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l'île des esclaves

26 april 2019

L'Île des Esclaves – "Slave Island" – is a 1725 topsy-turvy comedy by the French master Marivaux. It echoes Shakespeare's Tempest and prefigures J.M. Barrie's Admirable Crichton.

There's been a shipwreck … somewhere. The four survivors we meet are all "Greeks" of some indeterminate era: a master and his male slave, a mistress and her female slave. We meet the two men first, and the master, Iphicrate, is already apprehensive. He realizes that the ship has set ground on the shore of the notorious "Slave Island," where escaped slaves have built a republic on the principle of castigating, if not outright executing, all masters who happen to land there. His slave Arlequin, within a few lines, starts to tutoyer his master and to look forward to taking some mighty liberties with the situation.

The leader of the slave Republic, Trivelin (a standard name for a servant in Marivaux's theater) rounds up the two men and their female counterparts (mistress Euphrosine and slave Cléanthis). Trivelin announces that killing masters is a thing of the past, but that he will insist on three years of role reversal, during which Iphicrate must serve Arlequin and Cléanthis must serve Euphrosine, subject to their every whim. Trivelin also confusingly insists that both pairs swap names, so that Arlequin is now called Iphicrate, etc. This can puzzle a reader who's just met them, but would be less of a problem on stage, where the characters would be vividly distinguished to the eye.

First up in the sequence of reprisals come a couple of scenes where the slaves describe frivolous, affected behavior on the part of their masters. This is silly enough, but one begins to get a little uneasy. Does the evil of slaveholding come down to a propensity for foppish behavior? Even if Marivaux meant the play to satirize relations between masters and free servants in metropolitan France, slavery was big business in the French empire in 1725, and generated some of the wealth that enabled theatergoers to enjoy an evening of Marivaux. He seems to give the institution entirely too easy a pass.

But violence is not far from the surface. Arlequin continually alludes to the various whips that Iphicrate has used on his back. Topsy-turvy may be a laughing matter, but the right-way-up order of Marivaux's world isn't funny at all. The slaves-turned masters decide it would be a good joke to have sex with each other's slaves. Euphrosine doesn't think it's much of a joke. She implores Arlequin

que mes disgrâces, que mon esclavage, que ma douleur t'attendrissent. Tu peux ici m'outrager autant que tu le voudras; je suis sans asile et sans défense. (Scene 8)

[that my downfall, that my servitude, that my sorrow would soften you. You can have your way with me as much as you like; I have no refuge and no defense.]
Arlequin realizes that Euphrosine has gotten the point.

Iphicrate is a tougher proposition. He tries to wheedle Arlequin with allusions to their boyhood camaraderie; Arlequin points out that this soon turned into adult abuse. "Tu veux que je partage ton affliction," Arlequin says (scene 9), "et jamais tu n'as partagé la mienne" – you want me to share your troubles, and you've never shared mine. Eventually this message also gets through. When one is born into power over others, that power seems like the order of the universe. When you're suddenly thrust into a position where others have power over you, it seems outrageous. Shouldn't the "natural" situation seem just as outrageous?

Trivelin is happy with the speedy progress his pupils have made. Their repentance seems genuine. He can ship them back to Greece without delay, and only the more cynical of the audience members might suspect that things will soon go back (as they do in The Admirable Crichton) to the way they've always been.

"La différence des conditions n'est qu'une épreuve que les dieux font sur nous," Trivelin explains (Scene 11). "Distinctions of rank are just a way the gods have of testing us." Our foursome pass their test: the slaves can forgive, and the masters can reform. Everyone lives happily at least till the curtain drops, and Marivaux rhetorically restores his audience's sense that all is right with the world. But L'Île des Esclaves retains its power to unsettle a complacent viewer or reader, even 300 years later.

Marivaux, Pierre de. L'Île des Esclaves. 1725. iBooks.