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MLN 117.4 (2002) 908-918
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Le Triomphe de l'amour:
Cross-Dressing and Self-Discovery in Marivaux
The last decade or so has seen a renewal of interest in Marivaux's theater, especially in the United States. One of the plays which has been newly translated and often performed in the recent past is Le Triomphe de l'amour, 1 a comedy with strong romance overtones that does not belong to the traditional canon of the handful of plays which have ensured Marivaux's reputation as a playwright (La Double inconstance, Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, Les Fausses confidences, to name only the most famous). This rediscovery of Le Triomphe de l'amour is probably due in part to the contemporary interest in the motif of cross-dressing and in questions related to gender identity in general. I would like to show here, focusing mainly on the plays labeled "comédies d'amour" in Marcel Arland's classification of Marivaux's theater, 2 how cross-dressing fits into Marivaux's particular brand of comic theater and how it reflects his general approach to comedy in these plays.
To a certain extent Marivaux remains faithful to the standard [End Page 908] pattern of classical and neo-classical comedy, indeed of practically all comic theater or even fiction: the play's opening normally pictures an unsatisfactory state of affairs, a disequilibrium, and the main body of the action consists in the overcoming of the problem or obstacle responsible for this, which leads to a return of balance and harmony at the end of the play. More often than not, in the tradition of classical comedy, the initial state of unbalance involves the as yet unsatisfied desire of a young man for a young woman, the obstacle takes the form of a tyrannical father-figure (senex iratus, pantalone, barbon, are all terms referring to the same character-type in different theatrical traditions), and the return to harmony that of the union of young hero and heroine. This is where Marivaux's originality lies. In his comedies, the young lovers, instead of an external obstacle such as the stock character of the tyrannical old man, have to overcome an internal and psychological obstacle: self-delusion, a lack of awareness of their true nature. 3 Marivaux's heroes and heroines show the victory of the true self, the self in love, over a false, artificial self.
The emphasis placed by Marivaux on the psychology of love leads to a shift in character development. Since the Greeks, comic characters have been divided into four types: the alazons or impostors (in the broadest sense, that is, whether consciously or not), the eirons or self-effacing characters with common sense, the bomolochoi or buffoons, and the agroikoi or rustics. 4 The first two types provide the characters central to the action; the last pair provides secondary characters whose main function is to supply comic effect. For this reason and because buffoons and rustics play a limited role in Marivaux's theater and survive only in attenuated forms—Arlequin often shows traits of the buffoon type, but always remains a very proper sort of buffoon; in a few plays like La Surprise de l'amour, Le Triomphe de l'amour or L'Epreuve, the rustic speech of a gardener or a farmer creates a comic contrast with the refined language of courtly or wealthy urban characters 5 —I will focus on Marivaux's treatment of the traditional main characters of comedy, the alazons and the eirons. [End Page 909]
In classical comedy, in Plautus, Terence and Molière for example, the emphasis usually falls on the alazons, the blocking characters. As already mentioned, the senex iratus, the authoritarian father, is the archetype of all such characters. Other variants include older men or sometimes women who act as obstacles to the young lovers either simply because of their powerful social position and the prejudices it generates or because they are ruled by some ridiculous or sinister obsession, often a combination of both. In...