Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this one-act play, Maurice Maeterlinck creates a somber and mysterious atmosphere well suited to the themes of aging, illness, and death. The Intruder of the title is a constant presence but never seen or even confirmed as actually existing. Rather, the playwright uses this figure to highlight the preoccupations of each character and the tensions within the family and household. While the characters all have clear statuses and relationships with one another, almost all of them within a single family, some of them are not named and the playwright generally refers to them by their position in the family, such as the father. This approach makes the play more abstract than realistic, in keeping with Maeterlinck’s symbolist approach.
The play takes place all in one night in a single room of a once-elegant, but antiquated home. This description can apply to the family’s head, the grandfather. The family members, including a visiting uncle, are gathered in the sitting room. While they await the arrival of an aunt, who is a nun, they discuss the mother’s illness, which is her difficult recovery from childbirth. The identity of the intruder occupies much of their conversation. The opinions of family members vary as to whether there is someone lurking outside in the garden, or perhaps even wandering around the house. Their acceptances or rejections of this idea change through the play. The grandfather is more susceptible to the idea, but the others tend to think his perception is impaired by blindness or mental illness (perhaps dementia). It is the family that builds the suspense of the intruder. There are only a couple of instances where noises are heard, noted by the stage direction, that may be interpreted as unsettling. For example, when the maid-servant shuts the basement door that she claims was left open, she confirms that the noise did indeed occur when the family heard it. The family takes these commonplace sounds and turns them into something scary and even threatening. Their paranoia only grows to exacerbate this goings-on.
Beyond holding back from establishing the existence of this character, the playwright adds to the mysterious atmosphere through stage directions and descriptive dialogue. The play is set in the evening, and as it wears on, the mother is inching closer to death. The presence of Death personified, rather than just illness, is indicated by stage directions such as “Silence.” Light and dark hues, and symbolic colors such as black, also contribute to the fatalism.
The grandfather’s condition is especially symbolic. As mentioned, he is the aging figurehead of the family. Though once (presumably) powerful and grand, he is now elderly and unable to see. He is also extremely paranoid and anxious, riling up his family members by asking dozens of questions and expressing his fear. He is often dismissed by the father and the uncle, and even the three granddaughters seem to grow wary of his mental state. Yet, despite his anxiety and inability to see, he seems to be the only family member who can “detect” Death’s proximity. He even tells his relatives that “[t]here are moments when I am less blind than you.” He is able to see what others cannot: the intruder.