William Lyon Phelps.

Essays on modern dramatists online

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play, the most impenetrable.

"As to the two little pieces . . . Ariane et
Barbe-Bleue, ou la delivrance inutile, and
Soeur Beatrice, I should like to have no mis-
understanding. It is not because they come
later in my career that one should search for
an evolution or a new desire. They are, to
speak accurately, little stage-plays, short
poems of a kind called wrongly enough
'opera-comique,' destined to furnish to mu-
sicians who asked for them a theme conveni-
ent for musical development. They mean
nothing more than that, and people will en-
tirely mistake my intentions if they try to
find great moral or philosophical hidden
meanings. ' '

It is inconceivable that Maeterlinck could
write so powerful and affecting a play as


Soeur Beatrice merely as a libretto. It is
true that most of his plays naturally lend
themselves to music; I think the opera Pel-
leas and Melisande is more beautiful and
somehow more " natural' ' than the play; and
Monna Vanna is a steady success on the op-
eratic stage, (though The Blue Bird was a
failure) ; but Soeur Beatrice is one of the best
acting plays of the twentieth century, and is
almost equally effective in the library. I
shall never forget the performance I saw in
Germany in 1904, when the drama was given
by the combined forces of the Neues and
Kleines Theater from Berlin; and almost
as great an effect was produced in America
by the New Theatre company, with that re-
markable interpreter of poetry and passion,
Edith Wynne Mathison. When a fine artist,
the late Madame Komisarshevskaia, came to
America from Eussia, I asked her what was
her favourite role in all modern drama, and
she replied without a moment's hesitation,
Soeur Beatrice. She had fully intended to
produce it in New York, and was forbidden
to do so by our monopoly system, something,
that with all her keenness and quickness of
intelligence, was beyond her comprehension.


The story of Sister Beatrice is taken from
an old miracle, where the Holy Virgin takes
the place of an absent nun; and there are
versions of it in many languages. I remem-
ber years ago reading the Bohemian romance,
Amis and Amil, by Julius Zeyer, and finding
the story there. i i The holy statue had disap-
peared. ... In this moment, however, the
door of the sleeping-chamber opened wide of
itself, a blinding light filled the passage, a
sweet perfume in white clouds came from the
room . . . and on the threshold appeared the
holy statue. The mysterious veil, which
quite concealed the forehead, moved as under
the breath of a soft breeze, and out of the
shimmering folds fell white sweet-smelling
flowers like snowflakes. Quietly the statue
took its place on the golden throne." *

It is worth recording that a number of
years ago Sister Beatrice was given for the
first time in America under the auspices of
the Chicago Woman's Club, and made an in-

1 Maeterlinck's play reawakened interest in the beau-
tiful old fable, and those who are interested may read a
treatise on the subject published in 1904: Die Geschichte
der Marienlegende von Beatrix der Kuesterin. By H.



effaceable impression on those who saw it.
The critics were rather surprised at its stage

Not only is this one of the best of Maeter-
linck 's plays for representation, provided al-
ways the setting and actors are adequate,
but, despite his disclaimer, it comes as near
as any other of his dramas to expressing his
philosophy which may be summed up in the
one word Love. In Sister Beatrice, Monna
Vanncij Joyzelle, Mary Magdalene, The Blue
Bird, The Betrothal, Love is the fulfillment
of the law the final philosophy and religion.
It is in this aspect of his work that Maeter-
linck comes closest to Browning ; for the Eng-
lish poet would have delighted in the story of
the Virgin and in the sacrifice made by
Monna Vanna. Technically the holy nun was
both unchaste and disloyal; but according to
Maeterlinck she followed single-hearted the
call of love; in her absence therefore her
place was taken by the infinitely comprehend-
ing Blessed Virgin, and on her return, though
she comes in rags, broken in health, and tor-
tured by conscience, she is received into
glory. Her sins are forgiven: for she loved


much. I wish Browning had made one of
his dramatic monologues or romances out of
this legend.

There is, as every one has noticed, a def-
inite turning point in Maeterlinck's career,
signified by the production of Monna Vanna
in 1902. Up to this time he had been a "lit-
erary" dramatist, enjoying a reputation as a
man of letters and a philosopher, but not
regarded as a practical playwright. But
Monna Vanna was and is a brilliant stage
play, full of contrasts, full of conflict, full of
passion, and ending with a marvellous oppor-
tunity for the actress. No wonder that its
success has always been associated with some
woman; for the man who takes the part of
Prinzivalle has the thankless and difficult task
of remaining on the stage during the third
act without saying a word. Like a cinema
actor, whose happiness and life are at stake,
he must continually " register " emotion.

Two problems interested Maeterlinck in
this play. Can a woman be physically dis-
honoured and yet spiritually pure! Should
a woman sacrifice her " honour M for her coun-
try or for the welfare of others, as boldly as
she would sacrifice her life 1 To both of these


questions the dramatist gives an unqualified
affirmative ; in fact, he reemphasises the first
in Joyzelle.

Thomas Hardy wrote a long and powerful
novel to prove the first paradox, for Tess,
according to her creator, is "a pure woman
faithfully presented. " It was the treatment
of the second question which aroused sharp
discussion, not only between Monna's hus-
band and his father, but in the audiences ; and
which led to the English censor's prohibi-
tion. Such a case as Maeterlinck brings up
is artificial or at all events unlikely; but he
was interested I think in the philosophy of
love. If it is right to give our lives for our
country, why should it not be right to sacri-
fice one's honour for one's country? Well,
so far as men are concerned, the answer has
always been and is now affirmative. As a
woman's honour is her virtue, so a man's
honour is his honesty. In times of war not
only do millions give their lives for their
country, but the highest, noblest, most patri-
otic service of all is performed by the spy,
who sacrifices his oath, his word of honour,
his truthfulness, everything he holds most
dear this is really the "supreme sacrifice."


How he must envy the men in the casualty

Maeterlinck applies this same supreme sac-
rifice to woman. It is possible that he was
thinking of that great scene in A Doll's
House, where the husband says to the wife,
"I would gladly work for you day and night,
Nora bear sorrow and want for your sake
but no man sacrifices his honour, even for one
he loves." To which Nora replies, "Millions
of women have done so. " The husband of
Nora and the husband of Monna Vanna are
alike in being colossally selfish; for in each
instance the man was thinking of his honour,
of his loss not at all of his wife 's suffering.
And in each instance the case is made as dif-
ficult as possible by the dramatist, in order
to underline his point. The natural result is
that thousands of men sympathise with the
two husbands, and think their anger quite
justified. But whatever the individual dif-
ficulty, and Monna Vanna 's husband can
hardly be expected to view the situation with
enthusiasm, the Norwegian and the Belgian
were both trying to teach the supremacy of
Love. Love sticks at nothing and knows no



Observe how in both these plays it is the
last act that reveals male selfishness. What-
ever sympathy we may have had with the
man in the earlier scenes, he himself, by his
selfish egotism, alienates us in the end, even
as he slays love in his wife's heart. Had
Guido or Helmer known what love was, they
would have seen and have understood. For
Love is only sand-blind ; selfishness, egotism,
conceit are in the dark.

Whether Monna Vanna was right or
wrong, her decision was a test of her hus-
band's character; and Browning tells us that
even a crime may be a test of virtue.

The meaning of Monna Vanna ought to be
transparently clear, for in this play the au-
thor emerged from the veil of symbolism.
Yet many have misunderstood it. In two
letters to two enquirers, Maeterlinck said
that Monna Vanna is a true heroine, and
old Marco the inspiring genius he repre-
sents the final wisdom of life, having lived
long and learned much. Monna Vanna sym-
pathised keenly with her husband's agony in
the first act, and still loved him; she would
have continued to love him, even after the
affecting interview with Prinzivalle; but his


stupidity and total lack of confidence in her
and in her word finally open her eyes to his
meanness. She strives no longer against her
growing love for Prinzivalle, and will fly with
him to some remote place, where if destiny
permits, she will begin a new and happier life.
In this explanation, Maeterlinck used almost
the exact words of Ibsen: "she recognises
that her marriage has been a lie."

The first performance of Maeterlinck's
Mary Magdalene took place in the English
language and on the New York stage; it
happened at the New Theatre, 5 December
1910. There were three difficulties; the
translation was not very good, the leading
actress was miscast, and every one was re-
minded of Paul Heyse's play on the same
theme, which had been powerfully inter-
preted in English by Mrs. Fiske. Two
points were borrowed from Heyse ; and when
Maeterlinck wrote to the old German drama-
tist asking permission to use them, he was re-
fused not only unequivocally but harshly.
Then he determined to use them anyway, say-
ing in his preface that one was taken from the
New Testament and the other was common
stage property it was in fact the ethical


problem that we have already seen in
Monna Vanna and in Joyzelle. It seemed at
one time to obsess Maeterlinck.

Maeterlinck bought an old Norman Abbey
near Rouen, where a performance of Mac-
beth attracted wide attention. It was in this
romantic and inspiring Abbey of Saint
Wandrille which gave him even more in-
spiration than he could have hoped for
that he wrote The Blue Bird (which, by the
way, never should be called in English The
Bluebird). This carried his fame to the re-
motest parts of the earth, and unsupported,
it is sufficient to carry his fame to remote
generations. It is the crown of his life's
work, summing up all his best qualities as
poet, dramatist, playwright. His early
dramas are a greater success in the library
than on the stage ; Monna Vanna is a greater
success on the stage than in the library ; The
Blue Bird is equally great in both places-
it is a masterpiece in literature and all-con-
quering in the theatre. It is an original and
beautiful play; it is a distinct contribution
to our present glorious age of drama.

When the author had it ready for the stage,
he sent it to Mr. Stanislavski, the Director of


the Artistic Theatre at Moscow. It was
played in the Russian language in the year
1908, and from that first night the world's
most exciting premiere since Cyrano de
Bergerac it traveled far and fast. It has
been given at the Moscow theatre alone over
three hundred times; when put on at Lon-
don, 8 December 1909, it ran for over three
hundred performances, the excitement being
so intense that they were often forced to give
twelve presentations every week; when it
started the second season of the New Theatre
in New York, 1 October 1910, it was the talk
of the town.

Like Peter Pan it charmed both young and
old. The delight of the children was audi-
ble at every performance; but the "deeper
joys 7 ' of men and women were, if less vocal,
even more in evidence. For just as in all
his work, Maeterlinck's language is simple
and his ideas complex, so The Blue Bird ap-
peals to human beings at every stage in their

The best account of the original Russian
presentation may be found in Oliver M. Say-
ler's book, The Russian Theatre and the Rev-
olution (1920). While people were being


shot down in the streets, and the spectators
in the theatre had to dodge bullets on their
homeward way, this lovely fairy tale capti-
vated packed houses, just as it did during its
first season, just as it will a hundred years
from now. The company at the Artistic The-
atre is the finest and best-drilled company of
actors in the world ; it was a notable compli-
ment to give them The Blue Bird, but they
were worthy of it. Mr. Sayler gives the
speech of Director Stanislavski to his troupe,
spoken before they began rehearsals.

"The production of The Blue Bird must
be made with the purity and fantasy of a
ten-year-old child. It must be naive, simple,
light, full of the joy of life, cheerful and im-
aginative like the sleep of a child ; as beauti-
ful as a child's dream and at the same time
as majestic as the ideal of a poetic genius
and thinker. Let The Blue Bird in our the-
atre thrill the grandchildren and arouse seri-
ous thoughts and deep feelings in their
grandparents. Let the grandchildren on
coming home from the theatre feel the joy
of existence with which Tyltyl and Mytyl are
possessed in the last act of the play. At the
same time let their grandfathers and grand-


mothers once more before their impending
death become inspired with the natural de-
sire of man: to enjoy God's world and be
glad that it is beautiful. ... If man were al-
ways able to love, to understand, to delight
in nature! If he contemplated more often,
if he reflected on the mysteries of the world
and took thought of the eternal! Then per-
haps the Blue Bird would be flying freely
among us. ... [Can you imagine New York
managers talking to New York actors like
that?] In order to make the public listen
to the fine shades of your feelings, you have
to live them through yourself intensely. To
live through definite intelligible feelings is
easier than to live through the subtle soul
vibrations of a poetic nature. To reach
those experiences it is necessary to dig deep
into the material which is handed to you for
creation. To the study of the play we shall
devote jointly a great deal of work and at-
tention and love. But that is little. In ad-
dition, you have to prepare yourselves inde-
pendently. I speak of your personal life
observation which will broaden your imagi-
nation and sensitiveness. Make friends of
children. Enter into their world. Watch


nature more and her manifestations sur-
rounding us. Make friends of dogs and cats
and look oftener into their eyes to see their
souls. Thereby, you will be doing the same
as Maeterlinck did before he wrote the play,
and you will come closer to the author. . . .
More than anything else, we must avoid the-
atricalness in the external presentation of
The Blue Bird, as well as in the spiritual in-
terpretation, for it might change the fairy
dream of the poet into an ordinary extrava-
ganza. ' '

Although I would give much to see The
Blue Bird in the Moscow Theatre, I do not
believe the Russian Cat and Dog were any
better than the American pair in 1910. The
late Jacob Wendell, an actor who was stead-
ily growing in authority, made the dog so
real that many wept at his fidelity. Cecil
Yapp was marvellous his face, his agility,
the way he paused in the midst of washing
his cheek, his feline sneeze he simply was
the Cat. It is possible that his cat-life
robbed him of something human ; for though
I have frequently seen him in other plays,
he has n'erver been so convincing as he was
in The Blue Bird.



So far as The Blue Bird has any philoso-
phy, it is pessimism ; even in that amazingly
beautiful scene the best in the New York
version the Land of Memory, the pathos
arises from the fact that the dead never live
at all except when the living think of them;
which makes the graveyard, with the ex-
clamation There are no Dead seem as incon-
sistent as the scene showing that all individ-
uals have a definite existence long before
they are born. Furthermore, at the end of
the play the Blue Bird disappears; nor did
the children need to learn about it, because
at the opening, their delight in the view of
their rich neighbours' happiness is quite un-
shadowed by envy, a charming episode. But
why look for logic in a work of art? or why
cloud a thing of beauty by pointing out in-

In the autumn of 1918, under the direction
of Winthrop Ames, the first performance on
any stage of The Betrothal took place in the
English language and in New York. Ob-
serve again how slight is the connexion be-
tween the French theatre and the French
plays of Maeterlinck. His motto for a pre-
miere appears to be " Nowhere in France."


One cannot blame him, when one thinks of
the conventional contemporary Parisian
plays and audiences.

As it is more difficult to keep a reputation
than to make one, so it has ever been more
difficult to write a sequel than an initial mas-
terpiece. Vingt Ans Apres is a notable ex-
ception, the most notable of all being, as one
of my undergraduate students suggested, the
New Testament. But nearly all attempts to
repeat share the fate of Tennyson 's Locksley
Hall Sixty Years After, The Charge of the
Heavy Brigade, The Death of (Enone; Black-
more 's Slain ~by the Doones, Barrie 's Tommy
and Grizel, and so on.

Therefore The Betrothal was an agreeable
surprise. It naturally and inevitably lacked
the novelty of The Blue Bird, but the inspira-
tion was equally fresh and strong. The in-
terest was steadily maintained, the successive
scenes were both beautiful and captivating,
and there was the same combination of fresh
simplicity and far-reaching imagination. It
was even more provocative to thought than
The Blue Bird, presenting its ideas in a more
aggressive and challenging way. The only
thing that militates against the success of


The Betrothal is the enormous cost of the
production; even with the theatre packed
night after night, it did not meet expenses.

Although, here, as in The Blue Bird, hap-
piness, if it exists anywhere, is to be found
right at home for the young man, after ex-
perimenting with many distant strangers,
finally marries his little neighbour the old
bugbear Destiny has nothing to do with it.
In the early scenes, Destiny is a colossal fig-
ure; he constantly becomes smaller, and fi-
nally he is no bigger than a doll, and is han-
dled contemptuously by human beings. The
Ancestors hold the trumps, and determine the
young man's choice of his mate. They
are a heterogeneous collection. After seeing
this play, one might logically believe that The
Blue Blood is as difficult to find as The Blue

Maeterlinck's war play, A Burgomaster of
Belgium, was produced in New York in the
spring of 1919, and while it was much better
than most war plays, it will add little to
Maeterlinck's reputation. The truly remark-
able thing is Maeterlinck's aloofness. It was
written during the darkest hours, by a man
passionately devoted to his country and that


country Belgium; yet the presentation of
characters and scenes was so objective that
some idiots thought the piece was pro*-Ger-

Maeterlinck has always been a greater
writer than philosopher ; a greater master of
style than of thought. It is pathetic to think
how eagerly his visit to America was awaited
by those who thought he really had some-
thing new to tell them of the spirit world;
some proof that this time should be positive.
Alas, the only thing in his lecture that could
be called new was his language, and that was
even more unintelligible than the messages
of ghosts. He himself was honest and can-
did ; he gave us his own personal opinion, his
impressions after considering various facts.
Nor have I ever regarded him as a great
Teacher, as so many seem to do. It is just
as impossible to formulate a universal phi-
losophy as it is to demonstrate the abso-
lute truth of religion. Maeterlinck loves
metaphysical speculation ; he has studied and
reflected much; he knows ancient writers,
Flemish mystics, Carlyle and Emerson by
heart. He observes life with the minuteness
of the scientist and with the imagination of


the poet men and women, animals and flow-
ers. He has not only written about mediaeval
and modern heroes and heroines, he has writ-
ten about dogs and bees. Even so, he is more
Dreamer than Interpreter.

But although Maeterlinck is not a great
teacher nor a great philosopher, he is a great
writer, a great dramatist, a great Artist.
The so-called "truths" of philosophy pass
away, for they are often mere fashions of
thought; every professional philosopher has
them in his shop-window ; sometimes they are
garments covering lifeless blocks ; you ask for
an idea and you get a phrase ; to-morrow the
world will all be running after new phrases,
-which will then be as fashionable as the catch-
words of to-day. But Beauty endures for-



The twentieth century French Drama has
been overrated. Critics speak of Hervieu,
Capus, Donnay, Bataille, Lavedan and Bern-
stein as though they were not only clever
play-makers, which they are, but as though
they were thinkers and dramatists, which
they are not. (Yet four in the list mentioned
were elected to the French Academy.) They
are all men of the theatre, but not men of
ideas. If they had really followed the
Leader, Henry Becque, they might have pro-
duced plays of permanent value; Les Cor-
beaux is worth their combined production.
With a complete knowledge of the technique
of construction, they chose to study "real-
ism" rather than reality. With an empty,
hollow formula, and only one theme
adultery they gave to the French theatre a
depressing monotony for there is no mo-
notony so depressing as the monotony of
restlessness. They suggest constant activity
with no vitality; they seem to be suffering


from nervous exhaustion. A character in a
modern French play, significantly named Les
Marionettes, makes a speech that must be
echoed by many spectators; "The air we
breathe here is bad. I need some rest, some
solitude. And above all I should be glad if I
could hear people talk about something be-
sides love."

In spite of the towering reputation of these
writers, they have not altogether escaped
condemnation. Mr. Ashley Dukes, in his
book, Modern Dramatists, speaking of Ibsen,
says, "the playwrights of his day were liv-
ing in an atmosphere of half-truths and
shams, grubbing in the divorce court and liv-
ing upon the maintenance of social intrigue
just as comfortably as any bully upon the
earnings of a prostitute." Later on, he re-
marks, "In order that the bankruptcy of
modern French drama may be fully under-
stood, it is only necessary to glance at the
authors who hold the stage of present-day
Paris (1911)."

At about the same time M. Paul Flat, in

Figures du Theatre Contemporain, speaking

of Henry Bernstein, said, "Who will deliver

us from the immortal, everlasting theme of



adultery, with its manifold variations, in-
numerable as human heart-beats, I admit, but
equally monotonous, and of which we finally
become weary? Who will find for us an-
other motive of dramatic interest, besides
these husbands invariably deceived by their
weary-hearted wives, misunderstood, uncom-
prehended, to whom life has not given the
things they lusted for, Parisian and provin-
cial Bo vary s who renew their youth and be-
come modern. . . . Yes, what a novelty it
would be and w r hat an audacity! What a
sigh of relief we should breathe in escaping
from this horrible banality, which theatrical
convention fastens upon us, according to
which apparently no genuine dramatic mo-
tive can exist except unhappy and guilty pas-
sion, the deceived husband and the thousand
consequences I"

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Online LibraryWilliam Lyon PhelpsEssays on modern dramatists → online text (page 11 of 14)