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‘La Dispute’ depicts a philosophical battle of the sexes

Marivaux’s 18th century French comedy, onstage
at Muhlenberg College Feb. 24-27, explores questions
of infidelity through a shocking sociological experiment

Allentown, Pa. (Feb. 3, 2011)—What would happen if you raised three boys and three girls in complete isolation from each other and the outside world—and then introduced them to one another? Would they fall in love? Promise to be loyal? How long would it take before the betrayals began? And who would be the first to stray, the women or the men?

Just such an experiment is at the heart of Pierre de Marivaux’s mischievous 1744 comedy “La Dispute,” on stage Feb. 24-27 at Muhlenberg College. The play is shot through with romance, playful language and situational comedy, says director Francine Roussel, an associate professor in Muhlenberg’s theatre and dance department. But it also gives the audience some food for thought.

“You leave the play with these nagging questions,” she says. “It is not as light as it seems.”

Though more 250 years old, the play continues to resonate with modern audiences and modern actors, Roussel says.

“At college, we are dealing with young people who fortunately fall in love and fall out of love," she says. "That subject is relevant to any time. Is it in human nature, or is it a product of a civilization, era or culture?”

“La Dispute” begins with an argument: a prince and his courtiers have been debating whether men or women are more likely to unfaithful in love. To settle the dispute, the prince has concocted an experiment whereby six children spend their entire childhood and adolescence alone, with a pair of servant caretakers as their only human companions. At the age of 18, the children are introduced to each other, and couples form quickly. The lovers start out swearing their devotion, but they soon face their first temptations. The prince—and the audience—then watch as the results unfold.

“The temptation seems impossible to resist,” Roussel says. “The truth of human behavior is visible in these young people. They are constantly discovering the world around them and the world within themselves. These are the conditions of a serious experiment.”

As with all scientific endeavors, more questions than answers come out of this subversive experiment.

“It is a play that is philosophical in nature, just like anything in that century,” Roussel says. “Marivaux himself had that bent. His theater questions the philosophy of life. In the 18th century, literature and philosophy fell in love with science.

“I’m amazed at the refinement and sophistication of his language,” she says, “his knowledge of the human heart and of the infinite subtleties of human behavior, and his power to make that society aware of its class system and its need to change.”

Roussel says that the play displays a social agenda that was surprisingly progressive for its time. She is particularly interested in Marivaux’s depiction of the two black servants who have raised the children.

“The young people say horrible things about their guardians, totally racial, not politically correct things. I’m sure people will react to that,” Roussel says. “But Marivaux was way ahead of his time. He used provocative language to raise important social questions. He wrote a play about the emancipation of women and the emancipation of slaves. He had a real social consciousness.”

Roussel says she was interested in visualizing the cruelty of the experiment itself — an approach she discussed with scenic designer Curtis Dretsch. Dretsch designed a set he says is meant to invoke “a combination zoo enclosure and operating theatre,” in which the characters enter a central space from their separate cages of isolation.

 “I have really questioned where the children come from, the damage done to them, and where they will go,” Roussel says. “I wanted the set to address these issues.”

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. Princeton ranks Muhlenberg’s theater program sixth in the nation, and The Princeton Review and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

“La Dispute” performances are Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 24-26, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. For mature audiences.

“La Dispute” performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.