The Multiple Lives and Times of The School for Lies
by Ira S. Murfin
Theater is always about its own present, even as it portrays the past. Audiences hoped to recognize onstage the world in which they lived as fervently 350 years ago as we do today. Shakespeare knew this. He told historical stories so as to make clear their relevance to political realities familiar to his audience. Today, most of us are accustomed to modern-dress stagings of Shakespeare. We believe costumes and concepts live in the world of specific productions, while language is the play. By updating a play’s setting, a director can reassign its historical references in order to make evident its contemporary pertinence while preserving the original text.
It is fitting, then, that it is in the context of Chicago Shakespeare Theater that we encounter David Ives’s 2011 play The School for Lies , which wrests a new and deceptively contemporary work from Molière’s The Misanthrope, first performed in 1666. Rather than a modern-dress staging, Ives has given us a visually recognizable Molière in terms of costume and setting, whose language is rendered in modern-dress, much as Shakespeare told old stories in the vocabulary of his political present.
Molière rarely gets the modern-dress treatment. The premises of his plays are thought too closely tied to the social conventions of their time. Yet they have endured, their satirical commentary on societal hypocrisy still easily recognizable. Ives concedes, even exploits, the necessity of period and nominally sets his play in 1666, employing the dress and characters of Molière’s original. He even approximates Molière’s rhyme scheme.
But the words themselves and the world they reference are strikingly modern, all the more jarring for their appearance in a comfortably remote milieu. Contemporary colloquialisms are sprinkled prominently throughout: “dude” and the all-purpose “like,” references to Pilates and places in Connecticut, casual vulgarity and scatological humor that would make David Mamet blush. Still, as we walk away from this frothy entertainment, weighty thoughts about historical corollaries are unlikely to be on our minds. Instead we will be laughing over the unexpected references and repeating the wittiest couplets. Our delight comes from disjunction, a sense that the characters are drawing on a vocabulary that both is and is not our own, playfully flitting between epochs.
In the Prologue, the actor playing Philinte tells us, tongue firmly in cheek, that sophisticated contemporary audiences can safely laugh at the stupidity of seventeenth-century France:
Can you believe, back then, what dunces ranged
In every level of society?
Or that buffoons of wild variety
Actually held positions of great power?
Thank God we've none of that! No fools to sour
Our peace, no hypocrites to etch in acid.
We can, perhaps, find a hint of Ives’s intention embedded in this winking jab at society then and now. It is tempting to take the cue of costume and verse to bracket The School for Lies as a merely ironic evocation of an amusement from the past. But then we recognize something familiar in the onstage sniping and bickering. Ives invites us to laugh at these silly characters and their trivial squabbles, while also hinting that the society that shaped them is not so different from our own. He confronts us with an everyday lexicon dressed in the rarefied tone and timbre of Molière. This incongruent hybridity makes for an up-to-date theatrical mash-up, Ives suggests, which is able to synthesize something new–precisely because the divergent historical ingredients are so easily recognizable.
While Ives’s language allows us to see ourselves through new eyes, it also allows us to see Molière’s play through old ones. His approach grants a contemporary audience an experience akin to what we imagine an original audience might have felt. We laugh and cringe, experiencing the surprise, offense, delight–and recognition–that might well have accompanied Molière’s play in all its irreverent newness at the premiere. But, as close as we may feel, Ives cannot transport us to the summer night in 1666 when The Misanthrope opened at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris. We remain in the present. Though Ives’s play engages history, it stays outside of it, sliding along on the slipperiness of theatrical space and time. Ultimately, we land in neither seventeenth-century France nor contemporary America, but in the theater, where it is always now, and language is always at play.