Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux 1688-1763
Marivaux is recognized as an innovative dramatist who produced masterpieces of French comedy concerned with the discovery and denial of love. His works are characterized by subtle description and keen psychological observation; this penchant for minute analysis is termed "marivaudage." A modern revival of interest in Marivaux's comedies has gained him a preeminent position in the history of eighteenth-century French literature.
Extremely little is known of Marivaux's life. He was born in Paris, and while a child, he moved with his family to Riom, where his father assumed the directorship of the royal mint. In 1710, at the age of twenty-two, Marivaux returned to Paris to study law. He eventually received his degree, but by then he had begun to move in literary circles. His friendship with Bernard LeBovier de Fontenelle and others led Marivaux to join the Moderns, a group of progressive writers led by Houdar de la Motte, who quarreled with the group known as the Ancients over the relative merits of contemporary and classical aesthetic views. Marivaux's earliest known play, Le Père prudent et equitable (The Just and Prudent Father), is a one-act comedy believed to have been written sometime between 1709 and 1711 and then produced privately. In 1720 Marivaux began a highly successful association with the Théâtre Italien, a popular troupe of Italian actors who performed in France and rivalled the national company, the Théâtre Français. His debut comedy, Arlequin poli par l'amour (Harlequin Refined by Love), fused the sophistication of the French theater with the imaginative stagecraft of the Italian and garnered widespread popular and critical approval. The play typifies Marivaux's departure from such established forms as the five-act verse drama, which he discarded in favor of one- and three-act plays. Also in 1720 Marivaux produced for the Théâtre Français his only tragedy, Annibal (Hannibal). This drama failed, as did many of his later comedies performed there, due largely to Marivaux's numerous dramatic innovations and his subtle, multi-layered style, which the French actors found difficult to interpret for performance. Despite a relatively unsuccessful history with the Théâtre Français, Marivaux was elected to the French Academy in 1743. For the rest of his life he continued to write comedies, though with lessening frequency. After suffering a prolonged illness, Marivaux died in Paris in 1763.
The dominant thematic concern in Marivaux's thirty-odd plays centers on individual sincerity within the social sphere, particularly as it relates to courtship and love. Nonetheless, he wrote several dramas concerned less with love than with eighteenth-century social and philosophical issues. An enormously popular play during its first run, L'Île des esclaves (The Isle of Slaves), hypothesizes the eradication of barriers between social classes. A similar play in conception, L'Île de la raison (The Isle of Reason), juxtaposes humanity's paradoxical potential for displaying both folly and wisdom. Marivaux's first master-piece, Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (The Game of Love and Chance), was produced by the Théâtre Italien in 1730. This was followed by several other highly acclaimed plays, including Les Legs (The Legacy), Les Fausses Confidences (False Confidences), and L'Épreuve (The Test). The performance of La Mère confident (The Mother as Confidant) in 1735 marked the birth of the drame bourgeois, a form halfway between serious drama and sentimental comedy, which explores the family problems of the middle class.
Nearly all critics of Marivaux's works discuss in some way "marivaudage," the author's distinctive style. During the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, harsh evaluations dominated discussions of his writing. Marivaux's contemporary Jean-François de la Harpe disparagingly defined marivaudage as "an artifice which consists in clothing subtle and alambricated ideas in popular language, a vicious fluency which leads him to examine one thought from every possible angle and which scarcely ever allows him to leave it till he has spoiled it; in short, a precious and far-fetched neologism which shocks both language and good taste." Pejorative definitions such as this prevailed until recent times, when marivaudage became equated with talent rather than tastelessness. Several modern critics have defended Marivaux's style, either by demonstrating its affinity with that of other celebrated writers, such as Fontenelle, Henry James, and Marcel Proust, or by stressing Marivaux's relatively spare use of language and dismissing La Harpe's negative commentary as exaggerated. Criticism of the plays themselves has been closely linked to the evolution of the term marivaudage. Today, although a few of Marivaux's plays are dismissed for their lack of originality, most are judged to display liveliness, a variety of situations and characters, and a modern appeal which elevates them over the works of his contemporaries, including Voltaire. Modern critics point out that Marivaux developed his favorite subject, blossoming love, through many different situations and emotions. Critics emphasize that the comedies reveal universal themes, such as human deception and sincerity. Amourpropre, or a form of self-love that Marivaux links with a refusal to remove one's "social mask" and open oneself to romantic love, embodies these themes and is a central element in his dramas. Beginning with La Surprise de l'amour (The Surprise of Love) in 1722, this element suffused Marivaux's comedies and greatly influenced the treatment of love in the theater, which until then had been preoccupied with stage action rather than involved psychological explorations.
Le Père prudent et equitable; ou, Crispin l'heureux fourbe [The Just and Prudent Father; or, Crispin the Jolly Rogue] 1709-11
L'Amour et la vérité [Love and Truth; with Louis Rustaing de Saint-Jorry] 1720
Annibal [Hannibal] 1720
Arlequin poli par l'amour [Harlequin Refined by Love] 1720
La Surprise de l'amour [The Surprise of Love] 1722
La Double Inconstance [Double Inconstancy] 1723
Le Dénouement imprévu [The Unforeseen Ending] 1724
La Fausse Suivante; ou, Le Fourbe puni [The False Maid, or, The Rogue Punished] 1724
Le Prince travesti; ou, L'Illustre aventurier [The Prince in Disguise; or, The Illustrious Impostor] 1724
L'Héritier du village [The Village Heir] 1725
L'êle des esclaves [The Isle of Slaves] 1725
L'Île de la raison; ou, Le Petits Hommes [The Isle of Reason; or, The Little Men] 1727
La Seconde Surprise de l'amour 1727
Le Triomphe de Plutus [The Triumph of Plutus] 1728
La Colonie; ou, L'homme sans souci [The Colony; or, The Man without Care] 1729
Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard [The Game of Love and Chance] 1730
La Réunion des amours [Loves' Reunion] 1731
L'École des Mères [The School for Mothers] 1732
Les Serments indiscrets [The Indiscreet Vows] 1732
Le Triomphe de l'amour [The Triumph of Love] 1732
L'Heureux Strategème [The Successful Strategem] 1733
La Méprise [The Misunderstanding] 1734
Le Petit-maÎtre corrigé [The Fop Corrected] 1734
La Mère confidente [The Mother as Confidant] 1735
Le Legs [The Legacy] 1736
Les Fausses Confidences [False Confidences] 1737
La Joie imprévue [Unexpected Joy] 1738
Les Sincères [The Sincere Ones] 1739
L'Épreuve [The Test] 1740
La Dispute [The Dispute] 1744
La Femme fidèle [The Faithful Wife] 1746
Le Préjugé vaincu [Prejudice Conquered] 1746
Les Acteurs de bonne foi [The Actors of Good Faith] 1757
La Provinciale [The Provincial Lady] 1761
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Les Effets surprenants de la sympathie; ou, Les Aventures de *** (novel) 1713-14
*Le Télémaque travesti (novel) 1714
†Pharsamon; ou, Les Nouvelles Folies romanesques (novel) 1715
L'Homère travesti; ou, L'Iliade en vers burlesques (poetry) 1716
L'Indigent Philosophe (journal) 1726-27
La Vie de Marianne; ou, Les Aventures de Mme. la Comtesse de ***. 11 vols. (novel) 1731-42
Le Cabinet du philosophe (journal) 1734
Le Paysan parvenu. 5 vols. (novel) 1734-35
Oeuvres completes de M. de Marivaux. 12 vols. (collected works) 1781
*This work was first published in 1736.
†This work was first published in 1737; also published as Pharsamon; ou, Le Don Quichotte moderne, 1739.
Oscar A. Haac (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: "Marivaux and the Human Heart," in The Emory University Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, March, 1956, pp. 35-43.
[In the excerpt below, Haac discusses Marivaux's techniques of characterization, contending that the figures in his plays are "not generalized or abstract symbols" but "highly individual and sensitive. "]
The modern rediscovery of an author like Marivaux is an exciting experience and a key to the literary temper of our generation. For almost two centuries the passionate oratory of Voltaire's plays, with their sweeping moralistic overtones, aroused far greater enthusiasm, but today the subtle and brilliant comedies of Marivaux (1688-1763), in the spirit of the Parisian salon society of the prerevolutionary era, are produced more frequently on the French stage than the works of any other author of the century, including Beaumarchais. In the repertoire of the Comédie Française he yields only to Molière, the patron saint of the company, to Racine and to Corneille. Recently in New York the Comédie Française played Arlequin poli par l'amour, and a few years ago Jean Louis Barrault produced Les fausses confidances during his brief visit. J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, the baroque theater of Giraudoux, the "pièces brillantes" of Jean Anouilh, especially La répétition, bear ness to Marivaux's growing influence. Jean Louis Barrault, in Ma troupe et ses acteurs, recognizes him as his most important model after Molière as the master of dialogue.
Most of Marivaux' comedies were written for Luigi Riccoboni and his Comédie Italienne. This troupe was continuing an old Italian tradition in which each actor represented a stock character and improvised his speeches during the performance. Riccoboni took the part of the principal lover (Lélio), the leading lady was first his wife, later the younger Silvia Benozzi for whom Marivaux created his major parts. Among the supporting cast Arlequin was most colorful, traditionally naïve, clever, and funny. Riccoboni drew his plots from many sources; some were based on Italian adaptations of Spanish plays. He was a man of wide interests and one of the first in France to express his admiration for Shakespeare.
Marivaux adapted himself admirably to this milieu. His characters bear the standard Italian names or their French equivalents; his subject matter was similar to the standard plots. This was essential, since the Comédie Italienne welcomed his plays less for their quality, which remained often unappreciated (Riccoboni pays no tribute to Marivaux in his writings), but because they helped to recapture an audience unfamiliar with the Italian medium and rapidly losing interest.
A review of Marivaux' sources from Molière to current novels and Riccoboni's repertoire would show that he invented neither plots nor characters. His originality lies in the dialogue, that is, in his style, and in his subtle manner of uncovering ideas and feelings. Unlike Voltaire he formulates neither maxims nor slogans. His characters are not generalized or abstract symbols, but dramatically express their subjective experiences. Lélio and Arlequin have become highly individual and sensitive. We shall examine this technique in some of the plays. …
Arlequin poli par l'amour (1720) is his first major achievement on the stage. It is a fantasy about an inexperienced but most attractive Arlequin, loved by a fairy queen who would like to bring him under her power. As soon as Arlequin sees the young shepherdess, Silvia, he is completely overcome. His new love renders him resourceful enough to seize the queen's magic wand and render her impotent. We witness "the surprising results of sympathy" (the subtitle of an early novel), for, in direct contrast to what we often hear about the "age of reason," the French eighteenth century recognized the power of emotion, the primacy of feeling over intellect. Marivaux does not disdain reason. He looks upon it as an ideal which we must superimpose on our emotions to become fit for civilized society. As he put it in L'Île de la raison: "Love is natural and necessary, only we must regulate its violence." Love is all-powerful and will excuse even wilful deceit in Les fausses confidances, one of his best plays. Dorante is so sincere and touching that Araminte must forgive that her affection was won through the tricks of Dubois, a crafty servant and forerunner of Figaro.
The charm of sincere love is so invincible that it triumphs over the plans of a fairy queen and, with even greater ease, over the systems of philosophers. The pedant Hortensius in La seconde surprise de l'amour cannot even retain the attention of the Marquise who has resolved to follow him and give up the ways of love; Hermocrate in Le triomphe de l'amour is outwitted and doubly shamed when he falls in love and then sees his pupil, whom he tried to protect from such passions, marry this very girl. Marivaux' opposition to the party of the Philosophes seems to combine with his youthful antagonism toward the Ancients in the battle of the books. The Philosophe in L'Île de la raison is least capable of insight of all the shipwrecked Europeans on an imaginary island, inspired by Gulliver's Travels, while his companions are subtly and humorously introduced to wisdom, or rather, come to know themselves.
In La surprise de l'amour (1722) Lélio and a Comtesse, both disappointed in love, have forsworn it for ever. Marivaux shows how foolish such a resolution is in the case of young, attractive people nowhere near fifty, the age for retiring to convents and for affected piety. Lélio and the Comtesse gradually realize that they love each other, though they are unwilling to admit it even to them-selves. They spend much time discussing the marriage of two tenant farmers. It provides the pretext for frequent meetings, since they dare not mention what is really on their minds. Here Marivaux shows his mastery of dramatic dialogue, or of silence and unexpressed feelings. His lines take on their full meaning only in context. Even the proverbs quoted by Arlequin, e.g., "the scalded cat fears water," are meant as individual reactions, often amusing and grotesque. Marivaux observes man and his motives like La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld, but he replaces the generalized conclusions of their Fables and Maximes by subtle dialogue which implies more than is said. It is an excellent method of character analysis on the stage, and a good comic device, since it gives the spectator the joy of knowing more than the characters of the play. These, in turn, take on a new individuality. Unlike the earlier followers of Molière, he does not merely present human types. He does not portray the "chevalier à la mode," like Dancourt, the "joueur," like Regnard, the "méchant" of Gresset. He wants a particular "surprise de l'amour," distinct from the "seconde surprise de l'amour" (1727) and from analogous situations in Les serments indiscrets (1734). All these plays deal with persons who are in love but do not express it. However, what matters is not this common theme but the particular "chaos de sensations" produced in each situation. In La surprise, Lélio seeks solitude to escape future disillusionment, in La Seconde surprise a marquise is equally disillusioned, but the tone is more serious and sentimental, and the pedant Hortensius adds other conflicts and overtones. Both of these plays portray people ignorant of their growing passion, while Les serments indiscrets show us Damis and Lucile consciously in love, but pledged not to show it, though they cannot keep their word, and this, according to Marivaux' preface, "is another kind of situation entirely unrelated to that of the lovers in La surprise de l'amour." He may be overemphasizing the difference to defend a rather poor play against its harsh critics, but he is justly proud of having portrayed a variety of emotions, all part of his analysis, his "science of the human heart."
This concept is developed in one of his addresses to the French Academy. He complains that this "science" is unjustly neglected and insufficiently honored because it is so accessible and obvious. He clearly states his epicurean principles, evident in his other works, when he maintains that we are stimulated to learn certain things or to follow principles by the rewards accorded to such behavior by our society, and by the natural joy they procure. He implies that treatises of morality are boring and ineffectual, but recognizes that the need for human understanding and for understanding man is the ultimate inspiration of his theater, as it was that of Corneille and Racine. Marivaux' contribution to psychological analysis is considerable and his theoretical pronouncements to the Academy are too little known.
Let us return once more to La surprise de l'amour. Lélio forms a striking contrast with his servant, Arlequin. When Lélio proclaims that thinking of women and their deceits is enough to confirm him in his desire to forsake them, Arlequin cannot help replying: "Imagine, such thoughts have opposite effect on me. It is precisely when I think of them that my resistance wavers." Even the birds making love in the trees disturb poor Arlequin, who would like to think like his master. Marivaux' servants are close to nature; this fact makes them into tools of three basic wants, food, money, and love, but at the same time enables them to admit what their masters try to conceal to others and to themselves. Thus the servants add not only comic relief after the sentimental meanderings of their masters, but perceive their masters' problems and point to their solution. The parallel between master and servant becomes even stronger because they generally love and marry in the same house; the servant marries the maid of his master's bride. This convention can be found also in Molière, for instance in the Bourgeois gentilhomme. Marivaux' original contribution is to have analyzed love on two levels and to have portrayed one as the mirror or parody of the other. He has given the theme of Don Quijote and Sancho new life on the stage. This technique, adopted by Lessing in Minna von Barnhelm, is an excellent means of orienting the spectator and leading him to understand more about the hero and heroine than they do themselves. He can derive from the grotesque ramblings of the servants what their masters are unwilling or unable to admit. We might call it a technique of defining characters simultaneously by analogy and contrast.
A superior illustration of the parallel between servants and masters is Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730), Marivaux' most famous play. Two young people, who have not met but whose marriage has been arranged by their parents, each decide to exchange rôles with a servant in order to observe and judge the proposed partner objectively. The two couples fall in love, as they should, even in disguise. The servants naturally admit their love long before their masters. There is an admirable contrast, and analogy, between the two "crystallizations of love," to use Stendhal's term, and also between the ways in which the disguises are uncovered. Silvia is close to despair when Dorante tells her who he is. This revelation does not make her reveal who she is; she pushes Dorante on to declare himself in spite of what seem inescapable class differences; she forces him to make an almost tragic and heroic decision. Only then does she explain. Compare this dramatic sequence with the burlesque declaration of Arlequin that, instead of being "captain," he is only the "soldier in his master's dressing room," where-upon Lisette admits to an equivalent rank of "hairdresser of Madame." Each time aspects of pride and self-respect, love and need for affection, are brought out in different light. The picture and its image supplement each other.
When Silvia finds that she loves Dorante, not his servant, she states, "It was indeed important that he be Dorante," and also, "Now I understand my heart." The implication is that she could not really have fallen in love with a person whose thoughts were servile or uncouth. Marivaux does not establish social barriers, but recognizes a hierarchy of sensitive and noble souls. This can also be seen in La double inconstance (1723), where the couple, Silvia-Arlequin, is broken up by the prince, carefully disguised so as to conquer by merit alone. While he sends Flaminia to capture the heart of Arlequin, which is done by a show of friendliness and a magnificent meal, the prince can prove to Silvia that she needs a lover as tender and sensitive as she is herself, and not a glutton like Arlequin.
The social problems here implied appear frequently. Just as the prince does not hesitate to marry Silvia, a simple girl from his estates, Le préjugé vaincu shows how the aristocratic Angélique finally overcomes her "prejudice" against marrying a worthy bourgeois. In Marivaux' novels, Marianne, a foundling, and Jacob, a simple peasant, frequent circles far above their condition. The island plays, L'Île des esclaves and L'Île de la raison, show servants undertaking the reform of their masters, though in the spirit of helpfulness and love. Frank and unrestrained as always, these servants can direct those whose very complexity makes it hard for them to change. There is always hope that faults can be mended. In Le petitmaÎtre corrigé, a social butterfly is successfully taught the true value of sentiment and love. Marivaux is no revolutionary; he is too kindhearted to assume that violence can ever be justified; he is too much of a dramatist and novelist to lose himself in social theory. He does not appear, therefore, as a major social thinker, but his keen "sensibility" makes him remarkably aware of these problems. …
Marivaux belongs to his period. It could, however, easily be shown that he manifests a considerable range of interests, and that the very moderation in his tone makes possible the modulated analysis that constitutes his greatest merit. Marivaux cultivated the art of finding "the fitting word." His préciosité is intentional. Just as he believed that reason must guide us in expressing our emotions, he felt the need for a polite and cultured tone. He was aware of unpleasant truths and basic drives. These dominate his servant characters and are all too evident in their masters. Yet his "marivaudage," which in the Petit Larousse is so unjustly qualified as affected, unnatural, and precious language, presents the medium in which the subtle shadings of the "science of the human heart" can be developed. Marivaux' style creates not merely a poetic illusion but implies that ever-present search for truth and for its adequate expression which, as Marivaux himself put it, is the qualifying mark of all great literature.
Kenneth N. McKee (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Conclusion," in The Theater of Marivaux, New York University Press, 1958, pp. 255-67.
[In the essay below, McKee summarizes the innovations Marivaux introduced into French theater and surveys his influence on subsequent dramatists.]
Marivaux … was the most original French dramatist of the eighteenth century. In his theater as a whole and in the details of the individual plays, in experimentation with new themes and in the expression of philosophical ideas, his originality stands out.
Perhaps the most salient feature in Marivaux's complete theater is his break with the classical tradition. Though it cannot be said that Marivaux is entirely free of the influence of inherited dramatic material, still the special flavor he gives old subjects sets him apart from his con-temporaries. If he derived an occasional idea from a comedy by Molière, from the canevas of the commedia dell'arte, or from a seventeenth-century novel, what he borrowed consisted at most of a fragment; he so revitalized the idea that his own contribution became the major element in the play. At the same time his theater is peppered with the philosophie of the early eighteenth century. Not only are some of his plays based entirely on a philosophical thesis, but most of his comedies—even those written in a tone of sophisticated badinage—contain stimulating precepts and unexpected bits of philosophizing. His style, too often stigmatized by the epithet marivaudage, has a freshness that differentiates it from the uninspired versification and stilted prose of his con-temporaries. His own inventiveness led Marivaux into heretofore unexplored realms and placed him outside—perhaps one should say, ahead of—the main current of the evolution of the theater in the eighteenth century.
When one applies these generalizations to the individual plays, the originality in detail is even more evident. Perhaps the best-known trait in Marivaux's theater is his depiction of awakening love—"la surprise de l'amour"—and many of his best and most enduring comedies turn on this theme. He already shows a well-developed conception of the "surprise" in Arlequin poli par l'amour, and two years later the conception emerges full-blown in La Surprise de l'amour: a new formula of comedy has come into being. From then on each comedy of this type has a mainspring of its own, usually based on the protagonists' resistance to falling in love, and Marivaux creates ingenious ways of probing the hearts of his various personages. In all his "surprises" Marivaux leads his young lovers through the enchanting mysteries of l'amour naissant, subjects them to tender and heart-searching trials, and leaves them rapturous on the threshold of avowed love.
Voltaire has said of Marivaux: "Il a connu tous les sentiers du cœur sans trouver la grande route." If Marivaux did not re-tread the broad highways of the heart in the classical tradition—which in his day had fallen to the level of hackneyed sterility—it was not for want of understanding, for on occasion Marivaux could probe to profound depths. It was rather that he found newness in exploring byways of the heart that his predecessors had shunned. With his infinite resources of analysis, Marivaux could have prepared a carte du tendre with detailed topography unmatched before his time. In developing "la surprise de l'amour" Marivaux made a distinctive contribution to the fonds dramatique of the French theater. He introduced into comedy the type of psychological analysis of love that Racine had achieved in tragedy, and in the realm of comedy Marivaux attained a peak of perfection equal to that of Racine in tragedy.
But "la surprise de l'amour," typifying as it does the special quality associated with Marivaux, represents only one aspect of his theater, only one of the many facets of his originality. From the whimsical fantasy of Arlequin poli par l'amour, in which the scene changes four times and thereby breaks the classical unity of place, to the enigmatic conceit of La Dispute, a plotless philosophical dialogue with subtle beauties, almost each play contains some new element. The creation of new types of character in comedy (Le Prince travesti, La Mère confidente), novelty of staging (L'Ile de la raison), the multiplication of disguises into a four-way travestissement (Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard), and the reversal of the usual subplot of the servants (Les Sincères) are all departures from the past. While Marivaux's whole theater is imbued with philosophie, certain plays give new impetus to the ideas circulating in the bureaux d'esprit (L'Ile des esclaves, L'Ile de la raison, and La Colonie). For the first time in eighteenth-century comedy, Marivaux dares assign royalty a prominent place (Le Prince travesti). He also looks forward to the drame (La Mère confidente and La Femme fidèle) and to nineteenth-century drawing-room social drama (L'Heureux stratagème and Les Fausses confidences). Marivaux's turn of mind rarely permitted him to lag in the area of the commonplace.
One of Marivaux's most obvious qualities is his versatility. He composed comedies of love, philosophical comedies, allegories and fantasies, farces, comedies of manners, drames, heroic comedies, and a tragedy—all with equal literary and dramatic skill. Critics have classified his plays according to different systems, but any classification is arbitrary, for so many of the plays contain elements that entitle them to be placed in several categories at once. There is no need to attempt still another classification here. Suffice it to say that no other writer in the French theater has worked successfully in as many genres as Marivaux.
Originality of thought is another of Marivaux's traits. Mostly new on the stage, always sparkling, his ideas give added pungency to a dramatic output already remarkable for its novelty and style. Marivaux did not create a philosophical system; rather, he moralized on diverse subjects without plan. One might say that his predominant theme is the innate goodness of man and the necessity of being kindly disposed toward one's fellows. His whole theater exudes a buoyant optimism that springs from his faith in mankind. The expression "le bon cœur" appears repeatedly; a good heart is what distinguishes one man from another, Marivaux implies. The epitome of the philosophy of goodness is in his famous line: "dans ce monde, il faut être un peu trop bon pour l'être assez." When the theme is not actually developed in a particular play, the spirit of it is usually present.
Man is born naturally good, and character is of more fundamental importance than birth. Throughout his writings (and some twenty-five years before Rousseau popularized the doctrine), Marivaux places greater value on character than on birth. There is no instance in Marivaux's theater where birth triumphs over personal merit.
Making character the basis for evaluating merit implies social equality. Marivaux dwelt at length on this subject and made startling observations thereon. The central theme of L'Ile des esclaves is that equality springs from natural goodness and that social injustice is a malady that can be cured. A courageous plea for equality is made in La Colonie, in which the aristocratic Arthenice sweeps away social barriers between herself and the bourgeois women. Even if in the end Arthenice's ideas are shown not to work, their mere expression on the stage was bold in the eighteenth century. In the same play Marivaux broached the still more venturesome topic of women's suffrage. The previous flurries of discussion on the education of girls and the rights of women by Montaigne, Molière, La Bruyère, and Fénelon had not yet touched on that point. Perhaps in Marivaux's day no one took him seriously, but he deserves credit for introducing the subject on the stage. Marivaux extends his thesis of social equality so far as to propose marriages that cut across the usual social lines, a proposal that violates the accepted social code of the eighteenth century. This kind of attitude gives a distinctive touch to Marivaux's theater and places him generations ahead of his fellow dramatists. It is one of the factors that account for Marivaux's popularity in the twentieth century.
Marivaux had advanced ideas for his day on the duties of a monarch. At a time when the theory of the divine right of kings was still accepted in France and when the Regency displayed a callous disregard for the welfare of the people, Marivaux expressed stimulating views on le métier du roi, which later in the century became part of the concept of the enlightened despot. His admonitions to monarchs to bestow equal justice on all, to follow the simple habits of their subjects, to show paternal concern for their people, to reject flattery, must have brought a smile to those who still remembered the obsequiousness practiced before Louis XIV.
Altogether, these diverse ideas create an ensemble of philosophie, of wholesome moralizing, that had not before been expressed on the stage in such straightforward terms. In the classical theater writers had tended to avoid expounding ideas directly; if they wanted to teach a lesson, they attempted to do so by irony, caricature, and other devices. For example, Molière believed that fathers should not force incompatible marriages on their children, but instead of presenting liberal-minded fathers on the stage, he ridiculed obstinate ones such as M. Orgon in Tartuffe, Harpagon in L'Avare, and M. Jourdain in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Marivaux, on the other hand, presented his philosophy with disarming simplicity. If he had a point to make, he went straight to the heart of the matter and expressed his conviction as an integral part of the text without deviousness.
Marivaux did much to create the vogue for philosophie in the theater. Even while he was still writing, other dramatists were beginning to insert a bit of philosophie in their plays; and by the time he finished his professional career in the 1740's, other dramatists were weighting their plays heavily with philosophic The comédies larmoyantes of La Chaussée and the drames of Diderot, not to mention the philosophical tragedies of Voltaire, were soon to fill the stage with sententious maxims. But one will look in vain for a writer who before Beaumarchais presents his ideas with such sparkling grace and clarity, and, as has already been shown, Beaumarchais borrowed some of his best ideas from Marivaux.
When one discusses the style of Marivaux, one enters an area of extremes: few techniques have been as thoroughly scrutinized as that of Marivaux, and criticism over the generations has ranged from the highest praise to heated scurrility and back to adulation. It is not that a particular epoch was hostile to Marivaux; rather, all degrees of praise and disfavor have been expressed concurrently.
Marivaux's style has brought into being the term marivaudage, commonly used in a derogatory sense to refer to an extreme affectation in phraseology and a fatuous analysis of sentiment. In reality, the question of marivaudage scarcely enters into an evaluation of Marivaux himself, for he is less guilty of it than his imitators. When Marivaux uses a precious figure of speech reminiscent of the seventeenth-century novel, when he pursues love into hitherto unexplored regions of the heart, when he dwells on subtle nuances of feeling, or when he enters the realm of elfin gaiety, he does so with complete mastery and without affectation. Yet when his successors during a good part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries imitate these same artifices, they drift into the silly verbiage and clumsy hyperbole known as marivaudage. Lacking the taste and artistry of Marivaux, these imitators have tended, knowingly or not, to associate their own faults with him and have thereby cast disrepute on his name. But on examining his style objectively, one realizes that his personages speak and act in a manner befitting the powdered elegance and beribboned grace of eighteenth-century drawing rooms. Marivaux fuses style and character into an indissoluble whole with an art that few writers have achieved. Fortunately, recent scholarship has led to a re-evaluation of Marivaux's qualities, and the general trend in the twentieth century is to absolve him from the taint of marivaudage.
The most frequent charge against Marivaux during the eighteenth century and since was that he had "trop d'esprit." Most of his comedies are full of scintillating badinage, and often even the servants speak with a polished wit that is indistinguishable from the elegance of their masters. But the overabundance of wit has led some critics to speak disparagingly against Marivaux: Voltaire made sarcastic remarks; Geoffroy deplored Marivaux's influence on young writers; Faguet condemned his dramatic style as leading to marivaudage; Lièvre acrimoniously indicted Marivaux for concealing nefarious traits under his exquisite style. But such remarks are in a distinct minority. Most often critics have yielded insensibly to the enchantment of his style and have been effusive in their praise of Marivaux. "Un magique ballet verbal," "la poésie de la première moitié du XVIII e siècle," "une perfection soutenue," and the like recur ad infinitum in reviews of his plays.
Besides, now that revivals of Marivaux's plays are more and more popular, critics are finding new qualities in his writing. Of particular interest is the revelation of the rhythmic beauty inherent in the words spoken on the stage. Modern actors have rediscovered, and spectators have learned to appreciate, the subtleties and purity of eighteenth-century language. In addition, twentieth-century critics have noted a musical quality in Marivaux that previous generations seem to have missed. They perceive in his phraseology the melodic strain and orchestral variations found in musical compositions.
All these elements of originality in subject matter, thought, and style give Marivaux a modernness that makes his plays as enjoyable today as they were when he wrote them. In the mid-nineteenth century Théophile Gautier, comparing Marivaux's heroines with those of Shakespeare, found that "A travers l'œuvre ancienne, le caractère de l'époque où on la représente se fait jour malgré tout," and since then each generation of critics has drawn attention to the contemporaneous qualities in Marivaux's theater.
In reviewing Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, Brisson says of Dorante: "Il avance sur son siècle comme la plu-part des personnages de Marivaux; il est moderne"; and apropos of the same play, Antoine declares: "on aperçoit qu'aucune comédie du XVIIIe siècle ne fut aussi contemporaine. … Silvia domine encore ses sœurs modernes." Truffier feels that "La Mère confidente est très près de nous."
Far from being museum pieces like the plays of Destouches, Piron, and La Chaussée, the comedies of Marivaux have something that attracts each generation. His characters have enduring appeal, and his ideas are often more akin to the twentieth century than to the eighteenth. Like the plays of Molière and Racine, those of Marivaux transcend the moment of their conception and by reason of their basic truth and inherent beauty are highly valued in the twentieth century.
The paucity of source material for Marivaux's plays only emphasizes his originality. Marivaux is at his best when he is not burdened with someone else's ideas. The most notable achievements in his theater—La Double inconstance, La Surprise de l'amour, L'Ile des esclaves, Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, and La Mère confidente—are those in which his inspiration stems entirely from within. For the most part, attempts to trace sources for Marivaux's comedies have yielded only wisps of information.
He draws but little from the usual sources. Of classical antiquity, there is almost nothing. To be sure, in his only tragedy, Annibal, he uses a historical character, and there is a touch of Petronius in La Seconde surprise de l'amour and of Plautus in La Méprise. But there the classical influence ends.
The seventeenth-century novel influenced Marivaux to some degree. The liberal father, depicted so often by Marivaux, appears in L'Astrée, and the mère-amie, in La Princesse de Clèves. The pedant Hortensus goes back to Francion. The heroics of Le Triomphe de l'amour are typical of Le Grand Cyrus. At times the detailed discussion of love by Marivaux is reminiscent of d'Urfé, Scudéry, and La Calprenéde.
Much as Marivaux disliked Molière, he could not entirely escape his influence. L'Ecole des mères is the most noteworthy case in point in that it shows similarities to L'Ecole des femmes, Les Femmes savantes, and L'Avare. The Lélio-Arlequin dialogue in La Surprise de l'amour (I, 2) recalls a similar conversation between Cléonte and Covielle in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The scene of the portraits in Les Sincères echoes Célimène's description of her friends in Le Misanthrope. Marivaux would probably have repudiated the charge of borrowing from Molière, but in these few instances the evidence is there. It can be said, however, that Marivaux did not imitate the more typical qualities of Molière's work, he did not use Molière as a standard, and he did not write a comédie de caractère.
Marivaux has often been likened to Racine, but their likeness is in natural talent. Both men possessed the gift of analyzing love; they portrayed the inner lives of their characters and reduced exterior events to a minimum. Racine excelled in depicting tragic passion; Marivaux, in revealing the awakening of love. Their works are entirely different, and Marivaux borrowed nothing from Racine.
Likewise, critics have found points of similarity between Shakespeare and Marivaux, but as with Racine the similarity is one of talent. Marivaux did not know Shakespeare's theater; hence there is no precise relationship between the authors. However, in spite of their obvious dissimilarities, both writers possessed a certain elfin gaiety and a lyrical manner of projecting love scenes that are curiously akin.
To what extent Marivaux was influenced by his contemporaries is difficult to estimate. On occasion instances of borrowing can be identified with reasonable certainty, but in each of these instances Marivaux has merely utilized a fragment and has so revitalized it that a charge of plagiarism is unjustified. Scholars have often strained a point in an effort to associate an item in Marivaux with some other work. Borrowings by Marivaux are slight, to say the least.
Perhaps the greatest single source of Marivaux's plays is the most intangible one: the canevas—and, even more, the spirit—of the Théâtre Italien. As one reads his plays, one is conscious of a detail reminiscent of some other farce. But since Marivaux had to write for stock characters, he could scarcely avoid using some stock material. Whatever Spanish or Italian elements one notes in Marivaux can be traced to the canevas of the Riccoboni troupe.
Viewing Marivaux's complete theater in perspective, one realizes that he is less guilty of borrowing than most writers; the rather nebulous comparisons indicated above reflect only on a minor aspect of his theater.
If Marivaux borrowed sparingly from his predecessors and contemporaries, the same cannot be said of his successors. The names of dramatists who quarried in Marivaux's plays make a rather impressive list in the eighteenth-century theater. Destouches patterned Lisimon of Le Glorieux after Plutus of Le Triomphe de Plutus. La Chaussée imitated Marivaux in L'Ecole des mères. Gresset drew on Le Petitmaître corrigé for many of the characters and ideas in Le Méchant. Voltaire adopted "Le Préjugé vaincu" as a subtitle for Nanine, and used the basic idea of Marivaux's comedy for the plot. La Noue copied L'Heureux stratagème in La Coquette corrigée. Borrowings of lesser importance were made by less well-known writers.
Marivaux is the outstanding precursor of the drame. In La Mère confidente, especially, and in La Femme fidèle he created plays that illustrate the drame some twenty years before Diderot enunciated his theory. Although the eighteenth century did not give Marivaux credit for his innovation, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have recognized his contribution to the evolution of the genre. Diderot himself did not borrow material from Marivaux for his two drames—the two men were too far apart in style and thought for that—yet one of Marivaux's claims to fame is that he anticipated Diderot in the writing of a drame.
One of the outstanding facts about Marivaux is his influence on Beaumarchais, particularly with respect to the creation of the character of Figaro. Repeatedly in his theater Marivaux injects a strain of aggressiveness in the servants, the sum total of which constitutes the personality of Beaumarchais' famous valet. The Trivelin of La Fausse suivante and Cléanthis of L'Ile des esclaves contain the very essence of Figaro, even down to certain phrasings; they lack only his revolutionary truculence. Beaumarchais borrowed so thoroughly and minutely from Marivaux that he could not have been unaware that he was indulging in overt plagiarism. It should also benoted that he copied some of the guileless innocence of Chérubin from the Arlequin of Arlequin poli par l'amour.
Alfred de Musset is generally considered the lineal descendant of Marivaux, and rightly so, for he seems to have inherited Marivaux's penchant for portraying young love and for contriving witty dialogue. In style and spirit Musset carries on the Marivaux tradition, albeit with the moodiness of the romantic period, which Marivaux himself never had. More specifically, Musset found the inspiration for La Nuit vénitienne in Le Dénouement imprévu; for On ne badine pas avec l'amour in Les Serments indiscrets; for Il ne faut jurer de rien in Le PetitmaÎtre corrigé; and for L'Ane et le ruisseau in Le Legs. Less precise analogies can be drawn that further associate Musset with Marivaux. Since Musset's time no writer in the French theater has been designated as Marivaux's heir.
Aside from the positive influences just discussed, Marivaux has had intangible influences without number. Critics in the second half of the eighteenth century complained of the marivaudage in current dramas, and in 1810 Geoffroy laments Marivaux's dominion over young writers of the day. Even after Musset's time numerous nineteenth-century plays evoke some remembrance of Marivaux. Twentieth-century critics have caught glimpses of Marivaux in Curel, Porto-Riche, and Sartre.
Today Marivaux occupies a position of pre-eminence in the French theater, and not without justice. His contemporaries—Destouches, Piron, La Chaussée, Voltaire, Gresset, Diderot—are all but forgotten figures in the modem theater. The secret of Marivaux's popularity in the twentieth century, like that of Shakespeare and Molière, rests on the simple fact that he faithfully depicted the society in which he lived and at the same time endowed his characters with the universal and enduring truths of human nature. If the area in which he wrote is somewhat narrower than that of Shakespeare and Molière, he is no less a master within his sphere. Perhaps Brisson, in a review of La Mère confidente that applies with equal justice to most of Marivaux's plays, gives the best account of his position in the French theater: "L'ouvrage … dépasse le temps où il fut écrit; il est de tous les temps, il est du nôtre. Marivaux est l'auteur classique le plus près de nous; son œuvre exhale un extraordinaire parfum de 'modernité'!"
Oscar A. Haac (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Humor through Paradox," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 196-202.
[In the following essay, Haac explores Marivaux's use of paradox in his plays to convey the complexity of human psychology and emotion.]
In his earliest works Marivaux developed a technique of humorous paradox which he successfully perfected and which can be considered the essence of marivaudage. It involves a play with concepts and ideas in such a way as to establish a contrast, of which there are two kinds: that between what a character says and what he means, and between what a character understands andwhat the audience or reader knows to be true. This interplay of interpretations amuses and stimulates an audience, and at the same time provides the author the opportunity to analyze complex attitudes and feelings. Marivaux reveals himself thus as one of the notable commentators of his time, dedicated to psychological analysis or, rather, to rendering the multiple aspects of the heart. The examples chosen to illustrate and elucidate this technique are but a sampling of the many to be found in each of Marivaux's plays, novels, and essays.
In his first successful comedy, Arlequin poli par l'amour, Arlequin, naively unconscious of his purposes, loves Silvia on first sight without being able to express his feelings while the Fée, with her armament of intelligence and power, her wand and her prime minister, discurses all too well on her love but is unable to attract Arlequin. Ultimately she is deceived and defeated by him. Her illusions are clear from the start and the spectator is flattered to recognize Arlequin's love long before he does himself and before the Fée is aware of it. The spectator is amused because he can outwit her with Arlequin.
Marivaux soon becomes master in the art of writing dialogue which expresses different things for different persons on the stage and for the audience. In L'Epreuve, Angélique appeals to Frontin's honnêteté and begs him to leave her; it is a burlesque scene because the gentle-manly suitor is a fraud, a disguised servant obeying his master's orders to test her faithfulness. Only the spectator knows Frontin's identity. Thus the contrast between the meanings for honnêteté, encompassing external politeness as well as the ideal of uprightness, leads to humorous paradox; it also leads to a new appreciation of their implications. In the conclusion to his Marivaux et le marivaudage (Paris, 1955), Frédéric Deloffre has admirably expressed that this technique portrays not only sentiments but shadings of meaning and concise ideas. He points to Marivaux' s need to express new concepts in new terms. It is indicative that Marivaux's early critics blamed him precisely for his neologisms, and that he defended them on several occasions, saying that good style requires finesse and exact definition.
In order to examine the method more closely, let us analyze a number of scenes where we find illusions and misconceptions, first among the masters, then among their servants, for each group illustrates a different aspect of the fundamental problem of human understanding. A case of thorough misjudgment can be found in the marriage project of Marianne in the novel that bears her name. But then, who can foresee the future? Who could have foretold that, after Valville's marriage to Marianne was set, all obstacles and prejudices overcome, and formal promises made, a beautiful girl would faint and be un-laced before Valville's very eyes. He revives her with an elixir; she casts significant glances and, in confusion, covers herself. The scene undoes all previous plans to the point where the novel falls into two separate parts and lacks unity. It also expresses Marivaux's fundamental pessimism which makes us wonder how many heureux stratagèmes might be needed to revive and salvage love and makes us see that the happy endings of many plays are at best temporary solutions. Thus situations where partners marry and plan to live happily ever after take on paradoxical overtones. Marianne's case is extreme and explicit. We can plan and analyze, we cannot foresee and decide the future: "Il faut avoir bien du jugement pour sentir que nous n'en avons point!"
La Double Inconstance yields other examples. Silvia and Arlequin are convinced they love each other and constantly reaffirm their intentions. Unfortunately they are poor prophets. Their strong protestations against the designs of the prince sound like calls to revolt but take on paradoxical meaning. "Une bourgeoise contente dans un petit village vaut mieux qu'une princesse qui pleure dans un bel appartement," says Silvia who later is quite willing to accept the attractive prince. She will not weep for living in a beautiful apartment but rather will spurn Arlequin who dares break an appointment with her for the sake of an excellent meal with good wine. When Trivelin explains Silvia's original refusal to the prince he adds: "Cela n'est pas naturel." We might well ask what is not natural. Should she have yielded to an unidentified suitor? It might have been more natural, but far less honnête (moral) to accept the handsome man on first sight. In fact, she says so to his face: "Non Seigneur, il faut qu'une honnête femme aime son mari, et je ne pourrais vous aimer." When, later, she retracts the last part of this statement because she is made for the prince just as the Silvia in Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard is made for Dorante, what has been said about natural affection takes on further overtones, for it is natural that people with such superior sensitivity should love another. We find a similar paradox when Trivelin, as the agent of the prince, wants to separate Silvia from Arlequin and tells him: "Il ne faut jamais faire du mal à personne." This is hardly the appropriate maxim to accompany an act of alienation. In the same spirit a nobleman tells Arlequin: "Un gentilhomme doit être généreux"; the context is such that the statement serves to emphasize how frequently the principle is violated. These contradictions are carefully planned; the author is most conscious of his technique.
In neither of the two plays just discussed could Silvia have accepted her lover immediately, for in the society portrayed by Marivaux the truthfulness of pretenders must be tested. His characters must frequently disguise them-selves in order to penetrate below the veneer of social behavior. They must be unnatural to find the natural personality of a partner. In this game of love, Silvia, in Le Jeu de l'amour, is justified in prolonging the suffering of Dorante because she can force him to declare his willingness to marry her even as a servant. What more beautiful triumph of love could there be? Does it not justify any amount of suffering? In the same spirit Dorante is forgiven in Les Fausses Confidences. In spite of his pretense and false protestations, his love is sincere, or rather, his very pretense helped uncover the love of Araminte and is therefore justified.
We see that there is no direct road to love for these characters; by contrast, the love of servants wastes little time. In almost every play the contrast between servants and masters emphasizes these characteristics. There is an aristocracy of feeling and sensibility among the masters which explains why Silvia, in Le Jeu de l'amour, cannot accept Arlequin parading as Dorante, just as Dorante cannot accept Lisette playing the part of Silvia. Marivaux is careful to point to the advantages of each class. He emphasizes that there are fundamental qualities independent of social class. In La Dispute, he shows young people brought up in total isolation who soon manifest the same tendencies to self-enjoyment and flirtation as everyone else. The play may not be his best, but the situation is as meaningful, and no more artificial, than Rousseau's Emile. No more than Rousseau does Marivaux imply that our civilization should be reduced to a more primitive state or that the more natural or direct ways of the servants are preferable to the qualms and detours of their masters.
This holds true even though there are occasions when the more genuine awareness of the simpler characters is needed to extricate the masters from difficult situations. In La Surprise de l'amour, Arlequin is barely able to mimic Lélio's aversion for women, based on a disappointment. Arlequin cannot help exclaiming: "C'est pourtant un joli petit animal que cette femme, un joli petit chat." To please his master he adds: "C'est dommage qu'il ait tant de griffes." Unable to follow Lélio's argumentation, he excuses himself: "Quand on n'a pas étudié, on ne voit pas plus loin que son nez." The audience realizes that Lélio cannot see the forest for the trees and that the proverb expresses the opposite of what it says. Arlequin sees further than his master and without realizing it does more than anyone else to set him straight. Thus the fool (quite literally since he wears a fool's costume) is leading the wise! A few pages further Colombine administers a similar lesson to her mistress, the Comtesse, and ridicules her idea of keeping men and women in separate compartments like East and West. In L'Ile de la raison, Blaise and Lisette do their best to help and save their masters from their confused egocentric ramblings. In Marivaux's plays the servants go straight to the point. Jacob, the hero of Le Paysan parvenu, is well on the way to losing not only peasant status but also the psychology of servants when he outfits himself as Monsieur de la Vallée; he comes to partake in the masquerade of culture and privilege.
If servants obey their instincts more directly than their masters, food, money, and love can be said to summarize their interests, at least if we discount their fundamental loyalty, good nature, and sympathy. They are so intent on these basic drives that their statements become grotesque in their simplicity. Jacqueline, one of the servants in La Surprise de l'amour, compliments Pierre on courting her: "Ça me fait plaisir; mais l'honneur des filles empêche de parler. Après ça, ma tante disait toujours qu'un amant est comme un homme qui a faim; pû il a faim, et pû il a envie de manger." She is stating the obvious, she is funny also because she contradicts herself, since girls, according to her, do not admit what she is in the process of expressing; she is even funnier in view of the fact that the masters in this play dare not admit their love; their inability is the motivating force of the entire plot.
Frontin, in L'Heureux Stratagème, is somewhat more complex. He tells the Comtesse, intent on regaining the love of the Chevalier through his jealousy, that the Chevalier cannot be jealous of her affection, for he does not act like an unhappy person: "Le désespoir est connaissable. … Les désespérés s'agitent, se trémoussent, ils font du bruit, ils gesticulent; et il n'y a rien de tout cela." Actually the Chevalier is most unhappy, the Comtesse knows it and feels confident that her plan will succeed in arousing his love. Frontin is fooling no one, but he tries to do so out of loyalty for his master. He is both funny and touching. The maxim about unhappy persons is, of course, inapplicable like practically all maxims uttered by the buffoons, the servants.
In La Surprise de l'amour, another Frontin exclaims: "La tendresse paternelle est admirable." He means the opposite, for Ergaste is about to disinherit his master, Damis. Like the first Frontin, he realizes the irony of the situation. Servants are never dumb in these plays. Arlequin, in the same play, explains Lélio's resolve to flee all women by the maxim, "chat échaudé craint l'eau froide," but, as we have seen, realizes that Lélio's plan is unrealistic. Let us conclude that the use of maxims on the part of servants is grotesque, that proverbs are never quoted as accepted pearls of wisdom, but rather as trite remarks which become funny because they are inapplicable. Not even the servants are fooled by them, although they suffer from illusions like everyone. Their humor is funny but good natured, even if their masters occasionally become exasperated by it. We can understand the progressive despair of Silvia and Dorante in Le Jeu de l'amour at the thought of marrying such buffoons, and Silvia's relief upon discovering Dorante: "Allons, j'avais grand besoin que ce fût là Dorante." Arlequin's joviality was utterly repulsive as long as he appeared as her destined husband.
The methodical use of maxims and general statements in contexts where they do not apply shows the fundamental resistance of Marivaux to the tradition of Descartes, to the esprit de géometrie to which he opposes, with Pascal, his own analysis of complex meanings, l'esprit de finesse. When we consider that it was Voltaire's object, and supreme ability, to reduce complex ideas to simple slogans, we come to understand the gulf that separates the two men. It is no coincidence that, intellectual as might be his orientation and his humor, Marivaux never misses an opportunity to ridicule the presumptuous philosophes. The Philosophe in L'Ile de la raison is the only character never to attain reason which, for Marivaux, means the realization of human needs and of one's own shortcomings. The learned Hortensius in La Seconde Surprise de l'amour, a teacher of "la morale et la philosophie, sans préjudice des autres sciences" would "purger l'âme de toutes les passions" but is defeated as easily as the Fée in Arlequin poli par l'amour. In Le Triomphe de l'amour, Hermocrate and Léontine are deceived in similar ways. Marianne, who well deserves the appellation of a flirt, asserts: "Si on savait ce qui se passe dans la tête d'une coquette, Aristote ne paraÎtrait qu'un petit garçon." Thus, for Marivaux, philosophy, reason, and philosophes have parted company. His ideal of reason implies sensitivity and humility, the attitudes which Rosimond attains in Le Petit-MaÎtre corrigé, and which originally he had spurned because "parmi les jeunes gens du bel air, il n'y a rien de si bourgeois que d'être raisonnable." By implication, philosophes avid for publicity are included among the fops and are derided.
If sympathy and understanding are the essence not only of honnêteté, the attitude befitting gentlemen, but also the very meaning of reason and object of philosophy, the primacy of sentiment over logic is definitely established. As Marianne says: "Il n'y a que le sentiment qui puisse nous donner des nouvelles un peu sûres de nous." Indeed, Marivaux prefers kindness to intelligence and comes close to feeling that they are mutually exclusive. In Marianne he draws two portraits of particular interest since they render his impressions of Mme de Lambert and Mme de Tencin. The first, pictured as Mme de Miran, appears as "une femme d'un esprit ordinaire, de ces esprits qu'on ne loue ni qu'on ne méprise," but she has a heart of gold. The second, Mme Dorsin, is far more brilliant and "aimait mieux qu'on pensât bien de sa raison que de ses charmes." Both portraits are extensive and kindly, but the preference for Mme de Lambert is evident. Marivaux adds: "Supposons la plus généreuse et la meilleure personne du monde, et avec cela la plus spirituelle, et l'esprit le plus délié. Je soutiens que cette personne ne paraÎtra jamais si bonne (car il faut que je répète les mots) que le paraÎtra une autre personne qui, avec ce même degré de bonté, n'aura qu'un esprit médiocre."
Thus kindness outweights logic and education. The simple intuition of Arlequin defeats the Fée. The naïve Blaise, in L'Ile de la raison, is first to reach human stature because he is first to know his limitations. Frontin in Les Serments indiscrets explains about his master: "C'est un garçon qui a de l'esprit; cela fait qu'il subtilise, que son cerveau travaille; et dans de certains embarras, sais-tu bien qu'il n'appartient qu'aux gens d'esprit de n'avoir pas le sens commun?" Thus the simple status of servants and their direct approach to problems may well be an advantage.
Let us note that the author hardly ever speaks for himself. Every line expresses the feeling or impression of a character. This is the note of good theater, for dramatictension arises between the views expressed and their diverse interpretations. It is also indicative of a categorical opposition to generalization and platitude. In one of his essays Marivaux explains: "Je me moque des règles." He implies that general rules of conduct are false and largely inapplicable. What then are we to do with his contradictory interpretations? We must accept them all, understand that life is complexity and antithesis. Like Diderot, in Le Neveu de Rameau or in Jacques le fataliste, the objective is not the golden rule, the reconciliation of paradox, never the juste milieu, but the acceptance of irreconcilable paradox, with all interpretations worthy of consideration and irreducible by logical argument. Mutual understanding must be reached on another level.
If there is any conclusion, it is that diverse interpretations rest on our inability to express our thoughts, on our basic difficulty to communicate. As Colombine puts it in La Surprise de l'amour: "Le chemin de tout le monde, quand on a affaire aux gens, c'est d'aller leur parler, mais cela n'est pas commode." When at a later time, she asks Lélio whether she might convey his respects to her mistress, the Comtesse, Arlequin advises Lélio to send his greetings and best wishes: "Cela serait honnête!" Lélio, however, has no such inclination: "Et moi je ne suis point aujourd'hui dans le goût d'être honnête; je suis las de la bagatelle." He may be amusing, but touches on that bagatelle, that little thing which happens to be the key to human relations, the willingness to communicate and to understand. Marivaux touches here on a key theme of our contemporary theater and seems quite modern. We are concerned, as he was, about the abundance of words that fails to lead to communication. He would, however, never have expressed this "lesson" in so many words. He is convinced that literature cannot and should not attempt to teach and moralize. It should not preach morality, but analyze in the tradition of the moralistes like La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld. There is no rule for overcoming passion, the irrational, and what separates us from another, but to accept the advice: "Réfléchissez sur vos folies pour en guérir" and this principle, contained in the advice of the wise islanders of L'Ile de la raison to the shipwrecked Europeans, becomes the very justification of the author's literary enterprise. What better contribution could he make than portray life and stimulate reflection. At that, he takes account of the tremendous difficulty of devising an accurate portrayal: "Le détailler c'est un ouvrage sans fin." Marivaux defends his use of paradox, in particular humorous paradox, since literature must entertain and amuse, but, above all, he stands for l'esprit de finesse, and wants to present in man's diversity the best means to initiate "la science du coeur humain."
William S. Rogers (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Marivaux: The Mirror and the Mask," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 167-77.
[In the excerpt below, Rogers argues that Marivaux uses images of mirrors and masks to "probe the reality that lies behind appearances. "]
In the first number of Le Spectateur français, Marivaux recounts an incident supposedly drawn from his own life. The passage, perhaps more frequently quoted than any other in Marivaux's prose writings, tells how, at the age of seventeen, he fell in love with a charming and beautiful young lady whose principal attraction for him resided in her indifference to her own beauty, her lack of coquetry, her complete naturalness. One day, after leaving her presence, he discovered that he had left behind a glove which he returned to retrieve. Unnoticed, he came upon his lady-love studying herself in her mirror. She was rehearsing all the facial expressions, all the side glances, all the gestures which had so bewitched him during their conversation. She was, so to speak, practicing her scales. For her, it was a moment of mild embarrassment; for the youthful Marivaux, it was a moment of frightening lucidity.
"Ah! mademoiselle, je vous demande pardon, lui disje, d'avoir mis jusqu'ici sur le compte de la nature des appas dont tout l'honneur n'est dû qu'à votre industrie.
—Qu'est-ce que signifie ce discours? me réponditelle.
—Vous parlerai-je plus franchement, lui dis-je. Je viens de voir les machines de l'Opéra. Il me divertira toujours, mais il me touchera moins." Je sortis làdessus, et c'est de cette aventure que naquit en moi cette misanthropie qui ne m'a point quittée [sic], et qui m'a fait passer ma vie à examiner les hommes, et à m'amuser de mes réflexions.
Marivaux for the rest of his life would experience an unholy joy in catching people unawares, mask off, or mirror in hand.
The mirror and the mask: these two themes recur with such frequency in the writings of Marivaux and represent so vividly his close observation of the human comedy, his desire to probe the reality that lies behind appearances, that an examination of them may serve as a useful approach to his world. Recent critics such as Claude Roy, Jean Rousset and Mario Matucci have briefly treated these themes, which, however, can be profitably amplified.
The mirror is a magnificent instrument of self-awareness. Marianne, at the age of sixteen, tries on the first fine clothes she has ever owned before the mirror of her humble room above the mercer's shop. She sees herself as it were for the first time, and is naively enchanted with what she sees. In La Seconde Surprise de l'amour, Lisette attempts to revive her mistress' interest in her appearance, in men and in life generally, by forcing her to look at herself in a mirror. In the five Lettres contenant une aventure, the heroine, her self-confidence shaken by the neglect of her first suitor, is elated at the realization that she has attracted the attention of not one, but two other eligible young men. She can scarcely wait for the last guest to leave so that she can rush to her room to be alone with her mirror, to reassess her charms, to practice her scales. In one of his late plays, La Dispute (1744), Marivaux invents a delightful fantasy in which a prince and his fiancée Hermiane argue as to whether the first example of inconstancy in love was set by a man or a woman. It would seem difficult, to an imagination less fertile than Marivaux's, to adduce adequate evidence to settle the dispute. It so happens that the same argument had arisen at the court of the prince's father, eighteen or nineteen years before. The king conducted an experiment. He selected four infants, two girls and two boys, to be brought up, isolated from one another and from the world, in the care of two aged servants, Mesrou and Carise. The experiment has now reached the stage where results can be observed. The prince and Hermiane will watch, from a hiding-place, what happens when these young people re-enact for them, as it were, the first days of creation. The young maiden Eglé glimpses her own image for the first time in a stream. She calls to Carise, her elderly companion:
Egle, regardant.—Ah! Carise, approchez, venez voir; il y a quelque chose qui habite dans le ruisseau qui est fait comme une personne, et elle paraÎt aussi étonnée de moi que je le suis d'elle.
Carise, riant.—Eh! non, c'est vous que vous y voyez; tous les ruisseaux font cet effet-là.
Egle.—Quoi! c'est là moi, c'est mon visage?
Egle.—Mais savez-vous bien que cela est très beau, que cela fait un objet charmant? Quel dommage de ne l'avoir pas su plus tôt!
Carise.—Il est vrai que vous êtes belle.
Egle.—Comment "belle"? admirable! cette découverte-là m'enchante (Elle se regarde encore!) Le ruisseau fait toutes mes mines, et toutes me plaisent. Vous devez avoir eu bien du plaisir à me regarder, Mesrou et vous. Je passerai ma vie à me contempler; que je vais m'aimer à présent!
Does the mirror merely express for Marivaux a type of Narcissism? It is true that it affords self-awareness, reassurance, delight, and a practice-keyboard for many of his heroines. For them, however, as for the innocent Egle, awareness of self is rapidly followed by awareness of others. As we shall see, inevitable comparisons result.
The problem is complex. The reflection in the mirror, although it represents objective reality, is nonetheless viewed by a purely subjective beholder who is, in a sense, a distorting mirror herself. Marivaux imagines the plight of an ill-favoured woman, with a misshapen nose, as she places herself before her mirror. Her nose remains misshapen, says Marivaux, but she takes good care not to concentrate on that. Her eye will fall on other features which, all taken together, will bring the nose into focus as an asset rather than a liability. If all the features are unfortunate, she will create of them in her own mental image, through art or vanity, or both, a harmonious whole more attractive than regular beauty itself, and satisfying to her, if not to others.
For Marivaux, each person is a mirror, receiving and distorting the reflections of others, and at the same time a mask, trying to achieve the most flattering possible picture in the mirrors of others. This explains his passion for scrutinizing closely the reactions of people on people. The image in the mirror is sometimes beclouded by the breath of passion, distorted by jealousy, embellished by the wishful thinking of vanity. Marivaux's role is to polish the surface, to smooth out the deforming concavities and convexities, and to present to his audience both the distortion and the reality. Once the distortion has been rectified by the objective observer, the quality of the mirror, and of the reality which it reflects, can be assessed properly.
Several examples have already been given of Marivaux's use of the mirror or its equivalent as a sort of stage-prop. We may now examine some of the more subtle uses of the mirror technique as an artistic device, most evident in the plays, and of such frequent occurrence as to become almost a trademark.
The two chief protagonists in a Marivaux play usually reflect, like mirrors placed on opposite sides of a room, each other's outlook on life. In La Seconde Surprise de l'amour, La Marquise and Le Chevalier mirror each other's sorrow for a lost love. In La Double Inconstance, Silvia and Arlequin reflect each other's attempt to remain faithful to their first love in spite of the involuntary formation of new attachments. In Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, Silvia and Dorante are such exact mirrors of each other that they adopt the same expedient (that of disguising themselves as servants) for the same purpose (that of examining closely the person they may be called upon to marry). In Les Sincères, Ergaste and La Marquise reflect each other's passion for complete and out-spoken honesty in social intercourse. Here the mirrors crack under the strain. In Les Serments indiscrets, Lucile and Damis share a common disinclination for the ties of matrimony which is gradually dispelled as they come to know each other better.
A second mirror device occurs in most of Marivaux's plays. The servants, who advise, cajole, mimic, follow and lead their masters and mistresses, provide a laughing gallery of distortion. This is achieved in a variety of ways. The servants fall in and out of love according to the vicissitudes of their masters' love affairs. Sometimes they take the initiative and see to it that the mistress and master fall in love to protect their own interests; sometimes they follow, taking their cue from their betters. There is, of course, nothing new or original in this device, a classic example of which is found in Moliére's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. But no playwright has used it more persistently and effectively than Marivaux. The love scenes between Lisette and Arlequin in Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, skillfully placed at appropriate moments in the development of the love between Silvia and Dorante, are masterpieces of comic distortion.
Moreover, in Marivaux, the servants represent, on their own level, the same traits of character, foibles or prejudices, as the master or mistress. If the mistress is overly proud of her rank in society, so is the maid: Angélique and Lisette in Le Préjugé vaincu. If she is fickle and inconstant, so is the maid: La Comtesse and Lisette in L'Heureux Stratagème. If the master is a gay young man-about-town, needing to be taken down a peg, so is the valet: Rosimond and Frontin, in Le Petit-MaÎtre corrigé. …
The mirror calls forth the mask. According to Marivaux, one must fit into that vast category of porteurs de visages in order to move in society. The mirror of self-awareness and the mirror of other human beings as they reflect ourselves help us to prepare a mask necessary for participation in the mime of the human comedy.
What forms does the mask assume? As in the case of the mirror, the actual object is used at times as a stage-prop. In La Méprise, for instance, the masks carried, and worn at appropriate moments in the action by two sisters, Hortense and Clarice, provide the source of the comic misunderstanding which so bewilders the hero, Ergaste.
When the masks are removed in the final act, true identities are established, and the misunderstanding is cleared up.
The most common form of the mask in Marivaux is that of the disguise. Here he had an abundance of models to choose from in the traditions of the Italian and French theatres. He used the device of disguise purely as a source of comedy in Le Père prudent et équitable. In one of his last plays, La Femme fidèle (1755), preserved only in fragmentary form, the disguise is used as a source of pathos. The Marquis, supposedly killed in a foreign land, reappears disguised as a friend bearing a message for the widowed Marquise about to marry again much against her will. The disguise enables him to see the true sorrow and fidelity of his wife. When he reveals his identity, the recognition scene is one of genuine emotion.
The period of nearly five decades which separate Le Père prudent et équitable from La Femme fidèle shows such frequent and varied use of Marivaux's device of the disguise that a complete analysis would be impossible here. One of the most successful examples for straight comic effect is the disguise of Eraste in L'Ecole des meres. For sheer virtuosity, the use of disguise in Le Triomphe de l'amour could scarcely be rivalled. Here it produces, not comic scenes, but scenes of disturbing and equivocal subtlety.
Marivaux's heroes and heroines often adopt the mask of disguise in order to view more clearly the person whom they are to marry. This is the starting-point for the adventures of Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, in which the disguise becomes the instrument for delicate psychological analysis. When we witness the unsuccessful inner struggle of Silvia, disguised as the servant Lisette, to resist the attractions of Dorante, disguised as the valet Bourgignon, we share with her that delicious moment of lucidity when he drops his mask and she sees that her instinct has guided her correctly: "Je vois clair dans mon coeur."
The mask and its counterpart, the disguise, are merely visible signs of the barriers which man erects between himself and society …
Marivaux's magic is performed with mirrors and masks. The aim of this magician, however, is not to conjure up a world of illusion, but to disclose the world of reality. Holding up to nature the crystal-clear mirror of observation, removing the mask by his insight and penetration, Marivaux leaves his attentive reader with a new desire to see clearly—voir clair—and to avoid being taken in—ne pas être dupe.
Lionel Gossman (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Literature and Society in the Early Enlightenment: The Case of Marivaux," in MLN, Vol. 82, No. 3, May, 1967, pp. 306-33.
[In the essay below, Gossman delineates the relations of Marivaux's plays to the social and philosophical views of his day.]
In the last few years there has been a revival of interest in Marivaux, touched off perhaps by Gabriel Marcel's introduction to a 1947 edition of a selection of the comedies. Not much of the new criticism, on the whole, has been concerned with the relation between Marivaux's work and the society in and for which it was written. It is this relation which I should like to explore. Marivaux wrote both plays and novels, but as a novelist he may well have entered into a different relation to his public from that in which he stood to the public of the plays. It seemed prudent, therefore, to approach the plays and the novels separately and I have made no attempt to deal with the latter here.
The son of an undistinguished provincial administrator with aspirations to nobility, Marivaux was one of a large number of young men who climbed on to the band waggon of the Modernes in the early years of the Regency. He became a disciple and friend of Fontenelle and found his way to the headquarters of the Moderne movement in the salons of Madame de Lambert and Madame de Tencin. Although there has been no full study, as yet, of the social significance of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, it does seem, as of now, that the Anciens were in the main those who, while often less than satisfied with existing arrangements, were even more apprehensive of change. They included some members of the old nobility, certain religious groups and above all robins and bourgeois living on rentes. The Modernes, on the other hand, expressed the ideas and sentiments of the most active and advanced section of French society in the early eighteenth century, notably the rich and increasingly influential financiers and fermiers-généraux, who sought to elevate themselves and gain power, not as the robins had done at an earlier stage by purchasing offices and constituting themselves a special privileged class, but by infiltrating the aristocracy, the court and the royal administration. The wealthy bourgeoisie of the first half of the eighteenth century was thus extremely close to and indeed barely distinguishable from the aristocracy, which accepted the influx of new blood and new money with little resistance and in the process adopted many of the ideas and attitudes of its powerful partner. This society of bourgeois aristocrats and aristocratic bourgeois was cultured and generous. It would be hard to exaggerate the cultural role of the fermiers-généraux, for instance, throughout the eighteenth century. Marivaux himself was in receipt of a pension from Helvétius.
The Modernes embraced many new ideas. They set out to free themselves and France from old tyrannies, to explode old myths that they had been taught to take for granted and to reveal the material and conventional nature of all human arrangements and institutions, political, religious and social. Every realm of human thought and activity was de-sacramentalized: in philosophy essentialist doctrines were rejected, in religion the natural origin of all mysteries (the Christian ones being prudently excepted, of course) was exposed, in literature the classics, and even the classics of the age of absolutism, were toppled from their pedestals, in art academicism came under increasing attack.
Nothing was taken for granted by these early enlighteners. They no longer believed, for instance, that reality is immediately accessible to the intelligence and their work is a constant interrogation not only of our total conceptions of reality but of the apparently solid bricks out of which these conceptions are constructed. Social reality was questioned no less eagerly than physical reality and here too not only society as a whole but the individual self was found to be problematic, for how did a series of discontinuous moments of experience constitute a self? Literature itself was thought of as a means of de-mystification and an exercise in reflection and self-awareness. It no longer presented itself to the reader in analogy with a natural object, the meaning of which is immediately apprehensible, since natural objects themselves could no longer be thought of in this way, but as an artefact designed by an author, the meaning of which is uncertain and requires to be prised out of it, or given to it, by the reader. The style of the Modernes is atomic. Causal conjunctions, in particular, are rare with them, and their prose has not the highly articulated architectural quality of their seventeenth century predecessors. They do not construct chains of reasoning. They lay out the observed "facts" and leave it to the reader to evaluate them and put them together as he judges best.
Given their rejection of essentialism in all domains, it is not surprising that the Modernes had an image of society as a comedy in which each man plays out his role before others. "Ce monde est un grand bal où des fous déguisés / Sous les risibles noms d'Eminence et d'Altesse / Pensent enfler leur être et hausser leur bassesse," Voltaire declared in his Discours en vers sur l'homme. The wise man stands back and recognizes the human comedy for what it is: "Les mortels sont égaux: leur masque est différent." Obviously, the acquisition of such lucidity can serve different ends. The Anciens also thought of social life as a theatrical performance and the lines quoted from Voltaire could be matched with similar passages in Pascal, La Bruyère or Boileau. Indeed, this view of social life goes back to Montaigne, and even further. But whereas the Anciens took the masquerade of society as an invitation to seek elsewhere for man's "true" nature, the Modernes denied that there was any "true" nature of man in a religious or metaphysical sense. For the Anciens social life was emptied of significance by the discovery of its inessentiality, for the Modernes on the other hand—since they believed in nothing else—it had to be accepted and grasped in its inessentiality.
For those of them, in particular, who, like Marivaux, lived in close proximity to the wealthy bourgeoisie and the aristocracy and shared in their way of life, irreverence with regard to existing institutions and, in particular, to the social order of the ancien regime in no way implied a radical critique of it. It produced instead a quite distinctive outlook in which intellectual audacity was combined with social conservatism and rationalism with respect for irrational forms. It would probably be vain to look for any revolutionary critique of social institutions in the first half of the eighteenth century—with the possible exception of the late seventeenth century Testament of Jean Meslier, which was much sought after by amateurs of clandestine literature. The financiers them-selves had no thought of attacking the social order at its roots; they owed their fortunes to their skilful exploitation of the fiscal and commercial arrangements of the state. The Modernes did not, therefore, wish to destroy the forms of society. On the contrary, they desired to maintain them; but they wished them to be recognized as forms, so that they might then be opened, without the usual tiresome protests, to new content. Whereas the Anciens opposed all social change on the grounds that social order depends on the respect accorded to age-old customs, the Modernes tended to emphasize the positive value of social arrangements and to justify a certain measure of social change. They admitted that the forms of society do not reflect an essential "nature of things," but since they considered such a "nature" mythical anyway, they could not consider it a useful criterion for judging social forms. The criterion by which they judged was empirical, the correspondence of social forms not to some essential "nature" but to nature as it was observed to be in fact in the world. The Modernes thus rejected the either-or way of thinking which allowed the Anciens to make a blanket condemnation of society while at the same time insisting that all social change be avoided.
The social thinking of the Modernes suited various social groups in the ancien regime rather well. It suited ennobled financiers who wished to base their right to nobility not on their money but on their distinction as human beings and, paradoxically, it also suited the proud aristocracy of the blood which could claim, as Vauvenargues was to do, that its right to nobility rested on its inherent superiority, as a noblesse de race, to other men. "J'appelle peuple tout ce qui pense bassement et communément," declared Madame de Lambert, the patroness of the Modernes; "la cour en est remplie." The refined, cultivated and magnificently married daughters of the Crozats and the Bernards, the financial wizards of the day, could not but have been pleased by this consecration of their newly acquired nobility. But in fact it is not at all clear that Madame de Lambert's barbs were not directed at them. It is never sure in her writings whether it is a certain refinement of sensibility, a certain distinction of soul, that ensures nobility, or whether it is nobility that ensures distinction of soul. Does a person who has the "style" of nobility deserve to be "noble"—that is, to be recognized as noble—or is this style itself a proof of noble blood? Admittedly there are no essential "natures," but is what man is perhaps biologically determined and if so, is the furthest reality to which we can penetrate not race rather than merit? By depriving social forms—institutions, ranks, language, etc.—of any necessary or "natural" relation to "reality," by affirming more-over that "reality" was, if not mythical, then at least unknowable and irrelevant to life, the Modernes had cleared a way for the simultaneous co-existence of various interpretations of the meanings of social forms. The truly enlightened man, of course, was not the dupe of any of these meanings. Knowing that there was no necessary connection between social forms and an "objective" world of things, he bracketed entirely the question of those objective things to which the forms supposedly referred. To him the forms signified by themselves, independently of any reference to an "objective"—that is, socially undetermined—reality.
This way of thinking is nicely illustrated by the mystery shrouding the birth of the heroine of Marivaux's novel La Vie de Marianne. Is Marianne a noble soul because she is in reality the daughter of noble parents, or does she deserve to be treated as a gentlewoman—that is to be one—on account of her delicacy of soul? The answer is never given and never could be, because Marianne's "nobility" is precisely what each must be free to interpret as he chooses, while the truly enlightened will bracket the question of the "reality" on which it is grounded altogether. Such a way of thinking could hardly fail to find favor with a society composed of aristocrats eager to sell their "blood" and of bourgeois eager to be counted on their "merit," that is, ultimately, their wealth. In-deed it is very likely that the phenomenalism of the Moderne movement was essential to its success and its historical role.
Marivaux's work, like that of all the Modernes, is destructive of traditional myths and ideas about literature, about society, about man. Moreover, Marivaux was quite conscious of what, as a writer, he was about. The Prefaces to his plays together with the observations on style in his undeservedly neglected essays—Le Spectateur français, Le Cabinet du philosophe, L'indigent Philosophe—reveal what he thought of literature in general, of his own work in particular and of that of his immediate predecessors.
Just as he rejected the pompous acting style of the Comédie Française and insisted that his actors use a "natural" style, Marivaux saw no sense in continuing academic traditions in literature. These traditions, in his view, were connected with the essentialist way of thinking which, as a Moderne, he also rejected. Neither man himself, nor his passions, nor natural objects can be apprehended as universals or forms, he held, but only in their qualities, as they are observed and experienced. Many of his shorter allegorical plays in particular turn on the contrast between love-passion as it is supposed to be and love as it can be observed in actual social life—and this contrast between Amour and Cupidon was also for him a contrast of styles, as the short comedy La Réunion des Amours makes clear, the style of Amour being pompous, long-winded and cliche-ridden, while that of Cupidon is agile, witty and realistic. Similarly, Marivaux no longer believed in the myth of the hero—one of the favorite whipping horses of the Modernes. "Il n'y a ni petit, ni grand homme pour le Philosophe," he declared. "… Il y a des hommes ordinaires … médiocres, qui valent bien leur prix, et dont la médiocrité a ses avantages. …" The authors of the past have put together words and images which on inspection have turned out to be fraudulent or mythical. There is no point, therefore, Marivaux held, in continuing to string together these meaningless words and images. Only the professional author will do that, because he is paid by some king or court to do so.
Marivaux's unrelenting critique of the status of author is part of his struggle to impose a modern style in place of the semi-official style of classicism. He never tired of emphasizing that he did not want to be thought of as an author. The Spectateur français opens with the statement "Ce n'est point un auteur que vous allez lire ici" and follows it up with a definition of the author as someone who writes about empty ideas. "Un auteur est un homme à qui, dans son loisir, il prend une envie vague de penser sur une ou plusieurs matières: et l'on pourroit appeler cela, réfléchir à propos de rien." As he satirized the "Auteur méthodique" with his "demi-douzaine de pensées dans la tête sur laquelle il fonde tout l'ouvrage." Marivaux was doing for literature what other enlighteners had done for philosophy when they mocked the meta-physicians of the previous century for having drawn out of their heads "le roman de la philosophie," as they liked to put it. Instead of writing as an author, Marivaux proposed to write as a man. "Je veux être un homme et non pas un Auteur."
At the same time as he rejected an earlier notion of the author, Marivaux also rejected an earlier notion of literature. Literature, as he saw it, is not an incarnation of eternal truths and ideal beauty but part of a secular and temporal culture. Marivaux could say in the same breath that he did not write his essays for the "public" in the manner of the classical "author" and that he cannot conceive why he should have written them except for other men to read them: "Cependant pourquoi les ai-je écrits? Est-ce pour moi seul? Mais écrit-on pour soi? J'ai de la peine à le croire. Quel est l'homme qui écriroit ses pensées, s'il ne vivoit pas avec d'autres hommes." To write as a man, in short, means to stop writing as an "author" and to accept willingly the social and historical nature of literature. Literature, for Marivaux, is not made in heaven; it is made by men who do not wish to pronounce as divines or oracles but to communicate with their fellows in their own language, and its subject matter is human experience, not eternal essences. The great writers of the Enlightenment found glory in the humble function they assigned to literature. One recalls Sidrac's words to Goudman as he invites him to dinner in Voltaire's Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield: "Votre faculté pensante aura le plaisir de se communiquer à la mienne par le moyen de la parole: ce qui est une chose merveilleuse que les hommes n'admirent pas assez."
As a writer, the Moderne will not, therefore, withdraw behind his creation but reveal his presence in it; on the other hand, he will not sit down to write on traditional themes, but will wait until some event, some experience or some striking observation goads him to action. About the ideas he used in his works Marivaux declared: "Je n'examine pas si celle-ci est plus fine, si celle-là l'est moins; car mon dessein n'est de penser ni bien ni mal, mais seulement de recueillir fidèlement ce qui me vient d'après le tour d'imagination que me donnent les choses que je vois ou que j'entends." The writer will not invent, in other words, out of his head, or by elaborating some worn literary theme. A picturesque comment by Montesquieu on the Regent reveals how essential the contact with others was held to be for the artist of the period: "Les paroles qu'il a si admirablement dites sont toujours des reparties, comme s'il s'était refusé toutes les choses charmantes qui ne naissent point de l'occasion." It is no accident that the age of Marivaux was also the age of the art of conversation and of those correspondences—Walpole, Madame du Deffand, Voltaire—of which it is impossible to say whether they are documents of social communication or works of art.
Imitation of other writers obviously had no place among those who had denounced the myth of Parnassus and chosen temporality rather than eternity. Marivaux condemns it out of hand. "L'imitation … ne fera qu'un singe." The author Marivaux most admired, if d'Alembert is to be believed, was Montaigne, because his personal style did not lend itself to imitation. Sometimes Marivaux's emphasis on originality strikes a remarkably modern note. "Ecrire naturellement," he declares in the Spectateur, "n'est pas écrire dans le goût de tel Ancien, ni de tel Moderne, n'est pas se mouler sur personne quant à la forme de ses idées; mais au contraire, se ressembler fidèlement à soi-même." "Jusqu'ici," he adds later in the Cabinet du philosophe, "vous ne connoissez presque que des Auteurs qui songent à vous quand ils écrivent, et qui, à cause de vous, tâchent d'avoir un certain style. Je ne dis pas que ce soit mal fait; mais vous ne voyez pas là l'homme qu'il est."
This critique of the classical concept of the author and of literature is surely not fortuitous. It fits too well with the character, the position and the outlook of the social group with which Marivaux and his fellow Modernes were closely associated. Similarly, the new idea of the author and of his relation to society which begins to emerge from the essays reflects the ambiguities of this social group.
The classical idea of the artist rested on the assumption that he shared with the public and, indeed, with reasonable men in all ages certain fundamental principles and values which were true for all time and which could not be changed or improved upon. As a matter of fact, since men in their folly tended, if anything, to be distracted from truth by the flattering images of illusion, innovation was as likely as not to mean degeneration. This view usually went hand in hand, not unexpectedly, with a fairly conservative view of society, for if the ideal of an intimate and secure relation between artist and public was to be maintained, the public of taste and judgment had itself to be maintained. But even in the seventeenth century social change was already undermining the "public" of the classical artists. Boileau and La Bruyère never tire of railing against the financiers and traitants who were upsetting the order of things and taking over positions once occupied by persons of sense and discrimination. By Marivaux's time the author could no longer imagine that there was a homogeneous public in which he was but a special voice. Moreover, many of the newer writers themselves came from less solidly established families than their classical predecessors. The eighteenth century writer was thus less conscious and sure of his relation to society than the classical writer had been and for this very reason he became more aware of and interested in his own individuality. Similarly, what he had to say and how he should say it no longer seemed self-evident to him. Nor could he accept the assent of the "public" as the measure of his success.
Marivaux's refusal of the category of "author" is thus a response to a truly altered social situation. No longer enjoying the independence provided by a private income and the feeling of writing for a public of friends and equals, he and his contemporaries were in fact becoming increasingly alienated from the "public" and the latter was already coming to resemble the market, as the modern writer knows it. They were thereby assuming some of the essential traits of the bourgeois. But they did not clearly recognize or accept this fact, and in this they resembled a large part of the public for which they wrote. It is characteristic of the whole Moderne movement that even in the essays, where he speaks most daringly and provocatively of his relation to the public, Marivaux did not clearly avow—or perhaps fully grasp—the reality of the writer's changed situation and that he expressed it instead in an ambiguous form. The bourgeois author first affirmed his independence by assuming, ironically, the mask of a grand seigneur of letters and his cavalier rejection of the models of antiquity and of the classical relation of artist and public, summarized in the formula instruire et plaire, has an air of aristocratic dilettantism. "Je ne vous promets rien," Marivaux tells his readers, "… Je ne jure de rien; et si je vous ennuie, je ne vous ai pas dit que cela n'arriveroit pas; si je vous amuse, je n'y suis pas obligé, je ne vous dois rien: ainsi le plaisir que je vous donne est un présent que je vous fais; et si par hasard je vous instruis, je suis un homme magnifique, et vous voilà comblé de mes grâces." The acceptance of a traditional form to convey and simultaneously to conceal a new meaning is, as we shall see, characteristic not only of Marivaux's reflections on literature and writers but of his own literary work itself.
Marivaux's insistence on the social nature of literature and on the role of the author's subjectivity in the process of literary creation necessarily excluded the classical ideal of objectivity. While the writer has to write about something, in short, that something, Marivaux held, is not a pure object or essence, but something as the writer sees it or experiences it. Every subject implies an object and every object implies a subject. Man cannot think, feel, indeed he cannot exist, without the world to awaken him and galvanize his faculties into action. "Nous restons là comme des eaux dormantes qui attendent qu'on les remue, pour se remuer," remarks Lélio in the first Surprise de l'amour. The world, on the other hand, can be apprehended only by our reflection upon our experience of it. In a way it too only comes into existence through us. Esse est percipi is a radical formulation of a common attitude. Nothing is for us but what is observed. In all the literature and art of the eighteenth century—in content and in form as well—the point of view plays a crucial role. The epistolary novel presents the point of view of the writer of each letter, the novel in the form of mémoires stresses that it is the work of the hero recalling and interpreting his past in later life, the conte, the fantasy tale and the third person novel have their auctorial interventions, the theatre has the play within the play, the painting viewers and paintings within the painting. The work of art comes to the public openly as a contrivance, pointing to itself by these various devices and saying or asking what it is. And this is one of its most pertinent comments upon reality itself.
The variety of points of view and the absence of any absolute standard are essential elements of Marivaux's work. While others continued to use the stock characters of courtly comedy—the financier, the fop, etc.—as comic heroes, Marivaux recognized that the norm of nature or reason supporting this kind of comedy is simply the expression of a point of view, that of la cour et la ville, which is unaware of itself as a point of view, and that the comic type himself reflects a view of man out of tune with contemporary experience and contemporary thought. Marivaux was conscious of his esthetics. "Il avoit le malheur de ne pas estimer beaucoup Molière," d'Alembert relates. In effect, a good deal of his work is a response to Molière's. Les Sincères, as has been frequently pointed out, is Marivaux's answer to Le Misanthrope. (The point of the play is that all social behavior is behavior for others, so that sincerity is itself a mask, and a more dishonest mask than most, since it refuses to accept its own nature.) So too the first scene of La Double Inconstance, one of the earliest comedies, should probably be read with Molière in mind. "Ne faut-il pas être raisonnable," Trivelin enjoins Silvia, who has been abducted by the Prince from her village and brought to the court. "Non, il ne faut point l'être et je ne le serai point," Silvia answers, overturning what Marivaux took to be Molière's fixed categories of nature and reason. Reason in this scene is simply the perspective of the court, and Silvia has her own reason. "Moi, je hais la santé et je suis bien aise d'être malade," she cries, again pointing up against the author of Le Malade Imaginaire that the norm of so-called health is simply that of a social group unaware of the relativity of its own position. "Je ne veux qu'être fâchée," she adds in the next sentence, and the audience must certainly have recalled Alceste's "Moi, je veux me fâcher."
While Marivaux wished to give his audiences a point of view—that of servants, rustics, etc.—from which they could grasp their own conventionality he did not, however, intend them to settle down into this point of view. The point of the comedy would be lost if it were not grasped that all forms are conventional and that none, therefore, not that of urbs but not that of rus either, can be taken as absolute. What we have to do, Marivaux implies, is to assume this conventionality with complete lucidity, to play out our part as prince, duke or valet, remembering that it is only a part and that as wearers of the mask to which history or accident has assigned us, we are all equal. There is, in Marivaux's view, no escape from this situation. Those who are unaware of it are nevertheless in it. They may not think they are actors—like the children raised in isolation in La Dispute and then thrown together by the Prince—but they are actors even if they do not know it: the Court is present watching the so-called children of nature as they awaken to themselves and to each other—and we, of course, are present as spectators watching the play. "Nous sommes tous des tableaux, les uns pour les autres," in the words of the Spectateur Français. Everyone is always an actor for someone. Madame Argante in Les Acteurs de Bonne Foi will not give her consent to a play, and she is punished for her refusal by being made an unconscious actress in a dramatic situation devised by her friend Madame Amelin. If she will not assume the comedy, she will not escape it. Ergaste and La Marquise in Les Sincères, who reject social forms as false, are the most vain, hypocritical and deceitful of all the characters in that play. Let us recall once more the words of the Indigent Philosophe. He likes best, he tells us, those who "ne portent point leur masque; ils ne l'ont qu'à la main, et vous disent: tenez, le voilà, et cela est charmant. J'aime tout à fait cette manière-là d'être ridicule; car enfin, il faut l'être et de toutes les manières de l'être, celle qui mérite le moins à mon gré, c'est celle qui ne trompe point les autres, qui ne les induit pas à erreur sur notre compte." The only honesty and the only freedom, in short, lie in a willing assumption of our social condition and of the conventionality of social arrangements.
The meaning of Marivaux's plays is conveyed not only at the level of dramatic action, but at the level of the very material with which the writer works, at the level of language. Marivaux was acutely conscious of the social nature of language, and a great deal of the apparently innocent word play in the comedies is designed to emphasize it. Again there is an unreflecting realist stage at which words are assumed to be, as if by some divine or natural institution, the direct images of things. Arlequin the rustic in La Double Inconstance who is unaware of himself as an actor is also unaware of the nature of language. "A vrai dire, Seigneur," Flaminia reports to the Prince about him, "je le crois tout à fait amoureux de moi, mais il n'en sait rien. Comme il ne m'appelle encore que sa chère amie, il vit sur la bonne foi de ce nom qu'il me donne, et prend toujours de l'amour à bon compte" (III, 1). It is the writer's aim to give the audience a perspective on this realist view of language and thus to lead it to the second stage, at which it becomes aware that words are no more made in heaven than literature itself is, that they are not images of things but signs which depend for their meaning on a code and that the code itself is conventional. "Eh bien! Infidèle soit, puisque tu veux que je le sois," exclaims the Countess in L'Heureux Stratagème to her servant Lisette. "Crois-tu me faire peur avec ce grand mot-là? Infidèle! ne diraiton pas que ce soit une grande injure? Il y a comme cela des mots dont on épouvante les esprits faibles qu'on a mis en crédit, faute de réflexion, et qui ne sont pourtant...
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E. J. H. Greene (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Women and Men," in Marivaux, University of Toronto Press, 1965, pp. 124-65.
[In the following excerpt, Green declares The Game of Love and Chance "a masterpiece of comedy" and attempts to identify the sources of its "enduring appeal. "]
The first of Marivaux's works to achieve the status of a classic, Le Jeu was not immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Created on January 23, 1730, by the Italians, it had a good first run of fourteen performances, plus two at court and one for the Duchesse du Maine. The Mercure termed it a "very great success," but the average box-office...
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Brereton, Geoffrey. "Marivaux." In French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, pp. 194-213. London: Methuen & Co., 1977.
A survey of Marivaux's dramatic works that stresses their depiction of love and the playwright's feminism.
Culpin, D. J. "Manvaux's Apology for Religion." French Studies XXXIX, No. 1 (January 1985): 31-42.
Explores Marivaux's religious beliefs as expressed in his works. Culpin argues: "Consciously [Marivaux] was clinging to the faith which around him was disintegrating, but unconsciously he was part of the process which was undermining orthodoxy and substituting natural for revealed religion."
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