Copyright © David Trott
Table of Contents
"All literature tends to be concerned with the question of reality--I mean quite simply the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what reality is and what merely seems." (This quotation of Lionel Trilling appears as the epigraph to: Robert J. Nelson, Play within a play; The Dramatist's Conception of his Art: Shakespeare to Anouilh, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958) As a writer of literature, Marivaux obviously shared this concern. This is why the theme of interplay was termed a commonplace at the beginning of this study. However, is not all literature based on themes that, when reduced to their essence, are commonplace? The fact that an author focuses his attention on an old and basic problem does not necessarily imply that his treatment of it will be old and basic. Indeed, Marivaux's theatre would seem to suggest that the opposite is the case, for it has been seen that even the tritest of themes becomes revivified under his pen. This fact calls forth a second comment made at the outset of this thesis, namely that Marivaux was an original author. He wasted little time in rejecting servile imitation, as his early works have shown, and never ceased the process of deepening the awareness of his art, as Les Acteurs de bonne foi has shown.
As an original author, and like other original authors, Marivaux could be expected to approach as universal a problem as the interplay of reality and illusion in a manner characteristic of himself alone. Thus, even though the subject appeared to be so general that it could apply to virtually any author, it became specific when placed in a specific con[<--p. 361]text. Such a context, and the one studied her, was the theatre of Marivaux.
Now that the analytical work of this thesis is complete, the findings of the various enquiried must be drawn together. On the basis of the detailed analysis of Marivaux's plays, it may now safely be affirmed that the interplay of reality and illusion is a major element in every one ot them. The study of the suggested sources has shown in some detail that interplay is closely linked to Marivaux's ability to integrate fully his borrowings. What overall conclusion may be drawn from this study?
The analysis of interplay in each individual work has shown how rich the theme is. The very number of different forms it takes constitutes a vindication of the approach used. These forms are very difficult to fix beyond the level of the plays in which they occur, for they must be grasped in a process of constant metamorphosis; it is impossible to affirm with certainty at what point they may be considered to have lost their distinctiveness through merging with other forms. By way of a rapid summary, the most salient forms of interplay between reality and illusion are the following: "wisdom" and instinct, reason and feeling, convention and spontaneity, society and nature, Paris and province, noble and bourgeois, blindness and lucidity, language and meaning, mask and face, art and life, constancy and inconstancy, predictabililty and surprise, absolute and arbitrary, authenticity and inauthenticity.
These categories, however, can neither be definitive nor absolute. A simple example of their frequent interchangeability is to be found in La Réunion des Amours, where the disagreement between Love and Cupid [<--p. 362]appears as an amalgam of reason (Love's disapproval of material realilties) and feeling (Cupid's devastating impact on Virtue), convention (Love's formalism) and spontaneity (Cupid's rejection of restraint) and art (the literary parallel drawn between Love and précieux novels) and life (Cupid's rejection of stilted language in favour of more natural expressions). The latter two forms recur in L'Heureux Stratagème, but only as subordinate extensions of the interplay of blindness and lucidity. In an attempt to synthesize the implications of such a complex problem, we must look into the underlying ramifications of all these forms.
It was stated in the introduction that the plays would be studied in chronological order in an attempt to determine the nature and extent of any evolutionary changes thereby uncovered. This approach has succeeded in pinpointing more clearly a number of successive stages, represented here by the chapter divisions. It has not uncovered evidence of a clear-cut linear development of interplay from Marivaux's first play to his last. The absence of such a development is, on the other hand, revealing in itself, for it shows a Marivaux in the process of assimilating a broadening range of experience into a deepening awareness of the implications of our theme.
Probably the most rewarding result of the chronological study was the discovery of underlying similarities between apparently unlike works of the same general period. A case in point is Chapter VI, in which the juxtaposition of Les Serments indiscrets, L'Ecole de mères and Le Petit-Maître corrigé offered a magnified example of a typical Marivaudian procedure, namely, to approach the same basic problem on several levels at once, as he did in L'Epreuve. Moreover, the correspondances operate quite clearly [<--p. 363]between the different genres as well. Numerous passages in the journals and novels provide evidence that, instead of diversifying his interests, Marivaux was intensifying them. Finally, the approach led to a realization that even as objective a method as ordering plays by the date of first performance is subject to modification, when internal evidence confirms external evidence that the play was written well before its date of first perforrmance. Annibal, La Seconde Surprise and Le Petit-Maître corrigé illustrate this point.
Although interplay does not develop in a linear fashion, Marivaux frequently comes back to a problem treated many years earlier and "revises" it. The result is invariably a deeper understanding of the problem's implications. The two Surprises de l'amour reveal a clear evolution from a general treatment of the age-old theme of love's triumph over vain resistance to a far more specific analysis of the kinds of attitude such resistance could entail. The same in-depth elaboration becomes apparent in a comparison of L'Heureux Stratagème with the Lettre contenant une aventure, of Le Paysan parvenu with La Commère and of Les Fausses Confidences with Les Acteurs de bonne foi.
The suggestion that there is a growing trend towards realism in Marivaux's theatre is accurate in so far as it refers to the increasing incorporation of concrete detail into the worlds of the the plays. With the exception of Félicie, we find no fairies, princes, princesses, courtiers and ambassadors in the plays after Le Triomphe de l'amour, and, with the exception of La Colonie, no imaginary islands and kingdoms. At the same time, after Le Petit-Maître corrigé, we find a growing number of allusions to places, attitudes and institutions that were readily recognizable to [<--p. 364]Marivaux's contemporaries. However, as was mentioned above, this change does not reflect a substantive change in Marivaux's manner. It seems rather to reflect the broadening range of direct experience--something attested to by a marked decrease in Marivaux's reliance on other writers as sources--which serves as a base for the continuing elaboration of interplay.
In accordance with the method of employing a suggested source as a vantage point to highlight Marivaux's divergence from it, a final comparison will be made here. We have frequently seen detailed comparisons between Marivaux and Molière and obserbed the characteristically different manners in which the two dramatists use a common element. The difference applies, not only on the level of the particular, but on the level of the general as well. Molière, like Marivaux, may be said to have been concerned with the interplays of reality and illusion. The obsessions and visions of his comic heroes, whether they be affected provincials, imposters, misers, social climbers, female pedants or hypochondriacs, enter in conflict with an array of more reasonable servants, children, brothers, wives and friends. When the curtain falls, a situation viewed as being more in harmony with "nature" reigns in the stead of folly. Generalized to this degree, Molière's theatre seems to resemble Marivaux's.
However, as in the case of the details analysed earlier, there are significant differences between the two approaches to interplay. The struggle between reality and illusion in Molière's theatre is far more exterior than in Marivaux's. Each comic character attempts to impose his particular views on those around him and they, in turn, resist. One seldom has the impression that the character himself has been fully cured [<--p. 365] of his obsession, but rather that his threat to others has been minimized.
In Marivaux's theatre, interplay has become interiorized. A comic character's relationship with those around him is modified only through the modification of his own attitude. Hence, the virtual disappearance of the exterior paraphernalia of forecful parent figures, and hence, the frequent use of stratagems to lead a character to the recognition of his own folly, rather than to check the encroachment of this folly on others. This distinction is basic, for it leads to an overall difference in vision between the two theatres and, to go farther, between the two periods they reflect.
Marivaux has added a dimension of inner detachment to his art. Molière's art reflects a classical view of humanity as an agglomeration of definable categories, represented, for example, by his own universal types. Marivaux's major modification of this view was to call the very notion of types in question by voiding them of their permanency and envisaging them, no longer as types, but as so many roles.
The effect of such a calling in question is to place in doubt, not only the types tehmselves, but all systems of typing, be they esthetic, social or philosophical. However, in this apparent effort to sort out what is real from what is illusory, Marivaux has not openly attacked the official values of his day. He has attacked rather a blind, uncritical and literal-minded adherence to them. The nuance is a key one, for on it hinges the interpretation of Marivaux's theatre either as a polemical document, which it is not, or as a significant reflection of a period of transition, which it will be suggested here that it is.
The illusions Marivaux uncovers in his theatre are always the re[<--p. 366]sult of over-systematization. His attack on the many kinds of faiseurs de systèmes began, as one would expect of an imaginative author, as a refutation of the rules of literature. As the brief glimpse at the early non-dramatic works has shown, Marivaux found the conventions of the genres he was attempting to assimilate to be cumbersone and restricting. His involvement in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns--whether it be viewed as the cause of the effect of his attitude towards a more academic approach to literature--is another indication of his early views on the nature of literature's impact on the reader.
Significantly, the illusions uncovered in the early writings for the Mercure--writings which betray the influence of the seventeenth-century moralists--also point in the direction of Marivaux's detached view [of ] conventions, in this case the convention of the portrait as an objective rendering of an enduring human type. In the Lettres contenant une aventure, Marivaux describes a type, the coquette, from so many different angles at the same time that we become aware of the impossibility of one objective viewpoint. She is being overheard by an eavesdropper, she describes her outer actions, she analyses her inner motives, these inner motive are broken down into a contradictory interaction of impulse and calculation. We realize that any attempt to smooth over her many contradictions would be a falsification of her true character. Such a reduction would result in the description of only a limited selection of her many attitudes or roles.
The objectivity of the portrait is belied by experience. Marivaux's subsequent use of the portrait--intended in earlier generations, like maxims, to capture the essence of a given phenomenon--reinforces [<--p. 367]this impression. Le Triomphe de Plutus is an excellent example of the process by which different persons' views of other persons are modified by the subjectivity of fluctuating moods. One of the effects of the success of Silvia's quest for a perfect husband, in Le Jeu de l'amour, was to disprove the validity of the portraits of insincere husbands drawn at the beginning of the play. The basis of the action of La Mère confidente was to belie various characters' stereotyped notions of other characters.
The reduction of experience to systems and formulas was the fault of Lélio and the Countess in La Surprise de l'amour. They foolishly attempted to impose artificial dimensions on their lives by denying their susceptibility to emotion. By claiming to be impervious to feeling (Lélio's stance is described as that of a "philosophe"), they unilaterally define their nature as reasonable. Definition, a form of systematization, like portraits, implies the imposition of outer forms or dimensions on the object or phenomenon to be defined. The play contains a highly significant graphic illustration of its protagonists' undertaking. The Baron traces an imaginary circle around Lélio, which represents his self-imposed dimensions, and dares him to step out. Lélio's acceptance of the challenge may be seen as an indication of the play's overall action, for the both he and the Countess burst the barries they had erected at the play's outset.
Over-systematization results in similar illusory definitions: in La Double Inconstance, where Arlequin and Silvia's lack of experience leads them to believe that their relationship is an invariable; in Le Prince travesti, where Hortense's widowhood causes her to assume that she will [<--p. 368]henceforth be immune to emotional turmoil; in L'Heureux Stratagème, where the Countess's "logic" of inconstancy backfires when Dorante apparently leaves her; in Le Legs, where the Marquis' lack of confidence leads to unfounded assumptions about the Countess. Definitions, however loose, are a denial of reality.
The notion of civilization represents one such loose definition. In Arlequin poli, La Double Inconstance and Le Prince travesti, Marivaux exploits Arlequin as an agent to highlight the illusion of the superiority of forms of positive knowledge over instinctive common sense. The Fairy's artifice, the courtiers' vanity and Frédéric's deceit are all exposed for what they are by a naive and uneducated "simpleton". A man from outside the boundaries of his "victims'" range of experience has shown these boundaries to be arbitrary.
Similar boundaries are the clearly defined roles assigned to men and women by society. This is the subject of L'Ile des esclaves. Euphrosine and Iphicrate, Arlequin and Cléanthis were born into their respective roles by chance. Had chance been different, they probably would have been different also: "si j'[Arlequin] avais été votre [Iphicrate's] pareil, je n'aurais peut-être pas mieux valu que vous." (L'Ile des esclaves, scene 9). However, the fact that the slaves offer to return with their masters to the society that made them what they are, reveals that detachement, not social criticism, is Marivaux's aim. His play has described the accession of masters and servants to a new society that, outwardly at least, poses no threat to the old. Within themselves, they have transcended the artificial line between master and slave and attained an awareness of each other as individual human beings rather [<--p. 369]than types. The obstacle to this new state is not the class system; it is men's attitude towards this system, which has been applied far too literally. The illusion dispelled in L'Ile des esclaves is solely an inner illusion.
A large number of subsequent Marivaux plays drive this point home. Marivaux focuses his attention of the social and moral prejudices of his day and shows their grip on men's minds to be as unrealistic as the belief in universal types mentioned above. Each prejudice represens a simplification of human values, and, when applied literally, becomes an unreasonable restraint on experience. This is the significance of Le Préjugé vaincu, where Angélique's decision to accept Dorante's proposal marked the end, not of her nobility, but of the extensioon of her aristocratic principles into a realm where they did not belong. Like the slaves and masters of L'Ile des esclaves, Angélique comes to realize that the rigid enforcement of her values is an obstacle to the attainment of more authentic values.
This placing of value-systems in perspective is the basis of the action in the plays where various forms of prejudice appear to block the way to the attainment of different characters' inner aspirations. Out of deference to others, Lucile and Damis, in Les Serments indiscrets, created a dilemma that disappeared the moment they took a less literal-minded view of their values. In La Mère confidente, had the criterion of wealth been applied to the letter, Dorante would never have been able to marry Angélique. When Dorante revealed his moral fibre, he put Mme Argante's attitude towards him in an entirely new perspective. Dubois' stratagem, in Les Fausses Confidences, also places Araminte's prejudices regarding [<--p. 370]"fierté, raison et richesse" (I, 1) in such a light that loving Dorante appears more important.
Another network of illusions in Marivaux's theatre is to be found in the aspirations to reasonableness of many characters. The most obvious examples of such aspirations are the philosophers Marivaux portrays. Represented by Hortensius, in La Seconde Surprise, the Philosopher, in L'Ile de la Raison, and Hermocrate, in Le Triomphe de l'amour, philosophy is shown to be contrary to the wisdom it purports to teach. Hermocrate admits this explicitly in acknowledging his defeat by Léonide. Any attempt to reduce experience to a set of rational formulas is bound to fail, since formulas are a denial of reality. The Philosopher in L'Ile de la Raison illustrates the folly of such a denial by refusing to allow that his shrunken stature is real. He sticks doggedly to his prinicples in the face of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong.
The figure of the philosopher in only one manifestation of the phenomenon. Marivaux also uncovers a variety of allegedly reasonable attitudes held by other characters. The attempt by the Marquise and Chevalier, in La Seconde Surprise, to conceal their attachment beneath a "reasonable" mask of friendship is a case in point. In Le Jeu de l'amour, where the direct link with philosophy disappears entirely, Silvia viewed her love for Burguignon as going contrary to the dictates of reason. Rosimond's Parisian friends, in Le Petit-Maître corrigé, considered their behaviour as reasonable; the Marquise and Dorante, in Les Sincères, attempted to form a union based on their "reasonableness"; Arthénice based her claims for feminine power, in La Colonie, on women's ability to be rational. [<--p. 371]
Systematization of values, whether they be aesthetic, moral, social or philosophical, results in the creation of elaborate networks of invisible checks and balsnces. By advocating inner detachment, reflected by his many spectateurs and meneurs, Marivaux seeks to remind us that these checks are invisible and therefore susceptible to highly flexible interpretations. He does not suggest that we reject them, but that we constantly re-adapt them to our individual and constantly fluctuating needs. To accept them literally as absolutes is to commit the same error as the Marquis, in Le Legs, and to make ourselves miserable in the name of a figment of our imagination.
Proof that the rigid view of scruples, prejudices, theories, conventions, customs and laws is an error is constantly provided by the "forms" of reality isolated in the study of the plays. Efforts at systematization are met with spontaneous outburst of unsystematic energy, which stun, paralyze, disorientate, overwhelm and generally wreak havoc on the obstacles in their paths. This is a far cry from the orderly "reality" that Molière pits against the rampant obsessions of his comic characters. In general terms, the reality Marivaud seems to be describing is movement, change and formlessness--the implicit antithesis of stabilizing systematization. Its function of shattering systems leads to a potential awareness of the forces of chaos that lurk beneath a man-made patina of order.
However, as has already been suggested, Marivaux stops far short of the nihilistic implications of interplay. His contribution to the theme is to have attempted to incorporate a growing awareness of reality with considerably more flexible systems. Therefore, as in L'Ile des esclaves, the system remains intact on the surface, while the reality it [<--p. 372]defines has evolved.
In the preface to Les Effets surprenants, Marivaux gives us our first inkling of this process. He rejects the validity of rational criteria in the evaluation of his novel, preferring to have it judged by its effect on the sensibility of his readers. However, an apparently radical departure from what are presented as traditional aesthetic criteria is partially obscured by the claim that the author's ultimate aim is to conform to the laws of nature. In theory at least, the reality of innovation is attenuated by the retention of the nominal value of nature.
That reality is formlessness is suggested in the Pensées sur différents sujets. This short treatise on aesthetics saw the true worth of an author in his ability to capture impressions as they arise and to put them on paper with a minimum of distortion. Distortion, in this case, implies the imposition of a logic from without. Lack of distortion, tantamount to a more faithful rendering of reality, implies the existence of an inner "logic" that orders, arranges and develops completely of its own accord.
In terms of the theatre, all phenomena that do not occur under the impetus of the illusions described above constitute Marivaux's particular "forms" of reality. As the tendency to describe many of his plays as warmed-over surprises de l'amour might suggest, love constitutes a major "form" of reality. It is clearly this force, in Arlequin poli, that thwarts the Fairy's designs of Arlequin, and this force again that is responsible for the destructions of the transparent systems of defense erected by the protagonists of both Surprises de l'amour. [<--p. 373]
However, love is far from being the only "form" of reality active in Marivaux's theatre. It is rather a manifestation of the elements of change and lack of fixed form that are more basic to the notion. Silvia, in La Double Inconstance, describes her departed love for Arlequin in these terms: "Lorsque je l'ai aimé, c'était un amour qui m'était venu; à cette heure que je ne l'aime plus, c'est un amour qui s'en est allé; il est venu sans mon avis, il s'en est retourné de même...." (La Double Inconstance, III, 8). The notion applies equally well to poetic inspiration, as the following remark from Le Spectateur français suggests: "je ne sais point créer, je sais seulement surprendre en moi les pensée que le hasard me fait, et je serais fâché d'y mettre du mien." (Journaux et Oeuvres diverses, p. 114).
Other forms of the uncontrollable and the unpredictable are highlighted throughout Marivaux's theatre by the standard expression of astonishment, "Je ne sais plus où j'en suis". In Le Prince travesti, the four instances of surprise each point to a sudden realization of an unexpected twist of fate. Particularly in the case of Hortense, the unexpected led to a dilemma resolved only by the Princess's abandonment of her designs of Lélio. Unsettling twists of fate are personified in La Commère, where Mme Alain's uncontrollable garrulity undoes the repeated attempts of Mlle Habert and La Vallée to be married. In L'Ile des esclaves, surprise highlights Euphrosine's own accession to an awareness of her vanity, after Cléanthis has toppled her delusions of grandeur.
In spite of the confusion they create, the unexpected incursions of the irrational into the realm of human order are viewed ultimately as beneficient. Receptiveness to feeling, in Marivaux's works, is seen not [<--p. 374]only as the sign of a good author, it is also seen as the sign of a good character. The Arlequins of La Double Inconstance, and L'Ile des esclaves demonstrated as much when they showed themselves to be sensitive to suffering in others. Its was seen how intense feeling, in Le Jeu de l'amour, formed the very basis of Silvia and Dorante's unprecedented perfect union and how, in La Joie imprévue, it proved to be the only effective way of ridding Damon of his taste for gambling. Because of its desirability, sensibility is the goal for which the initiators of love-trials in Marivaux's theatre constantly strive. As was suggested in the analysis of Félicie, the dissipation of the illusory grip of various obstacles is carried out in the hope that, once the obstacle has been removed, an âme sensible will emerge. This is what lies behind Lucidor's stratagem in L'Epreuve and the Marquis' stratagem in La Femme fidèle.
However, because of its unpredictable nature, feeling is always potentially dangerous. Had Silvia not been the woman behind the mask of Lisette, in Le Jeu de l'amour, Dorante would have truly upset society's valures. Had Dorante's uncle not made him his heir at the end of La Mère confidente, Angélique would have entered a financial mismatch. There is always the possibility that feeling is going to upset plans in the wrong way. Marivaux's theatre attempts to come to grips with this problem. This is the significance of Dubois' attitude towards emotion in Les Fausses Confidences. He remains so rational and calculating that the display of intense emotivity at the end of the play highlights his apprent incompatibility with the new Araminte and Dorante he was instrumental [<--p. 375]in creating. The importance of Les Acteurs de bonne foi was to have effected a final synthesis of calculation and sensibility and to have provided an excellent example of the way Marivaux's understanding of interplay has been elaborated. By widening the dimensions of his art (from double to triple registre), he illustrates the working of detachment.
Ultimately, the illusion dispelled in Marivaux's theatre is that of the seriousness with which men view themselves and the institutions they have created. Men must learn, as did Mme Argante in Les Acteurs de bonne foi, to laugh at their own frequently misdirected efforts. The order they have imposed on reality is neither eternal not absolute; it is human and, therefore, subject to change. This is the message contained in Marivaux's allegorical plays--important keys to the meaning of our theme. They represent the clash of humanity's quest for stability and the inescapable fact of change. By maintaining a more flexible tensions between the two poles of reality and illusion, Maivaux has uncovered an inner solution to this clash. That this solution was given aesthetic form simply increased his stature as an imaginative writer.
The theatre of Marivaux,
when viewed from the perspective of interplay, turns out to be a profound
and original statement on an age faced with the growing awareness of the
insufficiency of its most fundamental values. If Marivaux's generation
failed to grasp the full implications of this statement, it is because
it committed the same error as his comic protagonists; it approached his
work with a too literal frame of mind. Like the term "marivaudage",
the term "métaphysique du coeur" must be re-evaluated, for,
what on the surface appears to be the [<--p.
376]derogatory dismissal of an intellectual "lightweight",
is in fact a key to the depth and unity of Marivaux's artistic vision.
His revivification of an art form threatened with stagnation has as its
corollary the reanimation of the human values of a society in a period
of crisis. [<--p. 377]