Suppose, in an idle and dangerous moment, you took a fancy to creating the very best pastry in the whole wide world. Where would you begin? In Paris of course, where the pastries are classic, post-modern and beautiful, actual works of art. The masters of the brigade de cuisine would tell you to start with the best ingredients—Jersey milk, Normandy butter, Madagascar vanilla beans, Doyenne du Comice pears. You’d want the latest in new technology since pastry requires the most precise temperature controls, the finest blendings, the most delicate torchings of meringue. You’d want your own novel and signature infusions—cherry blossoms and peach leaves, perhaps, or black sesame seeds from Japan. You’d need amazing technique, together with the instincts and refinement of a true artist. After a decade or so working with a master chef you might finally produce the Napoleon of your dreams. And of course, after feasting the eye, it would disappear in an ecstatic instant.
Now let’s say you want to create the theatrical equivalent of that perfect mille feuille. You too will want to begin with the best of classic ingredients, and there’s nothing better to start with than the comedy of Pierre Corneille, whose wonderful play The Liar was first staged in 1644. His classic Liar more than stands on its own, with nothing added. I saw a terrific production at the Old Vic in London decades ago, one of the most delightfully giddy nights I have ever spent in a theatre. But hey, this is the twenty first century! And if you are a master theatrical pâtissier like David Ives you’ll want to take Corneille’s richly contrived confection and add new layers to his thousand layered flaky stack. Begin by sprinkling in several handfuls of contemporary references to re-spice the classic verse. Get that pentameter up to date and humming. Here, for instance, is a sample speech from the speed dating French maid:
My name is Isabelle, I’m twenty-eight,
Okay, I’m twenty-nine, I’m single, straight,
Catholic, but please don’t let that interfere.
I like Italian food and English beer,
Stuffed animals, long walks, Chanel perfume,
Here’s my address and the key to my room.
Who can resist that?
But don’t stop there. In our updated theatrical confection we’ll want more delicate intricacies, more wheels within wheels. How about a set of twins, always a reliable source of comic levitation? Since we’re in the land of musketeers, we might as well have a duel too, some dazzling swordplay. It’s spring, it’s Paris, so we must have romance, tons of it, and three maybe four really fetching Parisiennes. Then whip in some confusions, lots of them. Corneille’s comedy has a bunch to begin with, but let’s have a boatload more to really spin this whirling top. And from whence do these confusions mostly come? From lies, of course, lies on top of lies, lies piled so high it’s almost impossible to separate truth from fiction. It’s preposterous, improbable and irresistible.
Our hero, if you can call him that, is a dashing, enthusiastic, charming young man who has come to Paris to do what young Frenchmen do: cherchez les femmes. He’s in luck—he finds a reliable servant and a lovely object for his passions within minutes of hitting town. The young man does have one great flaw, which is also his special talent: he’s a big fat liar. The kid can’t help himself. He lies when he needs to, and he lies just for the thrill of it, getting himself into jams he then has to lie his way out of. He’s not just an addict, he’s a very gifted and unrepentant addict—the best and most entertaining tale spinner you ever heard pull wool.
Most of the time we watch Dorante—that’s our liar’s name—with dropped jaws and eyes rolled. He’s an idiot of the first order but also a liar of genius. He’s got his own slick, perfected technique: natural gestures, letting it all flow, an unswerving gaze, speech tripping on the tongue, asprinkle of irrelevant detail, and liberal applications of poetry (he’s really brushed up his Shakespeare). But above all, first and foremost, he has an almost religious dedication to never ever telling the truth, believing “the unimagined life is not worth living.” The liar, Dorante says, is a kind of artistic alchemist.
He turns to poetry our daily prose,
Assembles like a magpie some of this
And this, a girl, a rose, a kiss,
Expends his magic, his dark artistry
To dazzle us, reweave the tapestry
With brilliant colors from his endless spools.
He does what nature does with Nature’s tools.
For in a world where priests and princes lie
The liar blends in like a butterfly . . .
You might expect, given the laws of morality and comedy, that this butterfly is fluttering towards a net, and the play will end with him pinned and wriggling. And something like this does happen. But neither Corneille nor his brilliant adapter, David Ives, is preaching any sermons illustrating the perils of deceit and the virtues of honesty. The Liar is no Pinocchio, and this light and winged thing is never going to be a caterpillar. Not only do our authors not condemn mendacity, they seem to celebrate it. And why not? After all, they are consummate playwrights, fully aware their creations are pure lies, elaborate fabrications, dished up only pretending to be truth. Corneille’s classic compulsively lying hero is the perfect gift for his contemporary adapter, the compulsively clever David Ives. Together they make wonderful music, or, to return to my original analogy, they take first prize for theatrical confectionary. The Liar is a dazzling creation, layered with brilliant rhyme, infused with puns and pomegranates, spread with love and raspberry jam, spun with sugar and espresso, topped with tiny violets and hints of lace. It is a work of great precision and skill, both luxurious and whimsical, not unlike those mille feuilles you’ll find on the left bank. You’ll fall in love at first sight, and once tasted the whole airy nothing will disappear and leave not a trace behind-- except possibly in a sweet small bulge near your tummy. The Liar might not be on any cardiologist’s list of dietary recommendations, but please! It’s spring, it’s Paris, it’s romance, and this contemporary classic is a masterpiece of delicious, delectable fun. One won’t hurt you. In fact it’s just what you need to burst into blossom.