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“The Isle of Slaves” (Empathy 1)

The Isle of Slaves by Pierre de Marivaux (1725) was performed by the Cygnet Theatre for the AEL Students on Tuesday 10 July 2018. Our warmest thanks to Alistair, Ros and the Cygnet Young Actors  for arranging this special event.


Two masters and their servants are shipwrecked on an island. Here to the stranded company comes Governor Trivelin and asks one of them:

“What’s your name”

“I don’t have a name” replies Harlequin, the slave.

“And how does he (the Lord) call you?” insists Trivelin.

“Sometimes ‘Harlequin’, other times ‘Oy‘…”

“What?… ‘Oy’?… this is unacceptable!… you swap names right now: you Harlequin are ‘Lord’ and you lord from now on are … ‘Oy’!”

It was 1725 when the play was first performed and for a lord to call a slave ‘Oy’ was probably normal, but Trivelin surprisingly shows a very modern sensitivity to the unfair behaviour of the lord who denies the other person to be called by name!

In fact calling someone by name is a recognition of presence and identity, it creates a more direct contact between people.

Conversely, ignoring on purpose the name of another person makes that person feel like a ‘nobody’… and we know where this technique of power leads as many tragic events disclosed: over all it was the method of the Third Reich systematically denying the Jewish their names and replacing it with a number… but on a smaller stage how many times does it happen that on a work place or amid a circle of people, the one who doesn’t suit the expectations of the leader is left out, mobbed and even sacked?

A “course in humanity”

After learning that the two lords -Iphicrate and Euphrosine- have threatened their slaves -Harlequin and Cleanthis- so badly, Trivelin sentences the lords to go into slavery straight away and swap their names, clothes and social status with their slaves… a very hard punishment! Why does Trivelin decide this?

Trivelin the reveals the story of the island and why in their dominion there is  a law imposing any lord to go into slavery and swap their names, clothes and social status with their slaves for three years:

“Our ancestors were all slaves in Greece, then they escaped to freedom and set up their home on this island. In the beginning they wanted to seek revenge and forced any lord arriving there to experience the same humiliation that they had to undergo as slaves.”

“Today the situation is different, – continues Trivelin- we are no longer to take revenge of you, we are going to reform you; we throw you (lords) into slavery to make you more sensitive to the evils which we have been subjected to… It’s the barbarism in your hearts which we want to destroy…. Your slavery will rather be your course in humanity“.

Slavery and racial segregation have been abolished several decades ago but everyone knows how much we would need a course in humanity even in our time and in our civilised countries in order to become more sensitive to the evils ‘ which many are still subject to…

Gripping on power

While for the lords this hard sentence is supposed to be a sort of educational forced experience, what happens to slaves when they go on power?

Let’s read the synopsis that Alistair -director of the Cygnet Theatre– wrote for us to learn how the story proceed:

“Both Harlequin and Cléanthis take advantage of the situation to expose the frivolities and fickleness of their masters. They paint verbal portraits of their silly behaviour and mock their romantic affairs.

However, Harlequin is ultimately touched by his master’s genuine sadness at seeming to have lost his friendship and by the tears of Euphrosine, who is suffering from humiliation at the hands of Cléanthis. 

Harlequin and Iphicrate make amends and return to their original roles; Euphrosine and Cléanthis do the same. 

Trivelin reveals that had Arlequin and Cléanthis not pardoned their masters, that they would have been punished.”

It seems that here is the description of a recurrent phenomenon: someone -suddenly lifted to power- start to mock and tease and humiliate his former ruler! A cheeky behaviour that is not really uncommon in history…

It looks like that grasping power carries with it not only the clothes and the title of the old masters but also their privileges with annexed arrogance and tendency to humiliate the submitted masters: “vae victis”, said the ancient Romans boosting an endless spiral of wars and counter-wars to gain power and domination of man over man …

What is new in the play is that all of them -masters and servants- go through a deep metamorphosis of the original aptitudes, dismissing revenge and hate but learning to understand one other and feeling compassionate for their respective conditions! 

Transformation and Sensitivity after swapping roles

The former slaves identify themselves with the old lords and feel the sorrows and fears that they once had to experience.

The former lords suffer the humiliation they once inflicted to their slaves and recognise their harsh behaviour!

This is a process that can be described with the wise motto put yourself into his shoes” if you want to really understand someone else! The characters of the play achieved the target given by Trivelin showing that it is possible to interrupt the spiral of revenge and hate. Someone of course might object: it is a naif dream that will never become real…. There are enough arguments to support one or the other opinion.

Anyhow Pierre de Marivaux shows his optimistic view -that reflected the influence of the age of Enlightenment- and we should for once trust and hope that a development different from the one of the ancient Romans, is still possible and realistic, don’t we?

Three hundred years later

Let’s now jump three hundred years later and come to the present: has the issue of being sensitive to one other condition being resolved?

My answer is not yet: although many steps forward have been made, there is still a long path ahead as we are facing the similar necessity of nurturing the quality and capability that may enable the understanding and feeling of one other needs.

Trivelin wanted to extract that quality and capability from the human heart by constriction. That quality was given a name a century later and called with the German name ‘Einfuhulung’ better known as ’empathy’.

Empathy needs to flourish and grow in freedom as that is what we need to heal social fractures and conflict. It can’t be inoculated be any law or regulation, it can’t be forced by punishments but has to be worked out on individual basis and within communities to increase our social awareness and personal responsibility.

The happy end of the play made everyone enjoying and leaving the Cygnet with a light mood and good memory of the performance, of the actors, their director and the whole team at Cygnet Theatre!

Thank you again Alistair and Ros!

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