The following article was originally published in Modern Dramatists by Ashley Dukes. New York: Books For Libraries Press, Inc., 1912. pp. 242-54.
The guileless have said that Maeterlinck belongs to no period. This is because they have lost themselves so completely in his mystical forests that they can no longer see the wood of modernity for the trees of illusion. To them his magic is witchcraft. In seeking the source of the rainbow, they have found nothing but mist. Nevertheless, the period claims him. The opportunity of realism comes with the age of false romance. And, in the same sequence, there is a time for magic. It is the hour when all the world is matter-of-fact.
The early eighteen-nineties saw the advanced theatre besieged by social dramatists. They formed a European ring; Ibsen, Strindberg, Tolstoy, Hauptmann, Henri Becque and the authors of the comédie rosse. Their social gospels varied, but they all practiced in common the outward technique of realism, with its perfection of modern dialogue and setting. The subject varied, too. Here it was the life of the bourgeoisie, there that of the peasantry or the slums. Social politics were touched upon, as in The Weavers or An Enemy of the People. An atmosphere of moral indignation pervaded the stage. Society was "unmasked"; convention was exposed; new moralities were preached. Each author, mounting the realistic steed, set off at a gallop in pursuit of "Truth." And truth was the actual, the existing fact.
This was the destined hour of the magician, and Maeterlinck appeared. The apparition was startling, and some critics, seeking a pompous imbecility to cover their confusion, named him "the Belgian Shakespeare." In this fashion Chekhov might be named "the Russian Ibsen," or Hugo von Hofmannsthal "the Austrian Dante." Such is the disintigrating force of the new idea upon the mind of the expert labeller.
The originality of the earlier Maeterlinck was marked in three respects; in setting, subject and technique. I take them consecutively.
The setting was at first sight unfamiliar and (to the social politician) reactionary. The peasant cottages and middle-class parlours of the realist drama gave place to dim halls of feudal castles, gloomy medieval forests and battlefields remote from space and time. The atmosphere was that of a dream-world with the surface ethics of a barbaric age. So far, however, Maeterlinck might be said only to have rediscovered the vessel of the old romance which had lain unused so long.
The subject was more unfamiliar still. Dramatists of all ages had been concerned to lay bare the motive of human action. Even the playwright-manipulator of the market place, endeavoring to conceal the strings he pulled, alleged a motive for his puppets; and the modern realists, challenging the order of society, sought the true motive of actual men and women. George Bernard Shaw, hurling the thunderbolts of his prefaces at an astonished Anglo-Saxon world, denounced the attempt "to found our institutions upon the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of upon genuinely scientific natural history." Motive, then, was regarded as a fixed scientific fact, accessible to investigation and exact analysis. It was a definitely adjusted part of the human mechanism. Thus the logical evolutionist, supported by nineteenth century thought. Maeterlinck modified this conception without attempting a frontal assault upon it. He went deeper than the logicians, and sought the source of all motive, the underlying self. Here he was supported by modern psychology, which draws a distinction between the conscious and the sub-conscious ego. He was concerned, however, not with a new scientific form of drama to replace the old, but only with the expression of a temperament. He dramatized the sub-conscious, the subterranean and tremulous in man, called it forth and gave it life. It took the form of the child-spirit, and its dominant trait was ever-present fear. It was awakened at night after the sleep of centuries, and found the darkness peopled with the unknown. Fate, a malignant horror with lean, clutching hands, hovered in the gloom of the castle hall and crouched behind every tree in the forest, purposing a rape of the soul. Even the blind were conscious of its presence. The children fled before it, seeking to return to their sleep; but every way was barred, and they beat their hands vainly upon heavy iron doors. Such children as Pélléas and Mélisande, Aglavaine and Sélysette.
The technique was newest of all. The sub-conscious mood, hitherto expressed only in music, found words. It became articulate through symbolic speech, repetition, archaism and subtle delicacy of suggestion. Above all, through a perfection of the artless.
This was the service of the earlier Maeterlinck; a notable discoverer.
Monna Vanna was the turning point. In setting, the transition was from the mystical to the historical, from the dimly imagined to the known. The place, Pisa; the period, the close of the fifteenth century. The roaming symbolist, then, was tethered by his own choice; and, feeling the unfamiliar pull of the imprisoning rope, at each browsing sweep he narrowed his range of liberty still further, ending at last with many plaintive bleats in a tangle of impotence. But of that later.
In subject there was a vaster change. The children had grown up. They were no longer afraid of the dark. They passed from moods to problems, from the midnight dream-world to the high noon of passion, from an atmosphere to a morality. A dictated morality of unheroism, in accord with the "movements" of the age; such a gospel as sparkled in lighter form through the pages of Arms and the Man. Some of their former characteristics they retained--the half-blindness of Marco, for example--but for the most part they were older and less ingenuous. Yet in growing up they had grown no stronger. Their problems were too great for them. Spoiled children from the first, they became querulous and unmanageable. The reason for this is not far to seek. The perfect simplicity of the earlier Maeterlinck portrayed each individual as a clearly defined, homogeneous figure, troubled by fate, but yet limpid and serene within. The child-spirit was a complete whole, the grown man a conflicting cosmos. Instinct guided the poet in his native drama of the sub-conscious; it deserted him almost wholly in the drama of action.
In technique too, there was a lapse. The artless gave place to the artificial, and the old simplicity of speech and form to a covenant with the theatre. The effective thrill of Vanna, naked beneath her cloak in the tent of Prinzivalle, her great stage lie at the close, her all important "aside" ("Tais-toi . . . je te délivrerai . . . . nous fuirons") at the critical moment, the explanatory speeches of Marco as raisonneur;--these were all commonplaces of the theatrical specialist, but they were foreign to Maeterlinck's genius. Moving in the depths of the child-spirit he had been profound; returning to the surface of life he was--superficial.
Let us look more closely at the figures of this drama. Pisa is beleaguered by the Florentines and reduced to famine. Guido, husband of Monna Vanna, commands the garrison. The old philosopher Marco, his father, returns from the besieging camp with terms of peace. Marco has been the guest of the Florentine mercenary, Prinzivalle, and has found him no barbarian, as was rumoured, but a man of parts, wise, reasonable and humane. "But where," he asks, "is the wise man without his madness, or the good man who has never harboured a monstrous thought?" Prinzivalle's terms are that Vanna shall go to him at night, naked beneath her cloak, and shall pass the night in his tent; earning thereby the safe entry into Pisa of a convoy with provisions and the raising of the siege. Marco urges his son to accept them: "Do what this madman asks, and the deed which seems to you hideous will seem heroic to those who survive . . . . It is an error to believe that the pinnacle of heroism is to be found only in death. The most heroic act is the most painful, and death is often easier than life." Here is the new morality of reason, linking Maeterlinck with the tendencies of a period. Guido refuses; but Vanna consents, and goes to Prinzivalle.
Prinzivalle, unknown to Vanna, had loved her in his youth. He talks with her now; they speak frankly as friends. She binds up his wounds, and treats him at moments almost like a mother. The purpose of her coming is barely touched upon. Her speech is half naïve, half yielding. Very simply she expresses her astonishment at being able to speak with him at all, for "Je suis très silencieuse." (What sinuous magic in this word!) Still Prinzivalle forbears to take her; and their conversation is broken by an alarm in the camp. A new detachment of the Florentines has arrived, and Prinzivalle is proclaimed a traitor. Vanna implores him to return with her to Pisa, where he will be received honourably as a guest. She kisses him upon the forehead, and he carries her away in his arms.
Within the city Marco and Guido await them. Here the conventions of the theatre gain the upper hand, and, to borrow a phrase of Prinzivalle, "ce dernier acte est le seul qui ne prouve rien." Vanna declares that she is unharmed; Guido refuses to believe her. Protestations and incredulity--these are familiar scenes, but they are at least convincing. The unreal triumphs with the recognition of Prinzivalle. Note the gradual lapse into the theatrical rut. Guido believes at first that Vanna has brought him as a victim, to revenge her wrong. She still protests: "He did not touch me," "Why not?" "Because he loves me." Guido is tortured by ignorance, craves for certainty. At all costs he must know the whole truth. Prinzivalle is seized and bound for torture. Vanna rushes into the midst of the guards, crying, "No! I lied! He took me! He is mine!" (Aside to Prinzivalle, "Be silent! I will free you! We will fly together!") Stage psychology ready-made; a wild, clap-trap scene. For the sake of form Guido asks "Why is he here? Why did you lie?" and for the sake of form she answers, "I lied to spare you . . . . I brought him to revenge myself." The play sinks fast, but Vanna's proof touches the depths. She approaches Prinzivalle and embraces him with a show of hatred. "Thus and thus I kissed him! . . . He is mine! . . . I will have him! . . . He is the trophy of this night of mine!" Prinzivalle is led away. "Adieu . . . we shall meet again!" Then, taking the key of his prison, she goes out alone to set him free. "Ce dernier acte . . . ne prouve rien."
And the ethics? (For Monna Vanna has been called an ethical drama.) Accept for the sake of argument the wildly preposterous fact of Prinzivalle's demand. Marco urges a morality of unheroism and sacrifice; but he claims in the same breath that it is based upon the experience of age. He foreshadows a time when sole possession will not be the highest aim of love; but his immediate instance is the prostitution of the beloved to the caprice of a mercenary. Guido commands the garrison; but he allows Vanna to go against his will. Having allowed her to go, he stands upon his honour and refuses to forgive her. Prinzivalle is a philosopher, but yet "a madman." He loves Vanna, but he does not take her. As for Vanna herself, she remains a mystery. (Perhaps a mystery even to her author.) She loves Guido and treats him almost with contempt; loves Prinzivalle in an instant, and saves him in the next. The last impression of her is the strongest; as the steam of the theatrical machinery in the final act. The motive of an ethical drama of weaklings.
Let us be uncritical for a moment, even towards these spoiled children. It is ill work to be forever breaking butterflies upon a wheel. And in this Monna Vanna there is so much music of speech, so much brave show of colour, so much pure joy of life. There are triumphant moments; as when Prinzivalle draws aside the curtain of his tent, and the fiery towers of Pisa are seen against the sky. These are in part a legacy of past achievement; in part the flame of a fate at its zenith. Monna Vanna is a landmark, a monument to the parting of ways. With the earlier dramas, it traces the history of Maeterlinck the poet. He had himself emerged from the gloom of the forest for the first time; and if he blinked overmuch in the glare of noon, and his mystical second sight deserted him, that may have been little for him by comparison with the new sense of life and passion. One should not darken the eyes of the poet, as finches are blinded to make them sing more sweetly. He must choose his own surroundings. Only, it is the song that matters to the world, not the singer; and there is one of the riddles of art and life. After Monna Vanna, Maeterlinck was no longer a discoverer. He became a purveyor of water after wine. But the wine must first be tasted, before the water is thrown away.