The Illusion was written by French playwright Pierre Corneille in the early 1600s. Racine, Moliere and Corneille were the three best known playwrights of 17th century France, writing approximately contemporaneously with Shakespeare in England.
Corneille is known as a tragedian, but he wrote at least one comedy (albeit it tragic overtones), L’Illusion Comique. For reasons which escape me, Tony Kushner, in the late 1980s, wrote his own version (called a loose adaptation) of Corneille’s play. As Kushner’s works have become prominent among regional theater companies, his “The Illusion” has been produced several times, and opened last night at the Forum.
I will be curious to read the reviews of this production.
When written, it appears that this was a very innovative play. It tells the story of a French attorney from Avignon (at least in the Kushner version), who before he dies would like to see once more his estranged son, who apparently ran from home rather than live under his father’s strong personality and heavy discipline. Having failed to find his son (or any word of his son) by normal means, he goes to see a conjurer, an illusionist, whom he has been told can locate his son through the use of magic.
She succeeds, telling him that he can watch three episodes from his son’s life, but he cannot intervene in them or get too close, because they are illusions, they are part of a different dimension and that access is very, very difficult and painful. So the father sits and watches (speaking up at times, and being told to shut up), as the three scenes (showing his son as a lover with a rival, generally a rival of some nobility and wealth, trying to woo a young woman, daughter of a wealthy father, with the help of the young woman’s maidservant, who has ideas of her own.)
To tell you where this goes would be to give away the plot, and I am not going to do that. Just let it be said that this is not a tragedy, that it certainly makes sport of the class structure of feudal France, ignores the all-powerful church, and extols the power of theater and the role of illusion. All that is to the good.
But the underlying issues of the play are certainly not the basic issues of the twenty first century, and I wonder why Kushner chose this play to adapt (or, as he originally put it, to rewrite). While the acting in the Forum production is, as usual, excellent, I must admit having some trouble identifying with or being sympathetic to the basic story line of the play.
Perhaps, it is just me. Perhaps, the play appeals to a young audience, for whom wooing the girl (or being wooed by the boy) and fending off the class superior rival has more interest. Perhaps I am simply not able today, for whatever reason, to appreciate older productions – I am one of the few who question the value of The Servant of Two Masters, now being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre.
As I said, I will be interested in the reviews as they come out this week. I have a feeling that, like with Servant, they will be very positive, but that this play itself is just not for me.