Artistic Director Barbara Gaines and Playwright David Ives answer questions about The School for Lies.
Barbara, what first interested you in this modern adaptation of Molière?
BG: When I first read David’s script, it just jumped off the page for me. David Ives is a genius of the modern American stage. And how many times do we here at Chicago Shakespeare get to have a living playwright with us in rehearsal? David has the ability to go beyond farce and capture the soul of his characters. 1666 was a time of great excess, great shallowness, great political intrigue—and any similarities to 2012 are strictly coincidental! The language is quintessentially 2013. Though the actors are costumed in 1666, we all know these people. And now seemed a good time to be doing this play full of political intrigue, fraud and lies, lies, lies—and people, very real people, searching and struggling.
What will the world of this production look like?
BG: Despite its absolutely contemporary language, The School for Lies, like The Misanthrope, is set in 1666. So we have this wonderful tension between now and then. Susan Mickey’s costumes are inspired by the ‘Alexander McQueen of 1666’—in other words, they are ‘Runway 1666,’ edgy and completely over the top. Everything is pushing the envelope because David Ives, too, is pushing the envelope. Both Molière and Ives are revolutionary playwrights. And the set, beautifully imagined by Dan Ostling, gives a brilliant script and characters a monochromatic canvas to come alive on.
Will you have to do text work in rehearsal as you do with Shakespeare’s verse?
BG: Throughout this brilliant comedy, we’ll be playing with all those rhymes and rhyming couplets, finding the repetitions and the antitheses, and looking for the words that need lifting. Something that Shakespeare’s, Molière’s and David Ives’s characters all have in common is that they know they are very clever. They love to play with language.
David, what was the genesis of this play?
DI: Working on a Corneille comedy called The Liar a few years ago with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC was the first time I had ever worked in verse—and I loved it. When Brian Kulick of Classic Stage Company asked if there were another play I’d like to adapt, I said, ‘I’ve never much liked The Misanthrope, why don’t I work on that?’ It seems to me to be a comedy that Molière left the comedy out of and a love story without any romance. What’s the use of a love story without a romance?! I’m going to say something absolutely heretical, but I’ve never really been a great Molière fan. I miss the gusto of Shakespeare, the love of life. So when I decided to attack The Misanthrope, my first thought was, ‘If Shakespeare had awakened in the middle of the night with this idea—a crabby, articulate misanthrope in love with a witty, viviacious widow—how would he have told the story?’ And I got to work.
And your process for going about that?
DI: I didn’t want to make a new translation of The Misanthrope; I wanted to take that play and make an English play that used Molière. So I read it over and over again in French and got to know the characters. I laid the story out scene-by-scene on index cards on my dining room table. Then I started thinking, ‘What are the scenes I would love to see?’ Molière begins with the two main characters already in love, while I think Shakespeare would have shown them falling in love—and shown the comedy inherent in two such totally mismatched lovers. Frank enters the life of a widow and rescues her from some secret sorrow in her heart. To me it becomes a play about someone who brings a widow, witty and beautiful as she is, back to life—and brings her back to love. That was the story I wanted to tell.
How do you understand the work of an “adapter” and a “playwright”?
DI: The same way Shakespeare did: as pretty much the same thing. I’m not comparing myself to him, I only mean that thirty-five of his thirty-seven plays are adaptations. Nor did he necessarily like the original material he was working with. He just saw something there that he could use. ‘Oh yes! Melancholy Danish prince who has to kill his uncle! What a great story!’ I sometimes think that if we could go back and ask Shakespeare what his profession was, he might have said he was an adapter. In any case, I see no reason to make an audience sit through some old play just for the sake of theater history. Theater’s not a museum. It has to be alive. So I change things. I adapt.
Will you say more about the verse?
DI: Working on The Liar, I found that rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter—which are proverbially absolute hell on audiences, actors and English drama—actually can be great fun. They sure are terrific for adding some punch to a punchline. The fun comes in bending the verse just enough so that we hear a rhyme when we need to hear it rather than when we have to hear it, if you see the difference. I myself think everything should be in verse. Once I’d started working in verse I would walk down the street and translate bus ads into verse, just to see how they’d sound. Know what? Bus ads are always better in iambic pentameter.
What will be your role in rehearsal?
DI: I’m here to put in my two cents and then to vanish and let the actors do what they do, which is magic. In the gestation of any play, there’s a time when the playwright knows more than anybody else. Then there comes a time when the director knows more than the playwright, and it’s time for the playwright to shed himself. There then comes a time when the actors know more than the director. Finally, the actors and audience know the most—when they become a single organism shaping the play together night after night through the simple act of listening and responding. Which is theater. And life as well, you might say.