by Yasmina Reza
Produced at The Public Theatre
A STUDY GUIDE
BY MARTIN ANDRUCKI
CHARLES A. DANA PROFESSOR OF THEATER
Yasmina Reza was born in 1959. After studying at Paris X University and at the Jacques Lecoq Drama School, she began her career in theater as an actress. She wrote her first play, Conversations after a Burial, in 1987, and scored an immediate success as a dramatist, the play winning the Moliere Award for best author--France's equivalent of a Tony.
Her next play, Winter Crossing, was similarly successful, garnering a Moliere Award in 1990 for the best "fringe" show of that year. (A "fringe production" is, like an Off-Off-Broadway show in New York, one which appears in a theater well outside the commercial mainstream.)
Her best-known work, Art, opened in Paris in 1994. Once again, Reza won Moliere prizes, this time a trio of awards for best author, best play, and best production. Art was also honored in London as best comedy and in Germany as best foreign play.
Reza has also written for the movies, with two of her films, See You Tomorrow and Lulu Kreutz's Picnic, having been seen in Europe. She is also the author of Hammerklavier, a novel published in 1997.
Art concerns a man who spends a fortune on an all-white painting, thus provoking a quarrel with his best friend who is outraged by this act of extravagance. This drama about a cultural quarrel involving three affluent, educated, and urbane Parisians reflects Reza's own cosmopolitan social background. She is the daughter of a Hungarian mother and a Persian father of Jewish ancestry. Both her parents are musical, her mother having achieved professional stature as a violinist. Thus, when she writes about "art" she does so as the child of artists, and as a practitioner of art, someone whose entire life has been shaped by artistic awareness.
Serious as the subject of "art" might seem, the play's reputation as an uproariously funny comedy has been something of a surprise for its author. She has lamented the fact that "people laugh so much they miss some of the lines." In fact, she says, she was convinced the play was failing dismally during its opening night. While pacing backstage, she told an interviewer, "I was completely depressed. I heard the audience laughing, laughing, almost from the first. I thought 'it's a catastrophe, the play is becoming stupid entertainment'. I said if they laughed at a certain point later on, I'd jump out the window. Fortunately, they didn't." Reza did not reveal what point in the script that was
Following Art's phenomenal success in France, film director Claude Berri, a friend of Reza's, invited her to view his personal gallery of all-white paintings by Robert Ryman, an American artist. Says Reza of the work, "It's great decoration, very cool, but I absolutely don't understand how it can cost so much money." As in the play, the arguments about the meaning and value of art seem to remain unresolved in the author's own mind.
Art takes place in Paris, in the apartments of Serge, Marc, and Yvan--well-off members of the upper-middle class. These three locations, however, are represented by "a single set. As stripped-down and neutral as possible." In fact, when the action moves from one flat to another, "Nothing changes, except for the painting on the wall."
What is important about the set, in other words, is its function as an empty page on which the characters inscribe their identities. This "stripped-down" and "neutral" environment is, in fact, much like the white-on-white painting that provokes the crisis among this trio of Parisian sophisticates: it is a void which they fill with their personalities
Although the scenery itself is abstract, the social milieu in which the action takes place is clear and tangible. Serge is a dermatologist, Marc an aeronautical engineer, and Yvan a businessman. These men are Parisian urbanites, rich enough to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the world. They dress well, eat in fashionable restaurants, attend "serious" films, and pay active attention to the world of "culture." None of them is a professional intellectual--a writer or an academic--but each actively follows current fashions in art and ideas. This social dimension is important, because only among men of such interests could we imagine a serious falling-out over the purchase of an expensive abstract painting.
Serge has just paid two hundred thousand francs (about $35 thousand) for an all-white painting by a fashionable contemporary artist named Antrois. Eager to show off his new possession, he invites Marc to his flat for a viewing. As the curtain rises, the two are looking at the work, Serge with pride, Marc in disbelief that his friend could have spent so much money on what to him is no more than a blank canvas. Says Serge to Marc, "I might have known you'd miss the point." Says Marc to Serge, "You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?"
In this exchange, we see the gist of the action: Serge defends his purchase; Marc attacks it. Serge claims a superior sensitivity to modern art; Marc derides this attitude as idiot snobbery. The play also provides a third voice: that of the man in the middle. This turns out to be Yvan, friend to both Serge and Marc, who, when he sees the painting, understands at once Serge's love and Marc's hatred for this ghostly white object.
As the play goes on, and the tensions among the three friends mount, it becomes clear that the controversial picture is merely an excuse for their rancor, a goad that pushes old acquaintances to recognize the new gaps that have opened up between them. At a crucial moment, Serge asks, "Are you saying I replaced you with the Antrios?" And Marc responds, "Yes. With the Antrios . . . and all it implies." And what it implies is that Serge has changed, that he's no longer the same person with whom Marc first became friends, and that this alteration threatens the continued validity of their relationship. And Yvan, the third member of the group, exacerbates the situation by his infuriating failure to take sides. His studied neutrality causes both Serge and Marc to bid ever more fiercely for his support, thus boosting the voltage of a conflict that finally breaks out into physical violence, with well-dressed, middle-aged men scuffling grotesquely in a brawl that settles nothing.
With their friendship about to implode, Serge suddenly makes what looks like a grand gesture of concession to Marc: he hands him a felt-tip pen, silently inviting him to deface the purity of his all-white trophy by sketching a human figure on its surface. Which Marc does, drawing on one of the painting's faint diagonal white lines "a little skier with a woolly hat." As Yvan sees it, Serge thus, "demonstrated to Marc that he cared more about him than he did about his painting."
Or so it seems. In fact, Serge gave Marc the felt-tip marker knowing its ink was easily removable. And in short order, Marc and Serge wash the figure off the painting. Thus, the gesture was tinged by dissimulation on Serge's part: he was never really risking the unsullied whiteness that enraged Marc. And Marc, though he helps his friend to wash away the little skier, ends the play declaring that the painting "represents a man who moves across a space, and disappears." He has transformed the white abstraction into a figural narrative, thus remaining steadfast in his view of art as representation that started his quarrel with Serge in the first place. Each seems to concede to the other, but each holds unyieldingly to his own obsessions.
Dramatic characters--like characters in life--define themselves by what they do, which of course includes the words they speak. What one character says about another is especially instructive, not only for what it tells us about the person spoken about, but also because of what it reveals about the speaker.
Art is especially rich in moments where one character defines himself in the act of defining another. For example, because Marc hates the white painting, Serge accuses him of "atrophying" and of "not being a man of [his] time." Which of course exposes Serge as something of a pompous fool who believes that buying a fashionable object makes him a vital figure in the vanguard of history.
Each of the characters is thus a kind of double being: the man as seen by himself, and the very different creature perceived by his friends.
Marc imagines himself as a defender of classical values and common sense against the facile enthusiasms of the moment. Thus, his disgust at the way Serge speaks the word "artist" as if it named "some unattainable being. The artist . . . some sort of god . . .." He also scorns Serge's pseudo-connoisseurship, his conspicuous use of words like "deconstruction," his newfound intimacy with "the great and the good," and his recently-acquired habit of dining with the likes of "the Desprez-Couderts" and other trendy types--all merely to "confirm his new status." Serge is succumbing to contemporary cultural jargon, and to the social and moral superficiality that goes with being merely "au courant."
In the face of these derelictions, Marc feels he must reassert his authority as teacher and cultural mentor, as the bulwark of classical thought and feeling: "I don't believe in the values which dominate contemporary Art," he declares. "The rule of novelty. The rule of surprise. Surprise is dead meat, Serge. No sooner conceived than dead." With this in mind, Marc must always keep before Serge's eyes the fact that the expensive painting, whose creator has been canonized by inclusion in the Pompidou Museum, is nothing but a fraud, a piece of excrement, a whited sepulchre.
But Marc's censoriousness, as we have seen above, will represent something quite different for Serge. What the latter hears is merely the ranting of an atrophied man, someone who has stopped living, who has, moreover, lost his sense of humor and turned into a sour "know-all." This bitterness tells Serge that Marc is jealous of his old friend, that he sees new rivals everywhere, especially in the godlike figure of the "artist" who now compels Serge's unqualified admiration. Having been accustomed to playing sage and mentor to his friend, Marc now cannot tolerate being cast aside while others step into his shoes.
Serge sees himself as emphatically "a man of the times," a "modern" spirit in touch with the vital currents of contemporary life. At one revealing moment, he tells Marc that he has been reading Seneca and has plucked from this ancient Roman what he takes to be his essential feature: "Read it," he urges Marc, "it's a masterpiece. . . . Incredibly modern." Later on, Marc remembers this description, and belabors Serge with it: "You said 'incredibly modern', as if modern was the highest compliment you could give. As if, when describing something, you couldn't think of anything more admirable, more profoundly admirable, than modern." For Marc, this is shallow praise, yet another demonstration of Serge's new obsession with the up-to-the-minute, the fashionable, the transiently chic.
And Serge's self defense in this matter is equally telling: "You don't think it's extraordinary that a man who wrote nearly two thousand years ago should still be bang up to date?" In that last phrase we hear what Marc finds so irritating about the new Serge: bang up-to-dateness has become his only benchmark for art and ideas. Which means, of course, that anything behind the times--like Marc himself--is to be discarded.
Caught between this Scylla and Charibdis of contemporary friendship is Yvan. Unlike Odysseus, however, Yvan fails to navigate the tricky passages of life. Indeed, he gushes onstage for his second entrance propelled by a torrent of complaint about how he is torn between hostile relatives whose warring demands threaten to shipwreck his wedding plans. And there he stays: torn and helpless. And in this neither/nor posture, he has become isolated and miserable:
I pissed around for forty years, I made you laugh . . . playing the fool, but come the evening, who was left solitary as a rat? Who crawled back into his hole every evening all on his own? This buffoon, dying of loneliness. . . .
Eager to please both Serge and Marc, he ends up enraging both. Marc is outraged by Yvan's desire "to put Serge and me on the same level. You would like us to be equal. To indulge your cowardice. . . . But we were never equal, Yvan. You have to choose." Serge, on the other hand, berates him for his "inertia," his, "sheer neutral spectator's inertia [which] has lured Marc and me into the worst excesses."
But all Yvan wants is "to be your friend. Yvan the joker! Yvan the joker." Which is to say, someone who is accepted because his words are not taken seriously. Thus when, a moment later, he is "seized by uncontrollable laughter" and declares that the painting is "a piece of white shit," and that Serge's purchase is "insane," we cannot take his declarations at face value. If he is the joker, then he is saying what Marc wants to hear, but with a laugh that signals to Serge that he doesn't really mean it. That he's just kidding. The man in the middle manages to have it both ways, and when, later in the evening, Serge and Marc declare they will resume their friendship for a "trial period," he bursts into tears, seized by "an uncontrollable and ridiculous convulsion." These, one assumes, are tears of happiness because the undecided man is no longer required to choose.
We use the word "art" in two related but quite different senses. One sense is evident in a book title like Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There the word "art" seems to refer to a body of knowledge and technique that can be learned from a text and executed by following a recipe. We also have terms such as "the liberal arts," which we learn at school, or "the art of conversation," which we master through experience. Used in this way, the term "art" seems to mean an ability that anyone of reasonable intelligence or aptitude might master, to denote nothing more than a range of skills that is both practical and accessible. This is the older of the two senses of the term.
The newer meaning of "art," dating back only to the late eighteenth century, is suggested by phrases like "creative arts," or "the fine arts." To be "creative", as we all know, is to produces works of a kind never before encountered or imagined, things mysteriously conjured into being by the "artist," who is a combination of sage and seer. Similarly, a "fine" art is one which rises above the mundane uses of the kitchen or the parlor to be admired rather than handled and used. We also speak of "the arts," by which we mean a body of works that are beautiful and revelatory, delighting both the senses and the soul. These works include literature and music, theater and dance, painting and sculpture, and they have in the last two centuries come to constitute a world of spiritual meaning and experience of the kind formerly associated only with religion. Indeed, "art" in this second sense has become our secular religion. Rather than attending churches or synagogues on the weekends, many of us go to the museum, the theater, or the symphony instead. And one's taste in "art" is in many ways now as important as one's religious affiliation was during the Reformation. Then the question was: can Catholics and Protestants ever be friends? Now we wonder: can an admirer of Cezanne ever break bread with a fan of Keene? Can a lover of Mozart really feel comfortable with a devotee of Stockhausen? What common ground is there between partisans of Dickens and readers of Sontag?
It is with this second idea of art that Art concerns itself. The falling out between Serge and Marc over the all-white painting partakes of some of the urgency that once would have surrounded a friend's conversion to an alien faith. As they regard each other across this contemporary confessional divide--where abstraction confronts the figural, postmodernism faces the classic, and deconstruction squares off against common sense--the two come to seem ever less human to one another. Each seems to the other humorless, grotesque, incomprehensible. And each, at the moment of crisis, is willing to attack the other with blows and not merely words.
And all for "art." We are accustomed to hearing religion criticized for provoking conflict between people, but this play seems to suggest that the problem of violence lies not with outside causes, but with human nature itself, which, as Hamlet says, will "find quarrel in a straw"--or at least in an all-white painting.
A related theme is the vulnerability of friendship, particularly friendships that have lasted a long time. Who hasn't had the experience of one day looking at an old friend and asking himself: what in heaven's name do we have in common any more? We discover that we have parted ways on politics, or social values, or religious belief. And we acknowledge sadly that were we to meet now for the first time, we'd probably back away from each other in distaste. But still we hang on. We remain friends, most likely because no crisis ever arises that forces us to face up to our differences with these familiar strangers.
But that is precisely what happens in Art. Serge and Marc confront a crisis of divergent belief and wrestle with the consequences. The fact that their friendship comes out the other side still intact is reassuring--until we remember that their reconciliation is based on artful--and mutual--deception.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Have you ever quarreled with a good friend? What were the causes? What was the outcome?
2. Do you think Marc is justified in insulting Serge's painting? Why? Why not?
3. Are there any ideas or beliefs that you would quarrel with your friends about? That would threaten your friendship? What are they?
4. Do you think Serge genuinely likes his painting? Or does he just covet it because the artist is well-known and fashionable?
5. How, in a nutshell, would you describe Serge's ideas about what makes good art?
6. How would describe Marc's ideas?
7. Whose view of art do you support, Marc's or Serge's? Why?
8. What do you think Yvan really thinks of the painting? What are your reasons?
9. Why do you think the playwright did not include any of the women the men are involved with?
10. Do you think Serge, Marc, and Yvan will still be friends in three years?