Carlet, Pierre de Chamblain de Marivaux
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.
Overviews And General Studies
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
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The Game Of Love And Chance
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."
(The entire section is 476 words.)