Until the middle of the 19th century, most plays were written, at least in part, in rhyming verse. Today, that’s as rare as powdered wigs.
“I’m definitely working against the grain,” acknowledges playwright David Ives, whose “The School for Lies” and its rhyming couplets are coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company next week.
Ives has his character Philinte explain to the audience that this new show is based on Molière’s 1666 play “The Misanthrope.” Unfortunately, Philinte explains, Molière is not only dead, but he also wrote in French. “So screw Molière,” the character announces. “We’ll do our rendition in English.” And in this version, modern audiences are asked to imagine a long-ago, unbelievably primitive era when “scoundrels, loons and clowns of wild variety had influence, positions of great power.”
Ives didn’t write a word-for-word translation of “The Misanthrope,” but rather a kind of sequel, in which the same plot points in the same 1666 setting are presented in a similar sequence but with rawer rhymes and a more modern sensibility.
“If you go to this play to see Molière’s ‘The Misanthrope,’ you’ll be disappointed,” Ives said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. “Richard Wilbur did his wonderful translation of ‘The Misanthrope’ 50 years ago, but that’s not how I see my job. If I’m going to deal with an older play, I’m going to act as a playwright. I am making a play in the same way William Shakespeare did when he took an old Italian story and turned it into ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ No one says it’s ‘Romeo and Juliet adapted by William Shakespeare.’ ”
What carries over from “The Misanthrope” to “The School for Lies” is a faith that rhyming, metrical lines can not only entertain an audience, but also convey all the narrative and character development we want from a play. To do that, a comedy in verse must somehow overcome the fact that people in real life don’t converse in rhymed couplets. But Ives, an instinctive contrarian, doesn’t see it that way. For him, the burden of proof should rest on realistic playwrights. How can they entertain audiences with dull, prosaic dialogue?
“The problem with naturalistic dialogue,” the 66-year-old playwright argues, “is the problem with Eugene O’Neill: The words aren’t interesting, only the emotional current within them. Verse is more concentrated, more pleasurable than naturalism. It’s better in the way that Shakespeare is better than O’Neill. If the emotional current is the same, the verse adds something more: puns, music and intensified feelings. I’ve never been interested in theatrical realism, which is just seeing what you see every day in life. You have to get beyond the bounds of what you already know.”
Ives acknowledges the challenges of writing in verse: The writer, the actors and the audience all have to work harder with undertrained muscles to create and absorb the full world of the story. On the other hand, he points out, audiences seem quite willing to accept the artifice of performers singing rhymes in musicals, and they’re increasingly willing to accept the artifice of performers speaking rhymes in hip-hop recordings and hip-hop musicals.
“It’s wonderful that there’s a musical genre now that’s language-based,” Ives says, “and one that’s outlasted a lot of other genres. Any art form that celebrates language is good for all language artists.”
For “The School for Lies,” Ives invented a character named Frank, who takes the place of Molière’s Alceste as the blunt teller of truths. Like a rapper dissing “sucker M.C.s,” Frank refuses tact and euphemism to point out all the pretense and hypocrisy at the French court. “Why pick up a pen,” Frank tells a would-be poet, “and spew out some foul infelicity? A tribute to inauthenticity? A piss on poetry’s pure plasticity?”
Before long, Frank is being hauled into a royal libel court by outraged male rivals, while several female romantics are nearly throwing themselves at him. The misanthrope himself is puzzled to find himself falling in love with Alceste’s widow, Célimène, as sharp-tongued as he, but only behind people’s backs.
“The School for Lies” had a successful off-Broadway run in 2011, but it was inevitable that it would end up at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and directed by Michael Kahn. It was Kahn, after all, who got Ives started on adaptations of French comedies in verse by commissioning Ives to reinvent Pierre Corneille’s comedy “The Liar” in 2010. It went so well that Kahn and Ives collaborated in 2011 on “The Heir Apparent,” an adaptation of Jean-François Regnard’s “Le Légataire Universel,” and again in 2015 on an adaptation of Alexis Piron’s “Metromaniacs.”
“ ‘The Liar’ was the most fun I’ve ever had working on any play — writing it, rehearsing it, the whole thing,” Ives says. “I learned so much watching Michael bring a play to life. His direction to the actors is so simple and so direct that it opens up the play before your eyes.”
Kahn took his production of “The Liar” to New York and will take “Metromaniacs” there next year. When he told Ives he would be staging “The School for Lies” in Washington, he suggested that Ives might want to take another look at the script.
“That’s a hard thing for a playwright to hear,” Ives acknowledges. “The play was a big success in New York. Why should I take another look at it? But I took it out and realized he was right. I started reading it, and by the third page my pencil was out and I was making changes. It was too long and too dense. So I cut out 20 minutes; I made the dialogue lighter. I added better jokes and made the plot move along more smoothly.”
There’s a lot more to Ives’s long career, however, than rhyming French comedies. “All in the Timing,” his collection of six one-act plays, was the United States’ most produced non-Shakespearean play of the 1995-1996 season, and his erotic “Venus in Fur” the most produced of the 2013-2014 season.
Ives is now working on the next Stephen Sondheim musical, still untitled, based on two Luis Buñuel films and slated to open at New York’s Public Theatre in the fall of 2018. Despite his flair for writing verse, however, Ives is writing only the book, not the lyrics.
“Why would anyone dare to write lyrics for a Stephen Sondheim song? It would be like going into Bouley and making dessert,” he says of the famous French restaurant in New York. “You might want to, but you should have the sense to never attempt it.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Tuesday-July 2.