La Princesse Maleine, pb. 1889 (The Princess Maleine, 1890)
L’Intruse, pb. 1890 (The Intruder, 1891)
Les Aveugles, pb. 1890 (The Blind, 1891)
Les Sept Princesses, pb. 1890 (The Seven Princesses, 1909)
Pelléas et Mélisande, pb. 1892 (Pelléas and Mélisande, 1894)
Alladine et Palomides, pb. 1894 (Alladine and Palomides, 1896)
Intérieur, pb. 1894 (Interior, 1896)
La Mort de Tintagiles, pb. 1894 (music by Jean Nouguès
The Death of Tintagiles, 1899)
Aglavaine et Sélysette, pr., pb. 1896 (Aglavaine and Selysette, 1897)
Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, pr. in German 1901, pb. in French 1901 (Ardiane and Barbe Bleue, 1901)
Sæur Béatrice, pr. in German 1901, pb. in French 1907 (Sister Beatrice, 1901)
Monna Vanna, pr., pb. 1902 (English translation, 1903)
Joyzelle, pr., pb. 1903 (English translation, 1906)
L’Oiseau bleu, pr. 1908 (The Blue Bird, 1909)
Le Bourgmestre de Stilmonde, pr., pb. 1919 (The Burgomaster of Stilemonde, 1918)
Les Fiançailles, pb. 1922 (The Betrothal, 1918)
La Princesse Isabelle, pr., pb. 1935
L’Abbé Sétubal, pr. 1940
Le Jugement dernier, pb. 1959
Théâtre inédit, pb. 1959 (includes L’Abbé Sétubal, Les Trois Justiciers, and Le Jugement dernier)
Serres chaudes, poèmes, 1889 (Hot Houses, 1915)
Poésies complètes, 1965
Le Trésor des humbles, 1896 (The Treasure of the Humble, 1897)
La Vie des abeilles, 1901 (The Life of the Bee, 1901)
L’Intelligence des fleurs, 1907 (Intelligence of Flowers, 1907)
Bulles bleues, 1948
Maurice-Polydore-Marie-Bernard Maeterlinck (MA-tur-lihnk) was born in 1862 in Ghent, a city rich in the old Flemish tradition. Much has been made of the influence that the cloudy and brooding atmosphere of the Low Countries exercised on Maeterlinck’s more pessimistic works, an influence deriving from the constant tension between light and dark and expressed in the cloud-hung, sun-dappled landscapes of the seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael. An analysis of Maeterlinck’s works demonstrates the importance of these alternations of light and dark.
The dramatist’s father fit the stereotype of the materialistic Belgian burgher. Scholars have tended to read Maeterlinck’s dramas as symbolic and spiritual works rejecting this bourgeois materialism, yet in the greatest of his dramas, Maeterlinck seeks to find and express what he called “the tragic in daily life.” Maeterlinck seeks, like the Flemish and Dutch Masters, to illuminate in a domestic scene the eternal that lies beyond the surface of things. The subtle relationship between the metaphysical concerns of Maeterlinck and the materialistic milieu of the Belgian middle class is strikingly similar to that between Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism and the mercantile-centered world of nineteenth century Boston. Both men were drawn to the mystical, yet without neglecting the mundane; the works of both are filled with attempts to strike a balance between otherworldly dreams and worldly concerns.
In 1885, Maeterlinck decided to move to Paris, if only for a year. He sat at the feet of the high priests of symbolism–Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé. His first play, The Princesse Maleine, met with astounding critical acclaim at the hands of the reviewer Octave Mirbeau, who hailed it as a masterpiece; it was not, but in the five years following, Maeterlinck wrote other plays that were. Between 1889 and 1894, he created several first-rate works which are in full accord with Symbolist aesthetics. Maeterlinck is inevitably cited by scholars as a playwright who is important primarily because of his historical significance and whose works are never performed. Nevertheless, one of his plays is still performed worldwide, almost intact, and usually untranslated. Indeed, his Pelléas and Mélisande may be performed more frequently throughout the world than any stage work by any other French playwright of Maeterlinck’s generation. In 1902, Claude Debussy based his only completed opera on Pelléas and Mélisande. It was in Paris, too, that Maeterlinck met the dynamic actress-singer Georgette Leblanc in 1895. She gave impetus to another phase in the playwright’s development. For her, the playwright was to create his most forceful heroines, in a marked departure from the weak-willed victims he had created previously. This and other more forceful, even progressive, elements probably contributed greatly to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911.
During this period, Maeterlinck also began to take an interest in politics. In a collection of essays entitled Intelligence of Flowers, he set forth a rarefied form of socialism. Although fearful of revolution, he suggested that it might be preferable to the perpetuation of social and political injustices. Far too timid and reclusive to have joined a revolutionary organization, Maeterlinck did contribute money to socialist unions and parties. Although a pièce à thèse seems antithetical to his meditative detachment, World War I and the German invasion of Belgium galvanized him into writing stage works on war.
For the most part, in his later years, Maeterlinck turned from the theater to expressive and expository prose. European and American theater of the later 1920’s and the 1930’s was moving in directions which he preferred to eschew. The stage trends were turning more and more to various manifestations of revived realism or naturalism. The man and the milieu had met briefly and transiently in the works which Maeterlinck had contributed to the Symbolist theater of the fin de siècle. Maeterlinck did not yearn to please crowds enough to adapt his style to a changing theater. He was awarded the title count of the kingdom of Belgium in 1932 and was elected to the French Academy in 1937. Although Maeterlinck and Hollywood carried on a brief flirtation in 1920, they both soon recognized it as a misalliance. World War II did stir the latent playwright in Maeterlinck, resulting in several dramatic works–all of slight worth. Maeterlinck’s death was fittingly dramatic: While a storm raged outside, he died in Orlamonde, his palatial home outside Nice; then, in accordance with his belief that organized religion is a desecration of an infinite natural divinity, this most spiritual of poets was buried in a civil ceremony.