Harold H. Watts

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Estimate of Marcel's drama can satisfy several related curiosities: the function in a distinguished philosophical career of these numerous dramatic compositions; the kind of play that will satisfy a thinker's need to yoke a basically religious speculation and dramatic composition; and the light that Marcel's theatre casts on a more...

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Estimate of Marcel's drama can satisfy several related curiosities: the function in a distinguished philosophical career of these numerous dramatic compositions; the kind of play that will satisfy a thinker's need to yoke a basically religious speculation and dramatic composition; and the light that Marcel's theatre casts on a more general attempt to explore religious themes in the modern theatre. These are interrelated questions, and the best way to take them up is to recognize that Marcel, as a dramatist, remains a certain kind of philosopher and finds a place for his dramatic compositions in perspectives traced in general by his thought.

The person who has read Marcel's philosophical "journals" (the term Marcel frequently applies to his formal philosophical works) as Being and Having, The Mystery of Being, Homo Viator, and Creative Fidelity can place Marcel in a general tradition of twentieth century philosophical speculation and can also assign him a special niche in that tradition. Marcel belongs—such a judgment might run—to the vein of existential speculation that has found itself uneasy or impatient with both German idealism and Cartesianbased rationalism and positivism. Like other modern existentialists, Marcel is uneasy in the presence of much German philosophic thought that reduces our direct knowledge of human experience to a minor place in a more inclusive system. For Marcel, at any rate, concrete human suffering and aspiration must not be thought of as a minor and not particularly crucial manifestation of a set of transcendent ideas that realize themselves in particular human lives. And those lives also escape the reading of them made by rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza and by latterday positivists who push farther the efforts of Descartes and Spinoza to make man's contemplation of the universe an act of complete comprehension. From this latter point of view—the second "front" on which Marcel fights his long battle—man is just the manifestation of determining social forces or some physical and psychological inheritances which human reason can grasp fully.

In short, both idealism and views opposed to it must be denied. For Marcel, each man is the center of things as they are rather than a relatively unimportant confirmation of some more inclusive assertion about existence. These more inclusive assertions result from reckless manipulations that ignore the variety among men and reduce him to a comparative nullity called "man." It is Marcel's point that the lives of individual men are not illustrations of something more inclusive; those lives must remain both the points of departure and also the goals of proper philosophical speculation. Philosophical speculation is the servant of those lives and so, it will soon appear, is dramatic composition. For those lives are superior to any system which one attempts to excogitate from them; the thinker—and of course the dramatist—must return to them again and again rather than leave them behind as he travels toward explanations that are abstract and orderly. Existence not only precedes essence; it exercises a permanent hegemony over essence…. Speaking retrospectively of his work as a dramatist in Théâtre et Religion (1958), Marcel remarks: the dramatist "ought to forget himself on behalf of the beings whom he has created and whose freedom he is bound to preserve; he must literally put himself at the service of a certain truth which is immanent in his characters and in the creative relations which unite them."

Such a view also marks Marcel's conception of the work of a philosopher. The importance of variety and complexity in human behavior is the explanation of the lack of system in the philosophical work of Marcel as well as the abundance of his plays. Everything is to be done again, often in apparent indifference to lines of thought followed out in earlier work. It is true that later philosophical discourse of Marcel confirms earlier utterance. As noted, Marcel himself often applies the term "journal" to his philosophical work as if to indicate that he explores rather than concludes. It is true that in these explorations phrases like "problem" and "mystery," "fidelity" and "presence" recur. (They are terms of much importance for understanding the movement and tension in his plays.) The terms recur simply because one's subject is the suffering and willing of human beings. The terms are inescapable rather than, as with certain key-terms in other philosophy, preconceived. (pp. 101-02)

The facts about man are facts, Marcel would suggest, that he shares with other philosophers of existence. Man exists, yet he has not asked to exist. Man is obliged to act, and yet he must act on the basis of incomplete knowledge of the issue of cause and consequence in which his actions place him. Man is the creature who must die, and yet his will and aspirations strive to give the lie to death. It is from meditation on these facts that Marcel, if not other modern existentialist thinkers, comes to perceive the rightness and relevance of Christian assertions about man. But Marcel sees these assertions as belonging to the realm of "mystery" rather than that of "problem": a distinction crucial for a grasp of Marcel's dramas. Human aspiration and failure can be viewed in two ways. Under the aspect of "problem", the suffering human being is an equation to be worked out only in terms of what precedes the "equal" sign. But on the right hand side of the equation the viewer who does not reduce man to a "problem", a representative "case", will discover unforeseen elements (generosity, hope against hope) that did not exist in the preliminary statement of the "problem". For Marcel, "problem" ends—or may end—in "mystery". As he frequently observes in his remarks on his own theatre, Marcel regards the drama as a medium which expedites one's movement from "problem" to "mystery" or "metaproblem" as he sometimes calls it. This is a movement that the philosopher who is faithful to men—better, to individual men—must make. For the solution of individual human "problems" often presents us with elements that seem to come from nowhere—elements that certainly do not lie within the left-hand portion of the equation. The philosopher—and likewise the dramatist—can allow his subject-matter (man) to remain in the condition of "problem", and his task will be simple. Or like Marcel he can reckon with the elements—unforeseen but real—that occasionally emerge: elements that invite us to cherish rather than to understand certain human gestures.

An essential part of Marcel's demonstration of these insights exists in his theatre rather than in his "journals"…. Marcel wrote of two early plays (La Grâce and Le Palais de Sable) that they were "plays of ideas" and "move in the sphere of metaphysical thought". To these observations, which would seem to open the door to the bloodless and the systematized, Marcel adds: "… and nevertheless they [the early plays] are not in any way philosophical dialogues; they are concerned with the ultimate antinomies that the mind discovers in reflecting upon itself." He concludes, significantly, that there is no room in his drama for either allegory or symbol. Allegory and symbol, like philosophical abstraction itself, deprive the real of its instructive force. Tragedy itself "could not live in the ether of abstraction, in the rarified air of philosophic dialogue; it achieves its full intensity only in real life, among real beings." If Marcel's theatre can be seen as a theatre of grace, it is a grace that mediated by "real life" and "real beings". It is a grace that rests not on dogmatic assertions about grace but on inspections of specific, varying human needs made possible only by dramatic presentation. Many years later … [Marcel remarked upon] the necessity of his being a philosopher-dramatist: "I am still persuaded that it is in the drama and by means of the drama that metaphysical thought grasps itself and defines itself in concreto."

With such observations in mind, we can see that Marcel's plays are more than an embroidery of truths already set down in his philosophical "journals." Instead, his theatre is a form of meditation on human action that the metaphysical journals cannot encompass. The journals, it is true, seek to find their center in individual men. But, by the very nature of philosophical meditation, the "journals" move onward from individual men to dangerously inclusive observations about man. The precious reality—individual men and their gestures—suffers a depletion. The plays of Marcel are, among other things, an effort to offset this depletion; they are attempts to remain at the level of real event and real choice that philosophical thought, despite heroic efforts to the contrary, drifts away from.

A cursory judgment at this point might conclude that the theatre of Marcel belongs to an omnibus category familiar in our time: "religious drama." We are well acquainted with attempts to yoke drama and phases of orthodox revelation and give a twentieth century expression to the deposit of revealed truth. All of these attempts—and to this extent the plays of Marcel find a place in the religious category—recognize that there is defensive utterance just possible in our time and utterance that is clearly impossible now. The times when mystery plays' autos da fe could stir an audience are gone. (p. 103)

Instead, oblique strategies must be fashioned….

Marcel's "religious" theatre is neither one of saintliness nor of unexpected mercy…. (And one should note that it is not dogmatic in accent like the dramas written by Paul Claudel, where explicit articles of Catholic truth are embodied without evasion or indirection.) Though "daily", Marcel's theatre is not entirely cut off, indeed, from "extreme situations."… Rome n'est plus dans Rome has for its subject a fairly unusual choice (thus an "extreme situation"): during the time of the German invasion in World War Two, a man chooses exile and dangerous separation from his own culture…. Mon Temps n'est pas le vôtre has a more ordinary theme: an aging man's effort to relate his own life and values to those of the oncoming generation as represented by his two daughters. Croissez et Multipliez, limited like the previous play to domestic circumstance but treating a more painful one, inspects the agonies consequent on the Church's teaching about birth control; the heroine has borne too many children and is sick to death of the whole business. Reference to other plays would but confirm the impression here conveyed. The Marcel personages are ordinary, comprehensible personages and remain so. And what they undergo does not open automatic doorways to vistas of divine aid that most people are denied. Whatever the sufferings, they remain agonies of persons who in no way escape the texture of this world. The persons are offered neither the miracle of divine presence nor astounding forgiveness that can only suspend and disorder the ordinary categories of human judgment.

It is this commitment to the "ordinary"—to a world where no doors open and admit the divine—that separates the dramas of Marcel from much religious drama. A by-product of that circumstance is the tone of dialogue, which is that of cultivated, thoughtful speech; there is room for deeply felt rhetoric in Marcel's play but none for poetry, none for departures from the reality that the dramatist and his public share. Thus, Marcel escapes—if it is an escape—one of the endemic dangers of much religious drama, which draws the dramatist and his audience into a world of foregone conclusions. If religious truth is ultimately single, the same for all men, how is the dramatist to induce effects of suspense and uncertainty? He likely will not, and this is one of the points where much religious drama is weak…. In short, how is one to avoid the frustrating effect of didacticism, the irritating suspicion that variety has been mounted to offer us a religious platitude?

These are questions that do not apply to Marcel's plays…. (p. 104)

[We] can say of Marcel's drama that there is not, as in Betti, an effect of isolating, crucial moments; to Marcel's attentive eye no moments of an existence are really negligible. And there is in the theatre of Marcel no "still point": no manifestation of the transcendent and its power to disorient and transform a human life. Grace comes, for Marcel's chosen subjects, in another fashion…. [The] coming may be, for many, more credible. It does not posit deity as a precondition (a precondition beyond demonstration); it simply posits men in each other's presence.

A theatre of grace that posits only mutual human presence is likely to have, at its center, a less precise formula than bodies of drama that rest ultimately on the positing of a divine attention. Its functioning, to "work" at all, must be precisely and even schematically presented. Such accents of certainty are less possible for Marcel, whose point of departure is man and not deity. A great deal is known about man, and errors in general formulation are readily detectable. The result is, in Marcel, an imprecision of dramatic formula. Has this imprecision some relation to Marcel's habit, in his philosophical discourse, of "beginning again" rather than, like the more systematic philosopher, moving from selected données to apparently inevitable conclusions? I think so.

Yet one can also characterize Marcel's plays by noting, as Marcel himself does frequently, the elements in the theatre of the last hundred years that he responds to and those to which he is indifferent….

These [elements] may be summarized thus. The complications of human life are best represented in dramas that reproduce the daily surfaces of man's behavior rather than rearrange and perhaps simplify them as is done by German expressionism and by the more recent theatre of the absurd. Marcel's characters move through "real" rooms, receive and pay visits, answer distracting telephone calls, and vary their lives with the upper-class, educated diversions of trips to the mountains and the sea…. The conversations that unfold in Parisian apartments and Swiss vacation chalets are offered as conversations that really could have occurred…. Strikingly and even oppressively present is the convention of the débat that also dominates the plays of Marcel's early contemporary, François Curel…. It must be conceded that Marcel does not himself entirely escape the tedium of "verbal tourneys". The exhaustive exploration of the implications of adultery render it, in Marcel, more forensic than fleshly.

In further pursuit of a kind of formula for Marcel's plays, one can note that the erring deeds that occasion the discussions are almost always antecedent to the rise of the curtain since Marcel is more interested in the "problem" created by a deed than he is in the deed itself. (p. 105)

Marcel's thoughtful and introspective people, in their shifting and uneasy relations to each other, prepare to endure and, in a few instances, transform [these antecedent difficulties]. Those who are able only to endure remain, in Marcel's phraseology, in the milieu of "problem"; those who transform a situation by an act of will, of unforeseen generosity, move away from "problem" and toward "mystery": an experience that is just as real as our experience of problem but one that must be accepted rather than understood. The plots in themselves are not unlike those in the plays of the Parisian boulevards of Marcel's day. But Marcel, aware of his literary debts, denies that his plays are, like those of some of his masters, "thesis" plays. The theatre must not be apologetic (in the older sense of the word). It must, Marcel notes in Théâtre et Religion, "interest the human being behind the spectator, the human being involved in that hazardous pilgrimage which is human existence." If Marcel's characters simply discovered the elements of past action that created their troubles and then accepted them, Marcel's denial that he writes "thesis" plays might have a hollow sound. But there are some Marcel characters who are "on pilgrimage", and he wishes to show us—so far as realistic limits permit—how they move from "problem" (resentment, recrimination) to "mystery" (love, generous forgiveness of each other)….

[Marcel's plays] are imaginatively fabricated excerpts of reality like those of Ibsen and Brieux. Unlike them, Marcel's plays are attentive to the unexpected appearance of the noble, and they often assert that a later section of a life is more than the inevitable working-out of what has been "fed in" by unwise choice, by the abuse of others and oneself. It is in this respect that they move away from the naturalistic implications of their unvarying realistic surface texture and move toward effects of human freedom that can be called "religious." But they make this movement without the aid of [divine intervention]…. Rather are the tentative transformations of relationships of Marcel's world dependent on new directions that people discover in themselves. In L'Iconoclaste, (1932) an early, pre-conversion play of Marcel's, the given "problem" suggests only one conclusion: that Abel, who could have been the wife's lover (but was not), disabuse the mourning husband of his dreams about his dead wife. Yet the very persons who have full knowledge of the [unfaithful] wife's character suddenly and mysteriously find that they wish to sustain the husband's illusions. Why they should make this decision, why they should want to abandon the cultivated malice that they have displayed in earlier stages of the débat, is a "mystery." The fact, to be recorded by the dramatist rather than explained, is that a dormant capacity for transformation has stirred. The result? The husband's vision of his dead wife is preserved. More important—more instructive to us—the relatives and friends move onward toward kindness and concern: capacities that they did not know they possessed….

[But] there are many of Marcel's plays in which there is no move toward kindness and concern. When this is so, the chief characters remain in the ambient of "problem" and explore the doom that awaits persons who do not wish each other well. Ariadne (Le Chemin de Crète), (1953) is such a play. Ariadne, the protagonist of the drama, entangles her associates in a web that she weaves with conscious malice, and at the end of the play there is no escape from the web, either for her or for her victims. She has used her superior insight—her mastery of the weakness of others—to intensify their plight and the power she has over them. In Mon Temps n'est pas le vôtre, the father may have tried to reach across the generation gap to his emancipated daughters and arrange a better life for them. But he has blundered; he has been moralistic rather than sensitive to their needs. (p. 106)

[The] mark of variety in Marcel's readings of human action, as well as the note of tentativeness, can be understood as a record of Marcel's basic respect for what he treats. No life may be reduced to a devoutly preconceived pattern of religious experience, important as that pattern may be. To effect such reductions would be but to repeat, though on another plane, the operation by which a naturalistic dramatist resolves human suffering into a psychosis: a "problem" and no more than that. Instead, failure to live fully, to participate in what Marcel calls "creative fidelity", is to be in "bad faith" (and Marcel on occasion uses Sartre's phrase). A cautious definition of this "fidelity" is offered by Marcel in the lecture that is printed with Le Monde Cassé. "Creative fidelity" refers always to "a presence or even to something which can and ought to be sustained in us and before ourselves as presence."… Even among those who do not deny this power of theirs to respond to "presence" we see that there are many ways of realizing "creative fidelity"—in fact, as many ways as there are existing persons. To reduce these many ways to one way … is to blind ourselves to what lies immediately before us: the diversity of human beings seeking faithfulness to what they are and what others are.

Thus, variety and uncertain outcome stem, in Marcel's plays, not from any naturalistic dogma about man. They come instead from Marcel's sense that each man's chance to exist is a unique one. If each man is not unique, he remains in the realm of the "problem", the determined. If the converse is true, he faces duties that take him beyond the "problem."

How is this latter obligation to be met? Marcel answers: by the creation of plays that are neither mystical, dogmatic, nor pietistic. (The mystical cannot be represented in the theatre, for language is not its vehicle. The dogmatic does not belong in the theatre because it has preconceptions about what individual man is, and Marcel professes to have none. And the pietistic, as we see from the "good Catholics" in Marcel's plays, is empty of illumination for those who truly suffer.)

Thus, Marcel's theatre of grace begins and ends with an inspection of certain persons. It displays intermittently the "fidelity" that is each person's precious possession did he but recognize it. And this ability to respond fully to the chance to exist is as much man's endowment as his other patent abilities. (p. 107)

[The] experience of grace is a thread that runs through most of Marcel's plays…. One can say that, as Marcel represents this thread, it is an experience that is as "natural" to man as are the other experiences that mark human life. Envy, malice, and pettiness are plainly in man's possession, and for Marcel they are the prime sins rather than adultery and other conventional moral offenses—prime because they decisively cut off one person from another. But just as much in man's possession as the power to envy and to sink to the trivial is the power to be faithful—faithful to other human beings and faithful to the presence of deity, though it is nearly impossible to speak of this second kind of faithfulness.

This is grace as Marcel understands it and presents it. Grace is not experienced as a sudden and direct confrontation with deity. (Such confrontations, Marcel has told us, belong to a theatre of "celebration", a liturgical theatre.) The grace that Marcel knows—at least, the grace that he represents in his plays—stirs only in the presence of other human beings.

Thus, the destinies of Marcel's protagonists rest on discovery of this fact or blindness to it. Those who are blind, like Ariadne …, have no suspicion of this; they are destructive to others and to themselves. Only those who suddenly discover that revelation is mediated to them by other human beings are able to begin the use of powers that, in fact, they have always possessed….

Examples of such illuminating relationships, where bitterness gives way to confidence and joy, are recurrent but not repetitive in Marcel's plays. They are not repetitive because Marcel keeps them close-linked with the individuals he presents; it is their experience which climactic speeches convey rather than some generalized view of the experience of grace….

[Grace] lies in the chance human contacts that link person to person and nowhere else. Grace so viewed is not a lightning bolt that comes at one moment from deity and makes all the difference. Instead, grace is a permanent availability built into man rather than an inconceivable working of divine force and will. (p. 108)

To represent on the stage this gradual welling up of the forever available, to show its flowering in conscious life, Marcel often scatters his action over weeks, months, and even years. One is reminded of the latitudes in time enjoyed by writers of psychological novels. Even so, Marcel does not of course share the assumptions that underlie many a psychological fiction: the psychological novel ordinarily underlines the inevitable limitations of man's nature, whereas Marcel presents us that same nature as potentially open—open to a perfect deity if (and only if) open to other imperfect human beings. Marcel does not, in the destinies of Agnes and others, present us the flight of the alone to the alone; the successful journeys in Marcel are always journeys one makes in the company of other human beings.

And what of the instruction one gains on these journeys? They seldom issue in any very mystical awareness. Those who "teach" in Marcel are as much a part of a secular and sceptical world as are those who are taught. There are no divinely illuminated "teachers" like Sonia and Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky. The Marcel "teachers" do not deny the ordinariness of the world and the ordinariness of one's future in it. Instead, like Flavio in Mon temps n'est pas le vôtre, they deepen one's sense of the value of the chance to exist in the ordinary world…. [Marcel's plays provide] a context that brings to a conscious level the innate power to be responsive rather than indifferent. Does this power take us into the presence of deity? Not very fully. It has taken us into the presence of others, and that is enough.

Thus, in Marcel's theatre of grace, there are almost no analogues of Paul's illumination on his way to Damascus…. The time of miracle is gone, if it ever existed. The authority of ancient dogma and summa has lapsed; dogma and summa are seen as no more—and no less—than the philosophical "journals" of other times, impressive but deceptive in their regularity, in their "solution" of what must remain "mystery." It is the duty of thoughtful persons—within and outside the plays—to see that "problem" leads into "mystery". It is not their privilege to do more than reproduce the outlines of "mystery" as they, in their time, can make them out. Marcel's theatre is his attempt to reproduce the outlines that he can make out. To do more would be to misrepresent "mystery" itself. Grace may be other things than the "presence of others". But it is the presence of others that a dramatist can trace, and it is on the presence of others that a philosopher must meditate.

This repugnance to going farther than one is really able to go is, I think, the real explanation of the unswerving realistic accent of the plays, rather than some inability of Marcel's to move to techniques and habits of dramatic composition that are seen elsewhere in modern religious drama. The poetry of Eliot, the contrived confrontations in some of Betti's plays—one might add, the strophically expressed certainties of Claudel's plays—these are not merely techniques that Marcel has failed to employ. For Marcel, such techniques represent deformations of the religious situation of modern man, Catholic and Protestant. The religious dramatist must imitate the real world, ordinary and inconclusive as it is. There is no other one for him to enter. To court the fusing powers of great poetry or to be very contemporary and pilfer from the theatre of the absurd—all in order to go beyond the limits of realistic representation—is, Marcel might argue, to neglect the opportunities that are in fact open to us. (pp. 108-09)

Harold H. Watts, "Gabriel Marcel's Theatre of Grace," in Drama & Theatre, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 101-09.

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