Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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The Blue Bird represents major and unexpected changes in the drama of Maurice Maeterlinck. Early in his career he had seemed obsessed with death and had been called a specialist in terror. The extreme pessimism of his early plays lessened as he began to write in a more realistic style in the late 1890’s and the early twentieth century, but the plays that he wrote just before The Blue Bird are very different from the fantasy of Tyltyl and Mytyl. Monna Vanna (pr., pb. 1902; English translation, 1903) is a political drama set in the fifteenth century; like some of the plays immediately preceding it, the drama is of primary interest for its very strong female title character. Joyzelle (pr., pb. 1903; English translation, 1906) tells the story of Merlin’s love for the beautiful Joyzelle; set on an enchanted medieval island, the play, based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), has a supernatural quality and includes the fairy Arielle as Merlin’s servant. Even so, the play, which was one of Maeterlinck’s most disappointing failures, gave little indication of the charming combination of allegory and fantasy to appear in the children’s dream world of The Blue Bird.

The connections between Maeterlinck’s previous works and The Blue Bird are evident in his essays of the early twentieth century. In many of these he wrote of the world of plants, insects, and animals; the dog Tylo, for whom his little master is the most important thing in the world, reminds the reader of the faithful dog the playwright describes in the essays. Maeterlinck’s mysticism also found expression in these essays, and the lines in the play that assert the dead’s continuing existence in the memory of those who loved them repeat views expressed in the essays.

Maeterlinck’s play reminds many readers of Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan, produced in 1904, only a few months before Maeterlinck began to write his work, which was the result of a newspaper editor’s request for a Christmas story for children. Maeterlinck became very interested in the little story that he had sketched out, and it grew into a five-act play, later expanded into six acts with the addition of what is now act 4, the scenes at the Palace of Happiness. The play increased Maeterlinck’s already considerable fame, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. The Blue Bird remains the best known of his plays, and it is the one by which he will be remembered.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)