|Written by||Yasmina Reza|
|Date premiered||28 October 1994|
|Place premiered||Comédie des Champs-Élysées, Paris|
|Setting||The Paris apartments of Serge, Marc, and Yvan|
'Art' is a French-language play by Yasmina Reza that premiered on 28 October 1994 at Comédie des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The English-language adaptation, translated by Christopher Hampton, opened in London's West End on 15 October 1996, starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, produced by David Pugh and Sean Connery, running for eight years.
'Art' played on Broadway in New York from February 12, 1998 to August 8, 1999, again produced by Pugh and Connery, plus Joan Cullman. The March 1, 1998 opening-night cast featured Alan Alda (Marc), Victor Garber (Serge), and Alfred Molina (Yvan), who was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance. 'Art' won the Tony for Best Play and went on to a 600-performance run. Replacement actors included Judd Hirsch, Joe Morton, George Wendt, Buck Henry, George Segal, and Wayne Knight.
The comedy, which raises questions about art and friendship, concerns three long-time friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan. Serge, indulging his penchant for modern art, buys a large, expensive, completely white painting. Marc is horrified, and their relationship suffers considerable strain as a result of their differing opinions about what constitutes "art". Yvan, caught in the middle of the conflict, tries to please and mollify both of them.
The play is not divided into acts and scenes in the traditional manner, but it does nevertheless fall into sections (numbered 1–17 by Pigeat). Some of these are dialogues between two characters, several are monologues where one of the characters addresses the audience directly, and one is a conversation among all three. At the beginning and end of the play, and for most of the scenes set in Serge's flat, the large white painting is on prominent display.
Set in Paris, the story revolves around three upper middle class friends—Serge, Marc and Yvan—who find their previously solid 15-year friendship on shaky ground when Serge buys an expensive painting. The canvas is white, with a few white lines, and highly valued among Serge's current circle of peers for ambiguous reasons. Serge is proud of his 200,000 franc acquisition, fully expecting the approval of his friends. However, Marc openly tries to convey his bemusement to Serge over his investment, while privately being bewildered at the purchase's implications and Serge's increasing dismissal. He goes to Yvan's apartment to discuss the matter, finding him searching frantically for a felt-tipped permanent marker.
Yvan, burdened by the chaos of his planning impending wedding amidst his pensive fiancee, Catherine, and squabbling parental figures, additionally struggles to adapt to his job as a stationery salesman. With their friendship as his sanctuary, he often refuses to take a position of favoritism in both Marc and Serge's company. When Marc informs him about the painting, he expresses astonishment yet tolerance, but offers to try to find a moment of amusement during his next visit with Serge.
Upon seeing the painting, Yvan experiences an ambivalent reaction, with Serge suggesting that Marc's uptight nature hampers any modern appreciation and denies him a sense of humor, to which Yvan doesn't refute due to the previous conversation. Marc is similarly dissatisfied with Yvan's report, trying to press him for a genuine response of disapproval or praise. Yvan, however, finds himself at a loss to recount a recent occasion where he did feel genuinely happy.
Several nights later back at Serge's apartment, Marc and Serge anxiously await Yvan's arrival. Serge re-attempts to warm Marc to the painting by justifying the prestige around it, but then dismally mentions his divorce from his wife and only recently approved visitations to his children. As Marc tries again to jest at Serge's extravagance, he also genuinely apologizes for appearing inconsiderate. Serge accepts, and the two momentary reach a level of mutual humility, but he relents when confessing he finds Marc to be humorless recently, stating that Yvan agreed with him. As Marc absorbs the implications, Serge becomes antsy at Marc's stoic concern, and the two internally express disgust towards the other over their attitudes: Serge at the notion of Marc dictating his tastes, and Marc at Serge's recent dismissal of his criticism. At this point, Yvan barges in and launches into a comically distraught frenzy over his mother and fiancee's demands towards family names on the wedding invitation.
Serge, based upon his failed marriage, suggests Yvan cancel his wedding along with Marc, but Yvan refuses to, loving Catherine, and additionally needing the work her uncle's stationery business offers him. Marc sourly mentions Yvan's ambivalent response to the Antrios, and eventually presses him for justifying other design elements. When Yvan struggles to argue for or refute the painting, Marc snaps irately at Yvan's passive nature. Serge, having partially sided Yvan with himself, lambasts Marc's introverted and classicist nature, telling him his attempts to stand apart from his time are in vain: "It's like you're in quicksand...the harder you struggle, the deeper you sink." He then tells Marc to apologize to Yvan. Marc, profoundly angry and hurt by Serge's expressed disregard for him, snaps that Yvan is a coward.
Yvan retreats from the apartment unhappily, and Marc immediately regrets his mistake, as he and Serge question what their friendship stands on. Yvan returns almost immediately, still offended, but determined to mend fences. He presents a somewhat repetitive philosophy from his therapist regarding the conflict between the two, and reads it:
"If I'm who I am because I'm who I am, and you're who you are because you're who you are, then I'm who I am and you're who you are. If however... I'm who I am because you're who you are, and you're who you are because I'm who I am, then I'm not who I am and you're not who you are."
The two older men respond cheekily to the cryptic dictum, and the argument soon veers back towards the Antrios as soon as Serge removes it from the room. Marc reiterates his frustration with Serge's reckless investment given his faith in him, and Serge shows offense at Marc's disbelief that his friend could resonate with his personal choices on his own merit. Having exhausted his ambiguous arguments for the Antrios, Serge then spitefully insults Marc's girlfriend Paula, citing her as an influence of intolerance towards Marc as of late. The two men attack each other in a petty scuffle, which ends with Yvan receiving a blow to his ear.
As Yvan nurses his ear and bemoans his friends' aggression, Marc points out that Serge's recent opinion of Paula, much like his opinion of Marc, is much more rooted in Serge's loathing of intolerance. When Serge asks why Marc resents his friend's personal preferences, Marc concludes that while Serge once valued his input and guidance, he eventually went out of his way to gradually replace him in influence and company, with the Antrios symbolizing minimalist popularity. Marc wistfully wishes that Serge would have become a mutually empowering friend after all this time, while Serge is bitter over musing that Marc essentially owned his character for the entirety of their friendship.
When Yvan optimistically realizes they now have gotten to the heart of the problem, Marc and Serge coldly turn on him and chew him out for putting his struggles on the same level as their rift, and instigating a confrontation by refusing to pick a side, even now that they've had out their frustrations. Yvan is at first defensive, but after Marc calls Catherine a "gorgon", and again suggests that he cancel the wedding, he finally snaps at the two of them for their bottled up resentments, having chosen the short time frame before his marriage to have their blowout. Miserably and fiercely confessing his empty sense of self-worth over a goalless life, he insists that being an amusing friend is enough for him if not a peer. Serge (either deeply remorseful or wearily fed up) suggests that they stop with melodrama. The three silently eat from a dish of olives before Yvan marvels at how a white canvas could trigger such confrontation...and finally erupts into a fit of cathartic laughter with Marc over the "piece of white shit". Serge exits the room, returning with the Antrios, and asks for Yvan's marker.
Serge passes the marker to Marc, leaving free rein of the canvas to him. Marc hesitantly, but inspiredly, doodles a skier going down a snowy mountain...and gives the marker back to Serge, who finally proposes getting dinner.
The epilogue recounts several events: Yvan, now contentedly married, still finds himself more touched by the simple gestures of his wife's affection over his friends' rationalizing. Serge has managed to restore the Antrios's original blank surface with Marc and Paula's assistance, and is gradually being more conscientious of being boastful. As for Marc, he recounts his earlier drawing with a thoughtful interpretation of the picture's meaning, reasoning that it "represents a man who moves across a space, and disappears".
Awards and nominations
- Spring 1997 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy
- April 1995 Molière Award for Best Commercial Production
- May 1998 New York Drama Critics' Circle – Best Play
- June 1998 Tony Award for Best Play
- November 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy
- 1998 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play
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- Pigeat, Aurélien (2005). Art (in French). Paris: Hatier. ISBN 2-218-75089-9.
- Reza, Yasmina (1994). Art (in French). Arles: Actes sud. ISBN 2-86943-410-3.
- Reza, Yasmina; Hampton, Christopher (1996). 'Art'. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-19014-6.