undoubtedly agree.