16 February 2003: Marivaux, La Dispute

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Translated by Gideon Lester. Adapted and directed by Anne Bogart. Performed mainly by Bogart’s company, the Saratoga International Theatre Institute. Subscription series

I have not read this Marivaux play, and during the long wordless, beautifully choreographed opening sequence it seems to me that Marivaux’s play, whatever its original character, had been left, ostensibly at least, completely behind. This sequence, however, in which, one by one, all the characters (perhaps twenty altogether) enter along the front of the stage apron, stop, turn toward the audience, and then, as if looking in a mirror, admire their reflection, make some adjustment to it, and then move up stage, and then perform some wonderful male vs. female dancing and movement, effectively states in pantomime what seems to lie transparently at the heart of Marivaux’s play: that self-love and self-regard, self-preference, are what drive each of us, drawn though we are so strongly to connection with other humans. Not a startlingly new observation, by any means, but as always it is in the details of Marivaux’s representation and development of this view that all the comedy and all the seriousness end up residing.

La Dispute is about an experiment conducted by a prince and his consort, Hermione, in order to settle a quarrel over a philosophical issue. The issue is, what would happen if two pairs of children, male and female, were raised in isolation from all human contact except for a handler and then, at first maturity, exposed to one another. Marivaux’s charming, cynical conservatism has it — as we might well expect — that the two couples would, by imperious instinct, swiftly become just like us. Implicit in this experiment and its delightful outcome is the perhaps troubling idea that the social interactions that characterize the way we generally live — interactions characterized by constant infidelity to others in the service of faithfulness to our amour propre — are fully instinctive with us, or, as we now like to put it, genetic. We are born with these tendencies, these attributes, and to set them going it is necessary only to open up the right opportunities. The extended dance sequence at the beginning of the play, which I and my companion both thought was over-long by five or seven minutes (a little bit of indulgence of amour propre on Bogart’s part, perhaps), enacted this kind of scenario to wonderfully good effect, setting out the magnetic attraction exerted by humans on their opposites, but without giving away the “secret” of the outcome of the experiment. That outcome, by the way, was a free-for-all physical skirmish in which each of the four characters simultaneously wants to acquire a new partner without really letting go of the old one. In fact, it is even more complex than that, because each of the four, in gravitating toward the new partner and rudely dismissing the old one, has a strong need to inspire regret and a sense of loss in the abandoned former partner; that is evidently part of the ego satisfaction involved in exchanging the old partner for a new one. The free-for-all that ensues lands all four characters (Egle, Ellen Lauren; Mazor, Stephen Webber; Edina, Kelly Maurer; and Mesrin, Will Bond) on the floor in an undifferentiated pile of squirming bodies, until they are separated and quelled by the unhappy Prince and Hermione, who apparently had predicted that boys will be boys and girls, girls no matter what.

The process by which the strong-willed but ultimately unhappy young couples arrive at this definitive melee is deftly crafted by Marivaux, showing us first one character alone (Egle), who sees her reflection, Narcissus -like, in a purling stream and, as Oscar Wilde might put it, begins a life-long love affair with herself. She then is allowed to meet Azor; they are both astonished at the possibilities the world is opening up for them; and so on, in a series of well-marked stages of development. Bogart adds her own props to this process, first hand-mirrors in compacts and then a remarkable and very funny sequence in which a small inflatable white ball is traded (offstage) for a somewhat larger one, in a geometrically progressive series that ends with a ball as tall as a human, to the great delight of the audience. There is a certain fresh, improvisatory quality to this sequence, though one is also aware that much rehearsal, involving taxing physical exercise, has been necessary to bring these four actors, and the others who dance and move so well (but stand on the catwalk high above the stage for much of the action, shifting unobtrusively from time to time), to such a pitch of perfection.

The lower half of the stage is completely open, to facilitate the progressive exchanges; the upstage half is occupied by a series of concentric half-circular walls. The design is functional enough to allow the four characters and their two retainers or handlers (Mesrow, Remo Airaldi; and Carise, Lizzie Cooper Davis), along with the rest of the company, to enter and exit at will. (For most of the performance, the Prince and Hermione sit well to the side, opposite the front rows of audience seats). At the same time the stage design functions as a suggestive metaphorical maze, or perhaps the idea is of the layers of a cell. That is, there is something about it that is ambiguously organic and mechanical, natural and man-made — a set of meanings certainly carried across by the play itself.

I liked this production very much. The direction was extremely clear and the performances exceptionally precise and competent, yet at the same time flowing freely. It’s clear these actors have great control over their bodies — the product, presumably, of the regimen of physical training developed by the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, which, according to the program, guides and directs their efforts but is supplemented by Bogart’s concept of “Viewpoints” — complex choreographic improvisations meant to give actors a deep sense and awareness of their physical presence on stage and their relationship to each other, the set, and the audience. Very ambitious, all that; and it most certainly works.


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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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