In Review: The Beau’s Lesson by Pierre de Marivaux

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In Review: The Beau’s Lesson by Pierre de Marivaux. Translated by Tom Weber. Middletown, DE: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. pp. vii + 100.

Reviewed by Daniel Smith

Volume 7, Issue 1 (Spring 2018)

The Beau’s Lesson is Tom Weber’s excellent new translation of Marivaux’s Le Petit-maître corrigé (1734). Weber was inspired to translate the play after seeing a well-received production at the Comédie-Française in the 2016-2017 season. The book includes a helpful preface that discusses translator’s choices, historical context, and the potential resonance of the play for the twenty-first century.      

Weber’s preface offers some information on Marivaux’s reception in France, and on Marivaux’s style. His strategies as a translator parallel those of others who have translated Marivaux into English. Marivaux’s work has previously been translated into English by scholars and by theatre practitioners. Three full-length plays in particular have received multiple English translations: The Triumph of Love; The Game of Love and Chance; and La Double Inconstance (variously translated as Double Inconstancy, Double Infidelity, and Changes of Heart). Seven Comedies by Marivaux (1968), translated by Oscar Mandel and Adrienne S. Mandel, focuses mainly on full-length plays, including The Game of Love and Chance and Double Infidelity.[1] Claude Schumacher’s collection Marivaux: Plays (1988) combines five full-length plays with five one-act plays.[2] The translations collected by Schumacher are by British translators, and are not often produced in the United States. Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker has published three translations of Marivaux plays: False Admissions, Successful Strategies, and La Dispute (1989).[3] James Magruder has translated The Triumph of Love and later adapted his translation as the book of a Broadway musical (1997).[4] Stephen Wadsworth’s translations of the three best-known Marivaux plays are the most frequently produced by U.S. theatre companies; Wadsworth is also a theatre director and has directed his own translations.[5] Another director/translator who has worked on Marivaux is Samuel Buggeln; his translation of The School for Mothers appears in The Mercurian (in the same volume as my own translation of Love in Disguise).[6]

Le Petit-maître corrigé is among the minority of Marivaux’s plays in that it premiered at the Comédie Française, rather than the Comédie Italienne. Traces of Marivaux’s previous work in the commedia dell’arte aesthetic can be observed mostly in the characters of servants. The play presents the story of the sensible Hortense and the foppish Rosimond, who meet as parties of an arranged marriage. Rosimond makes no effort to court Hortensia, remaining aloof as though the marriage is a mere formality. Hortense refuses to marry him until his manners improve. Their servants Marton and Frontin function as confidants, and they try to help Rosimond’s mother (the Marquise) and Hortense’s father (the Count, named Chrisalde in the original) to guide the central couple toward wedded bliss. Meanwhile, the coquette Dorimène and the rake Dorante arrive to complicate matters. Rosimond discovers that he prefers Hortense to Dorimène, but sends Dorante to court her in his place. Dorante and Dorimène take advantage of the situation, attempting their own flirtations with the central couple. Eventually Rosimond overcomes these obstacles, announces that he has changed his ways, and issues a more sincere proposal of marriage to Hortense. She accepts.

Weber notes that this is “a straight translation” and identifies “the intent of a line and its playability” as his main criteria in making decisions (iv). Translators of Marivaux face particular challenges with regard to language, as Marivaux’s characters are often invested in describing nuances of emotion. This style has come to be known as marivaudage, which was initially a negative descriptor but has been reclaimed as positive by Marivaux scholars. Like other translators of Marivaux, Weber appreciates the playful qualities of the source material, especially the fast tonal and tactical shifts employed by the characters.

Right off the bat, the title includes a complicated vocabulary challenge. The French petit-maître is an aristocratic character type that combines a love of fashion with a disdain for domesticity, embracing libertine sexual mores in a way that makes him something of a fop and something of a rake. The closest English translation is probably “fop.” I like Weber’s strategy of using the more neutral “Beau” in the title, though he does use “fop” and “foppish” at other points in the script. The Beau’s Lesson offers a subtle nod to Restoration Comedy (Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem) and “Lesson” captures the idea of “corrigé” nicely. A different translator might have titled an English-language version The School for Fops, inviting comparison to Molière and Sheridan.

The linguistic register offers a nice balance of historical and contemporary. Diction suggests historical distance, but vocabulary is not archaic. Characters maintain a formality of discourse that is occasionally broken up for humorous purposes. After a long list of Rosimond’s positive qualities, Marton concludes “And taking him all together, his only flaw is that he’s ridiculous” (3). Weber translates “amourette” as “crush,” using accessible modern language. In contrast, he translates “maraud” as “rascal,” which feels somewhat more distant. Weber has a good ear for this temporal back-and-forth; as a reader I noticed these choices, but did not find them distracting.  A particularly felicitous choice is the repeated metaphor of “a kind of a wisp of love” (9) that is later developed as “a wisp will blow away” (11). Another playful choice is to translate “amour” and “folie” as “lovingness” and “foolishness” (34), creating a stronger connection between these words in English by matching their syllable lengths and endings.

Character voice is a definite strength of this translation. Each character has a clear and distinctive way of speaking, suggesting solid choices for actors. The clever servant roles tend to employ more accessible language, and sometimes comment on the historical period. For example, Frontin calls a love letter a “billy-doo,” mispronouncing the French billet-doux (17). Frontin’s speech tends toward either short, choppy phrases or overlong, breathless sentences, and Weber captures these rhythms well. Marton speaks intimately with some characters and formally with others, and she gets some great asides. Dorimène is a delightful coquette with some melodrama villain undertones: “I love upsetting people’s plans, it’s my hobby; especially when I upset them to my advantage” (39).

With its period setting and cast of eight, The Beau’s Lesson would be an especially good addition to college and university theatre seasons. Six of the eight characters could be played as college-aged, and the play offers more and stronger roles for women than some other period pieces. The complexity of tactics would also provide a productive challenge for young actors, particularly in scenes involving Dorante and Dorimène.

With its fortuitous turns of phrase, elegance of style, and clarity of character voices, Tom Weber’s translation is a welcome addition to the canon of Marivaux plays in English.

 

Daniel Smith is Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at Michigan State University. His research interests include seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French theatre, history of sexuality, and translation studies. His translation of Marivaux’s Love in Disguise and co-translation of Carlo Gozzi’s The Serpent Lady have previously appeared in The Mercurian. He also collaborated with Constance Congdon on her adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid by Molière (Broadway Play Publishing, 2016). Dan is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Dramaturgies of Translation: History, Culture, and Style.

[1] Marivaux, Seven Comedies by Marivaux. Ed. Oscar Mandel, trans. Oscar Mandel and Adrienne S. Mandel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).

[2] Marivaux, Plays. Ed. Claude Schumacher. (London: Methuen Drama, 1988).

[3] Marivaux, Three Plays: False Admissions, Successful Strategies, and La Dispute. Trans. Timberlake Wertenbaker (Bath: Absolute Press, 1989).

[4] James Magruder, trans. Three French Comedies. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). Magruder also wrote a fascinating article on translating Marivaux. See James Magruder, “Love Has Entered My Vocabulary: A Cautionary Tale” in Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Sourcebook, ed. Susan Jonas, Geoff Proehl, and Michael Lupu (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997). Magruder’s attitude toward the opportunities of translating undiscovered classics is similar to Weber’s.

[5] Stephen Wadsworth, trans. Marivaux: Three Plays (Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus, 1999).

[6] See The Mercurian volume 4, number 1 (Spring 2012).

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