Playwright Adapts French Play 'The Liar'

Robert Siegel talks to David Ives about his English adaptation of the French play The Liar. The play is about a man who can never tell the truth. Ives has not only translated it, but has added modern concepts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

"The Liar" is a very funny comedy that's being presented by the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. It's the story of a young man named Dorante, who's a kind of George Washington in reverse: He cannot tell the truth.

(Soundbite of play, "The Liar")

Mr. ADAM GREEN (Actor): (as Cliton) You speak Chinese?

Mr. CHRISTIAN CONN (Actor): (as Dorante) Quite fluently, in fact. I speak 10 tongues: Kashmiri, Syriac, Algonquin, Hebrew, High Bulgarian, Pampango(ph), Polish, Rastafarian and Volopuke(ph) - not always flawless - syntax, jing-jong(ph).

Mr. GREEN: Jing-jong? You need 10 tongues, an onion and an ax the way that you make minced meat of the facts then dish them out to folks like truth tartar.

SIEGEL: That's Christian Conn as Dorante and Adam Green as his manservant Cliton. Dorante arrives in Paris where his father is trying to find him a bride. He falls for a Parisian woman, woos her, thinking that she is not who she is but her best friend, and the two women - played by Erin Partin and Miriam Silverman - deceive him in the dark, one prompting the other.

(Soundbite of play, "The Liar")

Ms. ERIN PARTIN (Actress): (as Clarice) Aid me, I'll be you. My God, you're sexy.

Ms. MIRIAM SILVERMAN (Actress): (as Lucrece) God, you're sex - that's cautious?

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) You want to make him twist?

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) I want to make him nauseous.

Mr. CONN: (as Dorante) Did I hear you say sexy, my dove?

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) Indeed.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) Indeed.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) Like apoplexy.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) Like apoplexy.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) You make boil my blood.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) You make - no, really, you make boil my blood?

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) I am a torrent.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) I am a torrent.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) A flood.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) A flood.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) Come find me, God.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) Come find me, God?

Ms. SILVERMAN: (as Lucrece) I am a spring, thou art my divining rod.

Ms. PARTIN: (as Clarice) I won't say that.

SIEGEL: "The Liar" is not by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Theatre stages works by other playwrights. So, who is it by? Well, officially, it's by the 17th century French dramatist Pierre Corneille. But this translation is so thoroughly updated, much of the credit goes to the translator, playwright David Ives, who joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID IVES (Playwright): Thank you very much or bonjour.

SIEGEL: Bonjour. And you actually use a word other than translator or translation to describe what you've done here.

Mr. IVES: Yes. I call this a translaptation.

SIEGEL: A translaptation.

Mr. IVES: Which is a portmanteau word - just to call on the French for a second - between translation and adaptation.

SIEGEL: And how would you distinguish, for people who haven't seen the play, where Corneille ends and you begin as transladaptor?

Mr. IVES: Transladaptators? Yes. Well, Corneille was in the room with me, that - I can say that. Where he lets off and I begin is hard to say since 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. For example, an entirely new ending since in the original play the main character realizes that he's been in love with the wrong woman all the time and simply drops her and picks up the other girl and says that's great. What seems to be typical French fashion, I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And now tell me about how you got the assignment to do this and what you said when the Shakespeare Theatre said, you know, "The Liar" by Corneille, we'd like you to adapt that play for us.

Mr. IVES: Well, I had never heard of "The Liar" nor had my agent nor had any of my friends in the theater. So, I presumed that this was some dreary unknown hammer-handed play from the 17th century and in French. But I have to say that when the Shakespeare Theatre sent it to me, I was absolutely delighted by this play. And I wasn't 15 pages in before I knew that I had to do it, because it was like discovering "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Twelfth Night" or "Much Ado About Nothing," except it was locked away in French.

SIEGEL: Did you feel that you had the freedom to take great liberties since no one was familiar with the play? No one was going to say it doesn't remind me of the version that I once saw on the stage in 1911?

Mr. IVES: I think I'm safe that way.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. IVES: And Corneille is beyond litigation at this point.

SIEGEL: Well, how do you approach what is a very funny but still a 17th-century French neoclassical comedy and how do you think about it? How are you going to make it work for - which, it does, it works for 21st-century American audiences. How do you do that?

Mr. IVES: What struck me first was just the rippling purity of the language. Even though my French is - I have to confess - based on a year and a half in college and a romantic weekend in Paris 35 years ago, I could just feel this sort of silvery language, because Dorante, the main character, has these page-long lies of sort of baroque extravagance.

And when I saw those I knew instantly that I would have to translate the play into poetry just as Corneille had, and specifically would have to use rhymed couplets just as he had, because the entire play is kind of a high-wire act by Dorante. He's constantly stepping very close to the edge of an incredible cliff with his lies and yet he always finds his way out of them. And so the language had to be a high-wire act as well.

SIEGEL: How do you compare adapting somebody else's - albeit very old and not very well-known but perhaps terrific - play with writing something of your own?

Mr. IVES: Well, it's really quite a different experience in taking someone else's piece. Thank God, I have a structure handed to me, and that's a great gift to any playwright, because part of the problem of writing plays is that every play's structure is entirely different, which makes it - plays different from screenplays. Every play is really as different as any person is from another person, which I can't say is true of most screenplays.

So, the problem in sitting down with a play of your own is to find whatever is on your chest, how that translates into some dramatic structure that will maintain itself for half an hour, two hours, whatever you need. But in taking a play like "The Liar," I was handed a gorgeous, intricate plot with extraordinary comic turns. And so all I had to do really in taking this was turn it up to 11 and increase the dials and increase the comic turns.

For example, Corneille had a pair of maids in the play, as always, and the maids were really thankless parts. They were probably written for chorus girls that he was going out with. But I thought what fun, since this is a play about truth and lies, to make the maids into twins. And so I made the maids into twins and that instantly solved not only a comic problem but it solved a producing problem because we saved one salary.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) 'Cause it's the same actress...

Mr. IVES: It's the same actress.

SIEGEL: ...who plays the twins, yes.

Mr. IVES: And once I knew that, I knew something comic about the play and I could go from there. So, having known that, the main character also has a servant, of course. And so I gave him the opposite problem from the main character. I made him a man who could not tell a lie, and he falls in love with one of the servant women and he could never tell which one is which.

And so I was already, as I was reading it over and over and over, thinking how to make this extravagant play even more extravagant.

SIEGEL: So, if Pierre Corneille had somehow managed to turn up at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington to see this - at the Lansburgh Theatre, actually - what do you think he would make of what you've done?

Mr. IVES: Well, I think that he would probably call his agent or find an agent and ask about his share of the box office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVES: Then I think he would shake my hand and thank me profusely for having procured him a country house. And I think that playwrights tend to like being kept alive. And if after 500 years after I'm gone - or 300 in this case or 400 - it would be nice to know that some other playwright took what I wrote, liked it enough to sit down with it for several months and tried to make people get some fun out of it.

SIEGEL: Well, David Ives, thank you for talking with us about it.

Mr. IVES: Thank you so much for having me here.

SIEGEL: That's playwright David Ives, spoke to us from New York. He is the translator and adaptor of "The Liar" by Pierre Corneille. It's being staged by the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.

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