Well-Turned Phrase Lives in Marivaux Play Timberlake Wertenbaker's New Translation of the Comedy Sparkles at Hartford Stage

By Daniel Selznick, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

Well-Turned Phrase Lives in Marivaux Play Timberlake Wertenbaker's New Translation of the Comedy Sparkles at Hartford Stage


Daniel Selznick, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FALSE ADMISSIONS - Play by Marivaux. Translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Directed by Mark Lamos. At the Hartford Stage, Hartford, Conn., through March 19.

IS there any joy equal to discovering a great writer? Or better yet, rediscovering a forgotten one? Imagine that there was a playwright who could construct delicately balanced comedy plots, bring to life multifaceted characters, and use language with real wit and grace.

Meet Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, better known as just Marivaux, a genius who lived a half-century after Moliere and wrote one enchanting comedy after another, from 1722 to 1746.

Hartford Stage Company is producing his "False Admissions" in a translation by the gifted American-born, London-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, who is now represented in New York with "Three Birds Alighting on a Field." Wertenbaker's translation is so skillful that it actually manages to appear effortless.

Those who struggled through French drama in the original language may remember Marivaux's felicitous phrasing and shrewd eye for the games men and women play. But it is one thing to briefly study a long-dead playwright and quite another to freshly observe his work onstage. Two centuries before Freud, Marivaux documented the inability of the two sexes to communicate when physical attraction is involved. According to a program note by a French scholar, Marivaux recognized and identified "approach and withdrawal, avowal and retraction, discovery and concealment, misunderstanding and revelation." He also neatly grasped the deceitful nature of the coquette - a woman fully prepared to torture those who love her before admitting for one second that she might be smitten herself.

In a telephone interview from London, Wertenbaker (who spent a good part of her childhood in France) explained that "False Admissions" ("Les Fausses Confidences" in French) was the first of three that she has translated. Several years ago, Mike Alfreds, the artistic director of an off-West End theater called Shared Experience, commissioned this and another Marivaux comedy.

"Marivaux's language is very elegant and quite cerebral," she says. "He was trained in 18th-century salons, but you get a kind of male intelligence with female concerns. Quite unique."

"He wrote many of his early plays in Italy, which show a strong commedia dell'arte influence. But the ones he wrote after he returned to France, like "False Admissions," are all wonderful and wholly original, though he uses the harlequin figure, the Arlecchino that the Italians invented," Wertenbaker says. She points out that most translations of 18th-century plays utilize expressions like "Zounds" and "Egad" and "By Jove" to correspond with the way English was spoken at that time. "But the French language has changed much less through the ages. Marivaux was very modern, and should be translated that way."

The plot of "False Admissions" places Dorante, the young nephew of the heroine's attorney, in her service through the machinations of her steward, Dubois. Naturally, all this takes place on the eve of what appears to be a likely marriage with a rich count, whom the heroine - the beautiful Araminte, widow of a banker - initially intends to sue. …

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