A while ago, Matthew gave me an anthology of Georg Büchner plays edited by John Reddick. Basically the short story is I fell in love with John Reddick and now he is a type of imaginary friend. I mentioned that he suggested I (and everyone else that read his anthology) read Simon Schama's "Citizens: A chronicle of the French Revolution" and I immediately ordered it and after about a trillion months it finally came in! The only person who might be able to push Reddick out of the running for best (imaginary) friend is Simon Schama...but since they are in completely different categories I think I can leave them to simply hover about on the same level of my adoration.
One of the things I love about Schama histories is that his information is exactly the type that you would want to be able to rattle off at a cocktail party, it's all the hilarious details, the sinews that give the skeletal framework life. Simultaneously I have been reading French authors of the Revolution and it has been much more rewarding, when for example Diderot is mentioned, to be able to have even a minuscule understanding of who he was and what he contributed to the zeitgeist.
After a wonderful description of the fervor that hot air balloons induced in the Parisian populace during the civil unrest and initial fomenting of the 1770s and how the scientists of the Royal Academy made way for the "theatrical science of public experiment," which would slowly begin to dissolve the formal distinctions of rank by shared enthusiasms, Schama directs our attention to another democratizing event that gripped French society during the 1770s, the public theater.
"The size and diversity of the public boulevard theater, popular song and even the biennial Salon exhibition was such that it engulfed the traditional distinctions of social and legal order preserved in official forms of art licensed by the monarchy. "
Which brings us to Marivaux, one of the most frequently performed comic playwrights after Moliere, but virtually unheard of outside of France (according to my 1968 anthology of plays edited by Oscar Mandel). Although achieving a modicum of success while he was alive, writing some of his best work between 1720-1740, it was not until the years of the Revolution that Marivaux was really discovered.
After my first introduction to Marivaux, through "Robin, Bachelor of Love", (or "Arlequin poli par l'amour") I'm basically in love. How has he gone so long without being completely embraced by...everyone? He's hilarious and accessible, which may have more to do with Mandel, but in any case what a treat to discover after Diderot. Finally a play without miming!
The basic plot line of "Robin, Bachelor of Love" is as follows:
Lucinda, a seemingly semi-ineffectual witch is about to marry Merlin, but only days before the nuptials are to take place, has fallen in "love" with a mere mortal, a young man who although perhaps a vision of beauty is also a consummate dunce. She abducts him, bringing him back to her castle/lair and waits for him to awaken and immediately confess his undying love and allegiance.
Instead what happens is after waking and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the youth (Robin) bellows "Hey!" And after Lucinda rushes to his bedside, anticipating that he will be startled into a passion of love by her beauty, instead he says "Bring me something to eat." When she asks if he is surprised to see her, he looks at her with only a glimmer of comprehension and says "Oh, I suppose so."
That was two weeks ago, and now Lucinda is fairly certain her true love is on the spectrum, unable to utter a complete sentence and perpetually falling asleep in her presence and yet, whether it's her cold feet at the prospect of a life of matrimonial bliss with a social peer, or a deluded sense of hope, she waits patiently for Robin to become aware of her and ultimately aware of himself. As Scene 1 comes to a close, he has once again fallen asleep during a performance of singing and dancing put on for his benefit with the hope of prompting an emotion in the organ located somewhere between his ribs.
Scene 2. We are introduced to Sylvia, a shepherdess, who is in the process of rejecting, for what appears to be the millionth time, her suitor and fellow shepherd. The more she looks at her shepherd the less she likes him, although she has tried to be obliging and attempted to offer the perfunctory sighs of women in love, it is no use. She has come to the conclusion that she will never love this shepherd, perhaps she is frigid? Perhaps she is destined for a life of celibacy and sheep herding? Eventually she has persuaded her shepherd to leave with a "it's not me, it's you" speech and sits back to contemplate a life of solitude...when who should stumble through the brush but our dimwitted protagonist, Robin.
In the time it takes to push the branches out of the way our little pupa has transformed into a beautiful, poetic and loquacious butterfly. Within seconds of his brazen flirting he asks if Sylvia is in love with her shepherd, being answered in the negative he says "That's as it should be. The only people you ought to love are you and me. Do you think you can manage?"
It is immediately apparent that a transformation has taken place in our hero. As he walks back into the castle he is whispering sweet nothings into the handkerchief he has begged from Sylvia. When Lucinda finds him he is almost unrecognizable:
Lucinda: Good day, Robin.
Robin: (bowing and hiding the handkerchief) I'm your humble servant.
Lucinda (aside to Trivet.): What manners! And never before has he spoken a whole sentence to me.
Robin: Madam, would you be good enough to tell me how one feels when one is in love with a certain person?
Lucinda: (delighted to Trivet) Did you hear that, Trivet? (To Robin) The person who loves, dear Robin, longs to be with his beloved day and night. He can't bear to part from her; he grieves when he loses sight of her; he is on fire, impatient, full of desire.
Obviously, Lucinda is annoyed to find that Robin is capable of speaking in more than monosyllables when the object of his affection is not her but a poor shepherdess. She uses some of her witchy trickery to disappear and spy on the young lovers to confirm her suspicions. A firm believer in free will, she can not use her powers to effectively just make Robin fall in love with her. Eventually she comes up with a plan to ruin their love, and more specifically Sylvia, and force Robin to see the errors of his ways and ultimately engage in some passionate swooning if not wooing.
At this point Lucinda's servant takes pity on the young lovers and offers them another plan to trap the witch and escape into the infinite land of happily ever after.
At first I wasn't entirely sure why this would be picked up by the French Revolution, but then I had an epiphany: Lucinda represents the bourgeois, able to pick people out of the gutter on the off chance they happen to find them amusing, no question of what Robin was doing or who he was before this benevolent recognition, he is merely a prop by which Lucinda can be amused. And yet, rather than a Cinderella story, where the cinder Ella, caught up by the beauty of her new ball gown and the admiration of a prince, is swept into her deserved fairy tale ending, here our hero rejects the princess and instead turns back to the peasantry, and who better to represent this class than a Shepherdess, the emblem of the cult of the Sublime and a representation of the Rousseauian ideal.
Robin has always been capable of logic and reasoning, and yet the only role for him to play in the parlor of the bourgeois was that of an idiot. Having escaped his canary cage, he has found a voice, a will and a destiny and after a bit of crafty deception steals the witches magic wand, rendering her ineffectual and ultimately human and he escapes with his chosen bride and all the power of the bourgeois distilled into a magic wand.
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