The LookOut columns


What I Say
About Frank Gruber Send email to:

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage ...

By Frank Gruber

Happy Valentines Day.

I have a theory. It's about love. About how love changed the world.

I do not mean "love thy neighbor" love. Not brotherly or sisterly love.

I mean romantic love -- "ain't nothin' but the real thing" love.

My theory is that until about 200 years ago romantic love was in the dangerous, the feared category, but then it started crawling into the more-important-than-anything-else category. Then nothing was ever the same -- politics, the family, other social relationships, art, everything.

Love conquered all.

With help from the theater.

My theory started to crystallize a couple weeks ago when I was fortunate to see in one weekend "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Romeo and Juliet," both at the Music Center.

Dramatists will tell you that for a love story you need three things: two lovers and an obstacle between them.

I will say that traditionally every society had love, but there was always an obstacle: marriage.

What I mean is that, based on the universality of romantic love in literature, in particular, ancient literature, one can only suppose that the love of two individual people for each other is a universal human trait, like smiling or laughter. It is hard-wired, independent of culture, but also independent of the urge to procreate, or whatever physical needs humans have to preserve the species, because it is not the same thing as the desire for sex.

The happiness that two people can give each other is something different and is understood to be much the same thing in all cultures -- or at least all that tell stories about themselves. Or, at any rate, all that I know about. I trust there are counter-examples, and any scholars who have them are encouraged to let me know.

But every culture seems to have a different view about marriage and no traditional culture that I know about allows, or allowed, the decision about marriage to be made by the man and the woman, or, as the case could be, the boy and the girl, who were to marry.

Marriage was a financial transaction, a deal, and the bride was property to be disposed of for the right price.

That's why old literature is full of great love stories -- there were plenty of lovers, and plenty of obstacles.

"Romeo and Juliet" is Exhibit A, and is a fair summary of public thinking circa 1600. Shakespeare, that modern fellow, and a barefoot Franciscan friar might take the view that the lovers should elope, but everyone in the play who has any authority blames the tragedy on the irrational and violent vendetta between the families, not on a system where they would have needed their families' consent to marry.

Flash forward about two centuries. Voltaire has written Candide, taking to the absurd what will go wrong if love is denied, and his disciple, Beaumarchais, writes "The Marriage of Figaro." (First performed in 1784 in Paris. By 1786 Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, opened their operatic version in Vienna.)

"The Marriage of Figaro" is "Romeo and Juliet" for the marrying kind. These lovers don't climb or jump from balconies. They leave that to boys whose voices have not yet broken.

It's worth examining the plot of "Figaro." Figaro and Susanna, the servants of Count Almaviva and his wife, the Contessa, are in love and plan to marry. In fact, when the play opens, the practical Figaro is measuring their room for a bed, and Susanna is trying on her wedding veil.

But there is an obstacle: the Count. When he married the Contessa (after the torrid wooing depicted in "The Barber of Seville") he gave up his droit de seigneur. Very liberal of him. But now, as Susanna says, he's tired of the rustic beauties, and he wants to return to the castle -- but not to his wife. He has his eye on Susanna.

The jokes fly fast and furious as Figaro, Susanna, and the Contessa outwit the Count. In the end, not only have Figaro and Susanna managed to reach the altar, but the Count and the Contessa have renewed their faith in each other as well. The triumph of romantic -- and domestic -- love.

The plot of "Figaro" and its resolution are commonplace and natural for us now, but revolutionary for the time. The break with feudal and traditional notions of marriage and sexuality and class could not be more clear, and both Beaumarchais in Paris, and Mozart and da Ponte in Vienna, had long battles with the censor.

When people began thinking of marriage as a state two lovers entered freely, not as a deal between families, then it was not possible to view women as anything other than the equals of men. You cannot love what you own, or own what you love.

I say this is important because so much of the liberal political thinking that came out of the Enlightenment, and on which modern notions of democracy, equality, and human rights are based, ignored women.

There was little in the intellectual tradition, in law or in religion, to validate equality for women, except love as the right basis for marriage and, beyond that, as the primary basis for happiness. While these ideas about love and marriage had been around as ideals, in most places they had had little effect. By the end of the 18th century they start to resonate throughout western culture, aided by the theater, as well as literature and the other arts.

In the 19th century we can track the triumph of love by following the plays and the operas. Alexander Dumas the younger's "La Dame aux Camelias," and its operatic version, "La Traviata," which also had problems with the censor, unmasked the hypocrisy of the system of sexual exploitation the bourgeois had created to replace the feudal one. What is melodrama today was revolutionary then.

By the end of the century the play and opera "Madame Butterfly" trumped race with love.

The effect of love on social values did not end with the relations between marriageable men and women. The primacy of love and its fulfillment inevitably lead to the explosion in the late 20th century of sexual freedom for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

Just as love legitimizes marriage, it also has legitimized divorce. Like it or not, good or bad, freedom to love is the preeminent value of modern society.

So, as you munch on those chocolates or grimace at some hokey card, consider that in a different era love might have made you a revolutionary. Viva la revolution!

Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon