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The Theatre of Illusion

The Theatre of Illusion

by Richard Wilbur

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Pierre Corneille, in his original dedication for The Theatre of Illusion, described the play as a "strange monster." He first called these five acts a comedy; later, a "caprice" and an "extravagant trifle." Written in 1635 and staged in 1636, the play vanished from the stage for the next three hundred years—to be revived in 1937 by Louis Jouvet and the Com


Pierre Corneille, in his original dedication for The Theatre of Illusion, described the play as a "strange monster." He first called these five acts a comedy; later, a "caprice" and an "extravagant trifle." Written in 1635 and staged in 1636, the play vanished from the stage for the next three hundred years—to be revived in 1937 by Louis Jouvet and the Comédie Française. Since then it has been widely considered, in Virginia Scott’s words, "Corneille’s baroque masterpiece."

Today this brilliant piece of wit and drama is available in a new translation from one of America’s finest poets and translators of French, Richard Wilbur. Widely praised for his translations of plays by Molière and Racine, Wilbur now turns his poetic grace to this work, which remains as much a celebration of the comedy of humanity and the magic of life as it was when Corneille wrote it.


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Scene I
This wizard, though all nature is his slave,
Has made his palace in that gloomy cave.
In those dread premises, a perpetual night
Yields only to a strange, unearthly light
Which, with its ghostly luminescence, aids
The summoning of spirits and of shades.
Stand back; his art has charmed these boulders here
To punish anyone who comes too near,
And in that cave-mouth the enchanted air
Has hardened to a wall, and serves him there
As an unseen rampart able to oppose
And scatter in the dust a thousand foes.
But privacy concerns him most; he sees
Intruders as far worse than enemies;
And so, however eager, you must bide
Your time till he’s no longer occupied.
Each day he takes the air, and I’ve no doubt
That very soon he will be coming out.
I long to see him, yet my doubts remain.
I’m eager, yet I fear my hopes are vain.
The son for whom I feel such dear concern,
Who grew estranged because I was too stern,
And whom I’ve sought for ten years, high and low,
Is now forever lost to me, I know.
Thinking him willful and a little wild,
I laid strict disciplines upon my child,
Meaning to tame his spirit; but, sad to say,
My strictness only made him run away.
I saw that I had blindly overstepped;
I’d raged at him, but when he fled, I wept,
And my paternal love soon bred in me
Just guilt for my unjust severity.
I sought him, seeing in my travels then
The Po, the Rhine, the Tagus, and the Seine,
But there was no abatement of my grief;
My useless wanderings brought me no relief.
At length, despairing of such labor lost
And doubtful that I could at any cost
Contrive by human wit to end my woe,
I turned for counsel to the powers below.
I met the great practitioners of that science
On which Alcandre places his reliance.
They all were highly praised, as he by you,
But for my sorrows nothing could they do.
To me, the spirit world has naught to say,
Or says it only in a riddling way.
Alcandre is no ordinary man.
He does things that no other wizard can.
I shall not tell you how he wields the thunder,
Troubles the ocean, cracks the earth asunder,
Whips up a thousand hurricanes, and throws
Battalions of the same against his foes,
How with a mystic word or two he forces
Mountains to move and clouds to change their courses,
Or bids the sun shine at the midnight hour.
But you’ve no need of such displays of power:
Enough that he can read men’s minds, and sees
The future and the past with equal ease.
To know all secrets he has but to look:
For him, our destinies are an open book.
Like you, I once was skeptical. Yet when we
First met, he told me all my history,
And I was staggered, hearing him lay bare
The details of my every love affair.
You tell great things of him.
  And could tell more.
In vain you seek to raise my spirits, for
I know I’ll still be in this mournful plight
When my sad days must end in endless night.
Since I left Brittany with the desire
Of coming here to be a country squire,
And in a two years’ courtship prospered so
That I’ve a wife now and a fine chateau,
All who’ve consulted him have been content;
I don’t know one who thought the time misspent.
Trust me: his help is nothing you should spurn.
Besides, he loves to do me a good turn,
And I dare boast that if I make a few
Entreaties, he’ll do wondrous things for you.
That fate could be so kind, I still must doubt.
Cheer up, my friend; the sage is coming out,
And walks to meet us. His all-knowing soul,
Which holds all nature under its control,
Could not preserve from time, these hundred years,
More than the skeleton he now appears;
And yet his bodily strength does not abate,
His limbs are supple and his bearing straight:
Mysterious forces drive this old man’s heart,
And all his steps are miracles of art.
Scene II
Great learnèd spirit, you whose studious nights
Produce each day new wonders and delights,
You to whom all our plans are known, and who,
Not seeing us, can yet see all we do,
If ever by your art’s great potency
You have seen fit to be of aid to me,
Then heal this father’s deep unhappiness.
As an old friend, I feel for his distress.
Like me, he comes from Rennes. In my young days
He showed me kindness in a hundred ways,
And there his son, in age and rank my peer,
Became a friend both intimate and dear . . .
Enough, Dorante. What brings him here, I know.
That son’s the reason for his present woe.
Old man, was not his leaving home the source
Of your incessant pain and just remorse?
Did not a stubborn strictness on your part
Drive him away from you, and break your heart?
And do you not, repenting what you’ve done,
Search everywhere for your maltreated son?
O modern oracle, to whom all is plain,
I could not hide from you my guilt and pain.
You know my unjust rigor all too well,
The secrets of my heart you clearly tell.
It’s true, I’ve erred; but surely for that wrong
My fruitless penance has been hard and long.
Pray set some limit to my anguished tears;
Give back the prop of my declining years.
If you have news of him, my heart will bound,
And love will lend me wings till he is found.
Where is he hiding? Pray you tell me where:
Were it the world’s end, I would hasten there.
ALCANDRETake heart, old man. My magic shall provide you
With what the vengeful heavens have denied you.
You’ll see your son again, crowned with success;
He’s turned his banishment to happiness.
But words are nothing: to please Dorante and you,
I’ll put the splendor of his lot on view.
Novice magicians, with their incense and
Their mumbled words that none can understand,
Their herbs, their perfumes, and their ritual,
Manage to make our art seem slow and dull;
But that’s mere mumbo-jumbo, after all,
Intended to astonish or appall.
One gesture of my wand, and they’re outdone.
(He waves his wand and a curtain is drawn, behind which the most beautiful costumes of an acting
troupe are displayed.)
What does that wardrobe tell you of your son?
Come, Sir: could any prince be better dressed?
Can you see this, and fail to be impressed?
Alas, you cater to a father’s love;
Such rich attire my son’s not worthy of;
It would be wrong for someone of his station
To walk abroad with so much ostentation.
Now that his fortunes have improved, and he
Has changed his rank in life accordingly,
No one could ever be offended by
His dressing thus when in the public eye.
That pleasant thought I’ll study to believe.
Some of those clothes are dresses, I perceive.
Is my son married?
  I gladly could recall
His loves and trials, and tell you of them all.
However, if the shock were not too great,
You could in an illusion contemplate
His life’s adventures, played before your eyes
By spirits who put on a mortal guise
And have the power to speak and act, like us.
You mustn’t think that I am timorous.
How should I fear the image of a face
Which I have sought so long in many a place?
ALCANDRE (To Dorante.)
Pray leave us, Sir, and let this history be
A secret matter between him and me.
I have no secrets from a friend so true.
What he commands, friend, we had better do.
I’ll wait for you at home.
  If he sees fit,
He’ll give you, later, an account of it.
Scene III
Your son did not at once achieve high rank;
Not all his deeds were noble, to be frank,
And I’d be sorry, Sir, to itemize
His faults for any but his father’s eyes.
He took some money from you as he went,
But by the second day that purse was spent;
To pay his way to Paris, he did the chore
Of selling headache powders door to door,
And told some fortunes, and so reached the town,
Where one must prosper by one’s wits, or drown.
As a public scrivener he first found work,
Then, moving up, became a lawyer’s clerk.
Bored by the pen, he next displayed a pair
Of dancing monkeys at a local fair.
He took to rhyming, writing many a ditty
Sung by the crude street-singers of the city,
And then developed a more polished style
In which he wrote romances for a while,
Jokes for Guillaume, and songs for Gautier.
Later, he dealt in amulets of bay
And all the nostrums of a master quack,
Until the law profession called him back.
In short, not even Lazarillo made
So many tricky shifts from trade to trade.
It’s not a tale you’d like Dorante to hear.

English translation copyright © 2007 by Richard P. Wilbur
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

RICHARD WILBUR, one of America’s most beloved poets, has served as poet laureate of the United States. He has received the National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, and a number of translation prizes, including two Bollingen Prizes and two awards from PEN.

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