At Yvan’s house, a “daub” hangs on the wall—an intentionless, thoughtless painting executed without any skill at all. Yvan is on all fours, looking for something beneath a piece of furniture. He turns to the audience to introduce himself. He tells the audience that he is a little tense at the moment because after having spent his life working in textiles, he has just begun a new job as a sales agent for a wholesale stationery business. Yvan states that though his professional life has “always been a failure,” he is getting married in just a couple of weeks to a wonderful girl from a good family. Yvan resumes his search.
Yvan, who will come to provide both temperance and comic relief as the play unfolds, is shown to be someone seemingly indifferent about art, judging by the second-rate painting hanging from his wall. Yvan sees himself as something of a failure and a joke, and his view of himself fuels his codependence on Marc and Serge alike.
Marc enters Yvan’s flat, and asks what he is doing. Yvan explains that he is looking for the top of his pen. Marc tells Yvan to get up off the floor, telling him his pen cap doesn’t matter. Yvan insists that it does, and that his pen will dry out without it. Marc gets down on all fours to help Yvan look, but after a minute or so, Marc straightens up and suggests Yvan just buy another one. Yvan protests that the cap belongs to a special felt tip pen that can write on any surface, and it’s valuable to him.
This passage does a couple of things. It serves to show how Marc is condescending of Yvan’s attachment to an inanimate object, just as he is with Serge’s attachment to the Antrios. This is hypocritical, though, because though Marc does not want to admit it, he too is driven mad by the same inanimate object he purports not to understand Serge’s obsession with.
Marc asks Yvan if he plans to stay in the flat once he marries his fiancée Catherine, and Yvan asks if the flat is suitable for a “young couple.” Marc laughs, implying that Yvan and Catherine are not all that young. Marc then asks Yvan if he’s lost weight. Yvan says that he has, and then laments that he cannot find his pen cap once more. Marc tells Yvan that if Yvan keeps looking for the pen cap, he is going to leave. Yvan promises to stop, and offers Marc a drink.
The audience never got to see Marc and Serge’s friendship pre-Antrios, and get a glimpse of what it had been before the painting came between them. In this passage, though, the audience is able to see what Marc and Yvan’s friendship ordinarily looks like—a little teasing, a little combative, but genial and intimate as well.
Marc asks Yvan if he has seen Serge lately. Yvan says he hasn’t, and Marc reveals that he himself just saw Serge yesterday, and that Serge has bought a new painting. Marc explains the painting to Yvan, telling him to imagine a white canvas, five feet by four feet, with a few fine white lines toward the bottom. Yvan asks how the white lines can be seen if the painting itself is white. Marc, getting upset, attempts to explain how ridiculous it is that the lines are just barely a different shade of white than the rest of the painting.
Marc can hardly contain his news about the Antrios—he barely even asks Yvan how he’s doing before immediately beginning to describe the painting and upsetting himself in the process. Depending on the production, a director may or may not play with what the Antrios actually looks like, giving Marc’s hysteria the potential to be deeply relatable or completely unfounded.
Yvan asks Marc to calm down. Marc tells Yvan to let him finish, and then asks Yvan how much Yvan thinks Serge paid for the piece. Yvan asks who the painter is, and Marc tells him the name: Antrios. Yvan has never heard of the painter, and asks if he is “fashionable.” Marc, frustrated, tells Yvan that it doesn’t matter who the painter is: he wants to know what Yvan himself would pay for a white painting with off-white stripes. Yvan tells Marc he wouldn’t pay anything. Marc asks Yvan to venture how much Serge would’ve paid; Yvan guesses ten thousand francs. Marc makes him keep guessing figures until he arrives at two hundred thousand francs, at which point Yvan asks if Serge has gone crazy.
Marc, as an appreciator of art, should know that many factors go into determining the aesthetic and monetary value of any painting. Though Yvan’s questions about the painter, Antrios, are totally valid, Marc dismisses them as unrelated—to him, the crux of the issue is that the painting is white, and thus devoid of meaning, and therefore valueless. Yvan, who had been prepared to defend Serge, is also put off by the exorbitant price.
Yvan thinks for a moment, and then says that if the painting makes Serge happy and if he can afford it, then there’s no harm in his having bought it. Marc is upset that Yvan cannot see the seriousness of the situation. Marc points out that now Serge sees himself as a collector and a great connoisseur of art. Marc asks Yvan if this upsets him, but Yvan says that as long as Serge is happy, he’s happy. Yvan says once more that as long as Serge isn’t doing any harm to anyone, the purchase is fine, but Marc counters that Serge is actually doing harm to him. Marc is deeply disturbed and even hurt by watching his dear friend get ripped off and lose “every ounce of discernment through sheer snobbery.”
Marc, embroiled in the competitive yet codependent dynamic of his relationship with Serge, hates that Serge now sees himself as a collector, or as a person with great (and independent) taste. This is a point of contention for Marc, whereas Yvan simply wants both of his friends to be happy. Marc insists that the painting hurts him personally—and as the play unfolds, the audience will come to understand why.
Yvan tells Marc that Serge has always been an exhibition freak. Marc counters that once Serge had a sense of humor, at least, and now can’t even laugh at himself. Yvan promises Marc that he will get Serge to laugh.
Though Yvan points out that Serge has always been a little bit pretentious and desperate to make his taste known, Marc insists that this new development is far worse.