Bonaparte Plays Automaton Chess

Napoleon, a retired French army commander and exiled despot 

Talleyrand,  a servant ministering to him, or minister serving him

The Turk, the famous Automaton, a figure robed and turbaned, 

perched on a plush red cushion or low upholstered stool before 

a chessboard with pieces in array.

At LIGHTS UP, Napoleon paces.

NAPOLEON: A Turk, you say?

TALLYRAND: A Turk, yes, Majesty. 

NAPOLEON: Why would a Viennese man display a Turk.

TALLYRAND: The Austrians were at war with the Turks for centuries, Majesty.

NAPOLEON: It’s big.

TALLYRAND: Life-sized… 

[the Little Corporal stiffens perceptibly, and levels a look at TALLYRAND]

Perhaps even a little out-sized. As the hands have to accommodate the armature, 

the mechanism, sire. 

NAPOLEON: Clothed like a Turk, I suppose. I dunno. Who knows how a Turk dresses. 

TALLYRAND: It’s called ‘The Turk,’ in fact

NAPOLEON: Why give a machine a nationality at all?

TALLYRAND: Likely just to annoy you, Majesty. 

NAPOLEON: Mystifying… They’re trying to mystify. You see that, don’t you. I see it. Set him up as some kind of turned-to-automaton sorceror or bewitched object, to strike fear into observers. I hear Field Marshal Bernadotte’s wife took such a fright, had to take the vapors the other night.


Yes sir.

NAPOLEON: She said there was a ghost in the box. I’m not challenging a goodman ghost 

to a game of checkers.

TALLYRAND: Chess. No ghost, Majesty. It’s a machine, Majesty. We’re quite sure of it.

NAPOLEON: Of course, it’s a machine. I know it’s a machine! Don’t be an idiot, Talleyrand!

TALLYRAND: No, Majesty.

[the Emperor stares at the machine, Rodin’s The Thinker. He has a viola moment]


There’s a little man inside!

TALLYRAND: We’re looking into that, Majesty. But the device has doors in it, which seem to show all interior mechanism, clockwork, with no space left for a chess-playing Little Person.

Perhaps the exhibitor accompanying the mechanism deploys magnetism?

Mesmerism, Majesty?

No, non Dieu. Actually magnets! To manipulate the figure unseen?

It doesn’t appear so, Majesty.


[he approaches the figure to examine it more closely, but springs back as the Turk moves

an arms, sweeping it in mechanical expression of ‘invitation.’]

TURK: Let’s play.

NAPOLEON: Monsieur Le Turk. Are you challenging me, Napoleon, master of Europe, to the world’s most ancient game of war?

TURK holds out two hands, palms down.

TURK: Choose.

NAPOLEON selects a hand. Both wrists rotate to palms up. The hand selected moves

to NAPOLEON, the other recedes toward the TURK. Both fists open, revealing that 

NAPOLEON has selected the Black King. The TURK places the White King on the board mechanically, then moves automatically to perform an opening gambit.

NAPOLEON: Interesting. You are a Turk, but you open with a Russian Gambit.

NAPOLEON moves, TURK immediately moves; NAPOLEON, then TURK, neither

obviously fast or slow but in a general pattern that play is facile for the machine,

and his opening gambit an increasing challenge for the Frenchman. There will be

a total of 19, before we are done. Historical fact. Finally, comes a long pause.]

TURK: Your move.


[TURK simulates a discreet gentleman’s patience, annoying the General]

TURK: Time.

[Napoleon moves]


TALLEYRAND: Knights don’t move like that.

NAPOLEON: Like what?

The TURK executes a revolving mechanical placement of the piece, at four points,

around a perimeter, ending by returning the piece carefully to the center. 

TALLEYRAND: It can move there. There. There. Or There. Those are its possible moves, from this position.

TURK: “Majesty.”

A moment, before an afronted Buonaparte feels fit to find the laugh in it.

NAPOLEON: It even knows when I’m cheating!

NAPOLEON examines the board, then moves another piece.]

The TURK executes a similar movement, restoring a piece.]

TALLEYRAND: Bishops move diagonally, Majesty.

NAPOLEON: That’s diagonal.

TALLEYRAND: They must stay on their color. 

NAPOLEON: That IS its color.

NAPOLEON puts it where he had moved it; The TURK shakes its head, slowly.

Then replaces the piece, once again.

TALLYRAND: Queen’s Bishop, Black.

TURK: “Majesty.”


[Napoleon examines the board again]

After a long moment, NAPOLEON makes his move. The TURK responds.

The General counters, faster. The TURK, imperceptibly hesitant, moves. 

When we get to 19, the TURK hesitates only a moment.

TURK: Check.



If must sacrifice a poor little castle, so be it.

TURK moves.

TURK: And… mate.

NAPOLEON gazes at the board. 


NAPOLEON glowers at him, then laughs, then psycho-sudden

sweeps the pieces from the board, in a fit. He stares at the TURK.


The Corsican raps on the cabinet.


Okay, I’ve had enough. [singing it] “Come out, Little Man…”



NAPOLEON: Yes, Talleyrand.

TALLYRAND: It’s not Tallerand, sir. My name kaCetshwayo.

NAPOLEON: That’s a strange name.

TALLYRAND: It’s native to this place.

NAPOLEON: That’s hard to pronounce.

TALLEYRAND: So you call me Talleyrand.

NAPOLEON: We’re not in the court at the Schonbrunn Palace, are we.

TALLEYRAND: No, sir. St. Helena.

NAPOLEON: Is that a cathedral?

TALLEYRAND: No sir. It’s an island.


TALLEYRAND: Off West Africa.

NAPOLEON: Mon Dieu. Why?

TALLEYRAND: A place of exile.

NAPOLEON: Do I come back from exile?

TALLYRAND: You already did. You came back from Elba. Another island. [forestalling him] Near Corsica. Much easier.

NAPOLEON: But I don’t come back from this?


We start to hear the sounds of a fire crackling, and flames play on the TURK.

NAPOLEON: I feel hot. Is it hot where we are? Africa.

TALLEYRAND: Tropic. Biting cold, at times, too. But no, you run a fever toward the end. Delirium sets in. 

NAPOLEON: But the fever breaks.

More fire crackle.


NAPOLEON: Napoleon can’t die.

TALLYRAND: Delusions of grandeur. You do. Of lead poisoning, I believe. Though it could be arsenic, in the paint. Flaking off the walls of the villa. 

NAPOLEON: Dropping like those icky little lizards.

TALLEYRAND: It makes you delusional, toward… toward The End.

More Crackle. A last Napoleonic esprit.

NAPOLEON: So the machine isn’t real? It was never real. That’s just a delusion?

TALLYRAND: Oh no sir, it’s real, alright. You played it at the Shonnbrunn Palace, in 1809.

NAPOLEON: Before Waterloo. Is it still around?

TALLYRAND: It outlives you.

NAPOLEON: Outlives me?

TALLYRAND: 33 years after you’re entombed in a mausoleum in Paris and the world has moved on to another Napoleon, it burns in a museum fire.

NAPOLEON: Ha! Forgotten to history.

TALLEYRAND: Not quite. It’s last words, recorded in the flames.

NAPOLEON: Ha! Who could forget my immortal last words?


The flames and the crackle have risen to dramatic proportions.

Check!   Check! Check!