Marivaux Essay - Critical Essays

Pierre Carlet

Marivaux Drama Analysis

Although Marivaux sometimes repeated himself from one work to the next, he strove above all to be original. His highly personal art, composed almost entirely of nuances, served his observation of matters of great human value. The sometimes maligned marivaudage holds profound, universal significance. Marivaux’s psychology is as refined as that of the précieux, but it is in no way based on conventions. Despite their fanciful framework, his comedies generally have a simple plot, with little that is improbable, and the portrayal of life is always true. Similarly, with the exception of some of the lower-class characters, Marivaux’s expression is elegant without the excesses of préciosité. It is thus that his theater teaches truth, the inner truth of classicism. Marivaux was to be emulated by dramatists of comparable ambition, dramatists such as Alfred de Musset, Jean Giraudoux, and Jean Anouilh, original, modern, and yet in the classical French tradition.

Slave Island

Slave Island is an early play that exhibits all of Marivaux’s characteristic strengths. Following a shipwreck, two masters (Iphicrate and Euphrosine) and their slaves (Arlequin and Cléanthis) reach an island of former slaves, where they are forced to exchange roles. The slaves are emancipated and the masters are enslaved until each regains his former station by undergoing the prescribed treatment. Trivelin, the magistrate of this island republic, states the moral of the adventure: The difference in social positions is the way the gods test us.

This one-act “philosophical” play as produced by the Italians was the finest immediate success of Marivaux’s life, especially coming as it did after a fiasco at the Théâtre Français. Despite the seriousness of his message, conveyed quite directly, Marivaux had not forgotten that he was a dramatist. The subject and theme are well integrated and were perfectly suited to the talents of the Italian actors, among whom was Silvia, and the construction is careful, with a good progression and balance of emotions.

Although the idea of the play is Marivaux’s, expressed also in Le Spectateur français, it continues the line of social criticism found in other works of the day, including those of Marivaux, generally pursued by the actor Thomassin in the character of Arlequin. At first jokingly, then quite seriously, the latter tells his master some plain truths. The same happens with their feminine counterparts, except that, realistically, the mistress clings more desperately to her class distinction, and her slave has a greater need for revenge. The masters must hear themselves described by their former slaves and confess that the highly critical portraits, excessively lengthy in the case of Euphrosine and Cléanthis, brief and to the point in that of Iphicrate and Arlequin, are accurate. Next the former slaves imitate the gallantry of their masters, but despite Cléanthis’s skill, Arlequin prefers to take advantage of his new station to make love to Euphrosine and orders Iphicrate to woo the willing Cléanthis. Both former slaves play their parts to the limit, so much so that the sensitive and confused Euphrosine is on the verge of being truly hurt.

In the fast-paced conclusion, both former masters try emotional blackmail on their former slaves, with whom they have always lived in close association. There are varying results, but finally compassion triumphs, Iphicrate and Euphrosine are pardoned, and presumably everyone will behave differently in the future. The play’s success was short-lived, however, for obviously it could not please either the extreme Right, the court, or the extreme Left, the militant philosophes. A modern reader who does not understand that Marivaux, neither a would-be revolutionary nor a socialist, was merely preaching fraternity or human solidarity, cannot be pleased by the play. Slave Island was one of his favorites because of its moral.

L’École des mères

The one-act play L’École des mères shows Marivaux in a different mode. Its premise is familiar comic material: The tyrannical Mme Argante is rearing her daughter, Angélique, with the utmost strictness and would like her to marry M. Damis. Angélique, however, loves Eraste, M. Damis’s son, and she rebels. Love finally triumphs over the authority of a mother and the pretensions of a father who, unknowingly, is his son’s rival.

This play reminds the viewer of several of Molière’s works on a theme that had become commonplace, and of pieces more typical of the French stage than of the Italian. Again, however, the source is material written by Marivaux for Le Spectateur français, and it was the Italians who produced the play, again with Silvia in the lead. Whereas the tyranny of which the girl in the original piece complained was based on her mother’s excessive piety, a subject considered taboo on the stage, the tyranny of Angélique’s mother is stated in broadly human terms. Moreover, Angélique is much more discerning, much more aware of the complexities of human behavior than Agnès; she is much more “modern” in the social context of Marivaux’s day. Despite the constraints placed on her, she knows that others lead a freer life, and at times she is eager to risk freedom and take responsibility for her own decisions. Although her mother tells her that girls of good family do not need to do anything of the kind because their experienced mothers know better, Angélique wants to become experienced on her own.

Marivaux successfully put forward Angélique’s case in terms acceptable to the enlightened public of his times, a relatively small number as in any age. The tendency now, however, is to see L’École des mères as a play dealing with a problem that has lost its urgency; like any thesis play, it is regarded by some as a museum piece. Nevertheless, Angélique remains an attractive and living character.

Double Infidelity

Double Infidelity is a more substantial work, subtle and brilliantly plotted. A prince, required by law...

(The entire section is 2520 words.)