Death of Tintagiles
The Miracle of Saint Anthony
Sound and Music by:
A Life in Counterpoint to a Work
“…one of the things that is fascinating with Maeterlinck is his tendency to bring to mind those who, in fact, came after him. This is one of the great paradoxes of this unclassifiable author.” (Patrick Maguiness, “Maeterlinck et le ‘Dieu Sauvage,’” Présence/Absence de Maeterlinck, ed. Marc Quaghebeur.)
According to conventional wisdom, Henrik Ibsen was the ‘father of modern drama.’ With A Doll’s House, Ibsen inaugurated the major trend in 20th and now 21st Century theatre, particularly in America: the Naturalistic Play, consisting of socially important content packaged in a well-made structure. Other prominent names that could share the claim include Chekhov, Shaw, Wilde and Strindberg, that alongside Ibsen, compose a pantheon of frequently anthologized pioneers of “Modern Drama.” A sixth crucial name is invariably left out, that of Maurice Maeterlinck, a writer who once enjoyed vast renown and popularity, whose plays over the course of two decades were translated and produced in wildly international plenitude, and whose star has since faded to obscurity. While a mist of oblivion has risen over his drama, he was at one time a favorite writer and inspiration for the likes of Rilke, Gide, Chekhov, D’Annunzio, Proust, Thornton Wilder, and Lorca. Yeats, Synge, Wilde, Cocteau, Hoffmansthal, Blok, Bely, and others drank at this source and acknowledged him as a critical influence. His popularity lasted well past World War I, although part and parcel of his notoriety was that there was no shortage of detractors and those who parodied his foibles.
Today Chekhov and Wilde’s stars, in particular, remain high in the firmament, with numerous productions everywhere; Shaw is done relatively frequently; and Strindberg is generally known; Miss Julie in particular is widely produced. Whereas published plays by the above four playwrights can generally be found in any Barnes and Noble or Borders in America, it would be surprising indeed if you could find a clerk able to locate a play by Maeterlinck on the shelves, or an English-speaking theatre that would put one on its bill. The Pantheon of Five are understood as founders of the enduring Naturalistic tradition. Maeterlinck is the Missing Link of Modern Drama – father of the alternative lineage of modern drama.
Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty has been shown to pick up exactly where Maeterlinck leaves off in his early plays and essays; Artaud knew and appreciated many of the Belgian’s essays on theatre, explicitly using them as a launching pad for his own ideas. And his affinity for dreams and ineffable ambiances made him, along with Lautréamont and De Quincy, one of the key inspirational figures for Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and the entire Surrealist movement; Breton and many others pay him tribute. Maeterlinck’s influence, even if direct lineage and influence cannot be explicitly demonstrated, is most evident in the static plays of Beckett. It is hard to imagine Didi and Gogo waiting for Godot if the twelve blind denizens of the institution hadn’t first waited for the Priest. Katherine Worth’s seminal book on modern Irish drama begins with a whole chapter on the Belgian Maeterlinck, insisting on his direct paternity for Synge, Yeats, and a slew of others. Pinter’s menacing silences and allusive language and Ionesco’s landscapes of the dead are all progeny, however obliquely, of Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck’s radically stripped down dialogue in some ways goes further than even Beckett’s and can bring to mind the terse post-absurdist style of Maria Irene Fornes; his stamp can be seen in certain plays of Edward Albee, such as The Sandbox and The Lady from Dubuque, where a given character incarnates a triumphant Death. The static, image-based theatre of Robert Wilson or even such non-linear pieces as the Open Theatre’s Terminal, a meditation on death, would have been unthinkable without, and are a natural evolution from both Maeterlinck’s theory and his practice. The list of directors who were fascinated by and ultimately directed Maeterlinck works is an honor roll of the twentieth century: Lugné-Poë, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Granville-Barker, Copeau, Reinhardt, Peter Stein, Kantor. The array of designers who were inspired to realize sets for his productions is equally remarkable: Vuillard, Nicholas Roerich, Robert Edmond Jones. Some of the most celebrated performers of their time coveted roles in Maeterlinck plays, from the great star of the Edwardian English stage, Mrs. Patrick Campbell who played Melisande in French, to Sarah Bernhardt’s rendition of the same role in London in 1893; from Louis Jouvet to Elizabeth Taylor who acted in a Russian film version of The Blue Bird and Shirley Temple who starred in an American one.
In 1889, Maurice Maeterlinck, a young nobody practicing by default to be a jurist, spent much of his free time high in the single tower of the family’s country villa, an imposing edifice with the aura of a medieval castle, writing poems, stories and plays. He shared the fruits of his hobby with his literary group, comprised of himself and two schoolmates, in the provincial backwater of Ghent in Flanders. Heartened by the reactions of Charles Van Lerberghe and Gregoire LeRoy, he borrowed thirty francs from his mother to cover the costs for a private printing of his first play, The Princess Maleine, and sent off a copy to the distinguished Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, yet another French-speaking Fleming. Impressed and interested in encouraging young Belgian talent, Verhaeren sent his copy to the French literary critic Octave Mirbeau. Imagine Maeterlinck’s astonishment, one morning at breakfast on opening his copy of the Figaro, to read on the first page that a certain Maurice Maeterlinck had written a play which showed that he was greater than Shakespeare! This article precipitated a storm of interest regarding the fledgling dramatist that included both adulation and controversy.
At the time of Mirbeau’s discovery of Princess Maleine, an appetite had been growing for Symbolist theatre within French cultural space that in part accounts for Mirbeau’s over-the-top homage. Symbolism (along with first cousins, Art-for-Art’s-Sake, decadents, Pre-Raphaelites) had swamped the world of the arts ever since the 1850s; it had theorists in Walter Pater and Stéphane Mallarmé; Mallarmé was also its chief poet, along with Verlaine, Corbière and Laforgue. Jean Delval, Odilon Redon, Fernand Knopff, Aubrey Beardsley, Burne-Jones, and other symbolist painters proliferated. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rodenbach, and The Comte de Lautréamont brought decadence into prose. But – apart from the premonitory work of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam – Symbolism had gained no foothold in the theatre for the simple reason that no playwright had found a way to make it happen. It was just such a theatrical work as Princess Maleine that promised to satisfy the hunger.
Viewers who had taken in the Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite canvasses had often remarked on their overwhelming ability to project a quality of silence. These numinous silences suggestive of the unseeable world beyond, now infiltrated Symbolist dialogue in fully realized performances; ‘secondary dialogue,’ replete with its dying phrases, hidden meanings, and non sequiturs could now both be read and heard; dramatic plot devoid of conventional dramatic action, in the case of the short one-act plays, and action disjointed and riddled with gaps in the case of the longer works were the newly introduced techniques of a long-heralded Symbolist dramaturgy that had been often described as a theoretical possibility that might arise in some nebulous future time. With his leading ladies, Princess Maleine and Melisande, wispy, vulnerable princesses who materialize out of thin air, Maeterlinck introduced leading ladies who incarnate the feminine ideal of the pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist schools – and other archetypal characters too (the prince, the old king, etc.) that had cast a spell over the imagination for 25 years now, according to the nature of drama, speak, move, and live. His little static dramas, The Blind, The Intruder, and Interior gave the world a dramaturgy, as new as Mallarmé’s poems had been. Symbolism now was live, three-dimensional, and palpable.
Part of the Maeterlinck puzzle is that his early critics were prone, when considering his work, which brought an entirely new drama to the modern age and was thus hard to place, to automatically latch on to whatever it reminded them of most from the classical past. Mirbeau’s stupefyingly laudatory article that compared Maeterlinck to Shakespeare, for all its open-hearted appreciation – which the critic was constrained to repeatedly defend and justify – had the unintended consequence of initiating a false dialectic: Maeterlinck came on the scene identified with Shakespeare, and that compliment unwittingly framed and delimited the debate – Was he really as good as Shakespeare? Was his an outright plagiarism of Shakespeare? Was he better than Shakespeare, as Mirbeau claimed? Was he something entirely different? (Certain French writers affirm that he was different, and in some ways better!) The embarrassed subject of this debate by turns denied that he drew heavily on Shakespeare at all – in fact it is more just to identify the bloody Jacobeans, Ford, Webster, and Tourneur, as his literary forebears – and dismissed Maleine as an insignificant oeuvre de jeunesse written as a youth smitten with his discovery of English classical drama. “I’ve had it up to here,” he confided to his friend Gregoire LeRoy three months after Mirbeau’s elegy in the Figaro, “with this middle-brow glory, in honor of a Shakesfoolery like the Princess [Maleine] who today fills me with disgust.” Elsewhere he defended himself against charges of plagiarizing Shakespeare with lucid arguments pointing out that English critics, knowing Shakespeare all too well and hence being perfectly able to perceive the glaring differences, tended not to see any such provenance. Maeterlinck’s argument was not entirely sound, as on October 28, 1890, the readers of the Manchester Guardian were introduced to the “new Shakespeare”: none other than Maurice Maeterlinck.
Yet certain commentators resisted the Shakespeare comparison, and found that no, he was more akin to Sophocles (specifically Oedipus at Colonus); for others it was Racine; and for the famous French theatre critic, Sarcey, intending to diminish, not exalt, Maeterlinck in his audience’s eyes, it was Pixérécourt, master of melodrama, who was his precursor. But regardless of the comparison, they would invariably turn Maeterlinck into a target for critical darts on the grounds that Maeterlinck either was too much those things to make him original, or conversely, that he wasn’t sufficiently those things to make him worthwhile. The original models could all be respected, but this thing – Maeterlinck’s new drama — this they could not respect. All these critics were clearly using such well-known models to explain and render familiar to themselves and their audience an author who was up to something totally unfamiliar and new. Their well-meaning attempts to elucidate only muddied the critical discourse and prevented their audiences from appreciating the revolutionary particularity of Maeterlinck’s contribution.
Maeterlinck, with admirers and detractors lined up in full battle regalia and blasting each other, still succeeded in being the toast of the town – the person all journalists wanted to interview, the playwright all avant-garde theatres wanted to produce, and not only in France. In his naiveté, he first offered The Princess Maleine to André Antoine, master interpreter of Naturalism, but then vacillated and withdrew the offer. In consequence of this unfortunate chapter, his first play wasn’t performed in France until many years later and languished in obscurity. He then submitted The Intruder to Lugne-Poë, who snapped it up and staged it in 1891. That debut of a short work that opened the door to all experimental theatre which came after, was followed by Pelleas and Melisande. A longer work, it was based both on fairy tales and written in the wake of exhaustive reading of Elizabethan drama. Like Princess Maleine, the episodic structure and archaic atmosphere that are reminiscent of certain Elizabethans were belied by the terse, spare, and often repetitive dialogue which occasionally shifts into a subjective, oneiric mode that is purely modernist. And above all, Pelleas presented unforgettable stage images that cemented Maeterlinck’s reputation as an innovator, and put Lugné-Poë and his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre on the map. An intercontinental cascade was unleashed; Maeterlinck’s plays were translated into English, German, and Polish, and quickly caught on as the most exciting new development in the theatre. The Intruder premiered in London in 1892 and in New York in 1893. Max Reinhardt directed Pelleas in 1903 and revived it later as well as three other Maeterlinck plays. By 1904 Stanislavski had done Interior, The Intruder and The Blind. There were as many as two hundred and fifty productions of Maeterlinck plays done all over America between 1909 and 1911 alone.
Following his first efflorescence, which ended in 1894, he was awarded, but refused, the Belgian Prix Triennal. In 1897 he moved to Paris, a move that to many symbolized a disowning of his roots. After writing his Symbolist masterpieces and hitting a period of writer’s block, he confided to Franz Hellens that he couldn’t continue in the Symbolist vein, that it was ‘a dead end.’ He dropped the dramatic form entirely for a period and instead brought out book-length metaphysical essays, a form he favored more and more. Then, in 1903, a new dramatic period began with Monna Vanna; his Symbolist works, which in retrospect were his most important and lasting contribution to the theatre, were displaced by costume dramas, solid and stolid pseudo-period pieces akin to Cyrano de Bergerac, comprising a middle period that lasted up to 1914 – including Aglivaine and Seylisette, Ariane and Bluebeard, Joyzelle, Marie Victoire, and Maria Magdalene, costume dramas centering around a powerful female figure. Although Monna Vanna, for example, was his first great popular commercial success, whose receipts from translations and touring companies brought Maeterlinck financial security, the plays from this period have not aged well. Many sectors of the Belle Epoque public, which had spurned his early experiments, embraced the more recognizable and conventional tendency this period epitomized. He was awarded, and this time accepted, a Prix Triennal for Monna Vanna and a second one in 1911 for what was to become his most popular work, one he’d unassumingly written as a confection for children – The Blue Bird. The Swedish Academy crowned his entire oeuvre with a Nobel Prize for Literature later the same year. If someone in the western world had failed to hear of Maeterlinck on account of Pelleas, they knew his name now; it became a household artifact, accompanied by Maeterlinck cream pitchers, Maeterlinck gift boxes and other memorabilia. When Mayor Fiorello Laguardia of New York was informed that Maeterlinck was soon to arrive, he said, “Who – the Bluebird guy?”
As Maeterlinck’s middle period of playwriting waned, The Mayor of Stillemonde, written during World War I, still enjoyed a wide success, not because of any inherent dramatic strength or innovation, but because it was set in a France occupied by an odious Teutonic force; its topicality had immediate appeal to populations which had suffered recent depredations at the hands of German armies. Thereafter, despite many further attempts at comebacks, he could neither discover a valid new style in the dramatic mode nor adequately put to use conventional forms, to the extent that his plays remained largely unstaged and, despite his Nobel-Prize-winning status, he could only manage to get them published in obscure journals. In truth, he couldn’t go back to the style of his initial success, nor could he find a valid way forward, so his remaining success rested on his pop-spiritual essay.
There is much that is surprising, scandalous, paradoxical in Maeterlinck – he who was so preoccupied, nay, obsessed with the question of individual destiny – what about his own personal destiny? Oftentimes, the Maeterlinck story reveals a man at odds with his image, both the inadvertently self-created one, and the one made for him by others over time; it can be jarring and even ugly; but it is a case study of the disparities which often arise between a person and his created work, and ultimately stands as an inductive argument against a tempting but oversimplifying tendency to discern an artist’s biography to be lying innate in within his creations.
Maurice Maeterlinck was a man known to be tight-lipped, bordering on silent, who had a particular aversion to discussing his own work, as when the young André Gide visited him in Ghent; the two, whose mutual admiration had led to a full-blown and effusive correspondence, were so ill-at-ease with each other when they finally met face to face, that neither went further than monosyllables. Indeed, he had very few people he claimed as intimate friends to whom he could open his heart; those few he held onto and maintained loyalty for over many decades. He was allergic to all kinds of public functions, preferring a hermetic life, surrounded by bees, flowers, and books.
Yet the journalists who thronged to Ghent, and to later hermitages to catch a glimpse of or to glean an interview with the newly discovered genius, expecting to see a languorous, anorexic Bunthorne sighing on a silken chaise longue, a lily dangling from his hand, were shocked to find a robust, muscular and taciturn pipe-smoking athlete, fond of boxing, canoeing, and roller-skating, a lover of bicycles, and in time, fast cars, and motorcycles. Yet he was reclusive, treasuring his isolation and shunning the storm of publicity which did so much to exalt his persona and in an equal amount to torment his person.
Indeed, his unexpected fame in the French capital was an embarrassment and burden to him back in his Flemish domicile where he was trying to fulfill his father’s dream of becoming a lawyer. In the hopes of receiving an independent income, he’d applied for a position as justice of the peace; his father’s connection who was in the process of procuring him the sinecure, now said it would be impossible for a notorious author of experimental drama to be granted such a respectable post. The denizens of the local Ghent cafés, overheard by friends at neighboring tables, not only failed to share in the admiration showered on their young neighbor by Parisian journalists, but rather mocked his aestheticism. “I just bumped into the Shakespeare family,” one was heard to remark; “he may be the greatest playwright of his age, but he sure can’t win a case,” said another; his accomplishments had made him into a laughing stock.
The reticent Maeterlinck met the dynamic opera singer and actress Georgette Leblanc at a party in Brussels, it was only a matter of time before he gave the coup de grace to his desultory legal career and fled the parochial confines of bourgeois family life in Ghent to resettle, first in Paris ‘en ménage’ with Leblanc, and for the next 24 years in self-imposed isolation at the monastery of Saint Wandrille and other equally grandiose chateaus and villas far from the hubbub of cultural centers. She chafed at this seclusion and repeatedly emerged to tour far and wide, mostly as the female lead in Maeterlinck plays, such as Monna Vanna, which were often written for her, but also to fulfill her irrepressible need to participate actively in the political and public-spiritual life of the times.
Maeterlinck’s avoidance of human hubbub and a purported yearning after the invisible world and disinterest in the concrete one is paired with the unembarrassed affluence of his life-style, for ‘the pleasures of the table’ and a propensity for castle-like homes or actual castles he fashioned into homes together with. His open-handedness with donations supporting general strikes and purchases of chateaus went hand in hand with a reputation for domestic miserliness. His passion for abstract philosophy, bees and flowers was strangely paired with a love of sport, including swords and guns. This latter affinity, when associated with his quest for inner peace, is particularly paradoxical.
In 1902 when Maeterlinck discovered that Debussy, for the premiere of his new opera setting of Pelleas and Melisande, had cast a certain Mary Garden to sing the role of Melisande and not his then beloved Georgette Leblanc, he raced over to the composer’s house and tore up the steps to his attic apartment to challenge him to a duel. The poor composer couldn’t accept the challenge, so Maeterlinck sent a letter to all the newspapers in Paris disowning his own masterpiece and putting its success in jeopardy. It wasn’t until many years later, after his liaison with Leblanc was history that he permitted himself to see the Debussy opera … and loved it.
During a production of The Blue Bird, Maeterlinck and Leblanc discovered a sixteen year-old girl in the chorus, Renée Dahon, who played a small role. Enchanted, they took her under their wing, ultimately bringing her to live with them at the Château de Médan and wintering at a villa near Nice called Les Abeilles. What then transpired is murky, and may have involved some version of a ménage-à-trois which lasted eight years, but what is indisputable is that by the end, Georgette was ejected from the arrangement and Maeterlinck and Renée now formed a unitary couple. Once Maeterlinck was named Count by King Albert, Renée, whom he married despite the fact that she was one third his age, became Countess Maeterlinck. He and Georgette had never married (a persistent rumor maintains that they did go over to England to get married in secret), ostensibly since she had a husband alive somewhere from an ephemeral earlier marriage. Together the newly minted Count and Countess Maeterlinck lived a secluded existence, although they spent much of their time traveling, all over Europe and North Africa; it was during the twenties and thirties, in her company, that Maeterlinck’s creative writing fell off drastically.
There is the story of how he – the very same person who cultivated bees, wrote fairy tale parables replete with humanized animals and wrote stories in praise of dogs —distracted by its constant meowing, shot his own cat to death. There is also the haunting image of him in advanced old age, keeping watch late at night, deep in the labyrinth of his chateau Orlemonde, a machine gun clasped to his chest at the ready, in the event of incursions by potential burglars. His appeals in his many essays to an overarching eternal justice disposed of by an omniscient force, belie a pronounced tendency to litigiousness and trust rather in human justice, as he was found repeatedly demanding restitution for a slew of suspected infringements on and mishandlings of his intellectual property. He launched many lawsuits over plagiarism, and his career is dotted with more or less justifiable accusations of his own presumed plagiarism of others’ work.
The political views of purportedly apolitical celebrities – once they are discovered – can often be disconcerting. Maeterlinck’s are no exception; early on, in the public imagination, he was thought a mystic, a label that can be used quite loosely to mean many things. Although he does not appear to have joined any particular path or taken part in any disciplined practice, he engaged with mysticism in an intellectual spirit, by doing intense research into a plethora of esoteric traditions. He steeped himself in the writings of the medieval Flemish mystic, Ruysbroeck, translating this arcana into French; he associated himself with the Symbolist movement that had deep roots in the Rosicrucianism of Sâr Joseph Péladan (who toured Belgium in the 1880s and whose lectures Maeterlinck may very well have attended), with kinship to the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, the writings of Novalis, Jacob Boehme, and other links in the spiritualist network that permeated Europe at the time. The prominent theosophist Rudolph Steiner was certainly interested in him and produced The Intruder in Berlin in 1890. The tenets of theosophy, for which the power of the unseen world is the centerpiece, imbues his short one-acts, in which death, virtually the main character, unseen but palpable, circles and ultimately strikes. While Maeterlinck’s interest in telepathy and spiritualism in general was theoretical, his partner Georgette Leblanc, as was characteristic of her dynamic personality, was an active member of a spiritual movement, typical at the time, known as The Hermetic Fraternity of Luxor and, after their relationship ended, became deeply involved in the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky Fourth Way School, then in residence at Fontainebleau outside Paris.
Maeterlinck’s later highly remunerative series of spiritualist books – including The Life of Space, Before the Great Silence, The Shadow of Wings, and Before God – are analogous to those by Madame Blavatsky’s protegée, Annie Besant whose Light on the Path, etc., were also extremely popular before and after World War I, typifying the plethora of popular synthetic religious and spiritualist movements springing up at the time, including Christian Science in America. While rejecting the official religion of the Catholic Church that so oppressed him throughout his childhood and youth when he pursued his secondary studies at the stifling College de Sainte Barbe in Ghent – and ultimately finding himself placed on the Church’s index of disreputable authors – he was nonetheless steeped in a pursuit of authentic mysticism to live by and with which to forge and imbue his writing.
As a member of the pampered Ghent francophone haute bourgeoisie, possessors of a luxurious townhouse in Ghent and a villa with the allure of a castle in Oostakker on the city’s outskirts – Maeterlinck’s family spoke French and their offspring sent to private Catholic schools (not out of devotion, but for the prestige). His father raised bees, enjoyed horticulture, clipped stock coupons, and collected rents from peasants. The family’s politics were enlightened liberal (liberal in this context means anti-ecclesiastical and conservative), but the scion of the family, Maurice, before and in the early glow of his celebrity, kept mum on political issues, and it may be assumed that he was either a-political or that he quietly, and passively, shared his family’s patrician values.
But, as with so many other things that pop up regarding Maeterlinck, his politics were paradoxical, self-contradictory, and generally in flux. His politics emerged episodically, in response to urgent current events and gain in coherence with each episode; but he always reserved the right to reverse himself. “Each time I contradict myself, it makes me happy,” he said, “because then I discover a new face.” It has been suggested that, in rebellion from his conservative, moneyed roots in the provincial bourgeois circles in which he was bred, and also susceptible to pressures both from his paramour, Georgette Leblanc, who was readily outraged by social injustice, and from his artistic circles, he tended to be more radical in his youth, but then, growing ever more attached to “the good things of life,” got more conservative with age; it is also true, though perhaps coincidental, that the end of his left-wing period coincided with the banishment of Georgette and the beginning of his right-wing period with his marriage to Renée. We can but look at the public positions he took on the great issues of the day, and try to connect the dots.
Belgium under the reign of Leopold II, when Maeterlinck came into maturity, and throughout la Belle Epoque, was the most backward and reactionary nation in Western Europe. Its wages were the lowest, working hours the longest, regulation of child and female labor the most lax and therefore the most exploitive, availability of primary education for the masses the least, and the disparity between rich and poor the greatest. The entire fin-de-siècle period was fraught with strikes, violent protests, police suppression, anarchist assassination attempts, and the full panoply of discord associated with the mature industrial revolution. The upper classes in league with the higher echelons of the Catholic Church closed ranks to defend their interests and maintain the status quo, while an upper middle class minority strove to enact incremental reforms that would preserve the basic power structure.
The first sign that Maeterlinck would be willing to shed the persona of reclusive mystic quietist, impervious to the social hurricanes then whirling about him, and arise to take political stands in public came in 1898 when, along with people he knew and admired, such as André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jules Renard, and Julien Benda, he signed a petition in favor of revisiting the negative judgment against Dreyfus. While adding his name to the list didn’t exactly show him to be a movement leader, as the Dreyfus Affair was then dragging on into its fourth year, still it indicated that he would not stay eternally on the sidelines concerning one of the burning issues of his day, particularly if a large body of fellow-artists were willing to commit themselves.
Then in 1902, he was prominent among the celebrities who signed another petition in support of the general strike that brought the nation to a standstill. Simultaneously, on his own initiative, he came out with a repudiation of passivity by the public intellectual and artist – and, by extension, his own former passivity. In his book-length essay, The Shrouded Temple he makes this argument against moral immobility, stating that reason is sterile, preoccupied only with one’s petty and vacuous concerns. In that same year, flying in the face of his own upbringing and class interests, he went on record with a stirring defense of striking workers in Belgium. Also in The Shrouded Temple, he spoke out against a series of recent expansionist and imperialist adventures – including the Spanish-American War, the Boer War, the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion. In other essays like “Universal Suffrage” and “Our Social Duty” he went so far as calling for the suppression of private property and obligatory employment.
In The Double Garden (1904), at a point in time long before it became popular and when only the propertied classes in Belgium had the right to vote, when class controversies were at their most aggravated and tempers most enflamed, he called for universal suffrage, again exposing himself to charges of class traitor. In that same tract, he argues for a total abrogation of centralized power, arguing that if there is to be any government at all, it should only exercise power at the most local level. “…in the same way as anarchy is more extreme and nearer to the perfection of our kind than the most minutely and irreproachably organized government, such as, for instance, one might imagine would prevail at the last limits of integral socialism.” His own statement in Le Petit Bleu in 1905 sums up the situation with great accuracy. He accused the Belgian government of being “the most retrograde, the greatest enemy to ideas of justice which subsists in Europe, Turkey and Russia excepted. We are the ones who are waiting for things to change, for justice to come and who hope eventually to enjoy genuine independence in our country.”
And while he in no way cut back on the affluent train of his personal life, buying and selling the former monasteries and castles in which he always felt most at home, his advocacy of these iconoclastic ideas was nonetheless sincere.
In The Intelligence of Flowers (1907) his radicality gains intensity as he argues for general economic equality and leveling of differences, verging on advocating the kind of revolution that would wipe out the entire present system. We grow up being told, he says, that since people are born economically unequal they are condemned to remain so and that any righting of the inequality must happen slowly. But he takes issue with gradualist attitudes, stating: “these reasons aren’t convincing. It is incumbent on us to take the lead on these issues. It’s always the most extreme idea which is the right one, because it belongs to the future, whereas the ‘moderate’ idea can only belong to the past.” And further, pushing back against the inertia, which, he says, dominates daily life, the best policy would be work to destroy everything. “In all social progress, the great work, and the only difficult task, is the destruction of the past. We need not concern ourselves with what we’ll put in place of the ruins.”
His success with The Blue Bird and winning the Nobel Prize in 1911, raising his stock internationally to almost impossible levels, gave his political pronouncements even greater weight than before. His political stands, however, were increasingly ill-chosen, ill-timed, and poorly calculated ideas; furthermore, the later ones contradicted and seemed to negate the earlier ones. In the 30s and 40s, when the star status of his voice could have influenced the course of events and he chose not to raise it, a negative effect impression was produced amongst his former admirers on the left who had earlier applauded him. But his progressive engagement saw its final in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, he ostentatiously made a major financial contribution to one further general strike.
Based on such gestures and internal evidence some have advanced the theory that Maeterlinck’s sympathy for the lower classes is reflected in his positive character depictions, for example, Virginia, the servant in The Miracle of Saint Anthony, the likeable servants in the cellar of Pelleas, who, spiritually attuned, sense death’s approach, the Nurse in Princess Melisande, who is the heroine’s chief protector; they are bearers of “the soul of immemorial humanity.” Such flattering characterizations of the lower classes are contrasted with buffoonish portraits of the materialistic, affluent uncles in The Intruder and Saint Anthony, who he elsewhere denigrated as ‘the horrible bourgeoisie,’ but such an interpretation loses force when one considers less positive portraits of the poor and needy elsewhere in the Maeterlinck canon, as for example the various peasants and highwaymen the Princess Melisande and her Nurse encounter on the road, who threaten them with rape, the peasant who provocatively undresses in front of her before going for a swim, or the vagabonds Golaud and Pelleas stumble on in their descent into the grotto below the castle, frozen in attitudes of suffering poverty, figures who uniformly represent a kind of nameless menace, harboring some lurking violence or threat of sexual assault. The misery of the poor is a still tableau to stare at, as though from across a yawning chasm. It chills the blood; it chastens; it’s part of the rite of passage or dark night of the soul for the sensitive artist in quest of spiritual escape. These characterizations of the poor and humble – positive and negative – are justifications of the Janus-faces Maeterlinck displayed when it came to political economy: the signatory of petitions in favor of Great Strikes, and the bourgeois corporatist of the post-war period.
This political turning point came with the outbreak of World War I, where Maeterlinck’s pacifism and internationalism were abruptly and thoroughly jettisoned. Even before war was declared in 1914, as Serbia struggled to answer Austro-Hungary’s strident memorandum, the pugilist in Maeterlinck was roused, and he tried to join the French Foreign Legion. On being rebuffed, the 52-year old writer made inquiries from his Norman home about joining the Belgian army. All the adult men in the region had been mobilized and he was chagrined at having been left behind with the peasant women to help with the harvest. Despite having long since moved to France and turned his back on his native land, Germany’s illegal invasion and occupation of neutral Belgium at the outset of the hostilities brought out all his latent patriotism. He wrote a furious series of articles in any periodical that would publish them pleading the Allied cause; throughout 1914 and 15 he raced from Rome to Naples to Florence to Milan lecturing the neutral Italians, urging them to pressure their government to enter the war on the Allied side.
He who had formerly cherished so many close connections in Teutonic circles, whose publications and productions had found their most ardent audience in Germany before the war, was in fact a convinced germanophile whose enthusiasm had led him to translate Novalis and make such utterances as that in 1903 during a banquet in his honor where he spoke of “Germany as the moral conscience of the world just as France was the aesthetic conscience.” German culture was a partner to Latin culture, and in some ways superior to it; he had repeatedly singled out its poets and philosophers with racial arguments as the worthiest; but now recanted, viciously demonizing the German government and Germanic people. He impetuously broke off communication with his most faithful correspondent, his German translator, Oppeln-Bronikowski, refusing all contact with one who from one day to the next he considered the enemy. Barred by age from the active military service he was hankering after, he was instead charged by King Albert I to lecture widely on behalf of the fatherland, and he did so with gusto and abandon, bringing the weight of his Nobel Prize celebrity to bear on the message of Allied unity. Maeterlinck was assigned and assumed the role of tribune for the francophone side of Belgium, joining his Flemish-language friend, Cyriel Buysse, in rising above sectional differences to co-author pamphlets, The Fatherland and The Debris of War, which trumpeted a justification for armed combat and proclaimed the need for a vindication of German wrongs. His full-throated essay motivated more soldiers to join up, sang the praises of those already fallen, and called for a stiffening of will in the face of the grim occupation. The motto he formulated and preached was: ‘A healthy hatred.’ His impassioned jingoistic lectures throughout Southern Europe were not without impact, but have been deemed a real determining factor in bringing Italy in on the side of the Allies.
In joining the nationalist cause during the war, Maeterlinck – in all sincerity – was running with the pack. Only Romain Roland and a few other prominent intellectuals held fast to their antebellum pacifism and internationalism, while the rest on both sides, including Maeterlinck, were swept up in nationalistic war fever. It was only later, as the conflagration got mired in the malaise and nightmare of prolonged trench warfare that second thoughts arose and impatience with the conflict (as well as questions as to why they were fighting at all) regained credibility. But for Maeterlinck, the nationalistic cause was one worth promoting as late as 1918, as he did with another pamphlet, Belgium at War, which shows that his bellicose views had not softened with time. Whereas the vast majority of intellectuals and artists had by then grown disillusioned with the aims and aghast at the consequences of the war, Maeterlinck’s enthusiasm rode high right through to the bitter end.
After the war it became clear that Maeterlinck’s left-wing politics had undergone more than a subtle sea-change, but had veered sharply toward the right – shocking and scandalizing certain of his admirers — not a little because the Great War had brought the Russian Revolution in its wake. Maeterlinck was not alone in longing for strong centralized leadership that would forge a bulwark against the spread of the very sort of revolution he had advocated before the war. In The Life of Termites (1926), in contrast to his complimentary pre-war chronicle of Bees, he lambasts the gnawing insects’ “sordid and prosperous republic.” He now repudiated his former anarchist leanings, which had heralded a brighter, more just tomorrow. Ensconced in that very tomorrow, pessimism was the order of the day, as Maeterlinck warned that the capitalist world must take up arms before it was too late and was overrun by the soviet termites; parliamentary democracies seemed to him vessels too weak to combat the supposed danger. By 1936, in The Shadow of the Wings his rhetoric is blending with the rest of the ultra-right hue and cry, describing kings and dictators as invariably superior to parliaments. At this critical point in history when the efficacy of parliamentary governments throughout Western and Eastern Europe was being challenged and shrill extremists at both ends of the spectrum were howling for a new world order, Maeterlinck seems to have clearly come down on the side of the advent of ‘a strong man.’ As early as 1940 he also spoke out in favor King Leopold III of Belgium, who in defiance of his government in exile, stayed in place in Brussels throughout the German occupation, perhaps justifying the charges of collaboration that resulted, and was ultimately forced to abdicate following the war. While Maeterlinck wasn’t the only one to defend the King, it shows that his sympathies are again with a potentate rather than with parliamentarians, and that he closed his eyes to the sinister figures of the collaboration, such as Léon Degrelle, with whom Leopold surrounded himself, thus effectively granting them legitimacy through association.
And while residing in Portugal in 1939 with his wife and pets, he astonishingly wrote a laudatory essay in favor of Salazar, its elected dictator. This self-abnegating strongman amazed Europe by pulling Portugal out of a long-term economic slump and cleaning up its bureaucratic stalemate; it was on the basis of these accomplishments that Maeterlinck justified taking the role of his apologist. But this same Salazar had also strictly curtailed civil liberties, instituted a strict censorship, jailed opposition leaders and journalists, and was suspected of torturing them; Maeterlinck passes over these subjects in silence – a tacit pardon. The fact that a writer might privately find an efficient dictator admirable and even voice that admiration may not be damning in itself, but when that writer has been awarded the Nobel Prize, been greeted by tickertape parades in New York in 1920, and for many years has been put forth as a beacon of moral rectitude, then his loudly articulated support provides political cover to the dictator in question and casts the latter with a patina of legitimacy.
Later, even as he fled from Europe before the Nazi juggernaut, Maeterlinck never exploited this moral high ground he occupied by condemning Hitler and the Axis powers, preferring to take refuge, as he had not done since the earliest days of his career, in the privileges of the ivory tower artist, his silence depriving the Allied cause of a potential notable defender. Both by commission and omission, in his own small way, he assisted the fascist cause.
Flanders – the northern half of Belgium – was Maeterlinck’s land of birth. In Ghent and throughout Flanders, Flemish was the vehicular parlance of the masses; the aristocracy, including the Maeterlinck family, spoke French amongst themselves and resorted to Flemish only to make pragmatic conversation with peasants, workers, and servants. He certainly knew the local Flemish dialect, if not literary and standard forms of Dutch, and used it to address the servants. He translated the classical mystic texts of Ruysbroeck from medieval Flemish and even signed his earliest poems ‘Mooris,’ – the Dutch spelling of his first name – which represents a strong, if transitory, gesture of rebellion against his firmly francophone roots, in favor of identification with his humbler countrymen. Witnesses report that, to his dying day, the French he spoke was stamped by a Flemish tang.
But he subsequently played an equivocal role vis-à-vis the issue of Flemish identity, one which incited the distinguished Flemish literary critic Karel van de Woestijne, for one, to denounce him as: “…nothing short of a renegade, a traitor to the land of his birth.” Maeterlinck came into maturity at a most interesting and troubled juncture in time, just as the sluggish Flemish Movement was engaged in one of the spasmodic forward lurches that characterized its 150-year history making it impossible for Belgians to stand entirely on the sidelines, drawing everyone into the fray, forcing them to chose sides, and creating lasting enmities. The status of the Flemish language was absolutely intertwined with class, economic status and social privileges. A Flemish writer in 1890, de facto a member of the bourgeoisie, would probably still write in French, as had been the case since the founding of Belgium in 1830, but now had a new option: to write in Flemish, a choice Maeterlinck ultimately urged his friend Cyriel Buysse to take, but advice which he himself eschewed. He didn’t, it seems, see Flemish as a language having cultural status, only a pleasant, rustic, argot which was inseparable from a nostalgia for hearth, soil, and home. So while he had a sentimental attachment to local Ghent Flemish and identified with it, he also expressed a measure of disdain for its application in cultural contexts, a disdain of which countrymen took the measure and, over time, heartily reciprocated.
The choice of French was an initial sign of separation from the vulgate; that didn’t prevent the earliest Flemish critiques of his published plays from being generally positive. A second turning point came when he moved to Paris in 1897, upon which certain Flemish critics turned on him, as for example, August Vermeylen who in 1899 dismissed Maeterlinck as a “pseudo-philosopher lacking in all rational cohesion.” So although Lugné-Poë’s production of Pelleas and Melisande played in the predominantly French-speaking Belgian capital, Brussels, it wasn’t until 1902, that Maeterlinck’s first play was produced in Flemish and in Flanders – and when it did, it wasn’t any of his early masterpieces, but the commercial hit Monna Vanna, and it didn’t show in Ghent at all, but Antwerp.
Also in 1902 came a lacerating parting of the ways between Flanders and its most famous literary offspring. On the eve of the 600th Anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302) where the Flemish peasants vanquished the French nobility on the fields of Kortrijk – which now stands as a great emblematic moment of Flemish superiority and valor in the face of French (French-speaking) domination – Maeterlinck, who was on vacation in Belgium at the time, looked up his friend Cyriel Buysse; the two then went knocking on the door of the Flemish writer of pastoral novels Stijn Streuvels, and all three went off to observe the commemoration ceremony, which involved a reenactment of the battle and many speeches. Maeterlinck recounted the event in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Useless Commemoration,” interpreting the significance of the famous battle, in French naturally, and for a French audience:
“It wasn’t a conflict between races, but one between classes. There was a clash of arms in the soft, green plain which enfolds an outcropping of the peaceful river called the Lys, not Flemish against French, but an industrious people against their slothful masters, whether natives or foreigners… the municipal side, active, open, light, happy, and free, opposed to the oppressive feudal side, closed off as a prison, arrogant, stagnant, and moral.” Thus far his sympathies seem to lie with the Flemish, primarily on the grounds that they had been the economic underdog in 1302. But then, his reportage turns to the present day conflict, and he recounts that the Flemish speakers at the Commemoration belonged to “a faction that for some time now, is aching to spread throughout Brabant and Flanders – without finding the slightest public support – hatred for France.” And of whom is this group comprised? “…A handful of agitators whose obscure birth in the backwaters of farms and tardy education have rendered incapable of the slightest appreciation of the French language… They have grabbed an array of peasant dialects at random and blended them into a sort of official jargon – pretentious, baroque, and still-born, which isn’t even understood by the very people on whom they flatter themselves to be imposing it as their maternal language. It is with this formless and slimy jargon that they propose to reignite the soul of Flanders.” It was probably the arbitrary mix of Brabants dialects with his beloved Ghent dialect that drove Maeterlinck to fury, and his article was widely reprinted in Dutch translation all over Flanders and interpreted in the most insulting and damaging way possible.
The Flemish extremist faction wasted no time in picking up the gauntlet as, for example, Leonard Buyst, who addressed a poem in Germania against Maeterlinck, entitled To His Nation’s Traitor in which he accuses him of using “enemy’s talk,” and labeling him a “fransquillon,” a perjorative label used to characterize a Frenchified Flemish person, followed up by a more diplomatic but sharp criticism by Lode Baekelmans, appealing directly to MM in the form of an open letter offering a reasoned response to Materlinck’s initial polemic. At this point, Maeterlinck understood that he’d gone too far. On July 14th he wrote another letter in the Figaro that was reproduced in Weekschrijft voor Vlaanderen, “Maeterlinck Regarding Flemish Nationalists” where he wrote: “I am accused, in this article of hatred for my Flemish fatherland. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one more than I love and revere my fatherland and its heroic past to which I am attached by a thousand and one indissoluble, cherished links.” Trying to clarify his standpoint on the Flemish language, he asserted that he was distinguishing between “the true Flemish, such as Cyriel Buysse, Stijn Streuvels and Pol de Mont wrote in, such as the excellent poet, Guido Gezelle, recently deceased, wrote in. Their language is a language of the first order, a close relation to yet distinct from Dutch, as supple as German, but more sonorous, cleaner, more nervous. What I labeled a jargon was the artificial Flemish created not so long ago by some professors, some official translators.” And he made a further distinction between serious Flemish nationalists [like Baekelmans] “who are performing a useful, patriotic, and learned chore … from that clique of agitators who do nothing but produce noise.” But this olive branch was only reprinted in a very few local Flemish newspapers; thus the image of Maeterlinck as a traitor and hater of his own land and language was perpetuated and hardened into accepted fact.
His early plays, which in the meanwhile achieved renown in places as far afield as Germany, Russia, and America weren’t performed at all in Flanders. French language performances of the early plays traveled to or originated in Brussels, the generally French-speaking capital, where, as typical of her treatment of native sons, French-speaking Belgium granted a belated and grudging recognition, and eventual acceptance. The celebrated opera version of Pelleas (in French), composed by Debussy, was performed in Brussels at la Monnaie in 1907, five years after its Parisian premiere, but wasn’t presented in Flanders until 1920, and then in Antwerp (followed by a mere widely spaced two revivals in all, in 1962 and 2001); Ghent, the Flemish writer’s birthplace was not to honor this world-recognized classic with a production until 2001! When Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1911, a motion within the Ghent lawyers association to congratulate him was defeated, and no message at all was sent. The very first performance of one of his plays in his native Ghent occurred on March 7, 1914 (three years after he won the Nobel Prize and two decades after the first performances of Maeterlinck plays in such far-flung places as Moscow and San Francisco; and the choice fell to Monna Vanna yet again, with the Ghent actress Co Van de Wiele in the starring role. The next production would wait until after the war, when in the 1921-2 season the anti-German Mayor of Stillemonde was performed, which although not ground-breaking or stylistically interesting like his earlier plays, benefited from the general antipathy toward the recent occupant and scourge of Flanders, that outweighed the lingering resentment against its author.
Despite these sporadic productions, the gulf between author and his countrymen only widened. The Flemish Movement lurched forward after the war, partly as a result of the shoddy treatment Flemish foot-soldiers received at the hands of their largely French-speaking commanding officers in the trenches. The Movement’s next major conflagration broke out exactly in Maeterlinck’s native Ghent, and it was over the question of the “Flemishizing” of the University of Ghent that the battle raged. Until then, the university was an entirely French language preserve from which all trace of Flemish was proscribed, to the very shelves of the college library where no Dutch-language books were allowed. For over a decade the francophones who held all the power dug in their heels, categorically refusing any compromise, but were ultimately themselves ejected from the university in 1934, to be replaced by exclusively Dutch-language instruction. Maeterlinck, who had been raised in French but who had, as we have seen, sympathized with the Flemish underclass, in 1921 compounded his alienation from Flanders by taking it upon himself to sign a petition in opposition to the “Flemishizing” of the University of Ghent. It was this polemic that the anti-Maeterlinck attitude in Flanders hardened for decades after, as for example with his play The Bluebird. While it became one of the most popular international hits of its day, playing in places like Japan and Bulgaria, all over the United States (garnering a ticker-tape parade when he landed in New York in 1920), it was not seen on Flemish stages before 1948, and then only performed by a community theatre touring company which played Antwerp. Nothing could explain such a lacuna except an active and determined boycott.
That marginal production was the exception which proves the rule, since another two decades were to pass before the ice was broken when Interior – was made into a film for television in 1969, directed by Roland Verhavert, starring such prominent actors as Reinhilde Decleir, Jeanine Schevernels, Julien Schoenaerts, and in the same year Verhavert made a documentary for Flemish TV about Maeterlinck’s life.
But the first premiere of Princess Maleine wasn’t until 1986 at the NTG, directed by the Finnish American, Jonas Jurasas (with the Fleming Jean-Pierre DeDecker as assistant director) with the theatre’s repertory company. Then in 1994 Lucas Vandervorst for Akt-Vertikaal (De Tijd) did Pelleas and Melisande. These latter two productions were most interesting, and represent a sort of breakthrough and homecoming; they have latterly been followed by a work called Maeterlinck at the state theatre, the NTG in Ghent, directed by the Swiss, Christoph Marthaler in 2008, and a production of The Intruder at the state theatre in Antwerp, the Toneelhuis, in a 2010 production by Peter Missotten. All four of these interpretations comprise a trend and bear close examination.
Jurasas’s Princess Maleine emphasized the dream-like atmosphere of the play, jettisoned his stage directions, and substituted an alternative stage action over which the dialogue was distributed. While not a success with local audiences or critics, it appears to have been a groundbreaking production, radically interpreting the forgotten text. The commanding image was a series of hospital beds with a glass box containing live doves and a decrepit statue of a Madonna off to one side. There was a bathtub that doubled as a castle moat, a fountain, or the sea on which tiny ships might sail. Hard-backed wooden chairs and nuns’ habits hung over each bed, the latter manipulated in various ways to suggest storm clouds or dancers at a ball equally effectively. Mirrors held up to help Uglyanne dress later glint as the menacing eyes of owls in a dark forest. Jurasas took major liberties, multiplying single images the Maeterlinck text suggests, like the man who undresses himself in front of Maleine becomes many men in sequence, and the murders, first of Maleine and then of the Madman, which in the play are laconic, if horrid in and of themselves, were gory here, where the lunatic King actually drowns the Madman as well as one of the doves. Jurasas went so far as substituting a series of images in the fifth act for much of the dialogue, and commentators leave a distinct impression that this production teetered between being a faithful Symbolist rendering and a Surrealist one.
Vandervorst, a significant and original voice, placed his Pelleas and Melisande on an essentially open space backed up with a series of reflective screens and two small building units on either side. He weirdly cast Pelleas and Melisande with Chris Lomme and Nand Buyl respectively, two aging veteran actors of the Flemish repertory system, thus significantly playing down any chance of romance or eroticism. There was a great deal of slow motion dance movement, recalling certain productions of Robert Wilson and Ingmar Bergman. Likewise, the dialogue was slowed down, creating an echo effect, as though the lines were memories floating back up from a dream, the playing style in general taking on a homogeneous effect of sleepwalkers passing through a fourth dimension. Several critics mention its hypnotic quality. This production, then, seems to have been an attempt to fulfill all the indications of the text and go to an extreme in search of a Symbolist acting style without deforming the play. It is interesting that Vandervorst, who is a specialist in theatres of mood, should have turned to Maeterlinck when he had all classics to choose from.
Christoph Marthaler’s Maeterlinck was a theatrical meditation leaping out from the playwright’s work at an oblique tangent, elaborated through improvisations between the Swiss director and his Flemish actors. The result is surprising: the set was a sort of nineteenth century textile factory – cavernous, mechanized, and sterile. As Marthaler initially intended to do a production of Princess Maleine, it can be supposed that he was intrigued by the image of the nuns who come to the castle to spin wool. While jettisoning most of the rest of the play, he incarnates a textile-manufacturing workplace instead, evoking the cruel social context prevailing at the time Maeterlinck was bred. So rather than evoking the fairy-tale world of Princess Maleine, Marthaler has reproduced an atmosphere of Maeterlinck’s polar opposites, the Naturalists: a Zola or a Hauptmann. Then Marthaler aestheticizes the realism. A series of young seamstresses abjectly ply their sewing machines as older men in period suits look on with interest and disapprobation, partly suggesting a image from a Paul Delvaux canvass. Now and then one of the girls sinks to the ground. The dialogue, such as it is, is slow and repetitive, pronouncements the actors make to the air, past each other, all drawn as much from Maeterlinck’s plays as his poetry, and interspersed with songs Maeterlinck never wrote – French choral music and old Flemish folk ditties. The text hangs in the air, liberated from any dramatic narrative.
The most recent production in Flanders, by film experimentalist and installation artist turned theatre director, Peter Missotten, is a radical interpretation of The Intruder. Set in a traditional theatre (which he gutted, erecting a runway over the entire orchestra seating) he expands the half-hour play into a full evening of theatre, again interspersing it with songs. The woman dying offstage is represented by loud recorded, heavy breathing. The Grandfather is a man-machine, hung and pulled along from a pulley system, his face picked out by a purple light. Tongues of fire are projected onto the rear wall, seen through the thick mist of a fog machine. The form of a dancer is projected, ever-moving, onto banners hung from the far-above ceiling, presumably representing the imminent presence of death. The stage, eschewing the prescribed indoor setting, is rather laden with the garden that in the original text is only referred to as surrounding the house; here it is full of wood, autumn foliage, and a few tents here and there. The oral component is handled by souped-up microphones, some with long thick cables that lay all over the performing space. The actors, dressed uniformly in skirts – and thus stripped of any individuality that Maeterlinck intended – move slowly, like mechanical puppets, indeed very like the androids Maeterlinck hoped might replace actors. All of the elements taken together militate toward an apocalyptic atmosphere. Sudden light changes and drastic sound cues unnerve the spectators and punctuate the action. In an interview Missotten speaks of his love for the ‘black hole,’ for the ‘stand-still,’ which corresponds perfectly to Maeterlinck’s static theatre, as is the emphasis on atmosphere. “I find theatre no place for stories,” says Missotten, and Maeterlinck is the grand-daddy of a theatre which backgrounds the narrative in favor of a powerful mood, the kind of theatre that always has to be defended against centuries of piled up preconceptions.
Other kinds of radical departures are represented by Missotten’s open-air installation version of The Death of Tantagiles in which all the roles were played by one actor, with his back placed to the audience, and his face projected onto various monitors in succession. A site-specific production using material from The Blind was done in 1987 by the Open Living Theatre of Antwerp in the context of a performance course conducted by Nettie Vangheel. The audience was conducted onto a boat, which transported audience members on the River Lys past small towns outside Ghent. When they landed, they were led to a whitewashed wall outside the Dhont-Daenens Museum, before which fifteen immobile female performers – in attitudes of helplessness: standing, sitting, leaning against trees and rocks — uttered Maeterlinck dialogue to shrill accordion accompaniment.
As Jaak Van Schoor has remarked, “With the blossoming of the Flemish theatre in the seventies, a new generation has stepped up to the plate for whom Maeterlinck is first and foremost a jumping-off point for experimentation.” In other words, the linguistic and political battles of the past have faded into oblivion, so much water under the bridge, and Maeterlinck’s textual innovations from works that are being dusted off dovetail with several new waves of production experimentation. From the 1980s onward, the Flemish theatre has emerged as one of the most interesting and innovative in Europe, boasting many highly creative and idiosyncratic directors linked to a bureaucratic structure that actively supports and encourages them. This development comes at the propitious point when Flanders has rediscovered and embraced Maeterlinck in a happy restitution, a newly-discovered compatibility. While French-language Belgium never stopped producing their favorite son’s works, and a host of important productions have emerged over time, directed by Henri Ronse, Julien Roy, Claude Régy, and Pierre Laroche, the latter tend to take a respectful, aestheticized approach – modern, yes, but cautious and classical too. The Flemish, now that they’ve opened up to him, take enormously radical risks with Maeterlinck; and if they sometimes fall short, their wild flings of experimentation match Maeterlinck’s own daring in his day.
On the translation: In translating the plays we have sought to find an English idiom that closely matched Maeterlinck’s sober and stripped down language. While he very occasionally throws in an archaism, it is far more often minimal, suggestive, ambiguous, even more self-effacing and undecorated than the language of Beckett. So we have sought to avoid any quality of literary-ness or faux antiquity that have typified the tone of earlier translations and that, to us tend to betray the style of the originals.
MAETERLINCK READER June 29, 2010
Maurice Maeterlinck opened the modernist era in drama by acknowledging how little we know, or can ever know, about ourselves and our world. Instead of the high living, characteristic of the Belle Epoque, mirrored on stage in the costume melodramas of Victorien Sardou and the well-made farces of Georges Feydeau, in Maeterlinck’s plays disembodied spirits in timeless interiors or legendary landscapes posed unanswerable questions about the enigma of existence
To respond to the mystery surrounding us, the poet proposed intuitive thinking that lay above and below the rational intelligence that guides the practical transactions of life. A full decade before the publication of Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of the Dreams) in1900, it was Maeterlinck—not Freud—who first introduced a young generation of artists to the unconscious and the dreaming mind. The depths of being cannot be grasped by the intellect, Maeterlinck posited, but the hidden meaning of all things, impervious to the logic of day, lies open to a spiritual faculty shared by all. By the time Freud’s theories of the subconscious gained currency in the early twentieth century, striking artistic manifestations of his theories already existed, due in part to the Belgian poet’s pioneering dramas and essays. In his insistence on the priority of an inner reality expressed in dreams, childhood memory, and the unconscious, Maeterlinck had anticipated Freud and the Surrealists who followed in his wake.
The new uncharted areas to which the author of Pelleas and Melisande was attuned included the inscrutable powers that control our destiny and shape our daily lives. He saw humankind amidst the natural world of plants, animals, and inanimate objects, as well as in relation to the cosmos and infinity. Although it was unknown and unknowable, the mysterious reality that Maeterlinck saw as the essential human condition was something common to the species, present in everyday life, egalitarian and accessible to each of us. Transcendent psychology could reveal the profound reality of the soul which exists beyond reason and is alike for all humans. The soul, the inner being, or mystical self is connected to all other souls, to the natural world, and to the cosmos. Alike in all of us, human souls can converse among themselves. Communication among a vast sea of souls can be achieved through the use of intuition. We have lost our identity in the modern world, distracted by moral and social differences and distinctions of only superficial and passing importance. The murderer, prostitute, and respectable citizen stood equal before the unknown.
Maeterlinck brought to the French stage and to world literature a new spirituality, conceived neither as specifically Christian or even as traditionally religious. Although these beliefs and teachings were already current in the flourishing circles of nineteenth-century European occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism, the doctrines remained esoteric and stayed confined to cults until Maeterlinck arrived in Paris at just the opportune moment to introduce a controversial theory of theatre. Paradoxically, no one proved better equipped to bring a new unworldly aesthetic and spiritual worldview to the stage than this large, healthy, and athletic outsider from provincial Ghent, adept at boxing and cycling, with his rosy complexion, impassive expression, and sharp sense of money matters.
Like many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century innovators, Maeterlinck made his starting point a truculent revolt against the dominant positivistic thought that took credit for the prosperity and material progress of the Belle Epoque. He rejected outright the rationalistic logic of the psychological approach to human passions and social relations represented by the secular French moralists and philosophers.
Although his own poetry derives from the theories and practice of the Paris avant-garde represented by Villiers-de-l’Isle-Adam, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, at the beginning of his career Maeterlinck defined himself and his position by taking an adversarial stance to the French literary tradition and by choosing instead foreign precursors and forbears. Maeterlinck dismisses the Latin tradition of clear and precise ideas—in thought, language, and culture—of which he, like Antonin Artaud after him, is profoundly suspicious because he feels that clarity quickly closes doors and prevents deeper understanding on multiple, sometimes contradictory levels.
Although he wrote in French, Maeterlinck sought filiations to Germanic and Anglo-Saxon traditions of literature and to his own Flemish roots. He read the German romantics and Novalis, De Quincey, Carlyle, Emerson, and Whitman. Following these models, he developed a new kind of poetic prose in which he wrote both plays and essays. He saw himself not as a man of the theatre, but rather as a creative mind working across disciplines.
The two extraordinary site-specific performances given at the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille, Maeterlinck’s castle in Normandy—Macbeth in August 1909 and Pelleas and Melisande in August 1910 —were produced, staged, and acted twice each by Georgette Leblanc. The invited, but paying ambulatory audiences of fifty, optionally dressed in medieval costume, followed the action about the grounds and castle, both indoors and out. The initially skeptical poet was ultimately won over to the grandiose spectacles by the enthusiastic reactions of public and critics, but everything had to done to avoid disrupting his daily routine of quiet work, regular meals, and early bedtimes.
Throughout his career Maeterlinck made no sharp distinctions between poetry and philosophy, and saw little that separated his roles as poet, playwright, scientist, and philosopher. As a natural historian of the evolution of different species, he turned his back on theatrical traditions devoted to the depiction of manners and morals—humankind’s social history—and looked instead further inward and further outward. He stressed the fact that human beings are related to other kinds of beings and other modes of existence and that they are also related to themselves at other moments in their own evolutionary process. Humankind, the poet maintained, must experience itself as a child, as a pre-natal embryo, and as part of its own early pre-history on the earth.
What Maeterlinck requires of the theatre is a total change of perspective. The dramatist should observe humankind from very close up, as through a microscope or ex-ray which would disclose the secrets of the soul, and at the same time should view the human condition from afar, as through a telescope which would reveal our place in the cosmos.
To make connections with the mystic traditions of Flemish and Germanic thought, Maeterlinck worked as a translator, producing French versions of his great precursors Ruysbroeck and Novalis. He also wrote an introduction to a new volume of Emerson’s essays in French translation. In these editions, Maeterlinck’s aim is not to introduce alien cultures or delve into the national pasts of other countries, but rather to reveal the interconnections of inner and outer world and the mirroring of macrocosm in microcosm.
Although he was involved in several innovative private and elite productions of Shakespeare, John Ford, and his own plays, Maeterlinck was decidedly not a man of the theatre and usually kept his distance from the world of the professional stage. From Maeterlinck’s point of view, the theatre of commerce asked all the wrong questions of material agency while failing to pose the essential ones of an ontological nature. A true art of the theatre is rendered impossible by the physical presence and personality of ego-bound actors, whom Maeterlinck hoped to replace by puppets—as did his like-minded contemporary Gordon Craig. Maeterlinck’s visionary conception of theatrical art demanded abstraction and the transcending of material reality through symbolic representation by a disincarnated actor.
Maeterlinck was drawn toward two different theatrical models, one of which he himself virtually invented. This model, which he theorized extensively, is the tragedy of the everyday (le tragique quotidien): a static drama of the human condition devoid of action, except for mounting terror and a growing realization of doom.
For this new type of drama there were few precedents. It meant a clean sweep, ridding the stage of many venerable traditions and conventions and wiping out old rules of composition. Eliminated were ostentatious bourgeois settings, jigsaw puzzle dialogue, raisonneurs, characters defined by social position and profession, problems of money, marriage, and adultery, and journalistic topics of the day. What was left? A tense quiet drama of waiting that unfolded in austere and anxious interiors, at the same time both contemporary and timeless, which became metaphors for states of soul and had their visual counterparts in the mysterious, darkly introspective domestic scenes painted by Edvard Munch, Xavier Mellery, and James Ensor.
Maeterlinck wanted to liberate theatre from being narrowly culture bound and free it from socially constructed human beings. The theatre of the soul reached back to the primitive and primeval, to the origins of art in the world of the child, the peasant, and the savage. The conte, märchen, or fairy tale provided a modern version of myth and a means of escape from the modern world. Here Maeterlinck was proposing a backward-looking avant-garde, deeply archaic in its quest for sources.
His second theatrical model, also from the past, was the decadent and macabre Jacobean drama of Tourneur, Webster, and Ford, which Maeterlinck read in English in the Mermaid Series edited by Havelock Ellis, the ground-breaking psychologist of sex. The Belgian playwright loved, imitated, and wrote perceptively about these old English plays, which were at just this time starting to be rediscovered and performed again by William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society after two centuries of neglect.
Ranking the English Renaissance drama of the Elizabethan era as the greatest of all time, Maeterlinck was fascinated by the violence, flamboyant poetry, and spirit of revolt expressed in these works. He repeatedly discusses his predilection for John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two of the most violent and blood-drenched plays of the period, both of which he translated. In his adaptations of Macbeth and ‘Tis Pity, Maeterlinck, in order to produce a more disturbing effect, omits the final scenes in which society begins to reassert control and the survivors of the catastrophe try to make sense of what has happened, leaving instead the last words to Giovanni and Macbeth. In these adaptations, there is no justice or restoration of order, only the bloody deaths of the defiant heroes.
It was Maeterlinck’s version of ‘Tis Pity (from which he excised subplots and buffoonery to achieve greater French unity and simplicity) as Annabelle that was staged by Lugne-Poë at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in 1898, the first modern production of the play. For Maeterlinck the play revealed humankind as subject to a mysterious cosmic destiny.
In the “Preface” to his translation of ‘Tis Pity, he praises Ford for his exploration of the soul.
“Ford penetrated into the darkness of the undifferentiated inner life. He went down to the blackest regions where all souls begin to resemble one another since they cease to owe much of anything to external circumstances.”
Antonin Artaud adopted Maeterlinck’s hyperbolic praise of Ford’s play and made it one of the pillars of his theatre of cruelty.
Although in his writings on the tragedy of the everyday, Maeterlinck the theorist argued that the violence, murder, and excessive passions of more barbarous ages no longer belonged in the modern theatre, Maeterlinck the playwright could never deny his own atavistic longings. The violence in his plays is all the more threatening for being forcibly contained and kept unseen behind closed doors until the final inevitable outburst.
The Belgian poet created a theatre of fear, a tautly restrained melodrama of the interior, whose aesthetics of suspenseful dread was adopted by André de Lorde, the master craftsman of the Grand Guignol in its heyday from 1902 to 1914. De Lorde considered his theatre of terror as an assault on the nervous system in which “everything remains invisible, nothing is shown.” The horror lay not in what the audience saw, but in what they anticipated. In emulation of Maeterlinck’s The Blind, de Lorde with the psychologist Alfred Binet, his frequent collaborator, in 1912 wrote Les Invisibles (The Invisible), a one-act play set in an asylum for blind inmates who as their terror mounts reveal an uncanny ability to sense the coming of death. Avoiding any external trick effects of horror through make-up or stage business, The Invisible was performed not at the Grand Guignol, but in a provincial French theatre.
At the start of his career Maeterlinck was an assiduous reader, and he assimilated and appropriated what he read with great skill and daring. Princess Maleine is an intricate tissue of citations, borrowings, reminiscences, echoes, and traces of the young poet’s prodigious readings in British, and American, and European literature. He has created his first play out of the characters, plots, settings, situations, themes, images, and phrases that he has taken from among other sources Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, Middleton’s Women Beware Women, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Dekker and Ford’s The Witch of Edmonton, Dekker’s Honest Whore, Ford’s Tis Pity, and Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King, all of which is interwoven with major elements taken from the Grimm Brothers’ Tales (in English translation), especially “Maid Maleen,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems “Sister Helen” and “Willowwood,” Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The literariness of Princess Maleine is overwhelming, but the play’s emotional power and theatrical impact demonstrate that a youthful work may be almost exclusively derivative of other works of literature, rather than a representation of life, and yet be artistically innovative and a deeply personal expression of the author’s inner world of the imagination. In Princess Maleine Maeterlinck aimed not to imitate reality, but to give expression to the dangerous dreams, repressed desires, and hidden anxieties haunting the troubled psyches of his contemporaries.
Oscar Wilde, whose Salome owes many of its stylistic devices and much of its lunar atmosphere to Princess Maleine, met Maeterlinck in May 1898 when he was invited by Georgette Leblanc to their Paris apartment for dinner. In a letter to Robert Ross Wilde recalls the evening and his impressions of the poet. “He is very bon garçon—of course he has quite given up art. He only thinks of making life sane and healthy—and freeing the soul from the trammels of culture. Art seems to him now a malady, and the Princess Maleine an absurdity of his youth. He rests his hope of humanity in the bicycle.” Maeterlinck’s description of their meeting is recorded in the essay published here for the first time in any language.
At the beginning of his career, Maeterlinck also wrote several fantastic tales, devoted to the occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Inspired by Hoffmann, Baudelaire, and Poe and written primarily by poets, the French fantastic tale that flourished at the fin-de-siècle was characterized by its oblique style, its atmospheric evocation of horror in everyday settings, and its blend of mysticism and lurking violence. Maeterlinck followed the example of Cruel Tales by Villiers-de-l’Isle-Adam, who was the young Belgian’s mentor and model on his first visits to Paris. From the impoverished nobleman Villiers Maeterlinck learned the need for a mask, a visionary stance toward otherworldly imperatives, and sarcastic disdain for the artificiality and absurdity of the modern world. Inspired by his reading of De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, and Poe’s Tales, Maeterlinck’s first-person narrative Onirology is a pioneering exploration of the hidden meaning of dreams, repressed memories, and the pre-Freudian unconscious. In the bizarre tale set in a New England redolent of Hawthorne, theatre is used as a metaphor for the dream. This idea will serve as the basis for Maeterlinck’s oneiric conception of theatre that he will soon advance in poetic theoretical essays, such as “The Tragedy of the everyday,” which were to have influence on writers like Chekhov, Hofmannsthal, and Yeats and on directors like Craig, Meyerhold, and Artaud.
Maeterlinck’s characters also come out of story books for children. They inhabit a magical realm of folklore originating in the Arthurian legends cultivated by the pre-Raphaelites. The playwright had framed and hung along the walls of his studio pictures from legend and fairy tale by the British artist and illustrator Walter Crane. Known as the most pictorial of playwrights, he worked closely with Belgian Symbolist artists, Charles Doudelet, George Minne, and Georges de Feure, who illustrated his books and did costume and stage design for his plays. On the other hand, the paintings of Emile Fabry evoke the theatrical world of Maeterlinck without being directly tied to any particular plays or productions.
Edouard Vuillard painted the sets for The Intruder at Paul Fort’s Theatre de l’Art in 1891.The Russian painter, stage designer, and mystical guru Nicholas Roerich found Maeterlinck the Western playwright with whom he had the greatest affinity and whose medieval mysteries corresponded to his own vision of Europe. Roerich designed the sets and costumes for Princess Maleine in 1913, illustrated a volume of Maeterlinck’s dramas, and made paintings based on other plays.
Tension between dream and waking hovers over the sinister nightmarish landscape that Maeterlinck’s characters inhabit. These legendary silhouettes derived from folklore and fairy tale move through the dark and light of a shadow theatre. They do not require complex life-stories, psychological sub-texts, or back narratives because they pre-exist in the collective unconscious.
Maeterlinck’s great heroine of silence, Melisande, is a variant of Melusine, the most famous of the fées of French romance, who first appears in 1211 in the writings of Gervasius of Tilbury. Water sprites and sirens are called undines or melusines, who appear in the Animal Bride tales of medieval Europe. In these accounts, a Count meets Melusine beside a pond and falls in love with her, only to discover when it is too late that on Saturdays she is a scaly serpent from the waist down. She is daughter of the waters; well and fountain are her habitat. Her origin is a mystery without any explanation. Melisande too comes from nowhere, a soul given over to the forces of destiny. She knows nothing, and her words reveal nothing, because she rejects lucidity and intelligence
In the last scene of Pelleas, old king Arkel exclaims, “But the sadness . . . the sadness of all we see!” This principle of pan-empathy, which infuses the entire play and all of Maeterlinck’s work, is comparable to the Japanese concept of mono no aware, variously translated as “the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to things” (and sometimes seen as akin to Virgil’s lacrimae rerum). As a concept describing the essence of Japanese culture, mono no aware was first formulated by the literary scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century
It entails the capacity to experience the objective world in a direct and unmediated fashion and to understand sympathetically the objects and natural world around one without resorting to language and other mediators.
Japanese aesthetics had a strong impact on the French artistic avant-garde in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The vogue of Japanese woodblock prints, emphasizing bold design, flat surfaces, and empty spaces, was a major manifestation of Japonisme. Although he was not necessarily influenced directly by these orientalist trends, having his own native sources in Flemish primitivism, Maeterlinck nonetheless cultivated a minimalist poetics and mystical empathy that drew upon the same anti-Western rationalism as did Japonisme. Japanese wood-block prints paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of Maeterlinck’s early plays and poetics by French artists.
At the turn-of-the-century Paris was the international world capital of poetry, and for Maeterlinck the most important calling was that of poet. By the time he published his first collection of poems, Hothouses (Serres chaudes), in 1888, Maeterlinck had developed a carefully crafted poetic persona who wore the mask of an impassive contemplative observer. An estranged viewer of other people’s disasters, the poet, cut off from outside, manages to keep uninvolved as he watches through a pane of glass from the interior of his greenhouse or diving bell, from which he cannot escape. His mind is open, able to roam and make daring associations, but his soul is closed to experience from outside. He watches in total silence and detachment. For Maeterlinck the deepest well of wisdom lies in the child’s dispassionate gaze of wonder at the horrors of life.
The Belgian poet is not without an ironic sense of the absurd, but his is the dead-pan humor of an overgrown adolescent unabashedly amused at the atrocity of existence. He longs to return to prior states of being— pre-natal memories and embryonic ur-existences that are more visceral than contemporary urban civilization. Poetry, Maeterlinck tells us, has its deepest sources in the Flemish painters, from Brueghel and from Bosch’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, a war-cry later to be taken up by Artaud in The Theatre and Its Double.
Maeterlinck has been said to be a modernist without the modern world, his modernity perhaps lying in his very rejection of the modern world. Yet in the poems of Hothouses, particularly those in free verse, which are directly inspired by Whitman, Maeterlinck gives us disconnected images of a modern world (anticipating landscapes of the 1914 war)—ocean liners, asylums, hospital tents—suggesting anguished dreams and fragmented hallucinations from a battlefield survivor. As in a painting by Magritte, the images are contradictory, often presenting irreconcilable opposites.
Maeterlinck’s analogical compositional technique, dispensing with harmony and balance in its strange juxtapositions, relies on a belief in the mystical unity of the entire universe. Humankind is linked to all of creation; there is an occult kinship between the humans and universe; and our intuitions of self and of world mirror one another.
In his defense of Maeterlinck against charges of dementia (brought by Max Nordau in his notorious attack on modernism, Degeneracy, of 1893) for linking disparate images without any logical connections among them, the Russian Silver Age poet and translator Valery Briusov points out that in this new kind of poetry the reader is responsible for uniting the random images in a coherent whole. The audience becomes co-creators with the poet.
The cloistered viewpoint, remote stance, startling associative images, and optical effects of looking through a glass that can magnify or reduce the dimensions (and import) of what is seen constitute a new visual language that found fruition in the cinematography of Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, and their followers in the Nouvelle Vague. In Julian Schnabel’s film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the autobiographical novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Maeterlinck’s trope of enclosure in a diving bell is explicitly and repeatedly shown as an image of psychic alienation.
At the time he first came to world-wide notice, the most heartfelt artistic response to Maeterlinck’s opening on the unknown came from composers—especially composers of the youngest generation—who set out to demonstrate that the non-verbal language of music could in fact convey the inexpressible mystery and represent the invisible powers directing our fate that the poet had so powerfully evoked in his plays. Carl Orff, Arnold Schoenberg, Jan Sibelius, Bohuslav Martinu, Dimitri Mitropulos, Koscak Yamada, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Sergei Rachmaninov, among others, found in Maeterlinck’s early dramas a powerful incentive to compose theatre music or tone poems.. For these composers, many still in their formative years, Maeterlinck offered a vision, beyond words, of humankind’s place in the universe that called out for music as its collaborative medium. In 1889, before he had ever heard of Maeterlinck, Debussy wrote, “Music begins where words are no longer capable of expression; music is made for the inexpressible,” indicating with prophetic foresight what would draw him to Pelleas and Melisande.
In none of these cases, however, was there an actual collaboration in which composer and author worked together—as between, for example, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofsmannthal. Maeterlinck himself was notoriously deaf to music whose poetics he was unable to fathom. The musicians rather put Maeterlinck’s fables to use as seeds that once planted produced compositions less illustrations of pre-existing texts than new works growing out of fertile soil.
In his book, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Hermann Broch points out that Maeterlinck’s lyrics are mimetic poetry in need of balletic interpretation, but that his plays require impressionistic music as their source of life. “Practically every one of Maeterlinck’s poems can be used as the text for a mimic expressive dance, whereas the theater pieces consistently demand musical support.” (Chapter 4: Tower of Babel, (1) Fin de siècle, fin d’un millénaire)
Spirituality was in the air at the turn-of-the century, but institutional religion offered only facile answers to the existential questions posed by Maeterlinck’s plays. Therefore artists turned to alternative forms of spirituality. Maeterlinck’s mythical, fairy-tale stories with their child heroes and heroines confronting inexorable fate spoke directly to the imaginative yearnings of composers suffering from the blows of fate, real or imagined. Thus it was that Lili Boulanger, dying of cancer at the age of nineteen, found that the heroine of Princess Maleine enacted her very own story, and she wrote to the author about her hopes of finishing her operatic version of the play before she was struck down. The playwright wrote back, assuring her that that she would succeed in triumphing over death. Maeterlinck uncharacteristically seemed ready to intervene in his own work and grant the ill-fated double of his heroine a reprieve from the inevitable. But in keeping with the playwright’s darker vision, Lili died a few weeks later, her opera Princesse Maleine unfinished.
As author of pensées (thoughts), Maeterlinck again turned to German and English writers for his models. A practitioner of both the fragment and the essay, Maeterlinck eschewed the classical French aphorism. His shunning of the aphorism and his varying success with fragment and essay are indicative of the poet’s creative temperament and help define his artistic profile.
At the beginning of his career, Maeterlinck felt an affinity for the brief truncated form of the fragment devoted to philosophical and literary themes, as it had been developed by the German romantics, the Schlegel brothers and particularly Novalis, whom he translated and introduced in a collection of the latter’s writings. Maeterlinck's Cahier Bleu (1888) and early unpublished notebooks consist of such fragments which are incomplete thoughts and speculations that cross the boundaries between the arts and other disciplines. These fragments, which are not grouped according to subject matter, may seem repetitious or contradictory. The thoughts are necessarily unfinished and imperfect because they seek deeper meanings than can be neatly formulated, given rational expression, and systematized.
On the other hand, Maeterlinck rejected the wit and irony of the closed aphorisms in the worldly tradition of French moralists and psychologists–from La Rochefoucauld through Vauvenargues and Chamfort to Stendhal–as being too narrowly focused on the ego and passions as the reigning aspects of life. Maeterlinck’s anthropocosmic fragments put humankind back in larger realms of past and future, of childhood and old age, of death and sickness, of animal and plant world, and of eternal things seen from a panoramic spiritual perspective.
Although he never completely abandoned the form of the fragment (some of his later collections, such as Before the Great Silence of 1934, are entirely fragments), Maeterlinck produced more and more volumes of essays on monothematic subjects, such as “Silence,” “The Awakening of the Soul,” “Deeper Life,” and “Inner Beauty.” Following the example of Emerson, Maeterlinck relinquished the discontinuous form of the intimate, intuitive fragment for the extended, sequential form of the structured essay. Starting in the mid-1890s with The Treasure of the Humble, he moved from the abrasive to the comforting. This shift to the spiritually uplifting Emersonian essay resulted in books that were more easily accessible to readers and therefore more saleable.
As a thinker and popular philosopher Maeterlinck enjoyed considerable success with a growing body of middle-class readers, of varying degrees of faith – Christian, skeptical, and agnostic – who looked to the writer as a sage offering his disciples wisdom on spiritual matters. Had the apostle of silence turned into a windbag? And was his philosophy a justification of the status quo? Souls everywhere, the poet maintained, are alike and can communicate with one another regardless of wealth or class. Seeming to take for granted his class position and all the inequities of the world, the chateau-dwelling millionaire mystic promised spiritual treasures to the humble, offering them as a consolation the virtue of resignation.
The theme of the mysterious powers that shape human destiny is one that Maeterlinck shares with Strindberg and other turn of the century writers. Confessing all his own peculiar paranoias and phobias, the outcast author of The Inferno, a pariah in his native Sweden, gives these powers convincing vividness and immediacy. On the contrary, Maeterlinck reveals surprisingly little of his own life, and the mysterious powers that so fascinate him remain vague and abstract without any passionately imagined human life upon which to prey. Unlike Strindberg, Maeterlinck is unwilling to divulge his own experiences and enter into the details and particularities of daily life, which he dismisses as unimportant. Maeterlinck affects a Whitmanesque embrace of the mystery and greatness of all that is, but declines to make the enumeration of particulars that Whitman revels in, especially in his exaltation of the body. In his essays Maeterlinck takes no account of such external impersonations and personifications, but speaks as a disembodied spirit. His grand concepts are designed to uplift and reassure; hyperbole and superlative lay claim to significance; but where, we may ask, is the hard evidence? His style loses its edge and becomes facile and redundant.
Devoid of any personal revelations or invented anecdotes, Maeterlinck’s essays on the lofty themes of human destiny seem unspecified, vague, and colorless, especially in English translation where the absence of concrete detail results in a lulling monotony. In French, the rhythms, sounds, and symmetries of Maeterlinck’s accomplished rhetoric carry the reader along, although rarely achieving the startling and abrasive vigor of his early fragments. In rejecting the French essayistic formula of intellectual argumentation and witty parry and ironic riposte, Maeterlinck set out to follow the Anglo-American model of Carlyle, Emerson, and Whitman, but for the most part fails to achieve the incisive personal tone of his models. It is not until the very end of his life that in Blue Bubbles (Bulles bleues), memoirs published just before his death, Maeterlinck returned to his own past, now seen nostalgically in a sweet, quaint light.
In his books about bees, termites, and ants, Maeterlinck practiced cultural entomology, a new emerging genre based on the perceived analogy between the life of insects and that of the human collective. Combining philosophy, science, and literature, cultural entomology was well suited to the Belgian’s experience, talents, and cast of mind, and he created several of his most popular and enduring works in the genre.
Maeterlinck had become first acquainted with apiculture as a child in Ghent, and even kept bees in his Paris apartment. As a nature writer, Maeterlinck’s observations are experimental, his descriptions poetic, and his reflections speculative. The Belgian poet excelled in exploring alternative universes of different dimensions governed by their own laws. Here Maeterlinck’s approach to the enigma of human existence became (pseudo-) scientific and comparative, and for the first time the poet turned his attention directly to problems of modernity. In his nature writing in contrast to his plays, the poet had occasion to deal with modern collective life, giving his qualified approval to self-sacrificing socialism in the beehive while condemning Soviet-style communism in the termite nest.
Although they have been dismissed as “belletristic nonsense” by biologists like E.O. Wilson (author of Insect Societies), The Life of the Bees and The Life of the Termites are among Maeterlinck’s most original and influential works. Rather than vulgar popularizations of science, these books represent a new form of imaginative prose, at the borders of science, philosophy, and poetry, full of more traditional suspense and drama than his early plays.
Maeterlinck was perhaps a closer observer of insects than of men and women, and expressed greater wonder and respect for bees than for human beings. Because of his long attachment to his subject and unflagging observation of his subjects, Maeterlinck’s nature writing is among his most compelling and continues to be read more widely than his essays on spiritual themes.
As a pioneering cultural entomologist, Maeterlinck has had a marked influence on later writers in the field, but more surprisingly also on the history of cinema. The landmark Franco-era Spanish film by Victor Erice, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), owes both its title and inspiration to Chapter 6 of Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bees. Erice’s enigmatic film consists of a series of meditations about existential isolation and the close links between life and death on the part of solitary members of a traumatized family who rarely confront one another or exchange any words. The bee-keeping father Fernando has an open copy of Maeterlinck’s book on the desk in his study.
In the case of the bees, the Belgian poet finds that the “spirit of the hive” can offer a positive goal and model for a cult of the future, in which the individual realizes happiness by serving the human collective. In the case of the termites, the species most like our own according to Maeterlinck, the communistic society that these insects create serves as a cautionary tale showing what awaits us under Bolshevism when the social instincts totally dominate individual desires:–collective coprophagy.
Here Maeterlinck necessarily comes down to earth, at least at times. Looking into the bee hive or termite nest, the poet as voyeur watching the insects’ total life cycle becomes visceral, hearty, sly, and even ribald. In “The Nuptial Flight,” Maeterlinck enjoys observing and describing the spectacular copulation with the queen bee high in the sky and the impressive operation of the male bee’s sexual organ (although this erotica was attenuated in earlier English translation). The poet even admits that this biologically authentic rendering of the event undercuts the grandiose spiritual version that he has just given. Such an honest confession makes one wish that Maeterlinck had, throughout his career as a seer, given the tactile physical account alongside the idealized spiritual version.
Maeterlinck particularly enjoys the ingenious uses made by the termites of their own excrement, and he describes with relish how the workers feed the contents of their intestines to the other higher classes by a direct delivery system from tail to stomach. This enables Maeterlinck to liken the termites’ collective system to “absolute communism, a communism of the oesophagus and the bowels, a collective coprophagy.” (p. 69) The poet remarks that nature does not always emerge as either benign or purposeful, but rather as random and cruel. “In a word, Nature has shown herself, as far as the termite is concerned, almost as unjust, ill-disposed, ironical and fantastic, as illogical and treacherous, as towards man.” (Introduction: p. 17) In such passages Maeterlinck reveals himself to share the worldview of the theatre of cruelty and the absurd.
In the early 1890s Maeterlinck’s elevation to fame was swift and sudden. By the mid nineteenth-century he was acclaimed as an avant-garde author ahead of his time, but within a decade Maeterlinck’s ideology and literary persona, which had brought him world-wide celebrity and a sizeable fortune, made him appear stolidly old-fashioned. By 1914 he had been eclipsed by a new generation of avant-gardists ruthless in disowning their ancestors, who regarded the author of Pelleas and Melisande as a cultural curiosity from the past century. Once an admirer of the Belgian poet, Tommasso Marinetti, leader of the Futurists, quickly discarded Maeterlinck and renounced his meditative aesthetics and cult of silence in favor of art as action.
Maeterlinck’s metamorphosis from rebellious innovator to popular public figure occurred with varying resonances in different places. During World War I in Russia, where the playwright’s enormous fame never lost luster, Maeterlinck acquired a new persona as national poet-patriot. Russians remained convinced that the brave Belgian amateur boxer had gone to the front to fight the Hun despite denials in the press, explaining that Maeterlinck’s attempts to volunteer had been turned down because of his age.
The most widely performed Russian playwright of the time, Leonid Andreyev (whose own dramas and theories were deeply influenced by the author of The Blind) wrote a drama King, Law, and Freedom, in which the hero is a famous national poet, patterned after Maeterlinck, who goes off to war with his two sons to save his country. The author is visited by a nobleman, representing Belgium’s King Albert, and the two super-patriots decide to save the country by opening the dikes and drowning the invading Germans. After being successfully staged in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, the play was made into a film.
By the 1920s the times had changed radically, but Maeterlinck appeared to have stood still in a faded fin-de-siècle. Maintaining that the tragedy of the everyday was the drama of the future, Maeterlinck had argued that the times of barbarism were over and that the more refined present day had moved beyond violence and bloodshed. World War I dispelled these notions of spiritual progress leading to a quiet communion of souls and made Maeterlinck’s serenity and aloof stance appeared incompatible with the realities of the time. Retreat to the timeless realm of spiritual values seemed a denial of history.
Maeterlinck’s disengagement made him a writer out of step with the brutal times; his beliefs did not suit an age of dictators. In the 1920s and 30s new generations of European writers were no longer interested in contemplating the unknown and the posing unanswerable questions about human destiny—on the contrary, they were looking for immediate answers to pressing social problems. Vladimir Mayakovsky and Bertolt Brecht, who advocated a socially committed, anti-metaphysical theatre, endorsed a political system and philosophy that provided certainties of the kind that Maeterlinck’s agnostic and tolerant mysticism sought to transcend.
But Maeterlinck had not disappeared, but was only in eclipse, still present, although as yet invisible to many eyes. However, there were those like Artaud, Breton, and the Surrealists, who in their celebration of the dream and its inseparability from life continued to remember and honor Maeterlinck as a precursor and active presence. Artaud pointed out that there was more in Maeterlinck than the tragedy of the everyday and called attention to his predilection for violence and the oneiric. By the 1960s, Maeterlinck the playwright re-emerged as a precursor of Beckett and grand-parent of the theatre of the absurd. His plays have continued enjoyed increasingly frequent revivals in the twenty-first century.
The times have at last caught up with Maeterlinck. In his address “The End of Modern Era,” given in 1992 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Vaclav Havel maintained that the fall of communism was a warning that the dominant train of thought since the Renaissance, i.e. that the world is objectively knowable through human reason and that by means of this knowledge man can rationally direct the world for his own benefit, had run its course and reached a dangerous crisis. Instead of such arrogance, Havel argued, man must try to get closer to reality through personal experience, the soul, and individual spirituality, and through trust in one’s own subjectivity humankind must achieve a link to the subjectivity of the world. These are terms that go back to the language of Maeterlinck’s once discredited spirituality with its calls for a communion of souls in the name of pluralism and diversity and its rejection of abstract dogmas and ideologies that imprison humankind.