W. L. (William Leonard) Courtney.

The development of Maurice Maeterlinck and other sketches of foreign writers online

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Leonard) CourtneyThe development of Maurice Maeterlinck and other sketches of foreign writers → online text (page 1 of 9)
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*** These sketches, in other forms,
appeared in " The Daily Telegraph"
and I have to thank the Proprietors
for allowing me to reproduce them.















THE English Edition of M. Maeterlinck's
" Aglavaine and Selysette," to which a grace-
ful introduction was furnished by Mr J. W.
Mackail, has called fresh attention to the
claims of the interesting Belgian writer who
has been somewhat rashly styled " the Flemish
Shakespeare." He has never, perhaps, received
in this country the consideration which is his
due, partly because extravagant pretensions
were made for him by injudicious friends, partly
for the reason that his dramas have been classed
as part of the Scandinavian movement inaugu-
rated by the social plays of Henrik Ibsen. It
is not M. Maeterlinck's fault that flattery has
accorded him a position which he would never
aspire to hold ; nor yet is the comparison very
happy which associates his work with the
Gothic splendour and variety of Shakespeare,
or the Norwegian eccentricity and bizarrerie of
A i


the author of "The Master Builder" and
" Hedda Gabler." Maeterlinck only touches
Ibsen on one side the absence of action in his
dramas. For the rest his theory and his
thoughts lie in a different plane. For instance,
it is no part of his task to display on the stage
the scientific doctrine that disease is hereditary,
nor yet are his women formed in that modern
mould which is illustrated by the feverish
irresponsibility of Hedda Gabler and Hilda
Wangel. What Ibsen is always trying to paint
is the peculiar result on the feminine organisa-
tion of a modern culture, which calls in question
alike the foundations of morality and religion.
A woman who tries to live on pure intellect
alone is rarely a lovable creature, and the
quickness of her apprehensions and the clear-
ness of her rational judgments with difficulty
take the place of that emotional sensibility on
which both sympathy and love are based. But
Maeterlinck has nothing to do with these
modern monsters, who, if they were not realistic
would be inexcusable. It is to another world
that he transports alike his heroes and his
heroines a world of shadows, where nothing
tangible happens and where silence is more
powerful than speech.


It was not till he wrote the series of essays
called " Le Tresor des Humbles " that we could
any of us understand M. Maeterlinck. In his
earlier moods he seemed to be trying to copy
the Elizabethan drama, especially in its sugges-
tions of vague horror and crude, soul-subduing
crime. As a matter of fact, the Belgian writer
translated into French one of the most charac-
teristic of John Ford's plays ; another of the
Belgian school reproduced Webster's " Duchess
of Malfi " ; and the whole of " Princess Maleine "
is a pale and ineffective version of what Shake-
speare achieved so triumphantly in " Hamlet "
and " Macbeth." But though the attractiveness
of the supernatural always remained as an over-
powering interest for our author, he ceased to care
for the crude and the morbid forms of tragedy.

We know him not as a disciple of Edgar
Allan Poe, but as a mystical thinker, trained
on the ideas of Plotinus and Swedenborg. Or,
perhaps, it is rather Emerson to whom he
should be likened Emerson, with his gracious
dreams of a soul that remains untouched by
the corporeal frame, and a region of real
spiritual life with which the existence domi-
nated by the senses has nothing to do. To this
extent the feeling for the supernatural, which


is found both in " L'Intruse " and " Les
Aveugles," holds permanent sway with our
author ; but it becomes part and parcel of a
definite theory that the true human existence
is not to be found in the conditions of time
and space, but in a sphere of its own, where
shines the light that never was on sea or land,
the home of the spirit where it connects itself
with all the deep mysterious forces which both
explain and hold together the universe.

Mysticism is one of the most curious, but
also one of the most steadily recurrent phases
of thought and belief. Always it makes its
appearance at the end of a great intellectual
period, when thought has grown weary, and is
in love with images rather than logic. We do
not find mysticism when art was at its best in
Athens, nor yet when philosophy was at its
best in the Greek schools. The highest art
demands clear and definite expression, and
therefore rejects the intrusion of symbols.
Nevertheless, mysticism invaded the Greek
schools when the Hellenic spirit had run its
course, and when the breakdown of the
Hellenic state system forced every man to be
a solitary and self-dependent thinker. Aris-
totle did well enough for the keen-witted


Athenians ; but Plotinus was the natural
creation of Alexandria. The same phenomena
are repeated much later towards the close of
the eighteenth century in Germany ; and once
again they re-appear as the nineteenth cen-
tury drew to its close amidst spiritualism,
ghost-hunting, the Psychical Society, and all
the marvels of modern thaumaturgy. But the
one thing that history seems to prove is that
mysticism is not the strength but the failure of
human thought. As long as a man can think
definitely and clearly, he does not have
recourse to images and symbols. Nor yet can
it be said that the mystical spirit is ever
congenial to plastic and pictorial art or to
theatrical representation. When painting, for
instance, becomes pre-Raphaelite in its char-
acter, it attempts to associate with its own
province the vague suggestiveness of music,
as though conscious that canvas and paint can
no longer convey its message. In similar
fashion. M. Maeterlinck's mystical dramas are
never dramatic in the proper sense of the term.
They are an attempt to represent under the
scenic conditions of the stage a life which is
never external nor expressed in definite actions,
but remote, mysterious, and transcendental.


The whole action of " Aglavaine and
Selysette " is transacted in a spiritual region
where soul acts on soul and the bodily presence
has no part whatever to play. There could be
no greater disillusionment, one would think,
than to see this creation of M. Maeterlinck
paraded before the footlights, for the appear-
ance of the dramatis persona;, when they utter
their characteristic sentiments, is of abso-
lutely no importance. One of them begins
by looking beautiful, the other gets more beau-
tiful as the play proceeds the second being a
process which exceeds the powers of the most
skilful theatrical artist who ever breathed. The
beauty is not, in other words, that which pre-
sents itself to the eye, but that which is recog-
nised by the mind.

Selysette, the wife of Meleander, though she
has arrived at woman's estate, is only a child,
hardly removed in mental stature from her
younger sister, Yssaline, who, be it observed,
never addresses her without using the adjec-
tive "little." Married to Meleander, she lives
the innocent, self-concentrated, unconscious life
of one who knows nothing neither what love
means, nor all that life may include of the
sorrowful or the tender. The task of awakening


her is in the hands of Aglavaine, a woman more
beautiful than herself, the widow of her dead
brother, who comes to live in the castle, and,
apparently, comes to stay. Meleander finds in
her mature and developed nature a satisfaction
which his child-wife could never give him,
while Aglavaine is herself conscious that till
she met Meleander she had scarcely lived at
all. This is the spiritual tragedy which is
worked out in the drama before us, a tragedy
not of action, but of mental feeling, the educa-
tive process of sorrow and disappointment, the
enlargement of a woman's soul at the cost of
her material happiness. Theoretically there
may be no reason why this trio should not go
on living together; practically the problem is
insoluble. Of two things, one must happen.
Either Aglavaine, discovering that her presence
brings unhappiness in its train, must go away,
or else Selysette, realising that life contains
greater capacities, both of joy and sorrow, than
she ever dreamed, must by a rare act of self-
sacrifice, leave the field open to her fortunate
rival. It is the second of these two alternatives
that the author chooses, because all our sym-
pathy has to be centred on the education of
Selysette. She knows now that the quiescent,


apathetic existence of her unawakened state is
possible for her no more : she has learnt her
lesson and accepts her burden. Only an acci-
dent, a fall from the tower, is needed, and the
situation is closed by the death of Selysette.

Here is no story for the stage, but a true
drama for the psychologist. Shakespeare might
have made it scenic as well as philosophical,
as, indeed, he made his peculiarly spiritual
tragedy of "Hamlet." But the "Flemish
Shakespeare " cannot do this, amongst other
reasons because he is burdened with his own
mystical theory. Aglavaine does nothing but
talk the language of " Le Tresor des Humbles,"
especially of that singularly striking little essay
on "Silence." All the deep transactions of life
are carried on without words, still more without
acts, the arena being those levels of subcon-
sciousness which underlie our own active and
conscious states. The theory is true no doubt
as a matter of mental science, but, meanwhile,
what becomes of the drama ? Listen to
Aglavaine explaining to Selysette the reasons
which, indeed, the child-wife has discovered
with almost poignant truth for herself why
" la vie a trois " can no longer be sustained.
" Is it not strange, Selysette ? I love you, I


love Meleander, Meleander loves us both, you
love Meleander and myself: and for all that,
we cannot live happily together, because the
hour has not yet come when mankind can be
thus united." A simple truth, one would
think, on which worldly experience has already
made up its mind a situation which is almost
ludicrous, were it not that the problem is by
M. Maeterlinck transferred from the jarring
influence of bodily presence to the interaction
of mind on mind. Was it a good thing that
Aglavaine ever came to the castle ? Yes, for
without it Selysette would never have at-
tained to the full measure of her development.
No, because without it Selysette would have
never fallen off the tower into the sea. The
problem, like all truly mental problems, is
not answered, although the question is touched
on every side.

Observe, however, that for M. Maeterlinck
himself, so far as one can see, there is some
kind of answer, just because he is a mystic,
because he does not think but dreams. If, in
the spirit of Emerson, the true existence for
each of us lies within the shadowy region where
soul can speak to soul without words and
without activities, then the drama of Selysette


is fully justified. She knew nothing before and
now she knows and that is all that can be said.
To speak of other and more commonplace
elements in such a situation is to insult the
mystical spirit. To ask whether Aglavaine
is happy now that she has brought to pass
the death of her rival ; to speculate on the
feelings of Meleander himself, too, in no small
measure guilty or even to inquire what
further chances of happiness still remain to the
principal agents in the drama, is to talk
the language of the everyday, commonplace,
phenomenal world, where men and women are
judged by what they do, and not by their pos-
session, or their want, of beautiful souls. And
this is why M. Maeterlinck, so far, is neither a
dramatist nor a moralist. He is not a drama-
tist, because drama depends on what we see
before us, on the actions by which alone we can
judge of motives. He is not a moralist, because
mysticism has no ethics, any more than those
passive and quiescent forms of belief and
theory which begin by the assumption that
man has to be removed from the conditions of
time and space in order to achieve his true



" DRAMAS of unconsciousness and instinct/' this
is the description which Mr Alfred Sutro gives
of three plays of Maeterlinck which he and Mr
William Archer have translated "Alladine
and Palomides," "Interior," and "The Death
of Tintagiles." The expression is almost a
contradiction in terms ; but we must not mind
that, nor, indeed, any other species of paradox
in dealing with M. Maurice Maeterlinck. His
own title for them is at once more just and
more condemnatory, " Three Little Dramas for
Marionettes," as though a man were to tell us
plainly that he is writing not for grown-up men
and women, but for spasmodic and wire-hung
dolls. Whether, however, we are to take the
one description or the other, the meaning is
clear enough. We have not to deal with real
life as we know it, but with a fantastic scene
full of the imagination of a child. The curtain

rises on old castles, with wonderful subterranean



chambers, winding staircases, secret passages,
endless corridors, and, never far away, the sound
of the restless sea. Sometimes we look down
from a circle of mountains upon some old-world
dungeon or keep, where the shadows which
gather round the walls are emblematic of danger
of evil, and the air of the valley is tainted with
miasmatic odours. If the scenery is thus of
that primitive type which appears in the draw-
ings of a romantic child, the figures of the
drama are equally remote from experience and
life, pale, bloodless phantoms, hovering between
the world we see and the world of which we
dream, pure abstractions, whose names are of
such little account that to all intents and pur-
poses they can remain nameless, being called
"a king," or "a servant," or "a doctor," or "a
queen," or, still more vaguely, an "old man,"
or "the stranger." It is not Maeterlinck's
fault if we go wrong in discussing dramas of
this kind. He has told us as clearly as he
possibly could that the sphere of his plays is a
place of dreams, and the atmosphere such as
never was on sea or land.

The first of the plays, " Alladine and Palo-
inides," is very like that which was not long ago
enacted in London, " Pelleas and Melisande."


Indeed all three pieces belong to an early
stage in Maeterlinck's development, being
written before " Aglavaine and Selysette," and
before his prose-essays, " The Treasure of the
Humble " and " Wisdom and Destiny." The
odd charm which surrounded " Pelleas and
Melisande " assuredly clings round both
" Alladine and Palomides " and " The Death of
Tintagiles." The peculiar aroma which it ex-
hales, the quality which arrests our imagination,
are not analysable things, being partly depen-
dent on the crudity of the treatment, partly
on the singular remoteness from the hard, in-
sistent life of our age. Directly we begin to
think, we are struck with painful absurdities or
blank defects of humour, such as we discovered
when in the still earlier play of Maeterlinck,
"The Princess Maleine," the heroine's nose
began to bleed at the crisis of her fate. There
are ludicrous things enough in the present
volume for instance, the pet lamb of Alladine,
which tumbles down into the castle moat, and
whose death is gravely declared by the doctor
to have fatally compromised the purity of the
water. But the very conditions of enjoyment
in the case of Maeterlinck absolutely preclude
the exercise of thought. Odd paradoxical


things happen in one's dreams, but the dreamer
is never surprised at them. Strange ridiculous
speeches and events are everywhere to be found
in Maeterlinck's plays, but the spectator is not
for a moment astonished. The whole scene
is too far removed from his customary mood to
make any calls upon his critical judgment.
Logical and reasonable people who carried their
reason and their logic with them into the
theatre when " Pelleas and Melisande " was
being played, were either cynically amused or
indignantly vituperative, according to their
especial temperament. But he who saw it in
the spirit of a child found in it a real fascination
which was not easily forgotten. Even in read-
ing the present play the memory is haunted
with the sound of Mr Martin Harvey's voice, and
the picture of Mrs Patrick Campbell as she
might appear in a piece of old Gobelins tapestry
or in the pages of a monk's " Book of Hours."
What matters the story ? There is a foolish
old king who falls in love with the young girl
Alladine. There is Mr Martin Harvey, who in
this case is called Palomides, who comes to the
castle engaged to the old king's daughter, and
straightway falls in love with Alladine. There
is the vengeance of the king, who shuts the


lovers up in subterranean dungeons, where the
sea looks at them through windows of glimmer-
ing green. And afterwards come the wonted
death and dispersion into space of all the un-
happy persons of the drama. Notice, however,
in passing that Maeterlinck has drawn one
character, the king's daughter, Astolaine, who,
though she sees her happiness slipping from her
hands, and the allegiance of her young lover
transferred to her rival, has yet attained so
much to the stature of a self-respecting woman
that she does not weep or frantically tear her
hair or even think of committing suicide. A
really unselfish character like this is a very rare
creation in Maeterlinck, most of the figures
which he draws being naive, unconscious, in-
stinctive children, with all the wilful selfishness
which we are always discovering and always
forgiving in children. " The Death of Tinta-
giles" belongs to the same type as "Alladine
and Palomides." Once more there is a castle,
but, instead of a king, a dim, mysterious, wicked
old queen, who is never seen though she makes
her poisonous influence everywhere visible.
Tintagiles is a little boy, the heir to the throne,
pursued with undying hatred by the queen,
for reasons not explained to us, and passionately


protected by his sister, Ygraine. The sister is
so determined to keep her brother safe that in
the night she ties her own hair round him, and
when the child is torn from her arms by the
servants of the queen, he is dragged to the
central keep encumbered with locks of shining
gold. Here the device of weaving hair, which
was used also in Pelleas, is employed for another
purpose. But no links of human affection and
love can resist the attacks of destiny, and at
the last we see Ygraine beating herself in
vain against the gloomy door through which
her brother has passed to his doom.

The little piece, called " Interior," is of
another description, more like " L'Intruse "
and "Les Aveugles." It is much the most
successful of the three so-called plays ; indeed,
alone amongst them it shows the marks of real
genius. The scene takes place outside a house
with three of the ground-floor windows lighted
up. Inside we can see father, mother, two
young girls and a child, sitting in all the peace-
ful tranquillity of home. Outside there is an
old man and a stranger, who are come to reveal
to the inmates the death of the eldest daughter,
who has been found drowned. In the distance
we hear the tramp of the crowd, who are escort-


ing the dead girl back to the house. So vivid
and true is the scene, so pathetic the situation
it reveals, that we share the hesitation of the old
man, who cannot make up his mind to break in
upon domestic peace until the nearer approach
of the crowd makes it absolutely imperative for
him to enter. Then through the windows we
see his first reception, the easy welcome, the
subsequent pause, the look of pained anxiety,
the horror of the revelation. Rarely has a
simple, commonplace story been treated with
such originality ; the suspense is almost painful
in its intensity, the tragedy is drawn with so
few and such convincing strokes. In this case
the very simplicity of the language adds to the
effect; it seems to make the pathos more
poignant. We are no longer dealing with
dream figures, but see before our very eyes one
of those obscure and everyday stories of sorrow
and death with which the newspaper is full.
Maeterlinck himself is said to have thought
" The Death of Tintagiles " one of his most
successful pieces. No reader of this volume will
have any hesitation in fixing upon " Interior "
as his favourite. Of this singular Belgian
dramatist, who has caused so many heart-burn-
ings amongst different schools of critics, there


is nothing to be said which has not been
repeated a score of times. What to some
people appears an affectation, a conceit, a pose,
to others seems full of a vague and wayward
charm. It is only a device of interpretation to
lay stress on what is called his symbolism, for
when the meaning is not very obvious and
the superficial explanation involves a patent
absurdity, it is a pleasant exercise of wit to
suppose some recondite form of allegory. Still
there is undoubtedly symbolism in Maeterlinck's
work. There is one passage in " Alladine and
Palomides " which is clearly symbolical. It is
where the two lovers in prison, in their sub-
terranean dungeon, only lit by windows against
which the sea is dashing, imagine themselves
to be surrounded by strange flowers, and curious,
precious stones, which, when the real light of
day is thrown upon them, are found to be
merely seaweed and splinters of the rock. Yet
even here the allegory is so primitive that it
need not be forced, and " dramas of uncon-
sciousness and instinct " are far more adequately
to be judged in simpler and less abstruse ways.
The other noticeable point concerns Maeter-
linck's management of the idea of Destiny.
For a piece like "The Death of Tintagiles,"


fate is some monstrous, external, irresistible
force, which compels and enslaves human
beings from the outside. But the Belgian
dramatist has been slowly but steadily de-
veloping in the course of his writings, and in
his prose essays has won for himself a truer
philosophy. When he wrote "Wisdom and
Destiny " his conception of fate was far differ-
ent. It is not something which storms at us
from the outside, it is rather that to which we
open the doors of our souls, and which we make
part of ourselves. " Whether you climb up the
mountain or go down the hill to the valley,
whether you journey to the end of the world
or merely walk round your house, none but
yourself shall you meet on the highway of



ONCE before, and, so far as I know, only once,
has any one attempted the particular task
which M. Maurice Maeterlinck has assigned to
himself in " The Life of the Bee." His is not a
scientific manual, although it is full of scientific
observations, nor is it a philosophical treatise,
although it includes many philosophical specula-
tions. It is from beginning to end sheer poetry
that is to say, the poetical rendering of facts
elucidated by science, which remains as the
most serious duty of the poetry of the future.
We have often idly wondered whether science
with her victorious analysis and her somewhat
ruthless disdain of fancy and imagination is
cutting at the roots of the poetic instinct. The
answer is that a wonderful world is opening
before the poet, which it will take him all his
time to assimilate and render musical. When
Mr Rudyard Kipling chose such a rugged and
unwieldy subject as steel machinery and made


his Scotch engineer sing a triumphal chant in
honour of steam, he was exactly and properly
true to the modern mission. For there is no
real dulness in facts. The dulness only lies in

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Leonard) CourtneyThe development of Maurice Maeterlinck and other sketches of foreign writers → online text (page 1 of 9)