Gabriel Marcel Harold H. Watts - Essay

Harold H. Watts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4510 words.)