Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Philippe Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam was already well known for his horror stories and for his futuristic novel Tomorrow's Eve when his play Axel was published (in its final form) in 1890. Villiers had died the year before, so he did not live to see how the critics would excoriate the finished play--nor how that same play would spawn a new artistic movement.

Unfortunately, this great work is little known in the English-speaking world. However, Axel quickly became a key, foundational text of the avant-garde movement known as Symbolism. Axel calls for a renunciation of the world, and young idealists of the late nineteenth century took this call for renunciation as a battle cry for the new world they could create through art.

Parts of Axel had appeared in print as early as 1872. While many theatres expressed interest in producing it, none dared until its premiere in Paris in February of 1894. Though critics had lambasted the long, philosophical speeches in the piece as unplayable, audiences were enthusiastic. As one critic proclaimed:

The moral to be learned from the success of Axel is that the public wants something other than the artistically poor stuff which it is served in its customary theatres. We may conclude, in spite of those who ordinarily feel the pulse of the crowd, that the theatre-going populace is not so sick as is claimed. High ideas, fine symbols, and elevated style go down better than low intrigues recounted in a broad Auvergne accent.

One writer who saw Axel in 1894 was William Butler Yeats, who was struck by how Villiers could write prose elevated to the realm of poetry. Yeats particularly admired how elements of the play--a forest castle, an enormous treasure, an oil lamp that might have once burned before King Solomon--seemed to be symbols, but symbols indecipherable by the intellect alone. Yeats later wrote, "those symbols became part of me, and for years to come dominated in imagination."

Not just Yeats, but Stephane Mallarme, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Paul Claudel all looked to Axel for inspiration. The play helped shape the Symbolist movement and the many other anti-Realist movements that followed it.