The Dispute by Marivaux. Royal Shakespeare Company at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
Marivaux was born in 1688 and his work as a playwright—like the work of artists generally— ery much reflects of the spirit of the times. Already, by the turn of the century, comedy writing had become firmly anchored in economic realities. Soon Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot were to make their marks as key figures of the French Enlightenment.
In The Dispute, a prince who disagrees with his lover about whether men and women are naturally adulterous, reveals an experiment which has been set up by his father to test the point. Four white teenagers have each been brought up on their own by two black servants. On the command of the prince they are released into a dark 18th century palace, where they meet and mix, and we (the audience) watch what happens.
Several of us watched the play together, and our reactions were very different. One of my companions found the occasion arch and unconvincing; the pace slow not to say boring. Another was struck by the powerful resonances with our own time, especially the idea of experimenting with human beings, and found the impact more persuasive because the players wore modern dress. A third found the occasion sufficiently gripping to surrender to the experience, and to demand time afterwards in which to reflect. I sympathised. Perhaps more familiar with the period in which Marivaux was writing than my companions, I was fascinated by the way in which he had fashioned a story which allowed him to play with many of the ideas which underpinned the Enlightenment: empiricism and scepticism as the basis of belief; life in the “state of nature”; freedom and equality, and so on. But I found that unpacking the play, comprehensively, was difficult.
An hour or so later, however, I was struck by a number of things. First, the grisly experiment which forms the basis of the action, and the way that this presumes the power of one group (represented by the prince) to manipulate the lives of another group (represented by the four children), seemingly without restriction. Second, the idea that experimentation is an appropriate way of settling some disputes; associated with the corollary that such experiments must nevertheless be validly formulated if they are to be useful. (Whatever we might think about the nature of Marivaux’s experiment, and especially its use of human beings as “guinea pigs”, its design is such that it could never be used to confirm whether or not men and/or women are “naturally adulterous”.) Third, I was conscious of the sexual stereotyping: and fourth of the overt racism; with two black people fulfilling the roles of servants. And finally there was the problem of language. We are told by the prince that the four young people “have been taught the language we use”, as though language can be taught in a way which is free of social meanings; as though, for example, the meaning of “woman” is constant.
And I wondered, in the light of the thoughts of myself and my companions, how much better a group of professional critics might have unpacked the play a couple of hours after seeing it. So I examined the columns of the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Times, Time Out and the London Evening Standard, to see what their worthy critics had to say about my five key issues.
Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard found the play difficult to watch “partly because of human experimentation”, but he failed to consider the class basis of the experiment, or the problem of language. He did, however, mention the sexual stereotyping and the racism. WE in Time Out was concerned about the cruelty of the experiment, but again failed to see its class basis. None of the other key issues was even mentioned. Michael Billington in the Guardian described the experiment in terms of “autocratic manipulation”, and spotted both the sexism and racism. But he said nothing about the problem of language. Kate Bassett in the Daily Telegraph made no comment about either the legitimacy of the experiment, or its cruelty. She also had nothing to say about both the racism of the language, but in predictable Telegraph fashion she did tell readers that in Neil Bartlett’s production the first meeting of the two young men is seen in terms of “some latent homosexuality”. Finally, Jeremy Kingston in the Times had nothing at all to say about any of the issues.
From which I conclude that, in the light of the available evidence, most newspaper critics are about as insightful as their colleagues who daily dribble their half-truths and distortions onto the news and comment pages of the press. My complaint is not that the critics disagree with my judgments, but rather that they choose to ignore the significant in favour of the trivial. Theatre criticism seems much like other aspects of contemporary life in western capitalist, so-called democracies—more about style than substance.