Friday, January 14, 2011

The Modern Marivaux

By Jim Manganello

***Our January 23rd Translations & Adaptations Play Reading will be Surprised By Love, based on Marivaux's La Seconde Surprise de l'Amour

Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was the child of an administrator in provincial France of the late 17th century. Unlike his predecessor, Moliere, he never achieved success within his lifetime. He was never well-off, he died poor, and little is known of his life—the perfect preconditions for literary obscurity. Therefore the story of Marivaux is the story of his contemporary reception.

Marivaux’s plays were almost immediately buried under the criticism of the prevailing thinkers of his age, the Enlightenment philosophes. To them, Marivaux’s complex language and preference for artificiality over realism—a trait he picked up from the “Italian players” of the Commedia dell’Arte he so loved—seemed like a conservative throwback to the Regency years, an irresponsible celebration of upper-class flirtations and frivolities. The men of the Enlightenment correctly interpreted Marivaux’s theater as one driven by language rather than plot. Voltaire contemptuously coined the term “Marivaudage” to refer to this preference for language as an art in itself, rather than as a useful descriptor of the extensional world. He lambasted Marivaux’s writing as “weighing flies’ eggs on scales made from a spider’s web.” If the criticism wasn’t shellacking enough, Marivaux was finally done in by the French Revolution, behind which he was plastered as a relic of the flippant past.

Marivaux’s excavation didn’t occur until nearly two centuries later, when some of the most forward-thinking French directors of the 1950s—Jean Louis Barrault, Roger Planchon, Patrice Chereau—mounted vibrant and sometimes radical productions of the plays. Actresses were attracted by the plays’ many meaty female roles. Moreover, the very qualities that had prompted Voltaire, et al., to dismiss Marivaux as a fuchsia-tinted loofah appealed to modern directors’ and audiences’ hunger for a darker, more complex approach to love. True, Marivaux’s almost fablistic plots followed almost exclusively the romantic machinations of the well-to-do. Given that milieu, however, his depiction of love is conflicting, political, almost violent. If in Moliere the obstacle to love is almost always some external force (the father-tyrant), Marivaux sought out the internal impediment to love, and his plays are as much about that self-quest as about the entrances and exits of lovers and villains. In that way, Marivaux reaches toward modernity.

Marivaux’s celebration in the English-speaking world was delayed yet another few decades, as most translations had been academic exercises, rather than theatrical projects. That changed in England with some vibrant and witty translations by Neil Bartlett and Timberlake Wertenbaker in the early 90s, and a little later in the States with the enormously well-received work of opera-director Stephen Wadsworth and Paul Schmidt (in collaboration with Dominique Serrand and his Theatre de la Jeune Lune). Other than Serrand’s productions, American attempts at Marivaux have tended to be more conservative than their European counterparts, focusing more on the specific situations of love and heartbreak and less on the political, worldly context. But Marivaux, both in his native tongue and in translation, seems to be constantly reinventing himself, so who knows what his afterlife might become?


France, Peter. “Marivaux, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de (1688-1765).” New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kramm, Maggi and Alisa Solomon. “All You Need Is Love.” American Theatre. February 1994: Vol 11, Issue 2.

Solomon, Alisa. “Marivaux our contemporary.” The Village Voice. 21 December 1993


Surprised by Love
January 23, 2011
at 6:30 p.m.
Greenhouse Theater Center

by Dennis Porter
based on the play
La Seconde Surprise de l'Amour by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux
Directed by Julieanne Ehre

Featuring Kelsey Brennan, Joe Foust, Linda Gillum, Paul Hurley and Shawn Douglass

The widow of a nobleman and a heartbroken lord—both young and both weary of the disasters love has allotted to them—determinedly embark on a purely platonic friendship. But miscommunication, cross-purposes, and of course sexual attraction threaten their experiment in celibate camaraderie. In a single chateau of early 18th century France, Marivaux examines the tension between truths and ideals in love.

RSVP by emailing or call 773.244.8119.

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