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The Influence of M. Maeterlinck on Modern Drama

Prominent Belgian poet, playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel laureate has left an outstanding mark in the history of European drama. Like G. Ibsen, he was a real pioneer of the “new” drama, an outstanding theorist and playwright of European symbolist theater. In the essay “Tragic Daily Life” the author outlined the basic principles of the symbolist “new” drama, and also called his theater a “static theater” or a “theater of silence.”

M. Maeterlinck was also a famous experimenter and was considered the founder of the Symbolist theater. This is the most famous playwright in Belgium, who was called “Belgian Shakespeare.”

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Maeterlinck was born in Ghent to a French-speaking family with Flemish roots. He was educated at the Jesuit College of St. Barbie, and then at the University of Ghent, where he studied law.

After that, he practiced law in Ghent for some time. From 1887 he settled in Paris, where he met the leading French symbolists. He was especially influenced by his acquaintance with Ville de Lille-Adan.

The writer’s literary life began in Paris. Maeterlinck began as a poet. His first collection of poems, The Greenhouse (1887), amazed readers with its unusualness: the amazing combinations of unrecognizable images that constantly appeared in the text or subtext and became the main content of the poem. The greenhouse embodies the mood and content of Maeterlinck’s early dramas, which were classified as “static theater” or “theater of silence.”

The plays were a great success for the writer: the fairy tale “Princess Malena” (1889), the one-act play “The Uninvited”, “The Blind” (1890), the drama “Peleas Melisanda” (1892). The poetics of mysterious inviolability, mysterious hints, mystical fear, and unearthly, illusory beauty, inherent in these works, were the embodiment of the principles of art, which the playwright later set out in “Treasures of the Humble.” He wrote about a special form of drama “Theater of Silence”, which mainly concerned the transmission not of words but of gestures, facial expressions of actors, their movements, where the ambiguity of words, vague expressions, nervous anticipation of something mysterious, often create scary and tense situations.

Death of Tentazhil (1894) was not only about the victories of fate, but also the hero’s attempts to face an incomprehensible fate. The tales “Aglaven and Selizette” and “Ariana and the Blue Beard” (1896) continued the theme of confrontation with dark, deadly forces and human evil. Sister Beatrice (1900) revealed the conflict in the soul of a young woman’s desire to serve God ascetically and the thirst for a full-blooded life.

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The drama “Monna Bath” (1902) and the play-legend “Juazel” (1903) were formed by deep psychology and revealed the complexity and contradictions of human emotions, unexpected and exciting twists in the plot, the general optimistic tone. Maeterlinck wrote his first comedy, The Miracle of St. Anthony (1903), which he called a “satirical legend,” and reworked the plot of Guy de Maupassant’s novel In His Family, which ridiculed human greed for money and hypocrisy. In 1908, Maeterlinck published the fairy tale “Blue Bird”, which became his most famous work.

The writer’s dramatic work was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. He was enthusiastically called the greatest playwright of modern times, claiming that he surpassed Shakespeare himself.

The writer’s name is associated with the birth of a “new theater” that focuses on the complex and hidden spiritual life. External action is replaced by internal. The playwright’s discoveries became important for future generations.
M. Maeterlinck created a new kind of drama. His works show the tragedy of life and reflect a complex spiritual being. The main attention is paid not to the actions and deeds of the heroes, but to the emotional experiences of man, moral and philosophical problems of that time.

In the “old” drama, the conflicts were external – an open clash of characters with each other. In Maeterlinck’s “new” drama, the conflicts were internal – the clash of characters with the tragedy of existence, the clash of different ideas, the spiritual contradictions of the characters. Psychological confrontations and conflicts of ideas became the driving force of the plot. Maeterlinck’s hero is a man, a “spiritual symptom” of the era.

The viewer recognized himself, was involved in the “inner plot”, experienced and thought with the hero. The author restored the general atmosphere of the time, the spiritual quest of the era, sought the moral awakening of the individual and society. The heroes of his dramas were not divided into primary and secondary. All characters are important, they lack unique features. These characteristics distinguished Maeterlinck’s “new” drama from the “old” drama.

The playwright believed that the task of art is to recreate the unknown, to depict another life, radically different from real life. Real life, according to the author, took place outside of actions and deeds, the main thing in it – to listen to premonitions. He insisted on the uncompromising meaning of silence.

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Maeterlinck embodied the principle of silence in his drama and turned the dialogue into a “conversation of souls”, in which the interlocutors responded to unspoken remarks. He became the father of symbolist drama, fateful drama.

Maeterlinck’s creative method created a new concept of symbolist drama. The young author portrayed not the events and characters, but the states of the heroes, their intense premonition of something terrible, constantly inflated by the howl of the wind, the cries of birds, the sounds of the night, the ringing of the clock, and so on. Maeterlinck’s early symbolist dramas (the 1890s) are characterized by a tragic finale, motives for future death, and a hopeless need for happiness. The main idea of ​​the works of the early period – a man powerless and blind to the blows of fate.

Maeterlinck’s drama attracted attention with its unusualness and poeticism, capricious and mysterious in the plot and the mystery of the characters. Internally intense stage action, the ambiguity of symbolic word and image, sublimity and complexity of feelings and much more distinguished him among the low salon works and everyday dramas and comedies created in the naturalistic spirit.

The playwright’s symbolic theater, the “theater of death,” became the tribune of the Unknown. Everything was ruled by the Unknown, ruled by “invisible”, “deadly forces, intentions that no one knows.” Sometimes the unknown took the form of death, but only sometimes – further concretization of this mystery is impossible. Man is the victim of an unknown, powerless and miserable creature, who was captured by the “indifferent night”. Accordingly, death rules life, and life has no purpose other than death.

In the early 1990s, Maeterlinck revised his symbolist concept. And from the “theater of death” he moved to the “theater of hope.” This is how Maeterlinck’s later works differ from the “theater of silence.” For example, in the play The Death of Tentazhil (1894), death is opposed to love. The Tentajil sisters try to free him from the power of the unknown. And this is no longer a static drama – the heroes got into a fight with the unknown. According to the writer, the most important are “humanity”, to which “we” belonged, and “poverty, desperate work, poverty, hunger, slavery” are not words of God’s will, but our own business.

The writer tried to recreate mysticism, pessimism, glorified activity, struggle, knowledge, and from the point of view of aesthetics the further path of the playwright went from symbolism to romanticism, from “theater of death” to “theater of hope”. The most famous work of that time – “Blue Bird”.

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Maeterlinck broke with the traditions of the old drama much more decisively. The Belgian writer has abandoned realistic principles, his “new” drama is a detachment from reality, mysticism, allegory, and symbolism. Subtext and mood are very important in his work. The author’s characters are detached from everyday life, they do not outline the characters. They act in complete dependence on the higher forces that determine their path

Literary critics believe that during his career, the Belgian writer went from gloomy pessimism to optimism. Thus, in the literature there is Maeterlinck – “singer of darkness and tragedy” – and Maeterlinck, who dedicated his work to the light of hope and joy.

Maeterlinck’s theatrical symbolism influenced the development of European drama and European poetry in the twentieth century. Maeterlinck’s poems are used for romances, symphonic poems, ballets, operas for plays, and his performances became a new impetus for the development of drama in the twentieth century.

Maurice Maeterlinck occupies a special place among the key figures in the drama of European symbolism. In his work, the idea of symbolism in the theater is set out, perhaps most effectively and consistently. Maeterlinck can be called a “born” symbolist.

Maurice Maeterlinck sought his way in art and became a bright representative of the new theater. Maeterlinck focused on a more abstract confrontation: not man and man or man and society, but man and eternity, human and unknown forces, human and inevitable destiny.

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The Influence of M. Maeterlinck on Modern Drama. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved January 28, 2023, from