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Welcome to Marie Antoinette

by Martha Lavey

We welcome playwright David Adjmi to the Steppenwolf stage. David is a playwright fascinated by the superficialities of popular culture which he interrogates in surprising ways. For instance, his play, 3C is a riff on the popular television series, Three’s Company. The play was controversial in its reception—DLT Entertainment, the company that holds the rights to the television series, sued Adjmi for copyright infringement, fearful that the play would be mistaken for an adaptation of the original. In 3C, Adjmi is explores the homophobia and sexism he detects in the original series and lampoons the implicit normative lifestyle assumptions in the television program. His play mimes the characters and discourse of the series and pressurizes them into parody and social critique. Similarly, his Marie Antoinette takes the historical personage of the title character and her reception in popular culture to investigate our assumptions about her. I would suggest that primary among those assumptions is the trope of the “frivolous woman” and its underlying sexism. Robert O’Hara, our director, shares Adjmi’s interest in the hidden narratives in popular culture figures. Robert is also a playwright and a great focus in his work as a writer is the explosion of cultural myth. In particular the narratives of race, of conventional family life and of gender- appropriate behavior. Like Adjmi, Robert sees theater as an arena in which to interrogate culturally sanctioned lifestyles and narratives. Robert proposed Marie Antoinette with Alana in the role of the title character intrigued by the image of a black Marie Antoinette. As Robert expressed it, Marie Antoinette was a signature celebrity, presaging our present day, fame-obsessed culture. If that culture turns on image, appearance and persona, how does race complicate that equation? What does the overlay of an alternate race do to the expression of an historical personage known for her preoccupation with appearance? To what extent does our popular reception of Marie Antoinette turn on our willingness to assign frivolity and narcissism to her gender? Adjmi gives us a Marie who fulfills our image of her as petulant, entitled, unconscious of her cruelties. But over the course of the play, he pulls back the curtain on the system that created her. As Marie is informed of a growing fomentation against the monarchy, she confesses to her best friend, Lamballe, “I know there’s something/ else in me that wants to get out.//A little bird beating its wings against/the inside of its cage; it’s funny.” Marie Antoinette, the fifteenth in her family of sixteen children, was married to Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France, when she was 15 years old. One imagines that given these circumstances, she had little opportunity to form her own identity. She became the Dauphine of France, a political and socially-constructed role, in adolescence. She was assigned her identity before she had the psychological resources to resist or reshape the contours of that persona. She came into her role in the court, which was laden with codified expectations about her behavior and appearance, and behaved accordingly: spending extravagantly on her clothes, jewelry and wigs. Initially charming the French public, Marie increasingly became an object of scorn, and Adjmi imagines her awakening to her own captured state in the moment of the populist revolution. It’s not Adjmi’s project to produce a defense of Marie Antoinette; rather, I think his interest is in the creation of her as “celebrity”—an identity more assumed than authored. He gives us a Marie both set in her historical moment with references to the events of her time, but with anachronisms that point to our current cultural moment. The “spoiled rich girl” of which Marie Antoinette is a prototype lives in the current celebrity pantheon. Why does this image seize the collective imagination? Why is it the inevitable that a public figure in this image becomes a figure of scorn? What is it that we, the public, are working out in our initial embrace and eventual expulsion of the pampered and extravagant young woman? And who is it in there? What is the inner life of that young woman? Does she have an inner life? What does it mean to live as a spectacle? That all of this is being negotiated in the cultural space of the theater is just right. Who are we when we are onstage but a spectacle: you see us, but the convention is that we can’t see you. It’s a curious distribution of power. The figure onstage appears to hold sway but it’s the observer who, in the cover of anonymity, assigns meaning to the spectacle. The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault seizes, in his discussion of social power, on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, an institutional building structured like a prison yard, that allows the observer power over the observed. Foucault applies this form of “obtaining power of mind over mind” that Bentham describes to a variety celebrity culture and, indeed, of the cultural space of the theater. Adjmi doubles down on the celebrity equation by giving us a woman famous both for her appearance (and attention to appearance) and a player in the political arena (“arena” as another fit metaphor for the panoptican). And then he places that overdetermined figure in the dynamic of the theater. Marie is looked at (as a monarch), and looked at (as a figure of fashion), and looked at (as a character in a drama). All of that surveying echoes her experience in the intimate realm: at one point she says to her friend Lamballe, “Do you know when I got to Versailles mother spied on me. She did. Spied on me and punished and exhorted me and never raised me. Sometimes I feel like... I’m not even a... person...” To experience a loss of one’s personhood when made the object of the gaze would seem to be precisely Adjmi’s point. And, I think the play is asking us about our own culture and its celebrity machinery. The rapidity with which we consume and discard public figures is breathtaking. If a loss of personhood is the consequence of being the object of the gaze, what is the consequence for the looker? What happens to our personhood when we agree to live in a surveillance society? Yes, we have the delicious pleasure of accessing celebrity. But what have we given up of our own privacy and personhood?