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Theatre: The Island of Slaves by Pierre de Marivaux

November 1, 2021 19 comments

During a weekend in Paris, I had the opportunity to go the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse and see The Island of Slaves by Marivaux, directed by Didier Long. It is a play written in 1725 and one of the most widely studied in French schools. I couldn’t find any free online translation, so you’ll have to make do with my translation of quotes.

The opening of the play is the outcome of a shipwreck. Iphicrate and his valet Arlequin, Euphrosine and her maid Cléanthis run aground an island. Iphicrate and Euphrosine are two Athenian noblemen. Iphicrate soon understands that they have arrived on The Island of Slaves.

The leader of the island is Trivelin and he soon explains to the four castaways that on this island, new comers switch roles. Masters become servants and vice-versa.

Therefore, Iphicrate becomes Arlequin’s valet and they exchange their names and their clothes to make it more real. The same thing is done between Euphrosine and Cléanthis. The idea is to do a “live-my-life” experiment and force the masters to improve.

The rule of the island is simple and as Trivelin explains what is going to happen to the deposed noblemen.

Nous ne nous vengeons plus de vous, nous vous corrigeons ; ce n’est plus votre vie que nous poursuivons, c’est la barbarie de vos cœurs que nous voulons détruire ; nous vous jetons dans l’esclavage pour vous rendre sensibles aux maux qu’on y éprouve ; nous vous humilions, afin que, nous trouvant superbes, vous vous reprochiez de l’avoir été. Votre esclavage, ou plutôt votre cours d’humanité, dure trois ans, au bout desquels on vous renvoie, si vos maîtres sont contents de vos progrès ; et si vous ne devenez pas meilleurs, nous vous retenons par charité pour les nouveaux malheureux que vous iriez faire encore ailleurs, et par bonté pour vous, nous vous marions avec une de nos citoyennes.We don’t take revenge on you, we fix you. We are after more than your life, we want to destroy the barbary in your hearts. We throw you into slavery to make you aware of all the ills that one feels in these circumstances. We humiliate you for you to see in our arrogance your past behavior and have regrets. Your slavery, or I should say, your class in humanity will last three years. After that, we let you go if your masters are happy with your results. If you don’t improve, we keep you here, out of charity, to prevent you from doing more harm and out of kindness, we marry you to one of our citizens.

Iphicrate and Euphrosine are horrified. After they have taken their servants’ clothes, Trivelin questions Arlequin and Cléanthis to make their masters understand that they were cruel and disrespectful to their servants. While working on the masters, Trivelin also works on the servants and warns them against taking revenge and abusing of their new power.

Souvenez-vous en prenant son nom, mon cher ami, qu’on vous le donne bien moins pour réjouir votre vanité, que pour le corriger de son orgueil.My dear friend, in taking his name, remember that we give it to you more to cure him from his pride than to satisfy your vanity.

The play is a comedy and the scenes are vivid and played brightly but it deals with very serious issues.

It is not acceptable to be cruel to one’s staff. It points out that most of the masters don’t possess the qualities that they require out of their servants. The new slaves want the new masters to pity them but they can’t since their former master didn’t have any empathy for them.

The question of the servants’ behavior, now that they have the power, is important too. Trivelin explains to Arlequin and Cléanthis that they must refrain from being mean to their former masters and from inflicting on them what they had to endure. It’s hard to let go and not take advantage of one’s newly gained power.

Trivelin works on both sides. He drives the confrontation between Iphicrate and Arlequin on one side, Euphrosine and Cléanthis on the other side. He believes that people can be reformed and he will do his best for Iphicrate and Euphrosine to acknowledge their past behavior, truly understand the error of their ways and change them into better masters, better persons and people better fitted to be in power.

The play was written in 1725, 64 years before the French Revolution. It’s easy to see a political message behind it. Those in power shouldn’t humiliate their people because they never know, things might turn around. Imagine translating this in the corporate world with managers switching with their subordinates. It all comes down to a simple question: how to handle power?

In addition, Marivaux tells us that one’s worthiness shouldn’t be linked their status, their name or their position but should rely on their qualities as human being.

Il faut avoir le cœur bon, de la vertu et de la raison ; voilà ce qu’il faut, voilà ce qui est estimable, ce qui distingue, ce qui fait qu’un homme est plus qu’un autres.One must have a good heart, be virtuous and reasonable. This is what is needed, admirable and worthy. This is how a man is better than another.

I couldn’t help noticing the misogynistic tendency of the author. Iphicrate is quicker than Euphrosine to admit he was in the wrong. Arlequin is more willing to forgive his master’s past actions. The men seem to have an honest conversation, a real acceptance of their equal value as humans and reach an agreement for the future. I thought that Iphicrate had learned his lesson and that he’d change his ways when they got back to Athens.

The women seem more devious. Euphrosine is really reluctant to accept her faults. Cléanthis isn’t quite on board with “no retaliation” rule issued by Trivelin. They seem to patch things up as a façade, it’s a means to an end for Euphrosine who wants to go back home but needs Trivelin’s approval for it. Women are more fickle and pettier.

As an audience, we didn’t have the same opinion of the outcome. My husband and son thought that the noblemen were hypocrites who said what Trivelin wanted to hear in order to leave the island and go back home. In their opinion, nothing would change for the servants. I was a bit more optimistic about Iphicrate and Arlequin’s future, they seem genuine in their good resolutions.

An excellent play I highly recommend and for Tom’s pleasure if he reads this, I included the cover of one of those school editions he loves so much.

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