Essay: Corneille’s ‘The Theatrical Illusion’

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  • Corneille’s ‘The Theatrical Illusion’
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Corneille’s ‘The Theatrical Illusion’, first performed in 1636 was, despite its popularity prior to Corneille’s death, ‘promptly forgotten’ (Cairncross, 1975, p. 195). However, the play was revolutionary in terms of its more unusual metathatrical standpoint and diversion from traditions seen in 17th Century French classical theatre, which had existed out of Aristotle’s theories (Desnain, 2018). Therefore, it is unsurprising descriptions, such as from the Oxford Reference, suggests the piece plays ‘with levels of appearance and reality’ (Patterson, 2005); implying that the play is self-conscious, or in other words, adheres to the metatheatrical form. Moreover, the fact ‘Illusion’ alluding to theatre paints a profession in the theatre in a positive light and henceforth appears to defend theatre. However, the play cannot be seen as just a defence of Corneille’s profession, and possesses elements that perhaps berate drama and the dramatic tradition. Alternatively, the play further reflects the wider social and political sphere of 17th century France as well as experiments with the form and content of theatre – to create something new. However, one could argue overall that the text lends itself more toward the interpretation that the play is predominantly a defence of theatre.

 

 

Many critics such as Golder (Golder, 2007) and Nelson (Nelson, 1956) believe ‘The Theatrical Illusion’ is an example of metatheatre. As a result, positive allusions to the craft, both literally and through the subtextual metatheatre, provides insight into Corneille’s opinions on the utility and mastery of theatre. As a result, it could be inferred the play has defensive undertones and overtones. This is evident through the character, Pridament, who’s initial shock, ‘My son an actor!’ (Corneille, 1975, p. 279) reflects a portion of 17th century societal thinking; particularly those aligned with the Catholic and Jansenist Church (Desnain, 2018), who viewed theatre as an un-Godly. Yet crucially, the character’s change of opinion, as seen through, ‘I did not know | Its spell, its glamour and its usefulness.’ (Corneille, pp. 280 – 281), highlights a learning curve, which could depict Corneille’s desired reaction from the audience of the play. As a result, it could be argued that Pridament represents, to an extent, an audience. Additionally, this moment further communicates the idea of theatre as a teaching tool, acting as another positive defence of the utility found in Corneille’s craft. Similarly, Corneille’s hyperbolic descriptions of theatre in Act five through the character Alcandre, for example, ‘…the darling of all men of taste, |The talk of Paris, and the province’s | Desire, the sweet diversion of our kings…’ (Corneille, p. 280), indicate theatre’s power and reach. However, the fact that arguably the most powerful character – in terms of his knowledge and magical ability – is having to justify theatre, perhaps exaggerates the fragility of the theatre in public opinion. This could be interpreted as both a defence but also leaves the audience room to criticise theatre’s weaknesses. Alternatively, these positive concluding statements alongside his use of visual spectacle as seen in Act one Scene two – ‘(He waves his wand, and a curtain is drawn back behind which the finest costumes of the actors are being modelled)’ (Corneille, p. 207) – appears to attempt to show the scope of theatrical ability. This adds to the defensive stance of the craft and Corneille’s desire to show theatre’s potential. Nelson further suggests that, in its defence of theatre, the play acts as a ‘as a self-congratulatory offensive’ (Nelson, 1956, p. 1140). Corneille appears to be showcasing the ability, variety and complexity of drama as a form, as seen in the depiction of the ‘inner play’ at the beginning of Act 4. Corneille subverts the romantic dialogue between the lovers of the play, Clindor and Isabelle, as seen through the contrast between in Act two Scene Six, when Clindor’s dialogue reads, ‘I worship Isabelle, | I have no heart, nor should, but it is hers;’ (Corneille, p. 223) compared to Act 5 Scene 3 when Clindor, whilst playing the Theagenes, says to Isabelle playing Hippolyta, ‘Cancel the memory.’ (Corneille, p. 269) when speaking of his affair. This added complexity of a play within a play gives a new perspective on theatre, placing the audience in a new and more detached position than previously advocated in traditional French drama of the era (Desnain, 2018). One could view this as a celebration of theatre and its ability to deceive. Overall, the play in celebrating theatre arguably defends it incidentally. However, Corneille’s ambiguous impact of the ‘Illusion’, (Corneille, p. 278), perhaps equally possesses some negative undertones.

 

Alternatively, one could interpret the play as not a defence but, as Golder suggests, a ‘subtle apologia for theatre’ (Golder, p. 80) . The troubled relationship between the characters and the audience members as well as on stage, such as the character Alcandre’s manipulation of Pridament, could be interpreted as a mode to demonstrate the darker side of theatre. The line, ‘Above all, do not leave before I do; | If not you die…’. (Corneille, p. 211), presents Alcandre as dominating through sinister means. Alternatively, the fact his status depends on Pridament could expose theatre as less successful than it appears, connecting to Cherpack’s comment that Alcandre’s magical powers are quite modest (Cherpack, 1966, p. 342). This is evident from the opening of the play in Dorante’s dialogue: ‘You have no need of such great miracles. | It is enough for him to read your thoughts …’ (Corneille, p. 204). Moreover, Alcandre’s magician status in a metatheatrical sense could be likened to that of a writer or directorial figure. Henceforth the character’s manipulation to maintain an audience appears to comment negatively, or berate theatre. Equally, Pridament’s reactions suggests the emotionally exploitative nature of theatre and its illusion. This is illustrated in the Pridament’s dialogue when he believes his son has been murdered ‘Farewell, I’ll die since now my son is dead.’ (Corneille, p. 278). This statement could be viewed as either a positive purge of emotion and moment of clarity for the character. Yet, the loss of rationality could perhaps be likened to the relationship between theatre and spectator as being intense and sometimes dangerous for the audience. Consequentially, the idea of illusion is presented as problematic as well as powerful; supporting the idea that the play does not just defend theatre. Conversely, in the plot, theatre acts as an escape from the consequences of the characters’ – Clindor and Isabelle – love story as present in Acts two to four (Corneille & Cairncross, 1975). One could infer that, by presenting these apparent positives as ambiguous or imperfect, Corneille portrays the idea of escapism that theatre provides as corrupt or negative. Contrastingly, one could argue that the more explicit positives override the negative connotations of the play, so create the impression that the metatheatrical references defend theatre’s credibility and repitation. However, Corneille himself when describing the central acts as an ‘imperfect comedy’ (Corneille & Nelson, p. 1127), acknowledges the failings or ambiguities of the play. Corneille arguably reminds the audience of the perils of viewing the illusion as real and attempts to show the bare bones of theatre. Therefore, the play is not just a ‘defence of theatre’ but also acts in some ways as a warning about the illusion of the art.

 

On the other hand, elements of the play may not be a defence or berating of theatre, but merely a retaliation against the theatrical tradition. Critics, including Cairncross, allude Corneille description of the play as a ‘strange monster’ (Corneille, p. 195) and the combination of genres: a prologue, comedy then tragedy. This combination was, unlike the Baroque theatre traditions emerging in other countries, abnormal. As a result, Corneille appears to be consciously daring and experimental, hence the idea that the play solely defends drama, appears to be untrue. Moreover, the comedy of Act Four found in the interactions between characters such as Matamore, and Lyse as seen in the Lyse’s dialogue: ‘In language plain, | Terror confined him to the lumber room.’ (Corneille, p. 258), contrasts the highly dramatic moment in Act three scene eleven; when Adraste is killed (Corneille, p. 243). Franko indicates that the death of the character Adraste which causes problems for the definition of Act three as a comedy. Alternatively, the character Adastre is presented as evil, as seen through dialogue between himself and Isabelle: ‘Your father backs me, and, if you persist, | I’ll have recourse to his authority.’ (Corneille, p. 218). Therefore, one could argue, his death is not a problem for the genre. Conversely, the final act as a tragedy is imperfect also, as there is no death or tragic consequence of the protagonist’s actions – be that Clindor or Pridament. This contrasts the Aristotelian theories of tragedy adhered to in 17th century French Classical theatre, in which the characters typically reach an anagnorisis, but it is too late to avoid the tragic consequence of their actions (Desnain, 2018). However, Corneille’s manipulation of the definition of what makes a tragedy and a comedy suggests that the play was an exploration of drama. Therefore, the play does not merely prove the worth of theatre, but also challenges the theatrical tradition. Similarly, Corneille both technically adheres to the unity of time as the outer play – the interaction between Alcandre and Pridament – yet does not through the fact that the character Alcandre shows only fragments of the character Clindor’s narrative over a period of months or years. This alongside the open-ended nature of the text as highlighted by Nelson is used to create a particularly ‘Cornelian effects of surprise and curiosity’ (Nelson, p. 1139). This indicates the playwright’s desire to create a play which does not necessarily adhere to dramatic traditions in order to create the effect he desires. However, the idea of innovation could be for the purpose of defending theatre, but showing its capacity and innovative nature. Yet, the ambiguities in his creation although perhaps acting as a defence of theatre, arguably also covet differing purposes such as reflecting the ambiguities within the social context of the text or Corneille’s own retaliation from the traditions of his art. As a result, this again supports the idea that the play is not merely a defence of theatre.

 

Contrastingly, Siepe focusing on the wider body of Corneille’s work, suggests his work was always ‘rooted in the socio-political context of early absolutism’ (Siepe, 2011). This is applicable to ‘The Theatrical Illusion’ as although the plot does not directly address political or social problems in17th Century France; themes, such as status and deceit which concerned the rule of Louis XIII, are central. With regards to hierarchy and status, the characters presented on stage are middle class, which was unusual in 17th Century theatre, as typically – reflecting the Greek tradition – the aristocracy or war heroes were the main characters in tragedies and the poorer classes for comedies (Desnain, 2018). This both mirrors the growing mercantile classes from the 17th century and the audience’s growing interest in a class group as a result. Therefore, the Corneille’s purpose was to create a piece which mirrored elements from society rather than remained stuck in the limits of or just defended the theatrical tradition. Alternatively, Corneille exploits the hierarchy for comedic purposes by contrasting Matamore’s status as a soldier with his cowardly nature. One can see this contrast through dialogue such as Matamore’s boast to Isabelle in Act two, ‘This arm at once will carve you out a realm.’ (Corneille, p. 219), compared to the later monologue moments, for example, ‘I hear them. Flee. No, it was just the wind.’ (Corneille, p. 241). The contrast in character’s true and public face demonstrates the idea of the mask as not only having a theatrical connection, but also existing on deeply rooted social level. This example adheres to Harris’ assessment of Corneille’s repeated focuses on masculinity and the idea of ‘heroes and heroism’ (Harris, 2017) throughout his works. Therefore, ‘The Theatrical Illusion does not solely reflect on theatre, but wider social constructs such as gender and class. Another aspect of ‘absolutism’ is faintly present on a theological level. Corneille uses dialogue such as Alcandre’s Act two, ‘Whatever meets your gaze, be not afraid.’ (Corneille, p. 211). which reflects a biblical style syntactically (Bible Study Tools, 2015). and arguably in terms of the type relationship between Alcandre and Pridament. This which could portray Alcandre as a biblical figure in the story. However, the fact he is not all powerful or all-knowing and as a result brings into question Corneille’s intentions for the character; whether he represents an imperfect God, or King or if he is a fraudulent imitator of somebody with this much power. This suggests that the ambiguity surrounding absolutism could allude to a much wider context than merely a theatrical circle. The contrast in character relations to God such as the clash between the character Geronte, ‘Thanks be to God…’ against Matamore’s ‘Thanks to my arm…’ (Corneille, p. 234). As with these bold, boisterous statements that the character Matamore has, the audience are invited to laugh at him. This implies that Corneille was attempting comment on more than theatre, but almost humanity and its traits and vanities. Overall, despite the idea that the metatheatrical references appear to dominate the piece, ‘The Theatrical Illusion’ cannot be seen as an isolated reflection on theatre, but also as as a way of commenting on social and human behaviour, as Ruff argues (Nelson, p. 1137). This agrees with the idea that it is not merely a defence of theatre, but a multi-layered text.

 

 

Despite the defensive stance on theatre, as evident though the didactic journey of Pridament and innovative manipulation of dramatic traditions to showcase the profession; the play does not arguably solely serve this purpose. The metatheatrical ideas also expose, other reflections on society as well as the playwright himself. This can be seen in particular through the allusion to societal fears of masks and social structures, for example, the breaking down of subversion of class and power between Lyse and Matamore. This alongside more form and genre shifts as present through the ever-changing status of the play – from imperfect comedy to tragedy and use of time in particular – indicates that Corneille did not only write the piece as essentially a positive propaganda play on theatre, but as a more complex commentary on theatre and the lives of the audience outside of the theatre. The fact the play cannot be reduced or pinned down and is open to interpretation suggests that the play is not merely a defence of theatre. Conversely, the importance of the metatheatrical celebration cannot be ignored, and is arguably still one of the most important interpretations of the text. This is present through is multi-layered structure, relationship between the real and illusion as well as the relationships between characters and what they represent. However, this essay has evidenced that the fact that elements of the play can be connected to the context of 17th century French context, indicates that a metatheatrical reading is not the only available interpretation. Moreover, due to Corneille’s use of imperfections in genre in particular and ambiguity there is, debatably, not always a way of knowing if elements and commentary in the play should be viewed in a positive or negative light. This is evident in particular through the character Alcandre’s intentions and the effect of the illusion on Pridament. Henceforth, the indefinable nature of Corneille’s ‘The Theatrical Illusion’ implies that, much like the Illusion itself, it is indeed more complex than merely a defence of the theatre and works on multiple levels of understanding, which agrees with the title statement.

 

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