It has become trendy in recent years to speak about "postdramatic" theatre. The idea is that drama can create an overall mood and emotional connection to the audience without being... well... dramatic.
It might seem odd for drama theorists to be anti-drama, but the idea is hardly new. While some scholars see the origin of a postdramatic theatre in the 1960s, way back in the 1890s it was Symbolism that prophesied a theatre without traditional realistic plot structure.
One of the great practitioners of Symbolism was the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. His play Pelléas and Mélisande, which premiered in 1893 in a production directed by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, was roundly attacked by critics. Lugné-Poe draped gauze in front of the playing area and intentionally used low lighting, so the audience literally had a fuzzy view of the action. This created a dream-like atmosphere that was the antithesis of the Realism then popular.
Perhaps even more outrageous was the obscurity of the play's plot. It is filled with water imagery, such as when the heroine, Mélisande, appears at the beginning of the play, crying into a spring. She is not from here, but from somewhere far, far away. She is lost, and is gazing down at a crown at the bottom of the spring. Someone gave it to her, but now, she doesn't want it anymore.
"Ah-ha!" cries the veteran audience member of well-made plays. "We're going to find out who this young woman is! She clearly has a long backstory that will be revealed throughout the drama, and eventually we'll find out who she is, where she comes from, who gave her the crown, and the significance of it falling into the spring."
Nope. We find out none of that. Though after she marries Prince Golaud, Mélisande does later gaze into an old fountain together with her brother-in-law Pelléas. She drops her ring in the fountain, never to get it back again. When Golaud questions her about the ring, she claims she dropped it near the sea. (Why not tell him the truth about the fountain?) He sends Mélisande to search for it in a seaside cavern, together with Pelléas.
Later, Golaud takes Pelléas down into the underground passages beneath the castle where there appears to be a subterranean lake. You know. Just 'cuz. It isn't so much that there is no cause and effect. Rather, cause and effect follow the emotional sense of the drama. Maeterlinck builds up water image after water image, not to mention imagery involving hair, light, and gold. These images create the emotional response of the audience, not sensationalistic plot points.
Last night, I saw Claude Debussy's opera based on Pelléas and Mélisande performed by the Metropolitan Opera. The music was beautiful, and Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard did wonderful jobs in the title roles. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was exceptional making her Met debut as Geneviève, Golaud and Pelléas's mother. So, did the audience love it?
"Nothing happens!" I kept hearing people complain. And it's true. Very little happens in the opera from a plot point of view. The opera, like the play it's based upon, does a wonderful job creating mood and providing the material for reflection and contemplation. It does not, however, provide the operatic drama of a heroine leaping from the battlements or a hero throwing himself on the limp body of his consumptive lady love.
So if you're not down with the postdramatic, I recommend you skip Pelléas and Mélisande. However, if you want to experience the intensity Symbolism is capable of in a world class venue, go now. The opera is only playing through the end of the month.