BORN: 1862, Ghent, Belgium
DIED: 1949, Nice, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
The Intruder (1891)
Pelleas and Melisande (1892)
The Blue Bird (1908)
Maurice Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck, Maurice, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian of Flemish descent who wrote in French and spent most of his life in France, had a powerful effect on the theatrical world of the late nineteenth century and was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. The writer is probably best remembered for his abstract and minimalist experiments, which influenced both his contemporaries and later playwrights who developed the movement called the Theater of the Absurd. In a prolific career that extended into the ninth decade of his life, he published twenty-eight plays, two collections of poetry, two short stories, many volumes of popularizing essays on philosophical, occult, and scientific subjects, and an autobiography.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Lawyer to Writer. Maurice Maeterlinck was born in Ghent, Belgium, on August 29, 1862. His family was bilingual and divided its time between a town house in Ghent and a country estate at Oostacker, where Maeterlinck’s father raised bees and devoted himself to gardening. Maeterlinck was educated at a convent school, the private Institute Central in Ghent, and the Jesuit CoUege Sainte-Barbe, where he met and became friends with the future poet Charles Van Lerberghe. From 1881 to 1885 Maeterlinck studied law at the University of Ghent. At the successful completion of his law studies, the young man persuaded his father to send him to Paris for several months, ostensibly to study French law. Instead of studying, however, Maeterlinck spent his time there in literary circles, where he made important contacts that would later help in his theatrical career.
Returning to Ghent, Maeterlinck practiced law until 1889, ‘‘failing brilliantly,’’ in the words of his first biographer, Gerard Harry. During these years, Maeterlinck saw the first publication of his literary work: In 1886 he had his first short story published, and in 1887 twelve of his poems appeared in Le Parnasse de la jeune Belgique. In 1889 Maeterlinck published his translation of Jan van Ruysbroeck’s fourteenth-century mystical treatise, Adornment of Spiritual Marriage, as well as a volume of poetry and a play titled La Princesse Maleine.
Except for the play, Maeterlinck’s early works were unnoticed by the critics. Maeterlinck, seeking to establish a literary reputation, sent a copy of Princess Maleine to the influential symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme, much impressed, gave the play to Octave Mirbeau, who published a highly enthusiastic review of the play in Le Figaro, thereby launching Maeterlinck’s career as a playwright and man of letters. During the next five years Maeterlinck wrote the plays for which he is best known in literary and theatrical history.
Success as a Playwright. Maeterlinck’s first produced play was The Intruder, which opened in Paris on May 21, 1891. His next play opened in the same year on December 7, and his fourth and perhaps best-known play, Pelleas and Melisande opened in 1893. Maeterlinck’s next three plays were published together in 1894 as ‘‘three little dramas for marionettes.’’ This marked the end of the first phase of Maeterlinck’s theatrical production.
At the beginning of 1895, he met Georgette Leblanc, who became his companion and collaborator and for whom he wrote a series of plays incorporating, but by no means entirely affirming, a feminist perspective. In 1896 Maeterlinck moved from his native Belgium to France, and in 1897 he and Leblanc set up house in Paris. During the next eight years, he collaborated with the actress, writing plays specifically for her to perform.
In 1911 Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other official honors followed; for example, the Belgian government sponsored an official ‘‘Festival Maeterlinck’’ and presented the writer with the insignia of Grand Officier de l’Ordre de Leopold.
Later Life. During World War I, Maeterlinck attempted to join the French Foreign Legion but was denied due to his age. Thus, instead of serving in the military, he wrote several propagandistic pieces, including The Burgomaster of Stilmonde. In 1919 Maeterlinck married Renee Dahon, a young woman whom he had met at a rehearsal of the French production of The Blue Bird in 1911. In 1920, during a lecture tour in the United States, Maeterlinck accepted a commission by producer Samuel Goldwyn to write movie scenarios for silent films. Apparently three scenarios were completed, although none was filmed.
Always a solitary figure, Maeterlinck withdrew in his later years to a series of country estates, settling at last into Orlamonde, a palatial residence on the French Riviera that he decorated in art nouveau style and where he played the roles of the country gentleman and reclusive man of letters. Although he continued to write plays after World War I, Maeterlinck was best known in the last four decades of his life for his essays and his courtly lifestyle.
In 1940 Maeterlinck and his wife settled in the United States and remained there until the end of World War II. In 1945 the couple returned to their estate in the south of France. Although Maeterlinck continued to write plays after World War II, he had little to do with theatrical life, and his later plays were seldom performed. The aged writer died from a heart attack on May 6, 1949.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Maeterlinck's famous contemporaries include:
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904): Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer whose innovations influenced the development of the modern short story.
O. Henry (1862-1910): O. Henry was a prolific American short-story writer whose works were known for their cleverness and surprise endings.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Debussy was a French composer of impressionist music.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Yeats was an Irish poet and dramatist widely considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century literature.
Georges Feydeau (1862-1921): Feydeau was a French playwright known for writing light comedies and farces.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): Schoenberg was an Austrian-born composer of expressionist music.
Albert I (1875-1934): Albert was the king of Belgium from 1909 until his death in 1934.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Maeterlinck often made use of Gothic settings that evoked a sense of metaphysical horror. Here are some other works that use a similar approach:
''The Raven'' (1845), a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. This poem is an eerie and comic psychological study of perversity and fear.
Heart of Darkness (1902), a novella by Joseph Conrad. This short novel explores both inner and outer horrors through the journey of a merchant seaman into the interior of Africa.
Rosemary's Baby (1967), a novel by Ira Levin. This novel centers around an actor who makes a deal with the devil to gain success and fame.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), a novel by Ann Radcliffe. This novel follows the fortunes of Emily St. Aubin during her stay in a haunted decaying castle. Radcliffe's book has often been cited as the archetypal Gothic romance.
Works in Literary Context
Symbolism. Maurice Maeterlinck is considered the major dramatist of the symbolist movement, representing in the theater the philosophy and aesthetics associated with such earlier writers as Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme. The influence of the French symbolists is apparent in Maeterlinck’s first plays, which signified a rejection of the predominantly naturalistic drama in European theater of that time. Rather than following in the ‘‘slice of life’’ tradition, which primarily dramatized social themes, Maeterlinck created an otherworldly, often nightmarish reality to explore the inner lives of his characters.
Literary historians generally agree that Maeterlinck’s most innovative and influential works were the plays that he wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s. These early plays were especially influential outside France, particularly in Russia.
Realism. In a second phase of his work, Maeterlinck turned from his previous studies of dream-world anxiety and began composing more markedly realistic and psychological plays, such as Monna Vanna. His greatest theatrical success, The Blue Bird, is a return to symbolist drama but one in which the allegorical characters and events communicate a new mood of hope based on his studies in the more positive forms of occultism. Maeterlinck’s concern with supernatural realms is complemented by his naturalist studies, such as The Life of the Bee, which lend a scientific dimension to the predominantly spiritual character of his work.
Tranquil Agnosticism. Maeterlinck’s later works show that any specific spiritual convictions he might have had became less definite toward the end of his life. After a career-long devotion to the varieties of mysticism, Maeterlinck implied in his ultimate metaphysical studies a final abandonment of the pursuit for religious certainty and a lapse into tranquil agnosticism.
Maeterlinck was critical of tragedians who centered their works on sensational scenes of violence while ‘‘most of us pass our lives far from blood, screams and swords and whereas man’s tears have become silent, invisible and almost spiritual.’’ What can one learn, he asks, from beings who have only one obsession and who have no time to live because they must kill a rival or a mistress? Maeterlinck preferred drama that explores the mysteries of man’s humble, ordinary life—its beauty, its grandeur, and its gravity, which he himself may not be able to observe on a daily basis. Maeterlinck famously illustrated this notion of everyday mystical experience through the image of an old man seated in an armchair who listens, albeit unwittingly, to all of the ‘‘eternal laws’’ pervading his home. For Maeterlinck, this ‘‘immobile old man actually lives a more profound life than the lover who strangles his mistress, or the captain victorious in battle or the husband who avenges his honor.’’
Legacy. The legacy of Maeterlinck is double-edged. On the one hand, he was one of the most innovative dram atists of fin-de-siede Europe. His plays point forward to the intimate theater of August Strindberg, Max Reinhardt, and other major twentieth-century playwrights and directors. They played a crucial role in the development of Russian symbolism. The early plays influenced William Butler Yeats, and their emphasis on myth and sacrifice also points toward the dramatic theories and practice of Antonin Artaud. Maeterlinck himself was capable of taking up and transforming a new form in the theater, such as the station drama. But, on the other hand, his writing, especially his essays, sometimes lapses into cliches and apolitical complacency. At his worst he warns of the dangers of New Age philosophy. At his best he reminds one of the necessary relationship between good theater and the unknown.
Works in Critical Context
Maeterlinck’s first drama, Princess Maleine, was described by the French critic Octave Mirbeau as being superior in beauty to William Shakespeare. Later critics generally concurred in judging favorably these early symbolist dramas, and on their strength Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. Though for the most part highly regarded, Maeterlinck has been accused by some critics of cultivating a sense of mystery for its own sake, resulting in obscure images that fail to resonate with the audience or reader.
Two Fairy Tales. In the 1890 review that brought Princess Maleine and its author to the attention of the literary world, Octave Mirbeau celebrated Maeterlinck’s play by comparing it to the work of William Shakespeare. Maeterlinck’s fourth play, Pelleas and Melisande, first performed in 1893, became his best known, partly because of Claude Debussy’s 1902 musical adaptation.
Pelleas and Melisande. To this day, Pelleas and Melisande remains one of the most representative masterpieces of symbolist drama. Like Princess Maleine, this ethereal play also turns to fairy tales for its subject, and its evocation of a vaguely northern kingdom ruled by an aging and ineffectual king strongly recalls Princess Maleine. J. W. Mackail, writing in 1897, states of the play, ‘‘all but faultless in its construction, more than faultless in its beauty, it is difficult to speak with tempered praise, or in words that shall not seem extravagant.’’ Calvin Evans in Modern Drama contends that the play ‘‘represents one of the few dramatic expressions of the Symbolist movement, a movement which, above all, challenges the primacy of the intellect.’’ Joan Pataky Kosove, in an essay for The French Review, writes, ‘‘The play leaves us sad but somehow satisfied.... Indeed one is tempted to call its outlook anti-tragic.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Why does Maeterlinck use fairy tale settings in many of his plays? What kinds of effects do these settings have on the messages and meanings of his works?
2. Maeterlinck’s dramas explored the mysteries of ordinary life and eschewed thrilling scenes of violence. In what ways did this choice make his plays more effective than more sensationalized drama, and in what ways did it diminish their impact?
3. In addition to writing plays, Maeterlinck also wrote numerous essays, some of them on the aesthetic and philosophical principles that informed his writing. Imagine that you are a playwright and write an essay that expounds the principles that would underlie your writing.
4. Maeterlinck was noted for being an influential symbolist, but his works also contain many elements of realism. Write an essay that describes Maeterlinck’s mixture of symbolism and realism, commenting on the effectiveness of this approach.
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