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A Symbolist Reading of Maurice Maeterlinck Pelleas and Melisande

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Modern Theatre is a revolutionary period in theatrical history in which different theorists and practitioners of theatre experimented with ideas that were hitherto unexplored. One of these movements, and pivotal to the anti-realistic theatre that revolted against realism and naturalism is symbolism. Symbolism was a theatrical movement that deviated from logicality and representation of life to illogicality and representation of man’s inner being. In exploring the employment of this theory in dramatic works, this work utilizes the famous symbolist play Pelleas and Melisande. The choice of Pilleas and Melisande is not just important for its symbolic strength but because the author is the most acclaimed of symbolist dramatists. The paper thus explores Pilleas and Melisande from the symbolist point of view using actions replete in the play. The paper concludes that though symbolism was short-lived and is no longer practiced today, its components are used variously by playwrights even in contemporary times.

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For historical conveniences, Western history has been divided into eras or periods and the history of Western theatre has also been encapsulated by these historical dichotomies. Beginning from ancient Egyptian era, theatre history has been traced through the Greek and Roman eras to the Medieval and Renaissance. Occupying a prominent position among these historical periods lies Modern Theatre reputed for its predilection for diversity of ideas. The period modern theatre began in the fall of nineteenth century. Indices of its early beginnings can be traced to the works of Richard Wagner who advocated and practiced a musical theatre in which “music, through melody and tempo, permits greater control over performance than is possible in spoken drama” (Brockett, 582) and a theatre architecture that allowed people, irrespective of class to pay equal fees. The Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen became an ideal figure of the present-day director. These initial innovations preceded the dramatic works of Henrik Ibsen who is acclaimed to be the father of Modern Theatre. His dramatic works championed the cause of realism which was followed closely by naturalism (an extreme form of realism). After him (even as his later plays reflect) there was a revolt against realist theatre resulting to the escalation of myriads of theatrical movements such as symbolism, expressionism, absurdism, eclecticism, Dadaism, futurism, and so on. R.M Wernaer’s observation about Romanticists will suffice to advance the discourse: “Our writers felt themselves possessed of two distinct personalities, one facing the natural world with its sensuous qualities, its definable limitations, its laws of time and place; the other facing Godward with its circle of infinity, its celestial values, its feeling-tones, its emotional ecstasies, its dreams and visions”. (cited in Tisdel, 2) The former is the drama of action which Aristotle emphasized when he defined drama as “the imitation of action” – drama that has to do with tangible realistic happenings replete in the realism and other movements preceding it. On the other hand, the latter seeks to capture the intangible or surreal world. These were explicitly explicated with theoretical backings by theatre artistes encapsulated in movements of the Modern theatre. Symbolism which takes centre stage in this discourse was concerned with this inner man.

Symbolism was the first major revolt against realistic theatre. It began in France in the late nineteenth century and it withered in the dawn of the twentieth century. It was a theatre that advocated for the use of symbols and metaphors to suggest meanings deeper than their outward appearances. By this, it sought to “objectify the subjective” (Matthew cited in Valeri, 41) thereby bringing out man’s inner qualities – what had been neglected by the theatre of the day. “To the symbolists, subjectivity, spirituality, and mysterious internal and external forces represented a higher form of outward appearance” (Brocket, 584) they therefore, revered the internal and intangible nature of man over the realistic. This change in dimension was motivated by the fact that “scientists preoccupation with observable superficial details caused them to neglect higher truths” (G. Albert cited in Valeri, 4) because “something eternal, mysterious, and essentially unknowable lay at the heart of creation, beyond the reach of scientific inquiry” (Burhan cited in Valeri, 4). A leading playwright of the symbolist movement was Maurice Maeterlinck who posited that: “most dramatic moments are those silent ones during which the mystery of existence, ordinarily obscured by bustling activity, makes itself felt” (Brockett, 564). To express this “mystery of existence”, he wrote plays such as The Intruder (1894), The Blind (1890), The Death of Tentagiles (1894), and Pelleas and Melisande (1892). The later plays of Henrik Ibsen can also be traced to the symbolist school of thought. They include: The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), and When We Dead Awaken. In these plays he made use of “symbolism and subjects more concerned with personal relationships than with social problems” (Brockett, 549). Every symbolist needs some kind of master vision to be able to grapple with the images that eventually make up the symbols. He needs a high sub-consciousness to get into the symbolist inspiration for this, he could identify the symbols and because “the world of senses and objects merely represented the world of ideas”, he would attribute meanings to them.

Other writers like Maurice Maeterlinck believe that instead of identifying the objects and writing around them, the symbol should be born out of the work. According to him: “I do not believe that the work can be viable. The work born out of the symbol cannot be anything but an allegory…the symbol is a force of native and the spirit of man cannot resist its laws”. (cited in Valeri, 9). To him, symbolism is a manifestation first of all, of the writer’s intuition, the symbol only stemming forth from it. Unlike realism, symbolist writers avoided contemporary and practical issues and instead, opted for themes from the past and the realm of fancy. They needed to disengage from issues of the present because it would permit them the seclusion they need to conceive their works in idealistic terms. Maurice Maeterlinck makes a case for this: I remain of the opinion that one must abstract himself from the times to which he is subjected, in spite of himself, and naturally influence him, but that is good, if one wants to make an enduring and strong work, to disengage it form the details of the present” (cited in Valeri, 12). Maeterlinck’s characters are seen as messengers form the universe – he does not create them through abstract thought. In creating them, he comes in contact with the universe from which he draws intuition needed to create what would make sense to him on a latter day. The production design of Symbolist plays is just sufficient enough to suggest meanings. Its actions are dreamlike and its language muffled and highly stylised to create a mystical impression in order to ‘objectify the subjective’ through vagueness and suggestiveness that would create evocation rather than description. In spite of its short period of reign, symbolism can be said to be successful as it ushered in the second phase of modern theatre which is a revolt against realism.

Published in 1892, Pelleas and Melisande is a fairy tale in five acts about a middle aged prince – Golaud, who finds a beautiful girl, Melisande at the shore of a spring. He marries the girl with the father’s consent and brings her home to the reception of his family members especially Pelleas who is soon obsessed with her. Melisande loses her wedding ring while playing with it at Fountain the Blind with Pelleas. Golaud’s knowledge of this arouses his first suspicion and he asks her to go and find the ring. She goes with Pelleas to find it, and soon, they are together again when Pelleas plays with Mellisande’s hair. Golaud soon discovers their closeness and gets jealous to the point of attempting to kill Pelleas at the vault. He later interrogates little Ynoild about them and, convinced that they are meeting, he sets out with his sword to harm them. Pelleas insists on seeing Melisande for the last time before he travels and the venue is a fountain in the park where they express their love and kiss. Golaud spies on them and swords Pelleas and Melisande runs away. They are later found, both injured. Melisande gives birth to a baby. Golaud expresses his regrets and seeks to know whether they had sex. Melisande dies after declaring her innocence to Golaud. Pelleas and Melisande is a classical symbolist drama, the most acclaimed of symbolism’s foreman, Maurice Macterlinck. He uses the play to project the symbolist doctrine which he advocated for. Perhaps, the most plausible symbolic characteristic of the play is its utilization of a fairy tale instead of contemporary events which was popular during the theatre of his day.

According to Tisdel, “It is the Paolo and Francesca story treated not as a representation of life, but as a symbol of life.” (4) The story of Paolo and Francesca is a poem by the Medieval dramatist Dante contained in his Divine Comedy about the lovers cast into hell for committing adultery. Gianciotto who is the husband of Francesca kills them out of jealousy and together with them, he is cast into hell. This is in line with the symbolist doctrine of selecting subject matter from fairy tales and a realm of fancy. In symbolising this story, Maeterlinck does not use personification but rather uses suggestions that, because they cannot be interpreted accurately, invoke some kind of vagueness which mystifies the audience. Tisdel observes this about the play: The necessary lack of individuality in the figures precludes clear and fine dramatic characterization, and placing of real and symbolic characters side by side is confusing/ again, since the symbol is not a personification and canoot, therefore always be equated with that for which it stands, the result becomes vagueness which puzzles the commonplace mind. (5) This puzzling vagueness is reflected in Scene III, the short scene where Little Ynoild is trying to lift a boulder and later turns his attention to a flock and their shephered which never appear on stage. Little Yniold: Oh, this stone is heavy!… It is heavier than I am…. It is heavier than everybody…. It is heavier than everything that ever happened…. I can see my golden ball between the rock and this naughty stone, and I cannot reach it…. My little arm is not long enough,… and this stone won’t be lifted…. I can’t lift it,… and nobody could lift it…. It is heavier than the whole house;… you would think it had roots in the earth…. [The Bleatings of a flock heard far away.]—Oh! oh! I hear the sheep crying…. [He goes to look, at the edge of the terrace.] Why! there is no more sun…. They are coming … the little sheep … they are coming…. There is a lot of them!… There is a lot of them!… They are afraid of the dark…. They crowd together! they crowd together!… They can hardly walk any more…. They are crying! they are crying! and they go quick!… They go quick!… They are already at the great crossroads. Ah! ah! They don’t know where they ought to go any more…. They don’t cry any more…. They wait…. Some of them want to go to the right…. They all want to go to the right…. They cannot!… The shepherd is throwing earth at them…. Ah! ah! They are going to pass by here…. They obey! They obey! They are going to pass under the terrace…. They are going to pass under the rocks…. I am going to see them near by…. Oh! oh! what a lot of them!… What a lot of them!… The whole road is full of them…. They all keep still now … Shepherd! shepherd! why don’t they speak any more? (30) In the above excerpt, the most plausible thing is the vagueness of the action and dialogue. One would ask why Little Yniold is attempting to move the boulder in the first place, what this suggests and the relevance of the sheep and shepherd. Whereas, the action is used as a symbol, it will remain vague to the eyes of those who do not decipher it.

The language of Pelleas and Melisande is lyrical and fragmented. It does not flow logically like the case of realist plays. This is reflected in the play thus: GOLAUD: Nothing, nothing, my child. I saw a wolf go by in the forest. – they get on well together? – I am glad to learn they are in good terms. – they kiss each other sometimes. – No. YNIOLD: Kiss each other, little father?—No, no,—ah! yes, little father, yes; yes; once … once when it rained…. GOLAUD: They kissed?—But how, how did they kiss? YNIOLD: So, little father, so!… [He gives him a kiss on the mouth, laughing.] Ah! ah! your beard, little father!… It pricks! It ricks! it pricks! It is getting all gray, little father, and your hair, too; all gray, all gray, all gray…. [The window under which they are sitting is lighted up at this moment, and the light falls upon them.] Ah! ah! little mother has lit her lamp. It is light, little father; it is light… (25) With this fragmented language, it is supposed to unveil to the audience “the hidden consciousness of our existence” (Krasner, 65) by appealing to their subconsciousness due to its unrealistic nature. Stage directions in Pelleas and Melisande are very scanty. This indicates that its production is not supposed to have much actions and the scenery too is only to be enough to symbolize an inner truth. Brockett describes the first production of the play: Few properties and little furniture were used; the stage was lighted from overhead and most of the actions passed on in semi-darkness; a gauze curtain hung between the actors and the audience, gave the impression that mist enveloped the stage; backdrops painted in grayed tones, emphasized the air of mystery; costumes were vaguely medieval, although the intention was to create draperies of no particular period. The actors spoke in staccato chants like priests, and according to some critics, behaved like night walkers; their gestures were strongly stylized. (564) On a whole, Symbolism comes out more fully when in performance more than in text because the essence of symbolism is to objectify the subjective and unrealistic stage designs and stylized actions all contribute to making symbolism a successful movement.

The period Modern Theatre is one of ideological revolt in which different theatre practitioners exerted their ideas in theories and movements reflecting their thoughts of how and to what end theatre should be practiced. Among these myriads of artistic movements is symbolism which serves as the bridge diverting from realism into anti-realistic movements of Modern Theatre. Symbolism which transcends logic and wishes to draw man’s attention to his inner being finds expression in Pelleas and Melisande by Maurice Maeterlinck, its foremost spokesman. The foregoing has brought this to bear. Symbolism, even though short-lived introduced a new form of theatrical idea that would be built upon by movements after it. Even though not practiced in totality today, playwrights still utilize some of its components when they make use of symbols, metaphors or anything that suggests meanings other than the one immediate to it.


Brockett, Oscar History of the Theatre­ (5th Edition) Newton: Allyn and Bacon Inc., 1987

Krasner, David (ed) Theatre in Theory 1900-2000 Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008

Maeterlinck, Maurice Pelleas and Melisande Retrieved: 27/7/2016

Tisdel, Frederick “Symbolism in the Theatre” in The Sewanee Review vol. 28 No. 2, (Apr. 1920) Retrieved: 28/07/2016 Valeri, Laura Kathleen

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