Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128
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 the Allemonde of their and Maeterlinck’s imaginations.
Allemonde is a place of degeneration, pending death, and fleeting hopes of happiness through love. Despite the political marriage arranged for him by his father, Golaud chooses to wed Mélisande, a fairylike creature without family relations, a lost soul he has found in a dark forest. Golaud hopes to find joy in his new relationship, and Mélisande does indeed seem to bring temporary happiness into the gloomy castle. Golaud, a widower, is renewed by her apparent love. His dying father, never named, temporarily recovers so that the family believes the physicians’ optimistic reports. Pelléas thereupon resolves to leave Allemonde to visit Marcellus, his dying friend, and invites Mélisande to meet him by the Blind Man’s Spring so that they may bid each other adieu. If they had not been discovered that night by the jealous Golaud, the tragedy of a murdered brother and fatally wounded wife would perhaps have been avoided. The brief, passionate moment between Pelléas and Mélisande is destroyed by Golaud’s violence. The themes of passionate love and hovering death prevail throughout, and in the end death conquers in this very enclosed world.
In some ways, Allemonde resembles the realm of the legendary Fisher King. According to this myth, the king’s wounds and sickness are reflected in the infertility of his realm. The fetid smells from beneath the palace in Allemonde suggest decay and the possible collapse of the structure and destruction of its inhabitants at any moment. In contrast to the Fisher King story, however, no Galahad arrives in Allemonde to free the king and restore fertility to his realm; instead, he remains ill, and his son, Golaud, kills his own brother, Pelléas, and wounds Mélisande.
Unlike an indestructible fairy, Mélisande, despite her mysterious past, is a mortal creature. She can survive neither her husband’s attack nor giving birth to a premature daughter. She has no magical powers to prevent destruction and death. Although Maeterlinck wanted to escape the naturalistic style of his contemporaries, which realistically portrayed the dark moments of life, he succumbed to his own fascination with death by transforming into tragedy the optimistic medieval legends of a Fisher King who is healed and fairies who have power to grant wishes. The expectations aroused in the reader and spectator that magical events will occur in this strange, isolated, medieval setting are disappointed at the conclusion when death reigns. The wise grandfather Arkël’s final words suggest that the tragedy will continue: “Come; the child must not stay here, in this room. . . . It must live now, in her stead. . . . The poor little one’s turn has come.”
The first production of Pelléas and Mélisande in Paris in 1893 accentuated the mystical tension between the opposing forces of love and death. It emphasized an unrealistic setting where emotions were more important than a concrete time and place. The set was extremely simple with overhead lighting casting shadows everywhere. The characters, who wore apparel similar to that of figures in paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artists, performed behind a gauze curtain, suggesting to the spectator a realm of mystery divorced from the real world. Both the drama and the set differed from the furnished sitting rooms of many contemporary naturalistic plays of the time.
Symbolism had been recognized as a poetic movement in reaction to more concrete types of poetry, but Maeterlinck was the first to introduce it so fully into the theater. He became honored internationally for his innovative works, and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, he was commended for his diverse literary activity and especially his dramatic works . . . which sometimes in the dim form of the play of legend display a deep intimacy of feeling, and also in a mysterious way appeal to the reader’s sentiment and sense of foreboding.
Maeterlinck wrote prolifically, including plays such as L’Oiseau bleu (pr. 1908, pb. 1909; The Blue Bird, 1909) and several books of essays on insects and parapsychology, but his popularity gradually waned. Maeterlinck is now most remembered and honored for innovative symbolist plays like Pelléas and Mélisande.