What Price Friendship?
Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’ (1994)
© 2017 by Eileen Warburton
The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, April 30th’s matinee performance.
“White is everything. White is nothing.”
– Mikhail Antrios, 2012
“It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
– Herman Melville, 1851
Serge has just paid out a fortune for a five by four foot canvas that is white with three faint whitish lines on it. What would make him do that? That’s what his longtime friend Marc wants to know.
For Serge, his purchase is a personal triumph. While he’s paid an outrageously hefty price, he’s tickled to learn that a major collector would pay him 10% more to get his hands on it. The white canvas is a significant painting by a major French modernist, Antrios, and therefore confirms Serge’s credentials as a knowledgeable collector of modernist art who is welcomed into a select peer group. The act of purchase and the possession of the Antrios painting has great value for Serge. Never once, however, does he say anything about loving the painting, finding meaning in it as reflective of reality, or being lost in curiosity about it–any of those bourgeois old-fashioned judgments.
Marc finds all of this offensive: The expense, the snobbery, the lack of interpretative meaning in Serge’s experience of the work. Most of all, he is hurt that Serge has slipped away from Marc’s own values to embrace someone else’s. This, Marc intuits, shakes the very core of their years of friendship. Marc, with his old-fashioned aesthetic, is quick to judge and he judges that the painting is “shit,” and that Serge has been both fool and traitor to waste his money on it. Cursed, ridiculed, and condescended to, Serge is furious and hurt.
The white-on-white canvas is a catalyst for unacknowledged questions that these two old friends have about the state of their relationship. Since they are male, there is a considerable element of ego rivalry and one-upmanship in their bond to begin with. Their confrontation over Serge’s painting becomes nasty and sarcastic and they each recruit their mutual friend Yvan to the dispute.
Yvan, however, only wants to be the peacemaker. His defining aesthetic is relationship (his only painting was done by his amateur father). He figures, if the purchase of the Antrios makes Serge happy, shouldn’t that be enough? Yvan’s friends have always been more ambitious and successful than he is, and now—at over 40—Yvan is trying to put his life together, joylessly learning the stationery business and agonizing over his upcoming wedding. It’s very stressful but he is determined to change. His change, however, is as threatening to the balance of the male trio as the ongoing snarkiness of his friends. Yvan’s stress and general vulnerability make him a target for the spillover aggression of his two friends and he finds himself in the crossfire in the middle of the battlefield.
There’s a nice little technical irony going on here, if you notice. The nearly blank white canvas corresponds to the stripped-down starkness of the stage and the three semi-white lines are like the trajectories of the three men trying to figure out the meanings in their relationship. Or, is that too interpretative and anti-modernist?
Anyway, playwright Yasmina Rez specializes in these upper-middle-class, over-analyzed, satirical confrontations between characters who begin by priding themselves on their courtesy and high culture and soon descend into schoolyard bullying and adolescent hurt feelings. Reza, the child of Jewish refugee immigrants, was born in Paris in May 1959. Her mother, a violinist, had escaped from Budapest, while her father, an Iranian engineer and pianist, was the descendent of Jews who had fled Russia during the 1918 Revolution. Yasmina trained as an actress, but by the 1980s was writing plays that garnered attention and awards in Paris, with successful translations produced in the U.S. She was also a successful novelist. One of her books was a sensation in France, as it documented a close-up year of following the campaign of Nicolaus Sarkozy (L’Aube le Soir ou la Nuit, 2007).
Art, however, is an international phenomenon. This harsh comedy premiered in Paris in 1994 and went on to London in a translation by Christopher Hampton, who is now her regular translator. In Paris, the play won the Moliere Award for Best Author. In London, the production received the Lawrence Olivier Award and in New York, it was awarded the Tony Award for Best Play—making Art the first winner of the triple-crown of the modern stage. Art has been translated into over 30 languages and has been in constant production for over 20 years. In the United States, Reza is also well-known for her hugely successful play, The God of Carnage, which premiered in Europe 2007 and in a Tony-winning production in New York in 2009.
This essay has been sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington
The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.