An interview with playwright David Ives from CSC's CLASSIC newsletter, available in our lobby or by download at classicstage.org
What drew you to take on Molière’s THE MISANTHROPE?
Let me say first of all that you start a project like this by kneeling down before a great playwright. Molière is part of the pantheon. He’s one of the all-time great creators of comic characters. A fantastic deviser of comic bits. Yet I have to say I’m often disappointed by his plots. THE MISANTHROPE is the Molière play that’s always fascinated me most, maybe because I always feel like it promises the most. But for me – as a playwright, I mean – it always raises all kinds of questions and comic opportunities that Molière never investigates. The most interesting being: how in the world did the main character, or characters, end up in love? Molière’s play just starts in the middle of things, with the love story a fait accompli. I always want to know how these two wildly dissimilar people got there.
Can you talk a little about taking liberties with an acknowledged classic?
Well, as you know there already exists a perfect faithful rendering of LE MISANTHROPE in English, which is Richard Wilbur’s great translation. We’ll always have that. It will never age. Given that, why not take this story and retell it, drawing from Molière but expanding on the plotline, or lines? In the end I found I departed so much from the original that I ended up with a new play that demanded a whole new title. Hence, THE SCHOOL FOR LIES. But with THE MISANTHROPE still recognizably there at the core.
I had some experience with this a couple of years ago, when the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. asked me to translate a comedy by Corneille called THE LIAR. Along the way, while working on it, I found myself changing certain things in the story, partly because what worked in 1643 simply wasn’t going to fly in the early 21st century, partly because we have a different tradition in English comedy, thanks to Shakespeare. Corneille himself paved my road, because he based THE LIAR on an old Spanish comedy and felt free to keep the basic story but tell it in his own way, to accommodate what was on his chest and what he thought the situation and the characters demanded.
How did you get from THE LIAR to THE SCHOOL FOR LIES?
Simple. Writing THE LIAR was the most fun I’d ever had writing anything. I really enjoyed working in verse and wanted to continue in it. Brian [Kulick, Classic Stage’s Artistic Director] asked me if there was any play I wanted to adapt, and I immediately said THE MISANTHROPE. The two are like sister plays: THE LIAR is about a man who can’t tell the truth, THE MISANTHROPE is about a man who can’t tell anything but the truth. Also, THE LIAR is a play about youth. THE MISANTHROPE is about people who’re out of their first youth.
You’ve just finished another verse translation-slash-adaptation for Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre.
Yes, it’s a knockabout comedy from 1708 by Jean-François Regnard called LE LEGATAIRE UNIVERSEL. Who is Jean-François Regnard? He was the greatest French comic playwright after Molière and the play is a peach. I call it, in English, THE HEIR APPARENT.
Talk a little about working in verse.
Verse opens up the possibilities of what you can say, and expands your ways of saying it while forcing you to be concise. Maybe most crucially, it forces your audience to listen just a little harder. That’s very important, what with iPhones twitching in people’s fists every minute these days.
But you’re not just working in verse, you’re working in the French brand, which means rhymed couplets.
Yes, we don’t have much of a tradition in English of rhymed couplets. French 17th-century audiences, for whatever reason, liked to hear a rhyme chiming every two lines and finishing the thought. Couplet, stop. Couplet, stop. For us that’s choppy. It’s as if the characters’ emotions come in two-line quanta and then start over. So I’ve had to do a lot of pondering in that area as well, finding a way through without letting go of couplets.
Why keep couplets at all?
Because they’re the distinguishing mark of French classical drama. They’re Chaplin’s moustache. Robert Frost famously defined free verse as tennis without a net. A MISANTHROPE not in couplets is tennis without a court.
Do you use a rhyming dictionary?
Of course. I’d be lost without one. Very. In his book FINISHING THE HAT, Stephen Sondheim is very eloquent on the need for rhyming dictionaries, and I’m happy to take shelter behind his coattails. Or, in this case, dust jacket.
THE SCHOOL FOR LIES continues your collaboration with Walter Bobbie at CSC after successful productions of NEW JERUSALEM and VENUS IN FUR. Both of these previous productions had moments of humor in their own ways, but nothing as significant as THE SCHOOL FOR LIES. What do you look for in a director in terms of comedy?
I look for Walter Bobbie. He’s got the whole toolkit, and not just for comedy. As a wonderful actor himself he understands how to get inside the lines, how to keep things afloat but keep them real. He can speak to actors as an actor, help them through questions that I as a playwright can’t address, while knowing as a director how to create stage pictures of such subtlety and naturalness his work seems to disappear inside whatever show he’s working on. He rightfully prides himself on that. He’s not there to present Walter Bobbie, he’s there to present the play, which can be a rare quality among directors these days. Because he’s written things himself he knows how to critique writing. He’s got amazing visual taste, he knows music inside and out. Maybe most importantly in terms of directing comedy, he directs by infusing a rehearsal room with joy. I myself think he was a champagne bottle in a previous incarnation. He’s a full 3-litre jeroboam in this one.
What was it like for you to collaborate with Molière?
We certainly had our issues at first, sitting down to the writing table. Things we had to wrestle with, coming from different traditions. Molière’s English isn’t very good but luckily for both of us, I speak pretty fair 17th-century French. So, like people in plays, we keep on talking. Listen, everything’s cool. We go to Jerry Lewis films together, and howl. Did you know he makes an amazing boeuf bourguignon?