Marc, alone on stage, addresses the audience. He explains that his friend Serge has recently bought a new painting. The canvas is about five feet by four feet, and the painting is entirely white. If one squints, one can make out a few fine white diagonal lines. Marc explains that Serge is one of his oldest friends. Serge is a successful dermatologist who is “keen on art.” The past Monday, Marc explains, he went over to Serge’s to see the “white painting with white lines” that his friend had been lusting after for several months.
Reza uses direct address frequently throughout the play in order to allow her three main characters to communicate how they are really feeling. Because so much of the play is about pretension, ego, and pride, Marc, Serge, and Yvan are not always able to reveal their innermost thoughts to one another, and therefore seek confession to and perhaps even validation from the audience.
At Serge’s house, the white painting sits at floor level. Serge looks at it excitedly. Marc looks at the painting, too, and Serge looks at Marc as Marc looks at the painting. During a long silence, the two of them experience “a whole range of wordless emotions.” Marc asks Serge if the painting was expensive, and Serge answers that it cost him two hundred thousand francs. Marc is outraged, but Serge assures him that the owner of the famous Huntingdon Gallery would “take it off [his] hands” for two hundred and twenty thousand.
The painting Serge has acquired is almost entirely white, and was exorbitantly expensive. As these two facts sink in, Marc questions how his friend could have possibly thought it a good idea—let alone a rational one—to spend such a sum on something that seems, to Marc, completely devoid of meaning or intention.
Serge asks Marc what he thinks of the painting, but Marc does not answer. Serge suggests Marc look at the painting from a different angle in order to see the lines. Marc asks Serge the name of the painter, and Serge tells Marc that the painter is named Antrios. Marc, flabbergasted, remarks aloud that he cannot believe Serge spent two hundred thousand francs on the painting, which is “shit.”
It becomes clear right away that Marc is having a violent emotional and intellectual reaction to the painting, unable to believe that Serge would have spent so much on something which Marc believes to be essentially worthless. Serge, however, was clearly proud and excited to share his acquisition with his friend, and this tension will become the crux of the action as the play unfolds.
Serge steps forward and addresses the audience. He tells them that Marc is “intelligent enough”—he is an aeronautical engineer—and that while Serge has always treasured Marc’s friendship, he knows that Marc is a “new-style intellectual,” an enemy of modernism, and an arrogant nostalgia freak. Serge returns to his place beside Marc.
Serge thinks that Marc is smart, but afraid of modern art and reluctant to engage with it. Serge knows this about Marc, and thus possibly—probably—could have anticipated that Marc would have a negative reaction to the painting, but decided to share it with him nonetheless.
Enraged, Serge asks Marc what he means by “shit.” Marc urges Serge to have a sense of humor. Serge tells Marc that if he’s going to call something shit, he needs to have some principles or standards by which he’s calling it “shit.” Serge berates Marc for never having had any interest in contemporary painting. He tells Marc that because has no interest and therefore no knowledge of contemporary painting, he cannot possibly assert that the Antrios painting is shit. Marc replies, once again, that the painting is shit.
Serge wants to defend his decision to purchase the Antrios by couching his defense in his superior knowledge of modern art. Marc, however, sees this as pretention, and calls Serge out on trying to defend something that is objectively worthless.
Serge steps forward again. It’s fine, he says, that Marc doesn’t like the painting, but what hurts Serge is the way in which Marc reacted to the art with “no warmth,” and immediately dismissed it with a hateful, pretentious attitude.
Marc sees Serge’s purchase of the painting and defense of it as pretentious, whereas Serge sees Marc’s hatred of the painting as pretentious. More than that, Serge is genuinely hurt that Marc could have dismissed the painting—an extension of Serge’s opinions, choices, and interests—so callously and cruelly.
Marc steps forward and addresses the audience. He explains that he is both mystified and unsettled by Serge’s having bought such an expensive, ridiculous painting. Marc reveals that when he left Serge’s place, he had to take three capsules of Gelsemium—a homeopathic remedy for anxiety which his girlfriend, Paula, recommended. Marc is nervous because though Serge is “comfortably off,” he is not a wealthy man, and to spend two hundred francs at once is an irresponsible decision for someone in his income bracket.
Marc tries to explain that the reason behind his impassioned negative reaction to the painting is his concern that Serge will ruin his finances by purchasing something so extravagant—but this seems to only be a small part of Marc’s honest opinion about the purchase. There is something deeper that is unsettling Marc, and though he does not express it to the audience here, it will be revealed in time.
Marc says that he must go see Yvan, a mutual friend of his and Serge’s, and discuss the painting with him. Marc says that Yvan is more tolerant, but that when it comes to relationships, tolerant is the worst thing one can be. Marc thinks that Yvan is tolerant “because he couldn’t care less.” If Yvan tolerates the fact that Serge has spent two hundred thousand francs on “white shit,” Marc says he will know that Yvan does not truly care about Serge.
Marc believes that his reaction to the painting is the only rational or even possible one. He thinks that if Yvan “tolerates” Serge’s decision, then Marc himself will know that he is the only one who really cares about Serge.