Monday, May 25, 2015

Maurice Maeterlinck

Poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Butler Yeats all admired the Belgian Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. So did break-through dramatists, including August Strindberg, Anton Chekov, and Alfred Jarry.  It's a pity we don't see more of his plays performed today.

Maeterlinck wrote mostly in obscurity, until 1890, when the critic Octave Mirbeau wrote a review in Le Figaro declaring Maeterlinck's first play, Princess Maleine, one of the greatest masterpieces ever written. In Mirbeau's words: "Maeterlinck has given us the most ingenious and extraordinary work of these times, and also the most naïve, comparable, and dare I say it, superior in beauty to what is most beautiful in Shakespeare."

That type of hyperbole sounds ridiculous today, as it did to many people in 1890. However, in October of that year, Paul Fort (director of the Théâtre Mixte, soon to become the Théâtre d'Art) requested Maeterlinck's permission to stage Princess Maleine. Maeterlink instead granted André Antoine at the Théâtre Libre the rights to the play, but it was not produced during the playwright's lifetime.  In fact, the first performance of Princess Maleine by professional actors was not until 1962.

Paul Fort instead produced two of Maeterlinck's one-act plays, The Intruder in May of 1891, and then The Blind later that year. Greater fame came with Pelléas et Mélisande, published in 1892 and first performed on May, 17 1893, under the direction of Fort's protégé, Aurélien Lugné-Poe. The work is highly literary. Mallarmé said that "Pelléas et Mélisande, on a stage, exhales the delight of the page."

This work came to exemplify the Symbolist movement. According to Yeats, Symbolism "never mentions an external thing except to express the state of the soul."  Like all great Symbolist works, the play is noted not so much for what it shows, but for what it leaves out. The audience becomes a part of the work, having to supply that which is missing in the text.

Maeterlinck's works have inspired numerous composers, including Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius, Gabriel Fauré, Paul Dukas, Anton Webern, and Sergei Rachmaninov.  Though Debussy's opera is the most famous musical adaptation of Pelléas et Mélisande, Fauré debuted his incidental music for the play years earlier, during the piece's London premiere at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1898. Though the entire score is lovely, the highpoint for me is the "Song of Mélisande" from Act III.

The song takes place during the most famous scene of the play, as Mélisande leans out the window of a tower and Pelléas caresses her hair. The original song Maeterlinck had written for the piece wasn't working in the original Paris production. He instead gave about thirty poems to the actress playing Mélisande, and asked her to pick one.

She ended up choosing "Les trios soeurs aveugles." Maeterlinck asked the young composer Gabriel Fabre to set the piece to music, which he did to great acclaim. When Fauré wrote music for the English production, however, he used the translation done by Jack Mackail. It goes like this:

          The King's three blind daughters
          Sit locked in a hold.
          In the darkness their lamps
          Make a glimmer of gold.
          Up the stair of the turret
          The sisters are gone.
          Seven days they wait there
          And the lamps they burn on.
          What hope? says the first,
          And leans o'er the flame.
          I hear our lamps burning.
          O yet if he came!
          O hope! says the second,
          Was that the lamp's flare,
          Or a sound of low footsteps?
          The Prince on the stair!
          But the holiest sister
          She turns her about:
          O no hope now forever --
          Our lamps are gone out.

Maeterlinck was not without his critics. Camille Mauclair praised Percy Bysshe Shelley, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, and Richard Wagner for work that is truly dramatic, but he left out Maeterlinck, finding his plays too philosophical.  Such criticism, however, did not stop Maeterlinck from winning the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature.