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When Pierre Corneille unleashed his comic masterpiece The Liar on Paris in 1643, audiences must have been shocked. The comedy flouted every rule of playwriting, it featured a cheerfully amoral hero, and its author was famous for his tragedies. Then again, Corneille had been shocking his audiences for years.
First of all, the greatest playwright in Paris started out neither as a playwright nor as a Parisian. Pierre Corneille worked as a lawyer and civil servant in Rouen, suffering through a job his father had secured for him with the Department of Parks and Rivers. But he wrote plays in his spare time, and he managed to slip one to a touring company on its way back to Paris. That first comedy became a runaway success, and soon the lawyer from the provinces dominated the stages of the capital. With little regard for the stale conventions of Parisian theatre, with its tired stock characters in predictable plots, Corneille instead introduced fully-realized contemporary characters dealing with the problems of daily life in a big city.
The surprises continued when Corneille turned to tragedy. Borrowing a plot from Spain, he wrote The Cid, a romantic adventure that became an enormous popular hit. But Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s powerful prime minister (and Corneille’s one-time patron), used his newly formed French Academy to attack the play for breaking the classical rules. After a brief retirement to protest his treatment, Corneille returned with three more great tragedies that adhered more closely to the Academy’s guidelines.
In 1643, with the deaths of Louis XIII and Richelieu and a four-year-old King Louis XIV on the throne, Corneille produced another surprise. At the height of his fame and skill as a writer of tragedies, he wrote The Liar. With this play, he reached back to his comic beginnings to write about contemporary life in Paris; at the same time, he integrated the dexterity with language and the strong emotions that marked his tragedies. The characters in The Liar, members of the rising Parisian middle-class, worry about love, marriage and reputation. The audience might have seen itself in the strict fathers, hot-headed men and witty women who populate the play.
But Corneille’s greatest creation in The Liar is undoubtedly Dorante, the title character. Lying his way through the city with reckless abandon, Dorante nevertheless gains the trust of nearly everyone he meets; he even finds love along the way. Although Corneille borrowed the basis for his plot and characters from a little-known Spanish play, Dorante resembles no one so much as his author. He too is a lawyer from the provinces who comes to Paris and makes his name through astonishing creativity and skill with words. No matter how shocking his inventions, he manages to escape with greater success. With The Liar, Corneille once again side-stepped the rules: he claimed that moral lessons and classical perfection were for tragedies. In this unconventional play, he declared that comedies had a different purpose: to break all the rules, for fun and profit.