Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949)

Recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, Maurice Maeterlinck was a dramatist, poet, and essayist renowned for his highly symbolic works contemplating the mysteries of human existence. He is best known among young readers for L'Oiseau bleu (The Blue Bird), his acclaimed play exhibiting fairy tale qualities. Immensely popular, the play spawned the common phrase "the blue bird of happiness" and has been adapted into illustrated books and popular films for children.

("Maurice Maeterlinck." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003).


Illness kept Maurice Maeterlinck from attending the banquet in Stockholm at which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. The customary banquet speech was instead delivered by a Belgian dignitary who described the laureate in these words: "Tall, robust, of athletic appearance, with a full face and a dull complexion, easily excited, always bareheaded, he hardly gives the impression of a dreamer, poet, or philosopher. For those who know him well, he is a thinker and a shy man who reveals himself only to his friends." It is somehow fitting that Maeterlinck should be absent from this most venerable celebration of his literary achievement: the personal characteristics of this elusive and mysterious figure--"the least understood of all the Nobel Prize-winners," according to Rupert Hughes--seem to be mirrored in his symbolist theater that tries, through suggestion and allusion, to represent the invisible and communicate the ineffable. One could say that Maeterlinck's theater turns the notion of "absence" into an aesthetic principle.

A Belgian of Flemish descent who wrote in French and spent most of his life in France, Maeterlinck had a powerful effect on the theatrical world of the late nineteenth century and on the abstract and minimalist experiments in theater that dominate much twentieth-century drama, for example, 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. But literary historians generally agree that his most innovative and influential works were the plays that he wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1891 Paul Fort's avant-garde Théâtre d'Art produced L'Intruse (1891; translated as The Intruder, 1891) and Les Aveugles (1891; translated as Blind, 1891). Aurélien-François Lugné-Poë's troupe staged Pelléas et Mélisande (1893; translated as Pelléas and Mélisande, 1894) and Intérieur (1895; translated as Interior, 1911). Maeterlinck's plays were, in fact, among the few French texts that suited the avant-garde repertory of these theaters.

In 1908 the production of Maeterlinck's L'Oiseau bleu (translated as The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Five Acts, 1909) at the Moscow Art Theater was a milestone in the development of symbolist and avant-garde theater in Russia. Indeed, Maeterlinck's early plays were especially influential outside France and formed an integral part of the repertory of the Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the German director Max Reinhardt. The early dramas of Anton Chekhov, as well as the plays of William Butler Yeats and the late plays of August Strindberg, all draw on and develop aspects of Maeterlinck's early work.

But Maeterlinck's early plays represent only a small part of his creative output, which grew increasingly remote from any kind of avant-garde art. Always a solitary figure, Maeterlinck withdrew in his later years to a series of country estates, settling at last into Orlamonde, his 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.

Mauritius Polydorus Maria Bernhardus Maeterlinck was born in Ghent, Belgium, on 29 August 1862. His parents were Polydore Maeterlinck, a prosperous retired notary, and Mathilde Colette Françoise Van den Bossche, the daughter of a lawyer. The 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 Institut Central in Ghent, and the Jesuit Collège 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, but Maeterlinck spent his time there in literary circles, meeting writers such as Saint-Pol-Roux, Catulle Mendès, Stéphane Mallarmé, and, most importantly, Jean-Marie Mathias Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Returning to Ghent, Maeterlinck practiced law until 1889, "failing brilliantly," in the words of his first biographer, Gerard Harry.

During these years, however, the young writer saw the first publication of his work: in 1886 La Pléiade published his short story "Le Massacre des innocents" (translated as The Massacre of the Innocents, 1914), 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, in La Revue générale; a volume of poetry, Serres chaudes; and a play, La Princesse Maleine, at his own expense.

Except for La Princesse Maleine, Maeterlinck's early works were unnoticed by the critics. When, however, Maeterlinck sent a copy of La Princesse Maleine to Mallarmé, the influential poet, much impressed, gave the play to Octave Mirbeau. On 24 August 1890 Mirbeau 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. La Princesse Maleine was followed by L'IntruseLes AveuglesLes Sept Princesses (1891; translated as The Seven Princesses, 1909), Pelléas et MélisandeAlladine et Palomides (1894; translated as Alladine and Palomides, 1911), Intérieur, and La Mort de Tintagiles (1894; translated as The Death of Tintagiles, 1911).

In the 1890 review that brought La Princesse Maleine and its author to the attention of the literary world, Mirbeau celebrated Maeterlinck's play by comparing it to the work of William Shakespeare. In fact, Maeterlinck's play has more in common with the symbolist interpretations of Shakespeare, such as are found in Mallarmé's Igitur (1869), than it does with Shakespeare's work. Set in a northern kingdom in an unspecified feudal past, the five acts of La Princesse Maleine present the events that lead to the death of the innocent young princess of the title, who is ultimately killed by the evil and powerful Danish queen, Anne. In the first act Queen Anne has seduced the feeble old king of the land, Hjalmar, and is determined to marry her daughter, Uglyane, to the young prince, also called Hjalmar. But Anne must first get rid of the young prince's betrothed, Maleine. Early in the play Maleine escapes from the tower in which she has been imprisoned; later, however, she is recaptured and imprisoned again; finally, in the last act, she is strangled by Anne.

The vague northern setting of the play and the plight of the young prince recall Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) in general terms: certainly young Hjalmar's family is as dysfunctional, and his kingdom in as much chaos, as are Hamlet's. Several crowd scenes provide a glimpse of disorder outside the castle. Young Hjalmar, too, dies at the end of the play; but he dies by his own hand when he discovers the corpse of Maleine, whose death has been caused by Anne, not by his words or actions. Hjalmar's father is still alive at the end of the play, a symbol, perhaps, of a decadent order unable to renew itself. Unlike Gertrude, his Danish consort is purely evil. La Princesse Maleine shifts the focus of the Hamlet legend away from the young male heir and to the women of the castle: what ensues is a struggle between the acquiescent victim, Maleine, and an active and intelligent queen consort who is demonized.

This struggle has at least two dimensions. Like the two Hjalmars, Anne and Maleine seem in some respects doubles, but in the world of Hjalmar's castle they are necessarily at odds with each other. The doubling in the play suggests a psychological allegory in which different aspects of the self cannot be reconciled. At the same time, however, the action of the play suggests the acknowledgment and the deploring of the emergence of women as powerful agents in politics and culture: murder, even if it targets the weak and helpless rather than the principal offenders, seems to be the solution to cultural decadence and the decline of male authority proposed here.

In its representation of the power-hungry and murderous Queen Anne, La Princesse Maleine also draws on Macbeth (1606), which Maeterlinck translated in 1910. But perhaps the most important echoes in the play are of the unperformable dramas of Mallarmé. The beautiful princess in the tower at the beginning of the play recalls Mallarmé's virginal Hérodiade in his fragment by that name. And Maeterlinck's highly psychological and vague treatment of the Hamlet theme also suggests Mallarme's Igitur, which transforms the Hamlet theme into a single soliloquy and a drama of consciousness confronting nothingness. Maeterlinck's first readers hailed the play because it seemed to represent a performable version of symbolist theater. The play, however, was not performed in the 1890s. Fort tried to get permission to stage it at his Théâtre d'Art, but Maeterlinck refused, ostensibly because he preferred to give it to André Antoine, who may have flirted with the idea of putting it on but recognized in the end that La Princesse Maleine was fundamentally at odds with the naturalist aesthetic of his theater and its repertory.

This opposition to naturalism is evident in several ways. The action of the play takes place in an unspecified place and time, and the characters, unlike the realistic individuals on the naturalist stage, are archetypal figures such as those in a fairy tale. Moreover, the play ascribes supernatural powers to the natural world. In the opening scene, the guards outside the castle observe a comet followed by a shower of falling stars, an omen, they say, that a princess will die. Several other natural elements seem to foreshadow Maleine's demise. Most significant is the scene in the park (act 2, scene 6) where Prince Hjalmar and Maleine are reunited. At the moment of their embrace, a wind blows, and the lovers are sprayed by water from a nearby fountain; the erotic overtones of the symbolism are unmistakable. Then, when Prince Hjalmar expresses his joy to Maleine, the fountain makes a sound as though it were weeping and then "dies"--a clear, perhaps even heavy-handed, announcement of their ill-fated love. Throughout the play, the forces of nature "explain" what the human characters cannot.

Maeterlinck's first produced play was his next, L'Intruse , which opened in Paris on 21 May 1891 at the Théâtre d'Art. With a subject matter quite different from that of La Princesse Maleine, its single act takes place in a "dark room in a rather old castle," where members of a family have gathered. As the play opens, a child has just been born, and the mother is apparently recovering in a room offstage. Only the blind Grandfather, waiting with the other family members, fears the worst; but at the end of the play his fears are confirmed. Silently, the nun who has been tending the new mother appears in the doorway. The old blind man has been able to sense what the others have not. L'Intruse represents the first of Maeterlinck's celebrated and revolutionary drames statiques (static dramas), relatively plotless works in which a small group of characters focus on a metaphysical or psychological presence that cannot be represented in visible terms.

In L'Intruse, the invisible presence is the fatal illness that will take the young mother's life. Though unseen, it is made palpable through dialogue and other dramatic effects (such as the sound of a scythe being sharpened offstage--a less-than-subtle allusion to the Grim Reaper). The invisible malady almost seems to take a place on stage alongside the other characters, an idea corroborated by the Uncle's comment: "Once an illness has entered a home, you could say that there is a stranger in the family." The deadly illness is, in fact, the "intruder" named in the title of the play.

More than death itself, it is the arrival or the anticipation of death that is the main focus of the play. Maeterlinck uses a technique similar to that later used by Samuel Beckett to make his spectator feel the anxiety associated with ominous waiting. Consider, for example, this exchange between the Uncle and the Grandfather concerning the impending visit from the ailing mother's older sister. Uncle: "What will we do while waiting?" Grandfather: "While waiting for what?" Uncle: "While waiting for our sister?" The older sister, who, moreover, is a nun, never arrives onstage in person. But her character is to some extent conflated with the Sister of Charity who appears at the end to announce the mother's death. In other words, the discussion of the family's real sister, and anticipation of her arrival, is a metaphorical foreshadowing of the arrival of death.

Though the Grandfather's failure to remember for whom or what they are waiting seems ridiculous, perhaps even absurdly Beckettian, given that the sister's visit has been an ongoing topic of conversation, the play does not on the whole make light of the Grandfather's senility or frailty. On the contrary, the Grandfather has a prescience about his daughter's condition that the other family members lack. He says at one point: "There are times when I am less blind than you." The Grandfather embodies those qualities that Maeterlinck extols in much of his theater, poetry, and prose: the ability to perceive that which is imperceptible by the senses and to apprehend that which defies rational understanding.

Maeterlinck's third play, Les Aveugles , also premiered at the Théâtre d'Art, where it opened on 7 December 1891. In this play all the characters are blind, thereby emphasizing to an even greater degree than L'Intruse the evocation onstage of invisible forces. The characters in Les Aveugles are a group of blind patients who wander in the woods to which they have been taken on an outing by a priest; as they talk, it becomes clear that they are unaware that the priest has quietly died during the outing; it is also clear that there is a storm approaching. The play ends with the patients wandering and lost. The representation of vision and its absence in this short work is given an ironic twist since the play harks back to sixteenth-century paintings and engravings, especially to Pieter Brueghel the Elder's The Parable of the Blind, in which blind people lead other blind people. In Les Aveugles, in contrast to L'Intruse, the blind flail about rather than merely listen for intimations of mortality. This work is not the first time that Maeterlinck turned to Flemish painting for the subject of a literary piece. His early prose piece, "Le Massacre des innocents," is a literary transposition of the Brueghel painting by the same name.

Les Aveugles, like L'Intruse, is also a study in the approach of death. However, whereas in L'Intruse, death arrives or "makes an entrance," in Les Aveugles, death is already present onstage from the start in the person of the dead priest. According to the stage directions, when the curtain rises, the "mortally immobile," white-haired spiritual leader, wrapped in a large black coat, is leaning against a tree trunk at the rear of the stage: like a wax figure, "his mute and frozen eyes no longer look at the visible side of eternity." The rest of the characters are all blind, lost in this vague septentrional forest where they await the return of their leader, the priest. Slowly, through dialogue and by exploring their environment with their hands, they discover that their leader is dead. This play is a masterful depiction of existentialism: the congregants are adrift in a post-Nietzschean world devoid of spiritual guidance. In a comment that summarizes their condition, one of the characters remarks: "We live together, we are always together, but we don't know what we are!" The characters have no individual identity: their self-knowledge depends upon dialogue with others. "I'm afraid when I don't talk," says one of them. Indeed, talking is the principal guarantor of their existence.

On the occasion of the first performance of this play at the Théâtre d'Art, the director, Adolphe Retté, cast the stage in a dark bluish penumbra in order to create an ambiance of mystery and indeterminateness consistent with Maeterlinck's text. Some critics, however, complained that they could not see the stage or hear the actors, who spoke in soft, monotonous tones.

In the single act of Maeterlinck's Les Sept Princesses an aging king and queen live in an isolated and chilly castle with seven sleeping princesses. Outside, a crowd is about to embark on an ocean voyage. Through the windows come their shouts of jubilation. The long-awaited prince arrives to claim one of the princesses, but although he manages to awaken six of the seven frail and languorous young women, one of them has died as he and the royal couple have stood discussing them. She is, of course, the one who had most attracted him. The play ends with the old queen's lamentations and the group's discovery that all doors and windows of the castle are locked. Les Sept Princesses turns back to and reworks familiar motifs from folktales and fairy tales. The plight of the princesses echoes that of Snow White, as well as many other royal children who have fallen under an evil spell and must be rescued. The allusion to the swans outside the castle at the beginning of the play suggests the princesses' association with the beautiful birds that, particularly in late-nineteenth-century European culture, were associated with sexuality, death, and transcendence. In Maeterlinck's early plays the possibility of a physical or sexual awakening inevitably leads to death.

Maeterlinck's fourth play, Pelléas et Mélisande , first performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on 16 May 1893, is also his best known in large part because of Claude Debussy's 1902 musical adaptation. To this day, Pelléas et Mélisande remains one of the most representative masterpieces, a veritable cynosure, of symbolist drama. The ethereal play also turns to fairy tales for its subject; but its evocation of a vaguely northern kingdom ruled by an aging and ineffectual king also recalls La Princesse Maleine. Here, as well, a young and innocent princess must die, as well as her beloved, whose death she also helps bring about. The plot is simple. Golaud, the middle-aged son of the aging King Arkel, who reigns over a vaguely Germanic kingdom called Allemonde, comes across beautiful Mélisande sitting by a fountain in a forest. She has lost her crown. He finds it for her and proposes marriage. Back in the castle, Melisande finds his younger half brother, Pelléas, more attractive. When she meets Pelléas in the forest, Golaud, now her husband, comes upon them and stabs Pelléas. In the fifth act Mélisande gives birth to a girl, but she dies, unable to accept motherhood or to answer Golaud's questions concerning the nature of her love for Pelléas. But where La Princesse Maleine drew generally on the plots of Hamlet and MacbethPelléas et Mélisande is a vague distillation of the plots of many folktales and fairy tales. Settings and characters alike are emptied of all individuality; what is left is longing.

Though both Pelléas and Mélisande die in the end, the play does not belong to Maeterlinck's "death dramas." In fact, the playwright, eager to shed the reputation of being a "poet of terror," wanted this play to mark a break with his previous work. He referred to Pelléas et Mélisande as a "drama of passion." Indeed, this relatively actionless play concerns above all the gradual development of the protagonists' moods as they slowly come to discover their mutual love.

The symbolist element of the play comes through most clearly in the way the characters express sentiments that they, themselves, ignore. For example, in a famous scene in act 2, Mélisande, playing with her wedding band, lets it accidentally fall into the fountain. Maeterlinck's reader or spectator understands immediately that what seems to Mélisande and Pelléas to be an accident is actually a fateful sign of what will become of Mélisande's marriage to Golaud. Throughout the scene, the spectator perceives the love growing between Mélisande and Pelléas before they themselves do. There are many such moments in the play when sentiment is only subtly suggested and never overtly expressed. This delicate use of suggestion and allusion is perhaps what prompted Mallarmé to observe that the use of silence and abstraction in the play gave it a kind of musical quality. So inherently musical was Maeterlinck's text, said Mallarmé, that any actual musical accompaniment would in fact be superfluous and detrimental. Yet, it may be Debussy's operatic adaptation that has guaranteed Pelléas et Mélisande a permanent place in literary history.

Maeterlinck's next three plays were published together in 1894 as "trois petits drames pour marionnettes" (three little dramas for marionettes). As Maeterlinck himself admitted, the first, Alladine et Palomides, represents little more than a reworking of Pelléas et Mélisande. The second, Intérieur , also turns back to an earlier work but brilliantly transcends its model. Intérieur, like L'Intruse, presents the dilemma of a family forced to confront the death of one of its members. Here, however, they are seen from the outside, through the windows of their home, as a procession approaches in the foreground, led by an old man who knows of the death by drowning of a daughter. The crowd debates how to break the news. Finally, the old man enters the household and informs the family. Their reactions, seen through the windows of their house, are mimed only. The audience hears no words. Intérieur offers a stunning example of a self-conscious representation of the symbolic setting of turn-of-the-century theater, representing a split stage, an interior within the interior, as well as a representation within the representation. Here, as in other early plays by Maeterlinck, some characters inhabit an isolated structure threatened by forces that come from outside. But in this play the threat is given concrete representation in the form of the old man and his followers, who also participate in the catastrophe. The two settings, one incorporating darkness and language, the other light and silence, suggest a third, ineffable presence.

La Mort de Tintagiles , the last of the three dramas, is also the sparest. Its four acts are extremely short, evoking in impressionistic fashion moments in the decline of a boy, Tintagiles, and his family, who are represented here by his two sisters, Ygraine and Bellangère, and his aged father, who like the old king of La Princesse Maleine has become involved with a powerful queen anxious to do away with the children of his first marriage. In this play, however, the new queen's ascent to power and designs on the children are linked to political changes outside the castle: a crowd surges around its walls, anxious to participate in the change of regimes. By the end of the play Ygraine and Tintagiles have fled to a remote part of the castle, and Ygraine has managed to shut herself up in a fortified room. She succeeds so well that when Tintagiles also seeks refuge there, she cannot open the door to let him in. At the end of the play the audience hears him die, the victim of an invisible presence whose nature is ambiguous: death, the crowd, or the new queen herself.

Alladine et PalomidesIntérieur, and La Mort de Tintagiles 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. But less personal factors also played a role in Maeterlinck's turning to a different style of drama. Audiences noted a certain repetition in his plays, and symbolist works did not bring in the kind of revenues that sustained an independent theater. In 1897 Lugné-Poë, whose Théâtre de l'Oeuvre had been the major venue for symbolist plays, turned to other kinds of theater, ostensibly because there were so few suitable French plays in this style. Maeterlinck's plays, moreover, were far more influential abroad than in France, where they were rarely staged in the 1890s.

The year 1895 marked a turning point in Maeterlinck's life and literary production. That year, following the five plays considered his most important works for the theater, he published his translations of The Disciples at Sais (1802) and Fragments (1802), both by the German Romantic writer Novalis. Maeterlinck's translations from Novalis were followed by essays on other writers and on philosophical, scientific, and theosophical subjects; he turned at this time to writing plays intended for Leblanc, plays that center on the presence of a strong "new woman," whose sexuality, initiative, and frequent exhibitionism place her at odds with her surroundings. In 1897 he and Leblanc set up house in Paris, but they were often apart; from 1907 to 1914 they spent summers in the abandoned Benedictine abbey of Saint-Wandrille in Normandy. Plays such as Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896; translated as Agalaine and Sélysette, 1897), Monna Vanna (1902; translated, 1903), and Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907, Ariane and Bluebeard) point to an obvious collaboration between the playwright and the actress, and Leblanc claimed to have contributed to the essays Maeterlinck published during this period, as well.

The last play he wrote specifically for her to perform was Marie Magdaleine (1913), begun in 1908, but the culmination of their theatrical collaboration was the single performance of his translation of Shakespeare's Macbeth at Saint-Wandrille in 1909. Leblanc apparently hoped to turn Saint-Wandrille into a French version of Richard Wagner's Bayreuth in Germany. The following summer, there was a well-received production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the same location, but Maeterlinck's objections to having his privacy disturbed by rehearsals stopped plans to stage Hamlet and La Princesse Maleine there.

In 1896 Maeterlinck moved from his native Belgium to France and published two works, each of which marked a new departure in his authorship. Le Trésor des humbles (1896; translated as The Treasure of the Humble, 1897), which includes essays on Novalis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ruysbroeck as well as on the aesthetics of the theater, was the first of what became his many volumes of popularizing prose. Le Trésor des humbles includes one of the playwright's most influential essays, "Le tragique quotidien" (The Tragic in Everyday Life), a statement of the aesthetics informing his dramas of the 1890s. As the title indicates, Maeterlinck conceives of a kind of tragic theater that would move away from the representation of grand tragic actions such as battles between enemies, struggles of passion, or stories of vengeance. Maeterlinck is interested in the possibility of representing those subtle, indeterminate, barely perceptible aspects of ordinary existence that do not lend themselves to dramatic representation. He wants to show "what is astonishing in the simple fact of living" or to depict the "ordinary" person (as opposed to a classic tragic hero) in dialogue with larger questions of truth, beauty, and God. Such a theater, writes Maeterlinck, would involve revealing "a thousand things of the sort that the tragic poets have only let us glimpse at in passing. Could these not be shown before all else?"

Maeterlinck is critical of tragedians who insist in 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 prefers drama that explores the mysteries of his 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 illustrates 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, more human and more general, than the lover who strangles his mistress, or the captain victorious in battle or the husband who avenges his honor."

Traditional theater, Maeterlinck argues, focuses too much on events and superficial dialogue, evoking an atavistic world in which violence predominated. Modern theater, in contrast, should emphasize the spiritual dimension of human existence:

Il ne s'agit plus ici de la lutte déterminée d'un être contre un étre, de la lutte d'un désir contre un autre désir ou de l'éternel combat de la passion et du devoir. Il s'agirait plutôt de faire voir ce qu'il y a d'étonnant dans le fait seul de vivre. Il ssagirait plutôt de faire voir l'existence d'une âme en elle-même, au milieu d'une immensité qui n'est jamais inactive.

(It goes beyond the determined struggle of man against man, and desire against desire: it goes beyond the eternal conflict of duty and passion. Its province is rather to reveal to us how truly wonderful is the mere act of living, and to throw light upon the existence of the soul, self-contained in the midst of ever-restless immensities.)

This aesthetic has much in common with the evocative poetics of symbolist poetry; however, it also points the way to a reinterpretation of dramatic tradition. In this view Shakespeare and ancient Greek tragedy appear as important ancestors of le tragique quotidien, but it is Henrik Ibsen who, in his late dramas, emerges as the first truly modern dramatist. Concerning The Master Builder (1892) Maeterlinck writes: "Hilde et Solness sont, je pense, les premiers héros qui se sentent vivre un instant dans l'atmosphère de l'âme, et cette vie essentielle qui'ils ont découverte en eux, par delà la vie ordinaire, les épouvante" (Hilda and Solness are, I believe, the first characters in drama who feel, for an instant, that they are living in the atmosphere of the soul; and the discovery of this essential life that exists in them, beyond the life of every day, comes fraught with terror). The dialogue of this drame somnambulique (somnambulistic drama) leaves what is most important unsaid.


In "Le tragique quotidien," Maeterlinck also introduces the notion of "static theater," that is, a theater of inaction, relative plotlessness, and suspense, qualities evident in his early plays. As Patrick McGuinness has observed, "static theater" is above all a theater of waiting. Long before Beckett's En attendant Godot (1952, translated as Waiting for Godot, 1954), Maeterlinck understood and experimented with the kinds of dramatic suspense and even terror that could be produced in a theater in which characters were faced with the awful prospect of waiting. Though they are ultimately waiting for death to arrive, the emphasis in Maeterlinck's static theater is on the act of waiting itself, the confrontation with the double menace of anxiety and boredom as, once again, witnessed in the Uncle's apprehensive comment in L'Intruse: "What will we do while waiting?"

The last important concept developed in "Le tragique quotidien" is that of "second degree dialogue" or "useless dialogue." Maeterlinck argues that the typical explanatory and demonstrative dialogue in a play is of little interest. The "soul" of the work is located in the superfluous talking that reveals feelings and moods of which even the characters speaking are unaware. Yet, he regards this indirect and often incongruous language as something with which people are familiar. Humans are all faced in their daily lives with the problem of using words to make sense of difficult situations, and they are all aware, argues Maeterlinck, that what they say in such situations may not be what is most important. There are other hidden forces and other words that go unheard that nevertheless determine every situation. With this notion of language, Maeterlinck seems to be a harbinger of later twentieth-century ideas regarding the autonomy of language and its unstable relationship to intended meaning.

Aglavaine et Sélysette , Maeterlinck's other important work in 1896, was his first play to incorporate a strong female lead--one who could be played by the playwright's companion, Leblanc. In fact, the inclusion of such roles distinguishes most of the plays Maeterlinck published between 1896 and 1913. Aglavaine et SélysetteAriane et Barbe-bleueSoeur Béatrice (1910), Monna VannaJoyzelle (1903; translated, 1906), and Marie Magdaleine all revolve around a central character who resembles Leblanc's image of herself as a new woman proud of her sexuality and not afraid to flout conventions, especially those surrounding marriage. In her memoirs the actress emphasizes her role as collaborator in all of Maeterlinck's writing while they were together. The plays certainly bear witness to her influence; however, Maeterlinck was never a feminist and seems never to have taken this first extended relationship seriously.

Aglavaine et Sélysette recalls Ibsen's Rosmersholm (1886). In both plays a rival uses the power of suggestion to lead the wife of the household to commit suicide. In Maeterlinck's play, however, the new woman (and future wife) is older, and if the husband and outsider lament the suicide of the young Sélysette, Aglavaine et Sélysette nevertheless suggests the inevitability and desirability of their relationship in a way that is foreign to Ibsen's ambiguous and complex presentation of the situation of Rosmer and Rebecca West. As in Maeterlinck's early plays, in Aglavaine et Sélysette a powerful and sexually attractive older woman is responsible for the death of a virginal younger one, but here the emphasis has shifted. In Maeterlinck's production as a whole, this play seems to represent a transitional piece that bids farewell to the pale virgins of his first dramas by having one give way to the sexual and maternal older woman. Yet, as in the early plays, female strength is still allied with murder.

Maeterlinck's Joyzelle , another play written for Leblanc, echoes Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611). Together with his magical assistant, Ariel, Merlin inhabits an island, on the shores of which a young man, Lanceor, and a young woman, Joyzelle, meet. Both have been promised in marriage to partners they shun. Merlin appears and tests their love, but the two young lovers prevail. The old ruler/magician turns out to be the father of Lanceor, and at the end of the play the three affirm their intention to live together on the island as a new family. The play premiered at the Théâtre du Gymnase on 20 May 1903 but was a failure. French critics were becoming increasingly critical of Maeterlinck's plays. Another play in 1903 was Le Miracle de Saint-Antoine, first performed at Geneva and Brussels. It describes an unlikely miracle that takes place in a town in the Netherlands and is Maeterlinck's only comedy.

In Ariane et Barbe-bleue the central character sets out to rescue the imprisoned wives of Bluebeard, making speeches along the way on the importance of feminine solidarity and freedom, only to be undermined at the end by the wives' refusal to leave: feminine autonomy, it seems, pales in contrast to the cruel charms of the strong male. Interestingly, the wives all bear names from previous plays by Maeterlinck: Sélysette, Mélisande, Ygraine, Bellangère, and Alladine. In Soeur Béatrice the central character takes on the shape of a statue of the Virgin Mary and also leaves the convent for a lifetime of sin. In the end, however, her choice is affirmed: she returns to the convent, and the statue appears as it had before she left. The other nuns, now quite old, mourn her as a saint.

Monna Vanna was probably the most successful of the plays written for Leblanc. This play transposes the theme of Judith and Holofernes to Renaissance Italy. Prinzivalle, captain of the Florentine army surrounding the city of Pisa, promises to lift the siege if Guido Colonna, the commander of the Pisan garrison, sends his wife to him, naked under her cloak. After discussing the issue with her father-in-law, Giovanna Colonna goes to Prinzivalle's tent, but this Renaissance Judith is never faced with the choice between submitting to the unwanted sexual advances of a barbarian invader or committing murder. It turns out that Prinzivalle knew her when they were children. He saw her sitting, Mélisande-like, by a fountain but never dared to declare his feelings since he was of humble origins. Nothing transpires but their conversation and a chaste kiss on Giovanna's forehead, but she realizes she has never really loved her husband and resolves to help Prinzivalle escape from his enemies, who now surround his encampment. Returning to Pisa, Giovanna proclaims herself untouched, but when her jealous husband refuses to believe her and proposes to kill Prinzivalle, she reverses herself, lying that he raped her, but demanding the key to his prison. The play ends with her words: "C'était un mauvais rêve. . . . Le beau va commencer . . . Le beau va commencer. . . ." (It was a bad dream. . . . The beautiful is going to begin . . . The beautiful is going to begin. . . .).

As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, the central scenes of the play, in which the threat of rape and dishonor gives way to Giovanna's recognition that the man who has lured her there is a childhood friend and a decent person, have a false ring about them. But the play is an interesting dramatization not only of feminist ideals of heroism, according to which the courageous woman learns that she has nothing to fear from sexuality but everything from convention, but of the male reception of such notions. Two threats are deflected here: rape and beheading/castration. But the reference to the dream at the end of the play calls into question the effectiveness of Giovanna's or Prinzivalle's actions.

In 1907 Maeterlinck wrote L'Oiseau bleu , one of his best-known plays and, with Pelléas et Mélisande, his most often performed. According to Leblanc, the play was first commissioned as a Christmas piece. It premiered at the Moscow Art Theater in 1908 in a production directed by the renowned Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky. Three years later Leblanc, who had studied the Russian production, produced the work in Paris.

Set in a poor woodcutter's cottage, L'Oiseau bleu is an allegory that follows two children, Tyltyl and his sister Mytyl, on their dream quest for the bluebird of happiness. On the way they visit a fairy's palace; the land of memory, where the dead live on; the palace of the night, where sleep and death coexist; a dark forest in which plants and animals talk to them; and the land of the light, where the souls of the unborn await their entry into human life. The bluebird has much in common with the blue flower Novalis had written about in Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), and the dream-adventure plot recalls J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904), to which Maeterlinck acknowledged his debt. But the pirates of the English work give way in Maeterlinck's play to symbolic figures that suggest a neoplatonic allegory with young protagonists.

In fact, L'Oiseau bleu is an unusually lighthearted and light-handed example of the station drama, in which a character wanders through the world in search of identity, understanding, or happiness. Its cheerfulness stands in stark contrast to the mostly gloomy Scandinavian and German examples in this genre: Strindberg's A Dream Play (1901), for example, or the plays of the German Expressionists. What they share, however, is a belief that the phenomena of everyday experience are meaningful and point beyond themselves. In 1918 an English version of a sequel to L'Oiseau bleu was performed at the Schubert Theater in New York. Here Tyltyl has become an adolescent, and his fairy-mentor leads him on a second quest for love.

In 1911 Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other official honors followed: the Belgian government sponsored an official "Festival Maeterlinck" and presented the writer with the insignia of Grand Officier de l'Ordre de Léopold. In 1913, however, Maeterlinck's essay La Mort (first published in English as Death, 1911) was placed on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books. In response he quipped that his publisher would be delighted at this "prehistoric phenomenon of no importance" although elsewhere he complained, incorrectly, that he had been excommunicated for no real reason.

In 1913 Maeterlinck wrote Marie Magdaleine, his last play for Leblanc. This play, like the others written for the actress, represents a woman whose strength lies in her unconventional sexuality. The heroine of Marie Magdaleine, however, makes a distinction between sexuality and love, refusing to sleep with the Roman who loves her devotedly and instead falling passionately in love with Jesus. Because of its unorthodox treatment of biblical material, the play was censored in Britain and first produced at the Casino Municipal at Nice in 1913.

During World War I Maeterlinck wrote several propagandistic pieces, including Le Bourgmestre de Stilemonde (1918; translated as The Burgomaster of Stilemonde, 1918). In this play a brutal German officer demands the death of a citizen of a Belgian town for a minor offense. The work is remarkable principally for the anti-German sentiments that later served as a pretext for Maeterlinck's immigration to the United States.

In 1919 Maeterlinck married Renée Dahon, a young woman whom he had met at a rehearsal of the French production of L'Oiseau bleu in 1911 and to whom he dedicated Les Fiançailles (translated as The Betrothal , 1919), a 1918 sequel to L'Oiseau bleu. In Les Fiançailles one of the woodcutter's children, now a young man, goes off in search of true love. Maeterlinck and his wife moved to the south of France, where he continued to write, producing Le Grand Secret (1921; translated as The Great Secret, 1922), a history of the occult sciences, and, between 1927 and 1942, twelve volumes of essays.

In 1920, during a lecture tour in the United States, Maeterlinck accepted a commission by producer Samuel Goldwyn to write movie scripts. Apparently three scenarios were completed, although none was filmed. Of one, nothing is known; of the second, only the title, "The Blue Feathers," is known. Maeterlinck transformed the third, "The Power of the Dead," into a play that he published as La Puissance des morts in 1926.

Although his popular accounts of the lives of bees, termites, flowers, and other nonhuman inhabitants of the natural world sometimes lapse into allegorical accounts of ideal forms of social organization, Maeterlinck made few direct political statements during his life, either as a writer or private citizen. At the turn of the century he expressed socialist views, but after World War I his sympathies turned increasingly to fascism, although never to the Germans. He became a friend of the Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and, in a conversation with Gratien Candace, apparently approved of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Maeterlinck's politics are most disturbing in their thoughtlessness. One passage in La Sagesse et la destinée (1898; translated as Wisdom and Destiny, 1898) seems particularly ominous in its complacency:

Il n'y a pas longtemps, pour ne citer qu'un seul de ces problèmes que l'instinct de notre planète est appelé à résoudre, il n'y a pas longtemps, on eut, paraît-il, l'intention de demander aux penseurs de l'Europe s'il faudrait considérer comme un bonheur ou un malheur qu'une race énergique, opiniâtre et puissante, mais qui nous semble, à nous autres Aryens, en vertu de préjugés trop aveuglément acceptés, inférieure par l'âme ou par le coeur, la race juive, en un mot, disparût ou devînt prépondérante. Je suis persuadé que le sage peut répondre, sans qu'il y ait dans sa réponse ni résignation ni indifférence répréhensibles: "Ce qui aura lieu sera le bonheur."

(Not long ago--to cite only one of the problems that the instinct of our planet is invited to solve--a scheme was on foot to inquire of the thinkers of Europe whether it should rightly be held as a gain or a loss to mankind if an energetic, strenuous, persistent race, which some, through prejudice doubtless, still regard as inferior to the Aryan in qualities of heart and of soul--if the Jews, in a word, were to vanish from the face of the earth, or to acquire preponderance there. I am satisfied that the sage might answer, without laying himself open to the charge of indifference or undue resignation, "In what comes to pass will be happiness.")


Of greatest interest among Maeterlinck's later works for the theater was his 1935 play, La Princesse Isabelle, in which Renée Dahon-Maeterlinck performed the title role. La Princesse Isabelle is remarkable for its framing of the fairy-tale motifs so common in Maeterlinck's early plays: here the "princess" inhabits a psychiatric hospital.

In 1940 Maeterlinck settled in the United States and remained there until the end of World War II. He and his wife lived briefly in New York before moving to Florida. In 1945 the couple returned to Orlamonde, 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 6 May 1949.

The most theatrical aspect of Maeterlinck's work in the last decades of his life was his playing of the somewhat anachronistic role of the isolated sage and man of letters, but such a staging of the self had always characterized his authorship, as it had that of so many turn-of-the-century writers and actors. Leblanc's account of her arrangement of their first meeting--she wore a Pre-Raphaelite costume--is especially illuminating on this aspect of their relationship.

Paradoxically, the work that made Maeterlinck famous in Paris, La Princesse Maleine, was never staged there in the 1890s. There were four extremely important productions of his plays in Paris during that decade, however. L'Intruse and Les Aveugles were both staged at Fort's Théâtre d'Art in 1891, and Pelléas et Mélisande and Intérieur were performed by Lugné-Poë's troupe in 1893 and 1895, respectively. As Frantisek Deak points out in Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde (1993), the theaters of these two men are often seen as the successors and antithesis of Antoine's Théâtre-Libre, which emphasized a naturalist repertory, but in reality the programs of both the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre challenged a clear distinction between the two styles. Maeterlinck's plays appeared in the company of works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, and other dramatists, whose dramas combined elements from both. As Maeterlinck's own remarks on Ibsen's Master Builder in Le Trésor des humbles show, the distinctive mixture of realism and symbolism in the Norwegian's late plays were particularly attractive to playwrights, theater directors, and audiences alike in Paris in the early 1890s.

Yet, in Maeterlinck's plays the realist dimension is reduced to the vague evocation of spooky northern settings or timeless bourgeois interiors in which families await a fate that is unrelated to specific actions or social conditions. Atmospheric realism has given way to atmosphere. The interiors represented onstage are mostly psychological in significance. The characters are flat, unindividuated, more like voices in a single psyche than rounded representations of human agents. Maeterlinck's early dramas are prototypes of the chamber theaters of Max Reinhardt and Strindberg and thus of the dramatic genres of the chamber play and chamber movie. As embodied in Strindberg's five Chamber Plays (1907-1908), chamber plays involve a kind of performance akin to chamber music, in which dramatic characters interact like the elements in a musical ensemble and in which the borderline between psychological and architectural interiors tends to dissolve. The highly repetitive dialogue of Maeterlinck's early plays, in which the voice of one character picks up, repeats, and transforms the words of another, points especially to this kind of musical interplay. It was also admirably suited to the kind of incantatory delivery that Fort and Lugné-Poë encouraged in their actors.

If Maeterlinck's plays were only seldom staged in the 1890s in France, they were nevertheless far more suited to theatrical performance than other contemporary pieces associated with the symbolist movement, Villiers's Axël (1890), for example, or the dramatic fragments of Mallarmé. One suspects that the initial appeal of Maeterlinck's dramas to admirers of and participators in the symbolist movement lay in their superficial resemblance to Mallarmé's work. The pale, death-bound princesses of the Belgian's early plays recall the frigidly beautiful and deadly Hérodiade, although in this stage of Maeterlinck's production the murderous aspect of the chaste princess has been deflected onto an aging stepmother-queen. But the language in Maeterlinck's plays is strikingly different from that in Mallarmé's work. Where the French poet's language is complex, economical, and rife with ambiguities and intersecting resonances, the dialogue of Maeterlinck's plays is loose and repetitive. It harks back to the plaintive refrain of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (1845)--"Nevermore, nevermore"--rather than to the concern with literary form and meaning associated with Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846). One sees in Maeterlinck's early plays the tendency to popularize, represented more obviously in his many books of essays. These plays translate the esoteric language and mythic abstractions of late-nineteenth-century French poetry into the forms of fairy tales. If the poetry of writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Mallarmé invites comparison with the evocation of the ineffable in the writings of mystics, Maeterlinck's essays expound the ideas of writers in the mystic tradition. The language of Maeterlinck's early plays emphasizes orality over textuality; its silences are highly meaningful; it fills in the gaps, the white spaces, of the texts of Mallarmé and other poetic turn-of-the-century authors.

The legacy of Maurice Maeterlinck is double-edged. On the one hand, he was one of the most innovative dramatists of fin de siècle Europe. His plays point forward to the intimate theater of Strindberg, Reinhardt, and other major twentieth-century playwrights and directors. They played a crucial role in the development of Russian symbolism. The early plays influenced Yeats, and their emphasis on myth and sacrifice also points forward to 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 popularizing essays, sometimes lapses into clichés 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.


From: Wilkinson, Lynn R., and Leon Sachs. "Maurice Maeterlinck." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 3, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 331.


  • Further Reading


    • Maurice Lecat, Bibliographie de Maurice Maeterlinck: Littérature-science-philosophie (Brussels: Ancienne librairie Castaigne, 1939).
    • Annales de la fondation Maurice Maeterlinck (Ghent, 1955-1980; 1989- ).
    • Raymond Renard, "Maurice Maeterlinck en Italie," Annales de la fondation Maurice Maeterlinck, 4 (1958): 75-95.
    • Carlo Bronne, "Un bilan de l'année Maeterlinck," in Le centenaire de Maurice Maeterlinck (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1964), pp. 299-305.
    • R. Brucher, Maurice Maeterlinck: L'Oeuvre et son audience. Essai de bibliographie 1883-1960 (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1972).
    • Jean Warmoes, "La Bibliographie de Maurice Maeterlinck," Annales de la fondation Maurice Maeterlinck, 18 (1972): 33-66.



    • Gerard Harry, Maurice Maeterlinck (Brussels: Carrington, 1909).
    • Georgette Leblanc, Souvenirs: My Life with Maeterlinck, translated by Janet Flanner (New York: Dutton, 1932).
    • W. D. Halls, Maurice Maeterlinck: A Study of His Life and Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).



    • Jean-Marie Andrieu, Maurice Maeterlinck (Paris: Editions universitaires, 1962).
    • Roger Bodart, Maurice Maeterlinck (Paris: Seghers, 1962).
    • Gaston Compère, Maurice Maeterlinck (Paris: La Manufacture, 1993).
    • Compère, Le Théâtre de Maurice Maeterlinck (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1955).
    • Frantisek Deak, "Symbolist Staging at the Theatre d'Art," Drama Review: TDR, 20 (September 1976): 117-122.
    • Deak, Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
    • Guy Donneux, Maurice Maeterlinck (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1961).
    • Paul Gorceix, Les Affinités allemandes dans l'oeuvre de Maurice Maeterlinck (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1975).
    • Bettina Knapp, Maurice Maeterlinck, Twayne World Author Series (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1975).
    • Aurélien François Lugné-Poë, La Parade, 3 volumes (Paris: Gallimard, 1930-1933).
    • Stéphane Mallarmé, "Planches et feuillets," in Crayonné au théâtre, Oeuvres complètes, Editions de la Pléiade, edited by Jean Aubry and Henri Mondor (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), pp. 324-330.
    • Patrick McGuinness, Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
    • Alex Pasquire, Maurice Maeterlinck (Brussels: Renaissance du livre, 1965).
    • Marcel Postic, Maeterlinck et le symbolisme (Paris: Nizet, 1970).
    • Debora L. Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
    • Peter Szondi, Theory of the Modern Drama, translated by Michael Hays (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 351-363.
    • Una Taylor, Maurice Maeterlinck (London: Taylor, 1914).
    • Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (New York: Scribners, 1931).