Play #91: The Wild Ass’s Waistcoat (after Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1831)

The play is set in the present, at the heart of any contemporary city.  Its protagonist, Raphael de Valentin, is a struggling but penniless young writer and aesthete who, having failed at everything, has made one final visit to an antiques store he likes (even murderous depression cannot really staunch or quell a genuine lust for objects of virtu) before going back to his rented room kill himself.  

Although Raphael has no money with which to purchase anything, the demonic antiques dealer nevertheless offers him something gratis: an exquisite vest made from an untanned wild ass’s skin.  Raphael, naturally suspicious, is not so suspicious as to resist the idea that this peculiar vest might not add a touch of glamour to his otherwise sordid demise-to-come. 

Raphael:  Well, I scarcely know what to say.

Dealer (heartily):  Yes, it’s a remarkable garment.  The skin from which it is made is very old—they say it goes back to the days of King Solomon!

Raphael:  It’s exquisite.

Dealer:  Yes, well, wear it in good health, my boy!

[Alas for the hapless Raphael, he knows nothing of the vest’s strange and sinister secret—to whit: because the vest is a) untanned and b) magical, it offers its wearer the fulfilment of three wishes.  The trouble is that with every wish the garment grants, it also shrinks substantially, each shrinking representing a shortening of the wearer’s natural life by fifteen years.  If Raphael really were about to commit suicide, this might not matter, but when he discovers the vest’s enchanted generosity, suicide doesn’t seem nearly as attractive as it did before.  So instead of killing himself, Raphael immediately gets rich.  So far, he had made two wishes and, with the two wishes in aggregate, he moves closer and closer to death.  When w see him next—rich and swell-satisfied, if a little snug about the waist—he has one wish left].

Raphael (driving his new yellow Hummer across the city with his girl de jour cosily nestled seven or eight feet from him on the Hummer’s front seat):  O where will it all end?