Tony Kushner's The Illusion, a free adaptation of Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion Comique, culminates in a memorable mix of metatheatrics and comedy. In this play, Pridamant, a father long-estranged from his son, visits the magician Alcandre in hopes of discovering his lost son's whereabouts. The magician conjures a series of images from the son's life, which, presented on the stage, depict the boy's gradual progress through several phases of love and desire, from initial infatuation to betrayal. Despite their heightened language, melodramatic tone, and conspicuous theatrical flair, and despite certain inconsistencies that tend to creep in (the boy seems to go by different names at different times), we are led with Pridamant to take the scenes as an honest representation of his son's existence: "his life, just as he's lived it."1 Once the boy's story has been brought to its conclusion, however, we are informed by Alcandre that the spectacle was merely a patchwork of theatrical scenes performed by Pridamant's son—the boy is a professional actor, and what Alcandre has conjured were desultory pieces from the various plays he has been starring in: "You didn't think this was real? Oh I do apologize for that, sir, I do, I thought anyone could see . . . ."2
For those of us in the audience, Alcandre's revelation means that what we were experiencing on a "phenomenological level" corresponds in unexpected ways to what the play was presenting on a referential level. Elements that we assumed to be part of an enactment (an actor playing Pridamant's son, wearing costumes and standing on a stage, reciting scripted lines) also belonged to the enacted (Pridamant's son himself is wearing costumes, standing on a stage and reciting scripted lines).3 In this light, Kushner's play mirrors the classic Marx Brothers' joke: "Look at this guy: he looks like an idiot, he behaves like an idiot—but don't be deceived, he is an idiot!" The Illusion says to us, "This looks like an actor in a play, he behaves and talks like an actor in a play—but don't be deceived, he is an actor in a play!"
Amidst its comedy, this inversion has revealing lessons to offer about theatrical perception. The element of essential "doubleness" that pertains to the medium, and that so attracts Kushner as a political playwright4—the basic fact that, in theatre, "things are not always what they seem"5—is here subjected to a twist. Things, [End Page 45] in theatre, are not always not what they seem. Indeed, Alcandre's stage offers a comical demonstration of Slavoj Žižek's assertion that "the properly human way to deceive a man is to imitate the dissimulation of reality."6 The representation of Pridamant's son deceives us insofar as we take it for a "theatricalized" distortion of its referent, rather than an "honest" imitation of theatrical dissimulation; it deceives us by not having distorted its referent in the way we assumed (honestly) would. As the Marx Brothers knew—and as the often prolonged laughter of Kushner's audiences attests—there can be something highly comical in this experience of appearances that are less deceptive than we assumed them to be.
Following the success of his Angels in America (1991), Kushner has become famous for confronting serious issues and exploring the political potentials of the theatrical medium in plays that are also, at times, very funny. James Fisher observes that the seriousness of the playwright's intellectual, political, and spiritual concerns is effectively "tempered with the outrageously hilarious."7 Or, in Michael Cunningham's words, "One of the things that just makes me crazy about Angels is the way it draws on this incredibly broad, vast, sociopolitical canvas, and it has good jokes."8 The Illusion, despite its numerous and often highly successful productions, has received limited scholarly attention, and this neglect may be due to its comparatively reduced engagement with those serious (sociopolitical, religious, queer) issues that undergird the humor of plays like Angels. Yet the complex...