To Lie or Not to Lie: That Is the Seventeenth-Century Question

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The Liar
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, N.J.

Last month, I was reading through hundreds of issues of 1808 American newspapers for a history project and stumbled upon an ad for the French comedy The Liar, which was running in New York City at the time. The play was written in 1643 and the newspaper -- published 165 years later, making the article itself 204 years old itself -- referred to it as "the new revival."

A "new revival" 165 years later, 204 years ago? This is an old play.

But then so is Hamlet, so when I saw that the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey was staging The Liar I ran off to see it.

This Liar is a new adaptation of the old story by contemporary Broadway playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur), who turned the script into rhyming poetry. He retained the 1643 plot, by Pierre Corneille, added the poetry and leaned more on the depth of his characters than Corneille’s frothy story.

The plot of the play is simple. Dorante, a bold and brass Frenchman, arrives in Paris in 1643 and starts lying about everything. He concocts this wild tale of having lived in the city for a year and having breakfast with the Queen. One lie leads to another and then they all snowball.

The witty and charismatic Dorante falls in love with one woman, but mistakes her for her friend. His manservant Cliton, funnier even than Dorante, tries to help him sort out the two women, but they both fail. Along comes Alcippe, who tells them he is in love with one of the women himself. Dorante’s father then shows up to announced that he is trying to get Dorante married to one of the two. Dorante, sword firmly in its scabbard, is completely confused. So are the two women. They all stumble through the play amid hundreds of little poetic lines, wide grins and much hand wringing.

The work was one of playwright Corneille’s last. The Frenchman wrote twenty plays, mostly dramas, and had the most success with El Cid.

I saw the play Saturday, opening night, when the temperature soared over 100 degrees in New Jersey, but the play did not make it any hotter. It cooled everybody off. The Liar is a decent play, but not as rich as it could be. The plot is razor thin and the story does not really go anywhere. It's a one joke tale about the standard mistaken identity story that has been the crutch of many writers. The ending, pretty standard for the seventeenth century, today is ridiculous.

The director, Paul Mullins, wrings as much laughter and drama as he can out of the nearly four-hundred-year-old story, but how much can you wring out of a guy who lies about everything and can’t tell one woman from another? Abbot and Costello might have been able to do it, but not Pierre Corneille or David Ives.

The actors are superb, though. They deserve much credit for not only carrying off the story, but mastering the new poetry, too. Brian Cade as Dorante is a lovable oaf and his servant Cliton is even better. The two women, Clarice and Lucrece, played by Jane Pfitsch and Maya Kazan, are exceedingly good in their roles. Director Mullins gets other fine performances from Jim Hopkins as Dorante’s dad, Clark Carmichael as Alcippe, James Russell as Philiste and Katie Fabel as both Isabelle and Sabine. They are dressed in gorgeous costumes, swagger about the stage and play well to an audience that is seated practically on top of them. But how much lying can one audience handle?

The play, with or without the rhymes, needed more of a story.

One real loss in the play, in both versions, is the lack of any real history of France or Paris in the seventeenth century. All of the characters wander in and out of the garden set without mentioning anything that is going on in France at that time. The audience misses some wonderful history. Paris, an exploding city, already had nearly 500,000 people, and all of them feuded with the king and national government, and with each other, too. The century produced some of France’s most memorable kings, such as Henry IV and Louis XIV (the Sun King). The power of the king was absolute and the people had little representation. Disputes and coups at the palace were wild. When Louis XIII died (in 1643!) his wife Anne was named regent and ruled because the crown prince was only four years old. He took over at 15. You learn nothing of this from the play.

A play about young man arriving in Paris, hanging out in its gardens and courting rich women cries out for more history like that. What were the royals like? The little kid who will be king? The overcrowded city? The half a million people?

There have been a number of good plays written about the history of France, its kings, queens and rebels. I would be lying if I said The Liar was one of them.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Michael Schweikardt; Costumes: Candida Nichols; Lighting: Andrew Hungerford; Sound: Karin Graybash.

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