Serge, Marc, and Yvan—men in the middle of their lives who have been friends for over fifteen years—are, at the start of the play, all experiencing private crises that are deeply connected to their feelings of self-confidence. As Reza delves into the lives of her three main characters and explores the insecurities that fuel competition between them and drive them apart, she argues that for these three friends—and for healthy relationships between people more generally—the more prideful, competitive, and egotistical aspects of their personalities must be cast aside if any real empathy, care, or change is to be possible.
Reza suggests that Serge’s acquisition of the painting by the artist Antrios was, in part, an attempt to prove himself to Marc, and to best Marc at his own game: art appreciation. Though it isn’t stated outright at the start of the play, it is later revealed that Marc has, for a long time, seen himself as Serge’s mentor in art and aesthetics, and thought Serge saw him the same way. “You congratulated yourself on my peculiarity, on my taste,” Marc says to Serge, highlighting the ways in which their friendship has served to stoke his ego. At the start of the play, Serge is prepared to reveal his recently-acquired painting to Marc, and hopes, in doing so, to assert his own point of view as a vital, strong, and valid one. In this way, Serge’s sense of self—including his ego and his pride—is wrapped up in the painting. As Serge attempts to prove himself to Marc—his model for what self-assuredness in the realm of art appreciation should look like—his big, gutsy move backfires, leaving Serge to reflect on the ways in which his ego and self-esteem have been hurt by Marc’s disapproval.
Serge is a success in his own right. He is a dermatologist with a private practice, and is clearly doing well enough for himself that buying a two-hundred-thousand-franc piece of art is within reach. Nevertheless, Serge’s financial and professional successes are not enough for him. He needs both to stake his claim on his identity as an aesthete and have that claim validated. When both of those things are denied to him, Serge’s world begins to crumble. Serge continues to insist that the painting is valuable, meaningful, and beautiful as the play goes on, and eventually, as the friends tear each other apart in order to prove to one another that each of them is right about the Antrios, it becomes clear that the Serge’s attempt to impress his friends has been an utter failure. When Serge buys the Antrios, Marc finds his own personality—and his confidence in it—threatened by his friend’s outlandish spending and grand but bizarre ideas about what constitutes good, valuable art. When Serge reveals the painting to Marc for the first time, Marc is immediately and deeply “disturbed.” Marc believes himself to be knowledgeable about art in a very serious way, and his faith in his own closely-held opinions is the crux of his oversized ego. Marc feels he has an intuitive and unassailable palate when it comes to art, and Serge’s purchase of a meaningless, pretentious object is, in Marc’s view, a direct assault on everything around which Marc has built his personality.
In one of the play’s many climaxes, Serge insults Marc’s girlfriend Paula, calling her “worse than repellent.” This—the condemnation of his partner—is a direct affront to Marc’s ego, and one that is carefully calculated by Serge. Marc’s ego has been threatened throughout the entire play by Serge’s extravagant acquisition, but now Serge brings the underlying issue of their fight to the fore by criticizing Marc’s personal choices—and presumably his masculinity as well, in that he is only capable of securing a “repellent” partner—explicitly rather than implicitly. This moment is the final straw in their argument, and Reza uses it to point out the varying ways such attempts to assert superiority over others in the interest of inflating one’s own ego only lead to undignified competitions.
Yvan is the “weakest” of the trio, and the man with the smallest ego. Marc calls him an “amoeba” at one point, and over the course of the play both Marc and Serge suggest that Yvan has no backbone, no opinions, and no constitution. Yvan is on the verge of being married to his fiancée, Catherine—whose uncle secured Yvan a much-needed job at his stationery company—and as the play unfolds, Yvan wrestles with what his impending marriage means for his own sense of self. On the one hand, he is marrying a seemingly successfully woman, but on the other hand, he is submitting himself to the will of another, when his own ill is already weak enough. Yvan is assaulted on both sides by cruel taunts and apathetic advice from Marc and Serge, both about his approaching wedding and his status as a man in general. Yvan is the one member of the trio who does not seem all that concerned about art. The stage directions reveal that the only piece of art in his apartment is a “daub”—an aesthetically unpleasant painting executed with little skill or purpose. Having good taste in art is not a point pride for Yvan in the same way it is to Marc and Serge, and so Yvan has had to struggle to piece together what he is proud of about himself in other ways. As the play unfolds, it is revealed that Yvan has been unsuccessful in this endeavor—he has struggled to find work, only having secured a job through his fiancée’s uncle, and has allowed his fraught relationships with others to cloud his understanding of himself—his passions, desires, and opinions. Serge and Marc point this out to him, and urge him to cancel his wedding altogether and make his own choices based on his own desires, but the sensitive Yvan recoils at this advice. His role as peacemaker, “referee,” and observer to Marc and Serge’s battle of wills is symbolized when he attempts to break up a physical fight between the two men and winds up getting punched. As Yvan sits in the corner and whines about his possible concussion, the other men tease him, and he begins to realize that he does not lack a point of view, a sense of self, or a desire to compete—he simply finds himself wounded by the egos of others time and again, and has therefore sought refuge in the denial of his own ego.
At the end of the play, Marc, Serge, and Yvan all recognize that they still have a lot to learn about themselves, and about each other. They are all complicated men who struggle to feel secure and self-confident in their own ways. Marc, who had earlier in the play stated that he would be on his “best behavior” around his friends, but who quickly reneged on that resolution, at last puts his ego aside in order to seriously consider what the Antrios symbolizes, and to seek to find some meaning or narrative in it. Serge remains deeply attached to the painting, but has begun to consider how his defensiveness has wounded his relationship with Marc, and how he might learn to value human relationships over physical possessions. Yvan has at last found the courage to make a self-assured statement of his own when he says that “nothing beautiful in the world has ever been born of rational argument.” As the friends resolve to be kinder to one another, better to themselves, and more critical of their petty attempts to display superiority, the play ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that they have begun to learn what it means to quiet their egos and swallow their pride.
Ego, Competition, and Masculinity ThemeTracker
Ego, Competition, and Masculinity Quotes in Art
SERGE: My friend Marc’s an intelligent enough fellow, I’ve always valued our relationship, he has a good job, but he’s one of those new-style intellectuals, who are not only enemies of modernism, but seem to take some sort of incomprehensible pride in running it down… In recent years, these nostalgia-merchants have become quite breathtakingly arrogant.
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.
YVAN: As long as it’s not doing any harm to anyone else…
MARC: But it is. It’s doing harm to me! I’m disturbed, I’m disturbed, more than that, I’m hurt, yes, I am, I’m fond of Serge, and to see him let himself be ripped off and lose every ounce of discernment through sheer snobbery.
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.
MARC: Why do I have to be so categorical? What possible difference can it make to me, if Serge lets himself be taken in by modern Art? I mean, it is a serious matter. But I could have found some other way to put it to him. I could have taken a less aggressive tone. Even if it makes me physically ill that my best friend has bought a white painting, all the same I ought to avoid attacking him about it. I ought to be nice to him. From now on, I’m on my best behavior.
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?
SERGE: There’s no problem, except for you, because you take pride in your desire to shut yourself off from humanity. And you’ll never manage it. It’s like you’re in quicksand, the more you struggle to get out of it, the deeper you sink.
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?