An 18th century French playwright who has more to say than it seems.by Craig Moyes / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Marivaux has a reputation as the theatrical equivalent of Watteau-staging gay, frilly scenes of no consequence. Voltaire once contemptuously remarked that Marivaux spent his time “weighing fly’s eggs in cobweb scales,” and this view of an overly refined, frivolous product of the Regency has stuck. Perhaps this is because Marivaux entered the French language (marivauder or marivaudage) meaning to “exchange gallant sophisticated banter” or to “bandy airy trifles.” Perhaps if Noel Coward had had a more euphonious name, the English might have coined a corresponding term.
Whatever the intention behind the original meaning of marivaudage-and most likely it was less than flattering-it does reflect what contemporaries noticed as the salient feature of his plays: an insistence on finding the appropriate language for feeling, even when it meant ignoring the canons of acceptable literary style. What we now think of as gallant pleasantries exchanged in unconventional Regency French was for Marivaux the shock (albeit a gentle one) of the unknown finding its way into language. This shock is not easy to get across in English (where there is no academic tradition of policing usage). But it is the essence of marivaudage. Perhaps La Harpe best summed it up as “the bizarre mix of subtle metaphysics and vulgar phrases, of overrefined sentiment and common speech.”
Eighteenth-century critics, such as Voltaire and La Harpe, generally reproached Marivaux for an excessive attention to what they called the metaphysical-or what we would now call the psychological. But Marivaux’s achievement is to show psychology’s encounter with language, and through language, with society. The drama (or comedy) of Marivaux’s heroes is in their finding the words to express unrecognised emotions. As his plays never tire of demonstrating, the heart needs language to reveal itself not only to another heart, but to itself. The place of self, society and language were all seen as big philosophical problems in the 18th century. But in Marivaux these problems lose their bulk, reduced to sprightly motifs brushed on to modest canvases.
Despite being a “philosophical” rather than a “drawing-room” comedy, nowhere is marivaudage more starkly staged than in The Dispute. It is one of Marivaux’s last comedies, written after his peak period of 1720-40, when he wrote almost 30 plays. It was not a happy note on which to end. The Dispute was booed off stage after its first performance in 1744, and not revived until 1938. And yet, as Neil Bartlett’s RSC/Lyric production shows, it is one of Marivaux’s finest works.
The plot is simple, if unusual. The play opens somewhere between civilisation and wilderness, where a Prince and his lady Hermiane take up an unresolved discussion of the previous night: which of the two sexes was the first to be unfaithful? Unanswerable question, no doubt, but this is the Enlightenment. By chance, the Prince’s father had found himself engaged in the same debate two decades before, and decided to put it to the test. Four infants, two boys and two girls, were placed in cells and raised in isolation. Today, as the Prince and Hermiane watch from a gallery, these four children, now aged 18 or 19, are allowed to discover the world and each other. The first girl meets the first boy and they fall instantly in love, grasping for the words to express their new emotions. Unlike these innocent lovers, the audience knows that their Edenic existence has not been created just for two. The promise of undying love fades as soon as two become three, and three become four.
Under the airy meringue of its dialogue, The Dispute is a rich text. Neil Bartlett has weighed his fly’s eggs carefully. The dispute
Marivaux, translated by Neil Bartlett
RSC/Lyric Theatre Hammersmith (Oberon Books 1999)