Marivaux and Voice

Russon Wooldridge

University of Toronto

© 2005 R. Wooldridge
Paper given at the Marivaux Symposium, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, University of Toronto, 1 October 2005.

Unfortunately I am not David Trott, so what I have to say on the subject of "Marivaux and Voice" is much more basic than what he would have presented. The reason I am talking to you today is that David and I collaborated closely on the tagging of voice in electronic versions of a number of Ancien régime plays, including the complete dramatic works of Marivaux. I perhaps have the advantage over one or two of you in having at my disposal the electronic oeuvre of Marivaux and one or two computer tools with which to analyse it. However, as I point out on the cover page of the handout, you, and anyone else with access to the Web, can query the online database yourselves and do a certain amount of your own analysis.

In what follows I should like to look briefly at some aspects of the vocabulary of each of the principal characters in Marivaux's plays in the hope of discerning some characteristic traits, or perhaps more realistically and modestly of suggesting to you one or two leads that you may wish to follow up yourselves.

The principal voices

The nine characters appearing in at least five of Marivaux's plays seem, at least to my naive regard, to be representative of the sub-groups parent-masters (La Comtesse, La Marquise and Mme Argante), child-masters-cum-lovers (Angélique, Dorante and Le Chevalier) and servants (Arlequin, Frontin and Lisette). Table 1 – listing the plays in chronological order – indicates, among other things, the important role played by Arlequin and Lisette. If Arlequin comes from the Harlequin of the Commedia dell'Arte and appears in fairground theatre (if that is how you say "théâtre de la foire" in English), he seems to represent in Marivaux's plays not just the typical valet, or manservant, but also the guiding spirit of Marivaudesque comedy. In the same way Lisette, who also appears in the works of a number of other playwrights, such as Molière, Regnard, Piron, Boissy, Destouches, Gresset or Graffigny, would seem to the archetypal lady's maid (or does one say "soubrette" when talking about the theatre?). According to the distribution of characters, the "densest" play is L'Heureux Stratagème, in which seven of the nine characters we are concerned with here make an appearance.

Word frequencies

Table 2 lists the most frequent words used by each character. The lists naturally include function words like que, de, est, ne, il, but also, what is more interesting, dialogue words such as Monsieur, Madame and first and second person pronouns. I have bolded most of the first and second person pronouns; vous, of course, is ambiguous: singular or plural? In the same way nous may also be ambiguous, as also – and I am grateful to Paul Babiak for pointing this out to me – is the first person plural imperative form of the verb: does nous or the idiomatic and contextual uses of the form allons, for example, refer to several characters, to the speaker and the audience, to an entity symbolized by the speaker (as in the royal "we")? when is it in fact a displaced second person singular, as when the doctor or nurse asks "And how are we today"?

Measures by play

In Table 3 I make use of the distinction between total number of words, or word forms (what statisticians call "tokens"), and number of different word forms (or "types"). I have borrowed the symbols N and V from the lexicostatistician Charles Muller, who incidentally wrote his doctoral thesis on the vocabulary of Corneille's tragedies and comedies. By word types is meant different character chains separated by a space, punctuation, a hyphen or apostrophe; the algorithm used is similar to the one used by the function "Word count" in a word processor.

Table 3 shows, among other things, that when La Comtesse is on stage she talks a lot, La Marquise a bit less, Frontin and Madame Argante relatively little. One also notices that Angélique appears to be marginal in Les Acteurs de bonne foi, but in the centre of things in L'Epreuve and Le Préjugé vaincu; in fact, she speaks more in Le Préjugé vaincu than in L'Epreuve, even though the latter is longer than the former.

A case study: Angélique and Lisette

Angélique appears in five plays, four times as the daughter of Mme Argante, and once as the daughter of Le Marquis. In all five her maid is Lisette. Table 4 gives, on the one hand a part of the total vocabulary used by each in the five plays, and on the other hand a part of the vocabulary that each uses in the scenes where only the two of them are on stage and they are talking to each other. One notices, for example, that whereas Lisette always uses the form vous when addressing her mistress, Angélique normally uses tu in addressing Lisette, but also, curiously, both tu and vous in La Mère confidente – an indication that one should take a closer look. Angélique talks mainly about herself (je), and prefers refusal (non) to acceptance (oui), whereas quite naturally Lisette talks about her mistress more than about herself, and is more often in agreement (oui) than not (non).

One could go further with word lists and attempt to determine the specific vocabulary of each character. In this respect, the word freluquet would seem to be characteristic of Lisette's vocabulary (see the note below the table).

My working hypothesis, which can be modified or discarded as one goes along, is that there is something more than just the name linking the different appearances of Angélique, Lisette, etc., in the plays of the French theatre. Perhaps Corneille's Angélique has quite a different voice from Marivaux'; but what about Molière's Angélique or Regnard's, Piron's or La Chaussée's? Within a particular oeuvre the common thread becomes quickly obvious: in Marivaux Angélique is always someone's daughter, usually that of Mme Argante, and her maid is always Lisette. But it is the modulations that perhaps merit closer study: why does Angélique call Lisette vous in La Mère confidente? When is Lisette simply a maid in a bourgeois or aristocratic family, and when does her peasant background show through?