The Liar – a Lesson in Verse

His name begins with D. He’s a charismatic, pathological liar who thrives on the pursuit of beautiful women, ensnaring them with an inflated biography of great accomplishments. But, in the course of his pursuit he is forced, time and again, to revise his story as an aide and ally reveals (leaks?) his lies.

Recognizable? The story line may be, but you’ll be surprised to discover it’s not the story you think it is. It’s not today’s headline grabber. Instead it’s the story of Dorante, The Liar, in a 17th Century play by Corneille adapted and updated by David Ives and playing concurrently this month in New York and Seattle.

I love clever wordplay and The Liar is nothing if not clever – both in concept and in wordplay. Delivered entirely in iambic pentameter verse, the play’s timing (no pun intended) is unusually in sync with the current news cycle, and its farcical situations add a liberal dose of laughter when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about these days.

Leap forward 373 years, from Corneille’s time to today’s parallel universe where, on Saturday, following another chaotic week in the White House, DJT, the other leading man whose name begins with D, beats it out of town to hold an ego boosting rally in Melbourne Florida. Campaigning again, less than 30 days after his inauguration, and relying on shop worn rhetoric from the earlier campaign, he was again The Man. Parading Melania out to open with the Lord’s Prayer, he followed with renewed promises to build a Wall, rid the country of criminal aliens, create thousands of jobs, lower taxes, straighten out the judicial system, and silence the lying media. It was chilling.

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Lies are headline news today – and every day. In fact, an argument can be made that lying is and has been the most consistent and durable media topic since Donald Trump entered the Republican primary race in 2015.

At his Friday news conference, the day before the Florida rally, the lies ranged from the size of his electoral victory “the largest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan” to his insistence that “this administration is running as a fine tuned machine” to the assertion that “nobody I know of in my campaign had any contact with Russia,” – all verifiable lies. The Donald is shoveling against a tsunami of misrepresentations, lies, alternative facts, phantom terror attacks, fabricated massacres, and heavy pushback from congressional, judicial, intelligence and news sources.

I’m fascinated by the show, but a steady diet of the Trumpster is depressing and dangerous. The only escapes that work for me are darkened theaters, a trendy restaurant with a good bartender, or a lap pool all to myself.

Sunday afternoon M and I escaped to a matinee performance of The Liar at The Bathhouse, one of Seattle’s small forums for creative live theater. The subject matter wasn’t exactly off topic, but it was therapeutic to spend an afternoon watching professional actors lampoon a liar and show the gyrations it takes to juggle a huge, some would say“tremendous,” pack of lies. After the Sunday morning news programs, I was experiencing acid reflux and a throbbing headache. It was either a good dose of laughter or a fistful of Prilosec.

It’s easy to make fun of D for Donald, but now that he’s the 45th President of the United States things have changed. It’s not funny anymore. This is serious business, and I found it instructive to read what the grandmaster of the lie, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda, had to say about it:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” 

The election of 2016 has brought lies and lying front and center in our daily conversations. What are we going to do about it? Sissela Bok, the Harvard philosopher, ethicist, and author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life writes:

Deceit and violence–these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce people into acting against their will. Most harm that can befall victims through violence can come to them also through deceit. But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action. Even Othello, whom few would have dared to try to subdue by force, could be brought to destroy himself and Desdemona through falsehood. (Lying p.19)

It sounds hyperbolic to equate what’s happening in America with the lead up to World War II. Trump is no Hitler, but he may be a Mussolini – part despot, part buffoon, part nightmare – able to do serious damage to individuals and groups he doesn’t agree with or who challenge him. At one point Mussolini said, “Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is not. You in America will see that someday. …The truth is that men are tired of liberty.”

In light of the Trump rhetoric, this is a chilling reminder that we cannot take for granted the liberty our founding fathers debated long and hard to give us. We can’t get lazy and let ourselves be “tired of liberty.” When only 51% of eligible voters participate in a presidential election, as they did in 2016, our liberty is vulnerable to the lies, demagoguery, and attacks on a free press that we are witnessing today. We have to stand up and resist, and we have to force our elected representatives in Congress to do the same.

The Liar ends with Dorante musing on his situation.

Perhaps I’ll go onstage and be an actor.

Maybe Corneille will write me up a play.

Or maybe, with my gifts and disposition,

I’ll emigrate and be a politician.”

I’m sorry Dorante; it’s already been done. Reagan, Ventura, Schwarzenegger, and now Trump. Maybe what we need is a savior. Can you help us out there? Just don’t lie to us. We’ve had enough of that.

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