Maurice Maeterlinck wrote Pelléas and Mélisande and other symbolic plays as a reaction to the late nineteenth century positivistic belief in rationalistic solutions to all social and scientific problems. He felt that naturalistic, well-made plays that portrayed life realistically left little room in the reader’s or spectator’s mind for imaginative, mystical responses. By setting his play in the distant Middle Ages in a mysterious kingdom called Allemonde, which literally means“all the world” (from the German alle and the French monde), he established a time and place very different from those used in the traditional drama of his era.
During the 1880’s, Maeterlinck read medieval literature such as works by the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck and many modern symbolical texts, including poems and stories by the French authors Phillipe-Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. He also appreciated the writings of the German Romanticist writer Novalis and the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. William Shakespeare’s plays and European fairy tales fascinated him. He wanted to express in his art a language that was purer and simpler than adult, scientific prose, one that would somehow suggest primitive peoples and deep emotions.
Born and raised in Ghent, Belgium, a city of canals and medieval buildings, Maeterlinck grew up surrounded by artifacts from the Middle Ages. He often felt haunted by death, and a foreboding atmosphere pervades most of his plays. An audience often feels as if something awful, but unknown, is about to strike and cause the death of one or more of the characters. To portray both this sense of dark oppression and the simplicity of primitive peoples, Maeterlinck’s characters often repeat certain words or phrases, a practice he had noticed in Flemish peasants when they told stories. Maeterlinck’s goal was not to evoke a rational understanding of the events that occur in his plays but rather to help the reader or spectator feel the emotions of suspense, anxiety, fear, and occasionally joy.
Pelléas and Mélisande, more mystical and emotional than rational, subsequently attracted several composers, among them Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean Sibelius, all of whom composed works based on the play in the first decade of the twentieth century. When it was staged in London in 1898, the play used sets designed from paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who portrayed slender, mysterious young women in medieval surroundings. The combination of the play’s text with impressionistic music and beautiful art transported the spectators into...
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