14 November 2002: Marivaux, Love in Disguise (Le prince travesti)

Translated by Dan Smith. University of Massachusetts Theatre Department production. directed by Ed Golden.

Smith, the translator and dramaturg, says in a program note that his is the only translation of Le prince travesti available in English. If so, it is a most welcome addition to English-language Marivaux, and a fine piece of work. I heard two or three words or phrases that struck my ear as a touch too contemporary (to us, I mean) — “job” for “task,” “deal” for “agreement” — but overall this is a very well-crafted translation that plays clearly and mellifluously.

This is the story of the unrequited love of the Princess of Barcelona for a young man, Lélio, who seems to be not of noble or royal blood and has no money (though he dresses exceedingly well) and enlists her close friend and confidante Hortensia to intercede. But Hortensia herself is in love with Lélio, who bravely saved her from highwaymen and fell in love with her in the process. In the conclusion the Princess settles for an advantageous marriage with the Prince of Castile, who under the guise of ambassador has come to Barcelona to press his suit. Meanwhile Lélio and his servant Harlequin are subjected to the machinations of the Princess’s devious Minister Frederic, who sets Harlequin to spy on Lélio  and as a reward offers him gold and a buxom, winsome girl, Lisette. And so the travesti, or disguise, theme of the plot is worked out in multiple ways: literally, by virtue of Lélio’s real identity as Prince of Lyons and the Castilian ambassador as Prince, but also in a more figurative way by virtue of the extended examples, developed through the intrigue of this charming comedy, of true feelings and true motives disguised or held back.

Marivaux’s method is the method, long tested on the French stage since the days of Racine and before — Greek in origin, in fact, reflecting a theatre with only three actors at most on stage at a given time — of working a goodly range of changes on pairings, scene by scene, of all or almost all the characters, deftly arranging for the action to advance by means of revelations or obfuscations or, even more centrally, by reversals of intention or feeling. In pursuing this method Marivaux also brings in a large amount of style and material from the Italian commedia dell’arte, a fixture in Paris by the time he began writing plays for the Comédie Itallienne troupe in 1720. The most obvious commedia element is the valet, called simply Harlequin, wonderfully well played by Matt Dunphy, a six-feet-plus, gangly yet well-coordinated actor with legs half a mile long who can bound across the small stage (open on three sides) of the Curtain Theatre in a second and in the next second crumple up on the floor in mock terror. But the whole commedia manner of relatively impromptu speeches and scenes hung on the secure scaffolding of an efficient scenario seems to be carried out in Marivaux’s workmanlike approach to the conduct of the action: given the progress of the action to such-and-such a point, what would the Princess say to Hortensia here — and what might she be likely to discover that she didn’t know before? — Ah, I know. And so the scene gets acted out in practical and productive ways by “characters” who have done this sort of thing so often before.

Ed Golden, who has come back from his official retirement from the Theatre Department last year to direct this piece, does his usual clear, superb job establishing a brisk pace and using the large-postage-stamp-size space of the Curtain stage to best advantage. There is a bench at either side and a low wall downstage; upstage is a portal at either side of a small throne for the Princess. Above the throne a two-way mirror, which reflects the audience itself when the auditorium is lighted and the characters once the house lights go down, but which also allows for one character to step in front of the curtain hung behind the mirror and observe, shrouded in semi-darkness, the scene on stage. This may have been Golden’s invention, perhaps an adaptation of a Marivaux stratagem for presenting a series of unseen spies on the action. In any case, it works very well, establishing a sense of intrigue that suited the play and its action quite appropriately.

This production was extremely well cast, almost entirely by student actors (the Princess’s minister was played by a middle-aged man, Andrew Lichtenberg), and featured some fine, well disciplined performers. Costuming was excellent in general, especially the Princess’s white satin dress and embroidered cape, though Harlequin’s costume was not the traditional diamond-pattern multicolored suit but a more miscellaneous collection of elements, including a skimpy half-length jacket, which didn’t really add up to anything definitive. All the same, these actors gave a spirited, credible performance, by turns charmingly comic and more serious and slowly paced, just as the scene required. I remember remarking to myself in the middle of the second act that Marivaux has his own particular brand of minor comic genius: he can follow the comic scenario with the best of them, while at the same time giving full rein to each felt emotion as it surfaces, honoring its authenticity even while describing its small arc for what it is.

Finally nothing is sacrificed to the smooth flow of the action; and yet we have the constant feeling that what really counts, when it comes to human beings and human interchange, is the expression of heartfelt-felt truth and that anything that serves to impede that expression is a distortion that undermines the qualities that make people so attractive to other people. Ed Golden has read Marivaux with care and discernment, and he has given us a memorable small treasure where another director might have given us only a forgettable trifle.



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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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