The Illusion by Tony Kushner

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Pridamant, a proud but aging and desperate father, journeys to the cave of the wizard Alcandre, seeking information on the whereabouts of his runaway son. Alcandre grants Pridamant’s wish but, as is so often the case with dreams

fulfilled, the reality is more complex than fantasy. Thus begins The Illusion, Tony Kushner’s original adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s seventeenth century play, L’Illusion comique. In adapting Corneille’s play, Kushner expands on the French original’s celebration of the timeless magic of the theatre while launching a new audience on an exploration of themes and issues belonging distinctly to the late twentieth century.

Adapting another author’s works is hardly a new phenomenon. Shakespeare appropriated plots and characters for many of his most popular works without crediting his sources. The offspring of successful adaptation resembles its parent-work, but is nevertheless individual, unique, a creation in its own right. In the case of The Illusion, Kushner embellishes Corneille’s story line and shifts the thematic focus of the play while remaining true to Corneille’s original conception. Each time Alcandre grants Pridamant a vision of his son, the boy’s name and the surrounding circumstances of his life are changed, though the conflicts among the characters remain the same. In fact, the world of Kushner’s play and the identities that make it up shift and transform continuously. In this way the playwright questions the stability of identity itself, seeming to suggest that there may be commonalties among humans throughout time, and that art’s role is to both represent and question these “essential” human characteristics–just as Kushner’s adaptation honors Corneille’s original play while presenting it in a context that is relevant and meaningful to an entirely new audience.

The Playwrights

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner was born in Manhattan in 1956 is both a playwright and director as well as an outspoken champion of marginalized communities, including gays and lesbians, socialists, and artists. He received his BA from Columbia University, and his MFA in directing from New York University. His writing and directing projects have received fellowships from the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1993, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his epic work, Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. During the five years it took to create Angels, Kushner adapted Corneille’s L’Illusion comique. His plays have been produced internationally; Angels has been performed in over 30 countries. He is adapting The Illusion for a film from Universal Studios.

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille, the great tragic playwright, was born in Rouen, France in 1606. For fifteen years, until he was supplanted by Jean Racine, Corneille was France’s major dramatist. In 1647, he was appointed to the French Academy. His works include the tragedies Le Cid, Cinna, Horace, and the lighter L’Illusion comique. He died in 1684.

Shifting Styles and Stock Characters

Just as the text of Tony Kushner’s play stays true to the stock characters Corneille utilized to powerful effect, it also suggests an element which the original play does not fully exploit– the gradual complication of the relationships and conflicts between the central characters and the world they live in. As one way of capturing these aspects of the play, the CU Theatre Department production of The Illusion includes stylistic choices in set design, costuming, music, lighting and acting that suggest this growing complexity by moving the characters through a variety of historical periods and theatrical/cinematic styles. In attending our production of The Illusion, you will see the powerful influences of commedia dell’arte, the French Neoclassical style of Corneille’s own era and the film noir genre from Hollywood’s late Forties molding the world and the lives of stock characters that have been a standard of theatre for centuries.

Some of the commedia dell’arte’s stock characters

Stock characters have been around since theatre’s earliest days. In the sixteenth century, a set of stock characters (probably evolving from Roman theatre of several centuries earlier) began to dominate the Italian and, eventually, the European stage. These were the characters of commedia dell’arte, an improvisational theatre form popular in Italy from 1545 into the 18th century. Professional actors, most of whom wore stylized masks, portrayed stock characters and performed from a rough plot outline called a scenario. Stock characters included Pantalone (a miserly father,) Il Capitano or Miles Gloriosus (a braggart soldier,) zanni (comic servants) with names like Harlequin, Columbine and Pulcinella and male and female innamorati (lovers). These characters still dominated much of the comedy being produced and performed in the French Neoclassical style of Corneille’s time, an era during which actors provided their own costumes for performance (clothing which often resembled the ornate look of the court of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”) and elaborate stage effects were made possible by the complex machinery introduced from Italy at this time. In The Illusion the characters retain their “stock” nature, but are acted upon by the forces of three centuries of history as yet unlived by Corneille’s generation, taking on the more ambiguous shades of a “postmodern” world-view. These later influences are reflected in our production with a conscious reference to the style and mood of film noir. – Cheryl McFarren

More About….

L’Illusion comique (The Comic Illusion or The Theatrical Illusion)– Corneille wrote L’Illusion comique in 1636, the same year he authored his most famous play, Le Cid. The plot of L’Illusion revolves around an aging father who, having searched unsuccessfully throughout the world for the past ten years, turns to a powerful magician to help him reunite with his estranged son. The magician shows the father “shadows” from the son’s life, ultimately comforting the old man. The play has many comic elements, including familiar (or “stock”) characters. The son, under the assumed name of Clindor, currently serves one Matamore, a braggart soldier or miles gloriosus, whose name means “slayer of Moors.” Corneille derives humor from the contrast between Matamore’s bombastic presentation of his courage and his cowardly running from the least danger. While Matamore reveals his delusions, the fanciful world of the play welcomes and only gently mocks his imaginings.

Neoclassicism–A European movement of the 16th-18th centuries which sought to revive the forms and values of art characteristic of ancient Greece and Rome. The movement was inspired by the rediscovery and publication of literary works by Greek and Roman authors, philosophers and playwrights like Plutarch, Horace, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle. In drama, the primary influence was Aristotle’s Poetics, which was studied, analyzed and translated into prescriptions for writing works for the stage. Dramatic theorists established codes and conventions for the theatre, playwrights and actors put them into practice. French Neoclassicism represents the height of this highly structured approach to the theatre and its most celebrated practitioners were playwrights like Moliere, Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille.

The Le Cid controversy–Corneille’s play, Le Cid, is based on a Spanish legend, a celebration of the exploits of a heroic commander in the struggle to force the Moors from Spain. The author combined this epic material with a passionate story of star-crossed lovers separated by the animosity between their fathers (twin Pantalones) and the rigid structure of a society which values honor above love. His play was attacked by neo-classicists critics for violating the Neo-Classical Ideal calling for verisimilitude (theatre must represent events in a way that is both plausible and moral), strict adherence to the Three Unities of Time, Place and Action (the action of the play must take place in one fictional location and correspond to real time) and the principle of decorum, by which characters must act in a way that corresponds with their true station in life (those of noble birth must be represented as behaving in a noble fashion, for example). The controversy lead Cardinal Richlieu to establish the French Academy, which concluded that Corneille’s play was flawed in its adherence to the Ideal. Although Le Cid was wildly popular and Corneille defended his dramatic and structural choices, his next play, Horace, was crafted to strictly conform to the conventions of the Neo-Classical Ideal.

Ironically, L’Illusion deviates far more significantly from the Neoclassical norms than did Le Cid, but it received far less criticism. Corneille, however, called it “a strange monster” in recognition of its inconsistencies.

The French Academy still exists today, acting as a watchdog and arbiter in defense of the culture and language of France.

film noir–Literally “black film”, film noir was a genre or style of black-and-white film-making which came into vogue in the post-World War II years. These films, with titles like The Killers, Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity and A Touch of Evil, reflected society’s growing recognition of the complexities and ambiguities of modern life. The frequent use of shadowy, night-time settings established an aura of menace and foreboding in these films, which dealt with the seamier underbelly of postwar America in a frank way that struck a note with audiences facing a world in which formerly clear-cut distinctions of class, morality and justice were taking on distinct shades of gray. Much of the genre’s influence can be seen in recent film and television which seeks to capture a darker mood.

Angels in America — a play by Tony Kushner in two parts (Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika) that deals with love, truth, forgiveness and AIDS during the Reagan years. It was commissioned by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, and first performed in 1990. Angels was awarded the Pulitizer Prize for Drama in 1993.

miles gloriosus — The braggart soldier stock character who derives from Greek New Comedy. His progeny include Il Capitano (commedia dell’arte), Matamore (French Neoclassicism), Shakespeare’s Falstaff,  Captain Renault (Claude Rains’ character in the classic film Casablanca), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love oz_medal_cowardly_lion_small1the Bomb) and the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Though his characteristics vary in different examples, the miles gloriosus is likely to be cowardly, parasitical, bragging and subject to victimization by practical jokers.

Suggested Discussion Questions:

1. Is Pridamant the father Everyman? In what ways is his story a common one? When parents and children become estranged is there hope of reconciliation?

2. Corneille’s L’Illusion comique is most often categorized as a comedy. Is Kushner’s play a comedy? What features of comedy does it possess?

3. Is Matamore, whom Kushner calls “a lunatic,” in the cast of characters list at the beginning of his play, really mad? In the world of the play, what is illusion? What is real? Do you agree with the magician that everything in this world is “evanescent,” or fleeting?

4. The characters in The Illusion have several names, multiple identities. What’s in a name? Is Shakespeare right in saying that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? Are modern human beings a single self, or a collection of selves?

5. What are the demands of adapting material across time? What categories would the differences fall into and how would those differences be addressed? For example, if you were to try to adapt a television show or film from the Fifties or Sixties to be remade today, what changes would you have to make? What would you have to change about the characters, the language, the plot?

6. Can you think of other “stock characters” from literature, film or television besides those listed earlier in this preview? Is a reliance on stock characters “bad writing” or is there some useful purpose to be served by crafting stories around predictable elements?

7. After seeing the CU Department of Theatre production of The Illusion, how do you feel that the costumes, set, lighting and music choices reflected the changing moods of the play and its characters?

References used in compiling this work:

Corneille, Pierre. The Theatrical Illusion. Trans. John Cairncross. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Kushner, Tony. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ed. Robert Vorlicky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Kushner, Tony. “Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness.” New York: TCG, 1995.

Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: A History. New York: McGraw, 1994.

Other Resources

Lawner, Lynn. Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia dell’Arte and the Visual Arts. New York: Abrams, 1998.

This preview was researched and written by Cheryl McFarren, production dramaturg for The Illusion, and Tom Joyner, Graduate Assistant for Publicity for the Department of Theatre and Dance. Page layout and preview design by Steven MacDonald, Director of Publicity and Assistant Technical Director.