Ives is talking about his new version of The Liar, the classic 17th-century comedy by French playwright Pierre Corneille, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. The theatre's artistic director, Michael Kahn, directs.
"It's a very sophisticated urban comedy," says Ives, author of this season's hit Off-Broadway comedy–drama Venus in Fur. The Liar "is about a young and charming pathological liar who comes to Paris and falls in love with a girl named Clarice who he thinks is named Lucrece [her friend]. From this, complications ensue."
The reason it's a "translaptation" is because he "assisted the play a bit — added subplots, trimmed long speeches that might not play today," he says. "I added little things, merged two characters, cut one character–the sorts of things I've learned to do in 28 musicals I've adapted for City Center's Encores! series." (No. 28, Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle, recently sang at City Center.)
Ives' adventures with The Liar began when his agent called and said the Shakespeare Theatre was commissioning playwrights to translate plays that weren't often performed. "They had this play by Corneille I had never heard of. I had just translated French plays — Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and Yasmina Reza's A Spanish Play, at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan. So I had a reputation for translating French plays. I read The Liar, and it absolutely knocked me out. It was like a Shakespearean comedy, with a sparkling, wonderful plot, wonderful complications."
Corneille wrote the play "in the middle of his successful career," Ives says. "He's known in English for Le Cid, a tragicomedy, a serious play, but he actually started out writing comedy. He wrote The Liar as a return to what he had begun with. He based it on a Spanish play that's totally forgotten. The way he based his version on a Spanish play, I've based my version on his. I've taken the same freedom." Despite the freedom, Ives says, he has kept the play in period, with verse and couplets. "The play has extraordinary set pieces, speeches of incredible beauty and comedy, which are the lies the liar tells. Because the liar is doing a high wire act every time he tells a lie, the play has to mirror that in the verse. I think the play relates to today without having to set it now or jigger it around to keep it contemporary."
After all, he says, "it's an eternal story. The play is partly a social satire about how lies work within a society, within love, how lies are woven into the fabric of things. It shows how lies can feed love and actually create happiness. But my own personal view is that the play is a wonderful hymn to the artistic. In the same way that Shakespeare's The Tempest uses magic to talk about art, this play uses lying to talk about art. Because, basically, every artist is in some sense a liar, creating truth out of fiction. And in the end, the liar gets exactly what he wants by telling lies."
In a way, Ives says, "the whole world is a lie. At the end of Corneille's play, the funny servant character turns to the audience and says, 'Well, you've learned how to lie from a master, so go home and do it. But don't try to beat him out, because you never will. You've learned from a genius.'"