Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology available in Paperback
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Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950
A Critical Anthology
By Robert Knopf, Julia Listengarten
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Yale University
All rights reserved.
Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) made his primary contribution to avant-garde drama with his early plays, in i which he sought to achieve a form of "total theater" that would harness all the elements of production to create an overwhelming mood of pessimism, loneliness, and fear of death. An essayist, theorist, and poet as well as a playwright, he was born in Ghent, Belgium, where he was educated in the law, a profession that he practiced during the first stages of his writing career. Maeterlinck began to associate with the Parisian Symbolists in 1886, but he did not move to France until 1897, after his initial playwriting success.
In The Intruder (1890), The Blind (1890), Interior (1894), and Princess Maleine (1889), Maeterlinck's characters speak a language that seems to emanate from their souls, as if these figures exist in another dimension. His dialogue, emphasizing repetition of words and sounds, helps give the plays a ritualistic musicality. By allowing tone and atmosphere to dominate, he created what he called a static drama, in which mood-images replace linear action, and silence and pauses reveal more than dialogue about both the internal state of the characters and the external state of the universe. Aurélien Lugné-Poë, who directed Maeterlinck's early work at the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, captured the atmospherics through the use of dim lights as well as the actors' monotone delivery and slow, measured movements.
Drama, Maeterlinck argued in his major theoretical work, The Treasure of the Humble (1896), should seek to transcend reality. He suggested the use of marionettes to reveal how unseen forces control human actions. Later, in "The Modern Drama," from The Double Garden (1904), Maeterlinck seemed to propose a view of theater contrary to his "static" one, stating that "the sovereign law of the stage, its essential demand, will always be action." Actually, he was referring to internal action that aims to penetrate deeper into human consciousness—the type of action that Maeterlinck saw in the quasi-Symbolist plays of Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptmann around the turn of the century, which blend elements of static drama with more traditional dramatic structure and plots.
Maeterlinck wrote his last significant work for the theater, The Blue Bird, in 1908 and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. His influence then waned, as his later plays—shaped by his "Modern Drama" essay or perhaps by his efforts to overcome depression—conformed to dramatic convention and became more optimistic and accessible. Nevertheless, his early Symbolist dramas resonated with a wide range of playwrights, including August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, and John Millington Synge, and stood as distant precursors to the Theater of the Absurd.
Evolution of European "Drama of the Interior"
In Intérieur (1894) Maeterlinck created a powerful and haunting stage image to express his sense of the strangeness of ordinary human life and the mysteries which we usually prefer not to contemplate. He makes us look with new eyes at a quite ordinary family of or father, mother, and three children by the simple, brilliant device of placing them behind glass in their commonplace house, so that we see but never hear them. Our viewpoint is that of an Old Man and a Stranger who stand in a corner of a garden looking into the lighted, curtainless room where the family are sitting, noting every small movement and waiting for the moment when the Old Man will have courage to go into the room and break the tragic news that one of their daughters has been found drowned. We are involved, so to speak, in a godlike position, seeing the pathos of the family's ignorant happiness, their unawareness of the pitying and curious eyes upon them and of the future that is already formed for them. Maeterlinck calls for a dreamlike effect in the movements of the mute family; they should appear "grave, slow, apart, and as though spiritualised by the distance, the light, and the transparent film of the windowpane." He builds up subtle metaphysical implications through the situation of watching and being watched. The eavesdroppers watch the parents, who are watching their youngest child sleeping: they muse on the strangeness of this recession and are prompted to reflect, "We too are watched." At such moments the audience themselves, those other watchers, are drawn into the experience; it may cross their minds to wonder whether in some other sense it might be said of them also, "We are watched."
Although the people in the interior are so enclosed and separated, so unhearing and unseeing, they are allowed occasionally to have intuitions of what lies in the dark outside. When the Old Man and the Stranger are speaking of the drowned girl's hair pathetically floating on the water, her two sisters move uneasily in the room, their hair seeming to "tremble," while at another moment they are drawn to the window, where they stand looking into the garden as if they had a sense of someone there. "No one comes to the middle window," says one of the watchers, and surely then we feel a shudder of apprehension, as though a shadowy figure might slowly form there, the wraith of the drowned girl. Although the family do not learn the news until the Old Man goes into the house at the end of the play, delicate movements such as I have described suggest that, as Maeterlinck might say, the soul is responding to invisible pressures on it; that the interior can never be totally sealed off.
The play ends, indeed, with the family plucked out of the safe, lighted interior. We see—though we do not hear—the Old Man breaking the news and the family leaving the room by a door at the back of the stage. They will find there the body of the dead girl, but Maeterlinck supplies a stage direction which calls for an unexpected view. When the door is thrown open, what we see is a moonlit sky with a lawn and fountain bathed in light; the moment of apprehending death is associated not with darkness but with emergence into the light. The effectiveness of this subtle ending depends entirely upon stagecraft, and especially lighting, for its realisation. Maeterlinck is in this sense a pioneer of "total theatre" techniques. Intérieur is a poetic demonstration of how the physical resources of theatre can be used to transmute ordinary reality and draw a mysterious patina over the surface of things, so making us realise that it is only a surface. Seen in the lighted frame, silently moving about their everyday business, unaware that they are being watched from their garden by a messenger bringing tidings of death, the characters of Intérieur do indeed seem to inhabit some other dimension—which is the essence of the Symbolist aesthetic or enterprise in drama.
In the Garden—
THE OLD MAN
of the Old Man
In the House—
THE TWO DAUGHTERS
The interval that elapses between the occurrence of a disaster and the breaking of the news to the bereaved is one full of tragedy; and here the pathetic ignorance of the drowned girl's family and the painful knowledge of the reluctant bearers of the evil tidings provide material for a touching little play—slight material to all appearance, but in the hands of M. Maeterlinck sufficient for the display of a wealth of kindly wisdom and sympathetic knowledge of human nature.
An old garden planted with willows. At the back, a house, with three of the ground-floor windows lighted up. Through them a family is pretty distinctly visible, gathered for the evening round the lamp. The FATHER is seated at the chimney corner. The MOTHER, resting one elbow on the table, is gazing into vacancy. Two young girls, dressed in white, sit at their embroidery, dreaming and smiling in the tranquillity of the room. A child is asleep, his head resting on his mother's left arm. When one of them rises, walks, or makes a gesture, the movements appear grave, slow, apart, and as though spiritualized by the distance, the light, and the transparent film of the windowpanes. THE OLD MAN and THE STRANGER enter the garden cautiously.
THE OLD MAN. Here we are in the part of the garden that lies behind the house. They never come here. The doors are on the other side. They are closed and the shutters shut. But there are no shutters on this side of the house, and I saw the light ... Yes, they are still sitting up in the lamplight. It is well that they have not heard us; the mother or the girls would perhaps have come out, and then what should we have done?
THE STRANGER. What are we going to do?
THE OLD MAN. I want first to see if they are all in the room. Yes, I see the father seated at the chimney corner. He is doing nothing, his hands resting on his knees. The mother is leaning her elbow on the table ...
THE STRANGER. She is looking at us.
THE OLD MAN. No, she is looking at nothing; her eyes are fixed. She cannot see us; we are in the shadow of the great trees. But do not go any nearer ... There, too, are the dead girl's two sisters; they are embroidering slowly. And the little child has fallen asleep. It is nine on the clock in the corner ... They divine no evil, and they do not speak.
THE STRANGER. If we were to attract the father's attention, and make some sign to him? He has turned his head this way. Shall I knock at one of the windows? One of them will have to hear of it before the others ...
THE OLD MAN. I do not know which to choose ... We must be very careful. The father is old and ailing—the mother too—and the sisters are too young ... And they all loved her as they will never love again. I have never seen a happier household ... No, no! do not go up to the window; that would be the worst thing we could do. It is better that we should tell them of it as simply as we can, as though it were a commonplace occurrence; and we must not appear too sad, else they will feel that their sorrow must exceed ours, and they will not know what to do ... Let us go round to the other side of the garden. We will knock at the door, and go in as if nothing had happened. I will go in first: they will not be surprised to see me; I sometimes look in of an evening, to bring them some flowers or fruit, and to pass an hour or two with them.
THE STRANGER. Why do you want me to go with you? Go alone; I will wait until you call me. They have never seen me—I am only a passerby, a stranger ...
THE OLD MAN. It is better that I should not be alone. A misfortune announced by a single voice seems more definite and crushing. I thought of that as I came along ... If I go in alone, I shall have to speak at the very first moment; they will know all in a few words; I shall have nothing more to say; and I dread the silence which follows the last words that tell of a misfortune. It is then that the heart is torn. If we enter together, I shall go roundabout to work; I shall tell them, for example: "They found her thus, or thus ... She was floating on the stream, and her hands were clasped ..."
THE STRANGER. Her hands were not clasped; her arms were floating at her sides.
THE OLD MAN. You see, in spite of ourselves we begin to talk—and the misfortune is shrouded in its details. Otherwise, if I go in alone, I know them well enough to be sure that the very first words would produce a terrible effect, and God knows what would happen. But if we speak to them in turns, they will listen to us, and will forget to look the evil tidings in the face. Do not forget that the mother will be there, and that her life hangs by a thread ... It is well that the first wave of sorrow should waste its strength in unnecessary words. It is wisest to let people gather round the unfortunate and talk as they will. Even the most indifferent carry off, without knowing it, some portion of the sorrow. It is dispersed without effort and without noise, like air or light ...
THE STRANGER. Your clothes are soaked and are dripping on the flagstones.
THE OLD MAN. It is only the skirt of my mantle that has trailed a little in the water. You seem to be cold. Your coat is all muddy ... I did not notice it on the way, it was so dark.
THE STRANGER. I went into the water up to my waist.
THE OLD MAN. Had you found her long before I came up?
THE STRANGER. Only a few moments. I was going toward the village; it was already late, and the dusk was falling on the riverbank. I was walking along with my eyes fixed on the river, because it was lighter than the road, when I saw something strange close by a tuft of reeds ... I drew nearer, and I saw her hair, which had floated up almost into a circle round her head, and was swaying hither and thither with the current ... (In the room the two young girls turn their heads towards the window.)
THE OLD MAN. Did you see her two sisters' hair trembling on their shoulders?
THE STRANGER. They turned their heads in our direction—they simply turned their heads. Perhaps I was speaking too loudly. (The two girls resume their former position.) They have turned away again already ... I went into the water up to my waist, and then I managed to grasp her hand and easily drew her to the bank. She was as beautiful as her sisters ...
THE OLD MAN. I think she was more beautiful ... I do not know why I have lost all my courage ...
THE STRANGER. What courage do you mean? We did all that man could do. She had been dead for more than an hour.
THE OLD MAN. She was living this morning! I met her coming out of church. She told me that she was going away; she was going to see her grandmother on the other side of the river in which you found her. She did not know when I should see her again ... She seemed to be on the point of asking me something; then I suppose she did not dare, and she left me abruptly. But now that I think of it—and I noticed nothing at the time!—she smiled as people smile who want to be silent, or who fear that they will not be understood ... Even hope seemed like a pain to her; her eyes were veiled, and she scarcely looked at me.
THE STRANGER. Some peasants told me that they saw her wandering all the afternoon on the bank. They thought she was looking for flowers ... It is possible that her death ...
THE OLD MAN. No one can tell ... What can anyone know? She was perhaps one of those who shrink from speech, and everyone bears in his breast more than one reason for ceasing to live. You cannot see into the soul as you see into that room. They are all like that—they say nothing but trivial things, and no one dreams that there is aught amiss. You live for months by the side of one who is no longer of this world, and whose soul cannot stoop to it; you answer her unthinkingly; and you see what happens. They look like lifeless puppets, and all the time so many things are passing in their souls. They do not themselves know what they are. She might have lived as the others live. She might have said to the day of her death: "Sir, or Madam, it will rain this morning," or, "We are going to lunch; we shall be thirteen at table," or "The fruit is not yet ripe." They speak smilingly of the flowers that have fallen, and they weep in the darkness. An angel from heaven would not see what ought to be seen; and men understand nothing until after all is over ... Yesterday evening she was there, sitting in the lamplight like her sisters; and you would not see them now as they ought to be seen if this had not happened ... I seem to see her for the first time ... Something new must come into our ordinary life before we can understand it. They are at your side day and night; and you do not really see them until the moment when they depart forever. And yet, what a strange little soul she must have had—what a poor little, artless, unfathomable soul she must have had—to have said what she must have said, and done what she must have done!
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Table of Contents
ContentsEditor's Note, xi,
Introduction ROBERT KNOPF AND JULIA LISTENGARTEN, 1,
1. Franco-Russian Symbolism, 17,
2. Pataphysical Theater, 53,
3. Intimate Theater/Chamber Drama, 103,
4. Correspondences, 145,
5. Italian Futurism, 163,
6. German Expressionism, 183,
7. Dada, 239,
8. The Theater of Pure Form, 265,
9. French Surrealism, 301,
10. The Theater of Cruelty, 347,
11. Russian Oberiu, 363,
12. American Dada and Surrealism, 395,
13. The Theater of the Absurd, 441,
General Bibliography, 477,