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.