On the flip side of friendship and love, there is cruelty and betrayal. The world of Reza’s play is rife with resentment, animosity, and frustration, which results in a climactic battle of wits and words between the trio of friends at its center. Marc, Serge, and Yvan hurl snide digs and outright insults at one another repetitively and circuitously throughout the play. However, in the play’s final moments, Marc and Serge agree to a “trial period” of renewing their friendship, demonstrating the ways in which a relationship broken down by cruelty and betrayal can ultimately be given a chance to start anew, and allow the former adversaries to get to know each other all over again, step by small step.
The instances of cruelty and betrayal in the play are so many, and often so miniscule, that they are nearly impossible to count. As the men’s small cruelties toward one another begin, they mostly center around the all-white Antrios painting, which has become a blank slate onto which the men project their fear, insecurity, desire, and anger. Marc describes the painting as a “piece of shit,” and in a more subtly cruel way as “nothing” or “invisible.” These assaults against the painting are, gradually, revealed to be implicit attacks against Serge himself. Marc feels that Serge is nothing but the product of his own influence and tutelage, and attempts to cruelly tear Serge down by first decimating the painting.
Another way the men choose to hurt each other is through attacks on one another’s romantic partners. These betrayals of trust and cruel words move the arguments about the painting from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the real. The men are no longer attacking a meaningless piece of art: they are attacking one another’s lives, decisions, and romantic vulnerabilities. When Yvan complains of stress surrounding his impending wedding, Marc and Serge immediately pile on him and attempt to cruelly discount Yvan’s masculinity by asking him how he allows himself to be bossed around by the women in his life, when really Yvan is attempting simply to make everyone happy and keep the peace. The men see Yvan’s conciliatory instincts as a sign of weakness, and cruelly attack him, urging him to cancel his wedding altogether to avoid being beaten down or stripped of his manhood any further. Later on, Serge, in a moment of utter cruelty, turns an emotional argument about art, aesthetics, and loyalty into an attack on Marc’s girlfriend, of whom he has never once before spoken badly. Choosing to attack the way in which Paula, Marc’s beloved, waves away her cigarette smoke, Serge describes Paula as “worse than repellent.” Because Marc has cruelly attacked the Antrios as a meaningless and ugly waste of space, Serge attempts to save face, reassert his own superiority, and bring Marc down by cruelly attacking the object of Marc’s affection—his girlfriend.
As the men stoop to new lows in their attempts to level one another to the ground, Reza shows their arguments growing more and more inane, pretentious, and confusing. As the subject matter of their argument devolves into tangential digs at Roman philosophers and French poets, the acidity and cruelty of their remarks increases exponentially, and soon the men are physically fighting one another. As their cruelty reaches an unbearable fever pitch, Yvan attempts to illuminate how “brutal” Marc and Serge are being toward one another in an impassioned monologue, but the other two disregard his feelings and accuse him of working himself up into a state.
The act that “saves” the men’s friendship is itself an act of cruelty. Serge offers Marc the chance to deface the Antrios with a felt-tipped pen. By allowing Marc to maim something dear to him, Serge hopes that the trio will hit rock bottom and thus have nowhere to go but up, back to the surface of civility, empathy, and kindness. At the end of the play, Marc and Serge agree to a “trial period” as they renew their friendship—and so while things are still tentative, it seems as if Serge’s gesture was effective. In a small twist, Serge, in a monologue to the audience, reveals his gesture to have been a ruse—he knew all along that he would be able to wash the ink off the Antrios, and is now conflicted about whether or not he should tell Marc the truth. In a way, then, Serge’s grand gesture towards Marc is shown to be its own act of betrayal. Reza uses this twist to complicate her argument by showing that betrayal often begets more betrayal, but that, in some cases, betrayals may paradoxically save a friendship.
In the play’s climax, Reza shows cruelty and pain to sometimes be a necessary step in healing. Outright cruelty can be ugly, but it can also be cathartic, making way for healing and renewal. When a friendship becomes toxic, the participants must sink to their lowest depths and exorcise all the demons within their relationship, she argues, before being able to move on. At the end of the play, it is uncertain what fate will ultimately befall the trio, but at the very least, having begun to build trust in each other again, they are optimistic about the future of their friendship.
Cruelty and Betrayal ThemeTracker
Cruelty and Betrayal Quotes in Art
MARC: It’s a complete mystery to me, Serge buying this painting. It’s unsettled me, it’s filled me with some indefinable unease. When I left his place, I had to take three capsules of Gelsemium 9X which Paula recommended because I couldn’t begin to understand how Serge, my friend, could have bought that picture. Two hundred thousand francs! He’s comfortably off, but he’s hardly rolling in money. Comfortable, no more, just comfortable. And he spends two hundred grand on a white painting. I must go and see Yvan, he’s a friend of ours, I have to discuss this with Yvan. Mind you, Yvan’s a very tolerant bloke, which of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be. Yvan’s very tolerant because he couldn’t care less. If Yvan tolerates the fact that Serge has spent two hundred grand on some piece of white shit, it’s because he couldn’t care less about Serge. Obviously.
SERGE: You know Marc’s seen this painting.
SERGE: He told me it was shit. A completely inappropriate description.
SERGE: You can’t call this shit.
SERGE: You can say, I don’t get it, I can’t grasp it, you can’t say “it’s shit.”
YVAN: You’ve seen his place.
SERGE: Nothing to see. It’s like yours, it’s… what I mean is, you couldn’t care less.
SERGE: I don't blame him for not responding to this painting, he hasn't the training, there's a whole apprenticeship you have to go through, which he hasn't, either because he's never wanted to or because he has no particular instinct for it, none of that matters, no, what I blame him for is his tone of voice, his complacency, his tactlessness. I blame him for his insensitivity. I don't blame him for not being interested in modern Art, I couldn’t give a toss about that, I like him for other reasons . . .
YVAN: And he likes you!
SERGE: No, no, no, no, I felt it the other day, a kind of . . . a kind of condescension . . . contempt with a really bitter edge...
YVAN: No, surely not!
SERGE: Oh, yes! Don’t keep trying to smooth things over. Where d'you get this urge to be the great reconciler of the human race?! Why don't you admit that Marc is atrophying? If he hasn't already atrophied.
MARC: He wasn't laughing because his painting is ridiculous, you and he weren't laughing for the same reasons, you were laughing at the painting and he was laughing to ingratiate himself, to put himself on your wavelength, to show you that on top of being an aesthete who can spend more on a painting than you earn in a year, he's still your same old subversive mate who likes a good laugh.
YVAN: Mm hm… You know. . .
YVAN: This is going to amaze you…
MARC: Go on. . .
YVAN: I didn't like the painting . . . but I didn't actually hate it.
MARC: Well, of course. You can’t hate what's invisible, you can't hate nothing.
YVAN: No, no, it has something . . .
MARC: What do you mean?
YVAN: It has something. It's not nothing.
SERGE: He is getting on my nerves. It's true. He's getting on my nerves. It's this ingratiating tone of voice. A little smile behind every word. It's as if he's forcing himself to be pleasant. Don't be pleasant, whatever you do, don't be pleasant! Could it be buying the Antrios? . . . Could buying the Antrios have triggered off this feeling of constraint between us? Buying something. . . without his backing? . . . Well, bugger his backing! Bugger your backing, Marc!
MARC: Could it be the Antrios, buying the Antrios? No—It started some time ago… To be precise, it started on the day we were discussing some work of art and you uttered, quite seriously, the word deconstruction. It wasn’t so much the word deconstruction which upset me, it was the air of solemnity you imbued it with. You said, humorlessly, unapologetically, without a trace of irony, the word deconstruction, you, my friend. I wasn’t sure how best to deal with the situation, so I made this throwaway remark, and I said I think I must be getting intolerant, and you answered, who do you think you are?
What gives you the right to set yourself apart, Serge answered in the bloodiest possible way. And quite unexpectedly. You’re just Marc, what makes you think you’re so special? That day, I should have punched him in the mouth. And when he was lying there on the ground, half-dead, I should have said to him, what sort of friend are you, Serge, if you don’t think your friends are special?
MARC: It’s true I can’t imagine you genuinely loving that painting.
YVAN: But why?
MARC: Because I love Serge and I can’t love the Serge who’s capable of buying that painting.
SERGE: Why do you say buying, why don’t you say loving?
MARC: Because I can’t say loving, I can’t believe loving.
SERGE: So why would I buy it, if I didn’t love it?
MARC: That’s the nub of the question.
SERGE: (to YVAN) See how smug he is! All I’m doing is teasing him, and his answer is this serenely pompous heavy hint! And it never crossed your mind, [Marc,] for a second, however improbably it might seem, that I might really love it and that your vicious, inflexible opinions and your disgusting assumption[s] might be hurtful to me?
MARC: Do you think what you just said about Paula?
SERGE: Worse, actually.
MARC: Worse, Serge? Worse than repellent?
SERGE: Aha! When it’s something that concerns you personally, I see words can bite a little deeper!
MARC: Serge, will you explain how someone can be worse than repellent…
SERGE: No need to take that frosty tone. Perhaps it’s—let me try and answer you—perhaps it’s the way she waves away cigarette smoke. What appears to you a gesture of no significance, what you think of as a harmless gesture is in fact the opposite, and the way she waves away cigarette smoke sits right at the heart of her repellentness.
MARC: There was a time you were proud to be my friend… You congratulated yourself on my peculiarity, on my taste for standing apart. You enjoyed exhibiting me untamed to your circle, you, whose life was so normal. I was your alibi. But…eventually, I supposed, that sort of affection dries up… Belatedly, you claim your independence. But I detest your independence. Its violence. You’ve abandoned me. I’ve been betrayed. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a traitor.
SERGE (to YVAN): If I understand correctly, he was my mentor! And if I loved you as my mentor…what was the nature of your feelings?
MARC: I enjoyed your admiration. I was flattered. I was always grateful to you for thinking of me as a man apart. I even thought being a man apart was a somehow superior condition, until one day you pointed out to me that it wasn’t.
SERGE: This is very alarming.
MARC: It’s the truth.
SERGE: Why can’t you learn to love people for themselves, Marc?
MARC: What does that mean, for themselves?
SERGE: For what they are.
MARC: But what are they?! What are they?! Apart from my faith in them I’m desperate to find a friend who has some kind of prior existence. So far, I’ve had no luck. I’ve had to mold you… But you see, it never works. There comes a day when your creature goes off and buys a white painting.
YVAN: I’m not like you, I don’t want to be an authority figure, I don’t want to be a point of reference, I don’t want to be self-sufficient, I just want to be your friend Yvan the joker! Yvan the joker!
SERGE: Could we try to steer clear of pathos?
YVAN: I’ve finished. Haven’t you got any nibbles? Anything, just to stop from passing out.
SERGE: I have some olives.
YVAN: Hand them over.
Serge reaches for a little bowl of olives and hands it to him.
SERGE (to MARC): Want some?
Marc nods. Yvan hands him the bowl. They eat olives.
YVAN: The day after the wedding, at the Montparnasse cemetery Catherine put a bouquet and a bag of sugared almonds on her mother’s grave. In the evening, thinking about this tribute, I started sobbing in my bed. I absolutely must speak to Finkelzohn about my tendency to cry, I cry all the time, it’s not normal for someone my age. It started, or at least revealed itself at Serge’s, the evening of the white painting. After Serge, in an act of pure madness, had demonstrated to Marc that he cared more about him than he did about his painting, we went and had dinner. Over dinner, Serge and Marc took the decision to try to rebuild a relationship destroyed by word and deed. One of them used to expression “trial period” and I burst into tears. I can no longer bear any kind of rational argument, nothing formative in the world, nothing great or beautiful in the world has ever been born of rational argument.
SERGE: When Marc and I succeeded in obliterating the skier, with the aid of Swiss soap with added ox gall, recommended by Paula, I looked at the Antrios and turned to Marc:
“Did you know ink from felt-tips was washable?”
“No,” Marc said… “No, did you?”
“No,” I said, very fast, lying. I came within an inch of saying yes, I did know. But how could I have launched our trial period with such a disappointing admission? On the other hand, was it right to start with a lie? A lie! Let’s be reasonable. Why am I so absurdly virtuous? Why does my relationship with Marc have to be so complicated?