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24 april 2019

David Cohen translates Marivaux's title La double inconstance as Infidelities. The latter sounds like the title of a play by Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard, and given that Cohen's translation was published in England in 1980, it seems to fit right in. But Marivaux's Infidelities is much more in the vein of Noël Coward than Tom Stoppard. Cohen argues that the light-hearted romantic byplay of Infidelities lies thinly over some pointed social criticism, and in this he's certainly correct. But the infidelities themselves are petty, and the action of the play reduces to a bright and witty resolution of elective affinities.

The plot is simple. The Prince has fallen in love with the country girl Silvia. Problem is, Silvia is the long-time girlfriend of the even more rustic Arlequin. How to detach her from her boyfriend? The Prince could just dictate terms, but he's a nice guy. Better to invite both Silvia and Arlequin to court and get them used to the lifestyle – and to a wider range of options.

A key dynamic is that Silvia has already met the Prince, and likes him very much. But in the way of old plays, she has met him believing that he is a random "gentleman of the court." Now at court, she still believes that she hasn't met the Prince, and she continues her friendship with the "gentleman" while under the impression that the Prince is some kind of peremptory romantic tyrant.

The Prince's allies think up a scheme to alienate Arlequin's affections. First they send a noted coquette named Lisette after him, but he easily spots her for a woman on the make. Next up is Lisette's sister Flaminia. Rather than make a frontal assault, Flaminia takes the subtler tack of just hanging out with Arlequin and getting to know him. Getting to know Arlequin is not easy. He has a blistering satirical wit; most of the play's social satire consists of Arlequin lampooning the aristocratic lifestyle in conversations with a servant named Trivelin. There's also the small matter that, crazy as he is about Silvia, Arlequin would really do nothing rather than eat multi-course meals. The court routine begins to have its appeals to him. So does Flaminia, who seems to understand his lovesickness and his general discontent with the macho posturings of court life. Meanwhile, Silvia likes the "gentleman" more and more, and sees less and less of Arlequin as he spends more time with his knife, his fork, and Flaminia. And though she's approached Arlequin as a strategem, Flaminia starts to really like him, too.

Our characters eventually re-pair (I hope that wasn't too much of a spoiler) and live happily ever after. Infidelities is an evergreen sort of play, and Cohen's translation remains bright after 40 years. It should be more widely performed.

Marivaux, Pierre de. Infidelities. [La double inconstance, 1723.] Translated by David Cohen. In Up from the Country. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. 254-313.