To translate a play by Corneille (1606-84), one of the “big three” dramatists (along with Racine and Molière) of the classical period in France, is to challenge most trends of contemporary American taste, starting with the reigning, and deplorable, standards of behavior and language.  Corneille’s plays are in rhymed alexandrine couplets; the diction is elevated and marked by classical rhetorical devices, including parallelism, metonymy, periphrasis, litotes, and chiasmus; the range of social types is limited; les bienséances (proprieties, dictating what may be shown and said) are normally respected; the three unities of time, place, and action ordinarily pose restrictions on plot; and dominant concerns often include honor, standing, and matters of state.  That L’Illusion comique departs from this model in significant ways does not make it, at first glance, less alien to current taste, which it challenges in some ways even more than a tightly knit tragedy such as Racine’s Phèdre.  Richard Wilbur, who has received Bollingen and PEN awards for previous translations and who, for his own poetry, won the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, deserves thanks, along with the publisher, for putting out this very artistic translation.  In recent years, several other renderings have appeared in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, including a version “freely adapted” by Tony Kushner under the title The Illusion; but Wilbur is by far the most eminent and the most skilful of those who have taken up the task.

Known chiefly for his tragicomedy Le Cid and tragedies such as Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, Corneille also wrote several comedies, chiefly at the outset of his career.  L’Illusion comique is an elaborate illustration of his comedic talent, though it includes a quasitragic vein also.  Because of its mixed tones and complex construction—a “pot-pourri,” as Jacques Maurens wrote—it has sometimes been called “baroque” or, to quote Corneille himself, “bizarre,” “extravagant,” “a strange monster.”  It was first produced sometime during the season 1635-36 (the best authorities decline to specify a date) by the troupe for which he normally wrote, at the Théâtre du Marais.  After remaining on the boards for some 25 years, the play fell out of favor.  A revival in 1861 was based on a greatly mutilated script, the fourth act being omitted and the fifth replaced by material from another play.  Only in 1937 was the original text brought back to the stage, at the Comédie-Française, by Louis Jouvet, a producer and actor of genius.

The play is complicated, not to say incoherent, as one critic asserted; it operates on more than one level, its various plots all underlying the principal theme, that of art, in the sense of “illusion”—the business of the theater.  First, there is an outer framework, which observes the three unities; it concerns Pridamant, a gentleman “in declining years” who has searched in vain for his son, Clindor, whom he had driven away by harshness.  Through a friend’s good offices, Pridamant is led to consult a wizard, by whose magic he hopes to discover what has happened to the youth.  The magician, who speaks ambiguously of “art” (meaning “artifice”), does indeed reveal, gradually, Clindor’s story—its first part presented as narrative summary, the rest dramatized in the wizard’s grotto as a purported magic show by “spirits who put on a mortal guise,” as Wilbur phrases it.  This framed action, or play-within-the-play, is explained rationally if one understands that the son, after exercising other trades and practicing quackery, now belongs to a theatrical troupe, which acts out his story.  But it is taken as genuine magic by Pridamant and, presumably, by audiences who “suspend disbelief,” unless they otherwise catch clues or know that the stage directions call “actors’ costumes” the fine clothes displayed as the young man’s wardrobe.  The action of this inner drama is first comic, even farcical, but then turns tragic as the actors perform a drama—at a third level—in which Clindor portrays the unfaithful Théagène, killed by a jealous husband’s squire.  When this drama ends, the distraught and credulous father believes Clindor is truly dead, although the magician had assured him that the son had found happiness.  Then comes a new revelation.  All that has just gone on is merely playacting, without vital connection to Clindor; a curtain is drawn back, and the company of actors appears.  While Pridamant is delighted to find Clindor alive, he is disturbed by his choice of profession; but the wizard, in an apology for the theater, describes acting as both a lucrative and an honorable occupation (a reflection of the times; Richelieu himself had given the theater his approbation).

The topics of illusion and playacting, with the associated theme of life as a dream, obviously suited the theater well.  Shakespeare and Molière (in L’Impromptu de Versailles) as well as Corneille drew on them, and, in 1635, Geor-ges de Scudéry published La Comédie des comédiens (The Actors’ Comedy), centered around a dramatic troupe.  Interplay between illusion and reality, or competing realities, was developed further in 18th-century fiction by Sterne, Diderot, and others who used structural devices such as multiple layers of plot and authorial intervention.  Modernists, including Gide, Unamuno, Pirandello, and Aldous Huxley, revived some of these techniques and developed others that played with distinctions between appearances and reality.  The same year in which Jouvet revived Corneille’s play, he also produced Jean Giraudoux’s curtain-raiser concerning theatrical art, L’Impromptu de Paris (an echo of Molière); in addition, Giraudoux’s Ondine (1939) and other dramas of his dealt with the subject obliquely.  The play between reality and appearance, the relationships between life and art, and competing levels of fiction, to which modern audiences had become attuned, were developed later in the 20th century by Borges, Beckett, and French novelists such as Butor and Robbe-Grillet.  In calling Corneille’s comedy a “house of mirrors,” Wilbur underlines its connections to the reflections-within-reflections construction favored by these authors.

In a play that deals, essentially, with acting, it is not surprising that Corneille presents well-known stage types easily recognized by his audiences: the boastful miles gloriosus, known since Plautus—in this case, a Gascon called Matamore—with his rodomontades (overblown, vainglorious rhetoric, named for Ariosto’s Rodomont), his cowardice, and his implausible claims as a lover; the unbending father, who here opposes his daughter Isabelle’s love for Clindor and wishes to marry her to another; the pícaro, that is, Clindor, who has lived by expedients; the resourceful servant girl.  What is striking is the way in which certain characters depart from stock patterns.  The servant girl challenges her mistress, Isabelle, because she, too, loves Clindor; she betrays her, then changes her mind and helps save her (in, as Wilbur points out, an exercise in heroic generosity and self-mastery that foreshadows Corneille’s tragedies).  Clindor, unlike faithful lovers in most classical comedies, dallies with other women.  A jailor, instead of playing only a utility role, exercises his imagination and briefly deceives Clindor by a pleasing theatrical trick.

Wilbur has generally respected the plot and scenic construction of the original, being so scrupulous as to render each speech, generally, in the same number of lines.  In Act Five, he does condense some material and omits one scene—quite dispensable, since Corneille himself deleted it in his modified version of 1660.  A master of formal verse, Wilbur has wittily imitated Corneille’s alexandrines in iambic pentameters, occasionally irregular, with some feminine rhymes and run-on lines.  The language flows easily and without awkwardness, as when Isabelle tries to discourage the unwelcome suitor:

We’ve often differed in the terms we chose:


What I would call a thorn, you call a rose;

What you call faithfulness and constancy

Are persecution and duress to me.

A few contemporary phrasings are amusingly incorporated also, including that cliché of many bad films, “Let’s get out of here.”

Why should one acquire and read work such as this?  The first answer is that it beckons to us.  Like most good dramatic writing, The Theatre of Illusion takes us into a different world: in this case, a double one, that of the play—an enchantment—and that of its historical period, distant but whose literary styles and themes remain easily within our ken and can offer unusual pleasures.  Second, do we not wish to support the arts?  This is literary art of a high quality, in its original and as translated here.  Both publisher and translator deserve our support.  Of course, innumerable art organizations and foundations, local and national, exist to underwrite (on behalf of the public) artistic endeavors.  But older, conventional belles-lettres are not flashy, nor “cutting edge”; moreover, arts councils prefer performance-oriented undertakings and tend to favor those whom Cyril Connolly called (disparagingly) “cultural diffusionists.”  Corneille’s work will not seduce many bureaucrats.  It could lend itself to performance, of course (Wilbur adds occasional stress marks to facilitate oral reading), but, until it is brought to the stage, it remains material for one’s library.  We owe a great deal to literature; this modestly priced book is well worth our attention.


[The Theatre of Illusion, by Pierre Corneille; translated by Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt) 132 pp., $12.00]