Maurice Maeterlinck’s plays show him to be a craftsman of the highest integrity. His Symbolist plays are visual and tonal masterworks that draw on innovative stage techniques and scenic designs in ways that still seem modern. Maeterlinck also proves himself to be a thinker—if perhaps not a philosopher in the limited, specialized sense—of considerable merit. His plays, at their best, demonstrate an intellectual, and later social and political, import that continues to speak to modern audiences.
The French Symbolist aesthetic is expressed in Maeterlinck’s plays. The concise form of the one-act play seems particularly appropriate for this aesthetic, relying as it does on the evocation of atmosphere through images with illusive and multivalent meanings. Therefore, most critics place The Intruder and Interior among the poet’s well-regarded works. In Pelléas and Mélisande, his acknowledged masterpiece, Maeterlinck gives order to his moods and symbols by setting them in a tight five-act structure, which is based partly on the classical French drama of the seventeenth century and partly on the well-made play of the nineteenth century. Although Pelléas and Mélisande forms the crux of this consideration of Maeterlinck’s finest stage works, several other works are considered as well.
The one-act, one-scene format of both The Intruder and Interior demonstrates a slowly but inevitably developing atmosphere, moving from light to dark over a set movement of real time that, to the eye insensitive to nuance, might seem static. Certainly, such sophisticated and expressive uses of light and other atmospheric effects were not new, but the concurrent emphasis on this temporal and visual mood progression was a characteristically fin de siècle contribution to the arts. The scenic conception of Maeterlinck’s short plays—that of lighting that develops subtly over time—bears comparison visually with the Rouen Cathedral series of Claude Monet. Indeed, The Intruder and Interior are not only dramas but also theater in the full scenic sense of that word. Moreover, it is in these plays that Maeterlinck best embodied his theories concerning silence. In an essay on Emerson included in The Treasure of the Humble, Maeterlinck describes visiting an author whose works he had read but whom he had never met. In his works and during the conversation, this writer “has said many profound things concerning his soul; but in that small interval which divides a glance that lingers from a glance that vanishes, I have come to learn all that he could never say, and all that he was never able to cultivate in his intellect.” These words sum up precisely the effect of the carefully concerted stage pauses in the two one-act plays considered here.
The Intruder moves from light to darkness, from life to death. A child has been born, but the mother is slowly dying in the next room. The play opens in a sitting room in an old château with a lighted lamp burning in the center. Throughout the play, the lamp flickers, as if in response to some supernatural presence, and eventually it goes out, as if in response to the unseen manifestation of death. At the outset of the drama, the stage directions say that the predominant color should be green—symbolic of a newborn life in the family. The play thus progresses from green to black—from life to death. A large Dutch clock reminds the audience of the flow of time. The members of the family present in the room are the uncle and father, representing the rational world of the five senses, and three little girls and their blind grandfather, representing in different degrees the otherworldly visionary. In the beginning, the adults, practical people with eyes that seem to see, dominate the dialogue—bullying the young and the old and blind. Yet in the end, when the lamp goes out, certainty is extinguished with it. The dialogue oscillates between the practical observations and platitudes of the uncle and father and, on the other side, the poetic apperceptions of the girls and old man. As the play moves toward its tragic conclusion, the dialogue is punctuated more frequently with Maeterlinck’s simple but significant stage direction: “Silence.” As the situation grows more solemn, words become more insignificant. Suddenly, a gleam of moonlight cuts the darkness, the sound of someone (death, perhaps) arising from an apparently empty chair, and the sudden cries of the now frightened infant in increasing gradations of terror. A door opens, and the audience perceives the silhouette of a Sister of Charity announcing the death of the child’s mother; the family follows the sister into the death chamber, leaving the blind man groping his way in the dark, oblivious of the lighted door—an emblem of the blindness of even the most prescient among humanity.
In Maeterlinck’s Interior, an even more condensed play than The Intruder, the audience sees a brightly lit domestic room being invaded by death. In the foreground of the stage are the people who have come to tell a family of the death of the daughter. In the background of the stage are windows through which the members of the family—played by miming actors—are visible. In short, the play focuses on what can only be termed a chorus downstage, commenting on the real drama taking place on the stage-within-a-stage. The chorus, which consists of a stranger, an old man, and his two daughters, are racing against time trying to get up enough courage to tell the family of the news before the procession of villagers arrives bearing the corpse of the daughter who has drowned. The audience sees tragedy poised on the outside, waiting to descend on the people inside—the distance at which they are set from the audience in the scenic concept allays any bathos. Outside, the members of the chorus coolly pose questions: Did the girl...
(The entire section is 2450 words.)