Though Pierre de Marivaux was one of the 18th century’s leading playwrights, “The Island of Slaves” is one of his lesser-known works. Director and Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder wanted to expose the theatre department and the Knox community to something from another time.
“The department wanted to include something in this season from an earlier century. Last year we did a season that was all contemporary plays, so this was partly making sure that we expose students to work from earlier periods,” Blackadder said.
The original play is set in the 1720s and is about two pairs of masters and slaves who get stranded on an island where their roles are reversed. In this production, some characters will be in 18th-century attire, but others will be in modern clothing. Blackadder wanted this production to be “anachronistic, and non-time specific,” seemingly cut off from time and geography, he said.
“The idea is that the four 18th-century characters that find themselves shipwrecked on this island have not only been cut off from their geographic location, but from their location in time and history, so they encounter things they would never have encountered in the 18th century,” Blackadder explained. “There are a lot of challenges, particularly for the costume shop. The other part of it was that I like the idea of working on a translation that I had done myself, that I would then develop with the students, which has proven to be an interesting part of the process.
Though many of the plays Knox produces are very emotionally driven, this one has a lot to do with comedy and the experience of being thrust into a different station in life.
“I wanted to get involved because I’ve taken classes with Neil, and [translation] is his area of expertise. We helped him revise his translation to sound more human,” said junior Lee Foxall.
Like many of the other cast members, Foxall has never performed in Harbach Theater before.
“Originally I wasn’t planning on trying out. I actually didn’t prepare a monologue or anything, but this was marketed as comedy, which is my thing; people were encouraging me to do it. So I did it on impulse, I did not think I’d get in,” said senior Katie Greve, who performs alongside Foxall as one of the islanders. “It’s weird because the part that I and three other people in the cast have is one part split into four, and sometimes we’re people and sometimes we’re not really people- there’s no clear line between the two. We [the islanders] basically made up our own characters. Mine is sort of a tomboy, who is the intimidating one.”
“A lot of silly things we suggested actually made it in. My favorite thing was that I got to do a lot of my own blocking, and I got to have a scene that was exactly what I wanted it to be,” Greve said.
Blackadder frequently looked to the cast for suggestions, and they all had a hand in helping direct.
A concern in the minds of everyone involved in the production is how it will be received by the Knox community, specifically due to the subject matter and the word “slave” being in the title.
“Most American students think of the African-American slaves in America, but the kind of slavery that existed in France in the 1720s was not racialized. They weren’t born into it. ‘Slave’ meant something different; they didn’t own you,” said Foxall.
Unlike much of Marivaux’s work, this is a play that deals with moral and even political issues. “Most of his work is more comic, but this deals with psychology, and love in particular. I was drawn to this play also because it deals with power dynamics, between masters and slaves, or servants,” said Blackadder. “I know that some of the students feel that people might be upset by the play’s depiction of the relationship between masters and slaves. There’s some overlap between the kind of master-servant relationship that’s depicted in the play and other contexts in which people are enslaved, so in a way that makes the play more interesting, that it deals with these complex issues.”