Pierre Carlet de Chamberlain is likely not a name you often drop in conversation. Nor is Pierre’s nom de plume, Marivaux. But had you the good fortune to have moved in the fashionable circles of Paris around 1730, Marivaux would have been a household word. He was a regular guest at the best salons, a literary luminary, and the author of one brilliant comedy after another. He was the greatest French playwright of the 18th century, and even today he is regarded as second only to Moliere in the ranks of French comic dramatists. So why is it that we so rarely see his fantastic plays here and now on our stages in this the greatest country in the world (etc.)?
It’s an excellent question. It might be because Marivaux early on got a bit of a bad rap. Some of his contemporaries thought he was too elegant and refined even for the elegantly refined circles he moved in. Voltaire famously said Marivaux spent his time “weighing flies’ eggs on scales made of spider webs.” But Voltaire, right about so many things, was wrong about Shakespeare, and I think wrong about Marivaux. It’s true Marivaux loved intricacy and nuance, and that he is one of the most elegant of French writers, and one of the most playful at an almost quantum level. A French critic said he liked introducing different words to each other that had never made each other’s acquaintance and think they won’t get on well together. All this is true--but that’s only part of the story.
Theatre in Paris in the first decades of the eighteenth century was shared by two companies, the Comédie-Francaise and the Comédie-Italienne. Marivaux wrote for both companies, but the Italians brought out his greatest genius. The French were grand, elegant and rhetorical. They owned seriousness and dignity. Marivaux wrote his one tragedy for them and it bombed. The Italians were the children of street players, descendants of the Renaissance commedia dell’arte. Many of them knew little or no French. But they were robust, physically expressive and they knew when a big pizza pie hits you right in the eye, that’s amore. Marivaux knew that too. His great subject is “the surprise of love”---what happens when love happens, suddenly. His characters are indeed refined, delicate and elegant but when they discover love, inside they become big pizza pies. They are confused, tormented, thrilled, giddy, bewildered and blown away. They wonder what is happening to them (Marivaux wrote what some have called “the metaphysics of love”), and we see them love tossed body and soul. The Italians could do that.
In The Game of Love and Chance, the turbulence of love gets maximum play. A young nobleman is engaged to a lady who he has never met. In order to find out what he’s in for, he and his valet change places when they go courting—this will give him the chance to size up his arranged bride. But unknown to him, his bride has had exactly the same idea, and changes places with her maid to observe her intended fiancé. What happens is what ideally should have happened in the first place—the two real aristocrats fall in love, and the two real servants mirror their masters with a mutual passion of their own. It would all be just fine, except that it’s not. Each of the four believes he or she has fallen for the wrong person, crossing lines which should not and cannot be crossed. In 18th century France the lady did not marry the valet, and the lord did not marry the maid. The confusions of love, strong enough without any additives, become even more excruciating, more comic, and –for the audience--more delicious.
Far from playing with filigreed cobwebs, Marivaux was blowing them away. Under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, old social distinctions were breaking down in France, and class lines and privileges were beginning to be challenged. The Game of Love and Chance gives two servants the chance to play masters—and they rise brilliantly and hilariously to the occasion, while their masters find life a little more challenging and confining downstairs. All the characters are pulsating with new and sudden desire but boxed in by the assumed roles which they must maintain, and which they are not prepared for or naturally suited to. Under all this artifice, animal instincts are surging to the surface (a famous avant-garde production featured a cast of six great apes, all wearing rococo costumes, scratching themselves where they itched). But these new roles, formal manners, and class distinctions are pushing those instincts back down. The lid is shaking, but it’s still on. At least for a while . . .
Is this contrivance a bunch of silly business? Of course it is. Yet there is something serious, something real underneath. The highly artificial construction of this play actually opens the door to a greater psychological naturalness. Moliere’s plays have plenty of lovers, but as has been pointed out, Marivaux is truly showing us what it’s like to be in love, which you rarely see in Moliere. His plays are gifts to actors, and written with particular actors in mind. The Comédie-Italienne was a classic Commedia company, consisting of players who played and perfected the same sort of roles for their entire career. They had mastered a refined physical style, which was matched with Marivaux’s elegant language. They were experts at making verbal and psychological collisions hilarious and beautiful. The result resembles a Watteau painting where actors mingle with aristocrats, making love and music under the shade of an enormous spreading tree. They glow.
We can’t promise you a production featuring Italian actors from the commedia dell’arte. But we are happy to have a cast of four lovers you may have seen in France before. Carley Cornelius, John DiAntonio, Caitlin Wise and Sammie Joe Kinnett were last seen together in The Liar, adapted from Corneille’s 17th-century comedy. These actors appear again in the same sort of roles they played the last time they were in Paris, and if they succeed, we may be on our way to forming our very own home grown Comédie-Italienne. They are a most gifted, charming and harmonious quartet who seem to play even better together. Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation is a triumph, combining Marivaux’s delicacy with some modern friskiness. Russell Parkman returns to deliver an elegant and intimate interior, Stephanie Bradley dresses everyone up beautifully, and Amith Chandrashaker flies in to light up the luminous French sky.