Maeterlinck: Pelléas et Mélisande, the Blue Bird, The Life of the Bee

I am way behind in bookblogging – my last review here was seven weeks ago! So I'll hope to work through some of the backlog over the next while, going backwards rather than forwards.

I'm starting off with a mini-project which I carried out in the last week: the most popular three works by Belgium's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mariuce Maeterlinck. (The total tally is eleven, ten men and and an institution, four for Peace, four for Physiology or Medicine, and one each for Chemistry, Physics and Literature.)

Maeterlinck lived from 1862 to 1949; he was born to a French-speaking family in Ghent, qualified as a lawyer, started writing in 1889, mainly for the stage, and won the Nobel prize in 1911. Hi lived in France from 1897 (apart from fleeing to American in 1940) but never took French citizenship, remaining Belgian. I knew very little of him before I picked up the three most popular of his works (as measured by LibraryThing); the one thing I could point to was Sibelius' 1905 incidental music for the play Pelléas et Mélisande, whose first movement, "At The Castle Gate", was the theme music for the BBC astronomy programme The Sky At Night, as presented for so long by Patrick Moore.

Pelléas and Mélisande/Pelléas et Mélisande

Second speech from Act I Scene III (Arkël, king of Allemonde, is reviewing recent family developments with his daughter Geneviève, whose son Golaud has recently married Mélisande, found mysteriously in the woods. Geneviève asks Arkël what he things about it all. He replies):

ARKËL: Nothing. He has done what he probably must have done. I am very old, and nevertheless I have not yet seen clearly for one moment into myself; how would you that I judge what others have done? I am not far from the tomb and do not succeed in judging myself…. One always mistakes when one does not close his eyes. That may seem strange to us; but that is all. He is past the age to marry and he weds like a child, a little girl he finds by a spring…. That may seem strange to us, because we never see but the reverse of destinies … the reverse even of our own…. He has always followed my counsels hitherto; I had thought to make him happy in sending him to ask the hand of Princess Ursula…. He could not remain alone; since the death of his wife he has been sad to be alone; and that marriage would have put an end to long wars and old hatreds…. He would not have it so. Let it be as he would have it; I have never put myself athwart a destiny; and he knows better than I his future. There happen perhaps no useless events…. ARKÉL: Je n'en dis rien. Il a fait ce qu'il devait probablement faire. Je suis très vieux et cependant je n'ai pas encore vu clair, un instant, en moi-même ; comment voulez-vous que je juge ce que d'autres ont fait? Je ne suis pas loin du tombeau et je ne parviens pas à me juger moi-même… On se trompe toujours lorsqu'on ne ferme pas les yeux pour pardonner ou pour mieux regarder en soi-même. Cela nous semble étrange ; et voilà tout. Il a passé l'âge mûr et il épouse, comme un enfant, une petite fille qu'il trouve près d'une source… Cela nous semble étrange, parce que nous ne voyons jamais que l'envers des destinées… l'envers même de la nôtre… Il avait toujours suivi mes conseils jusqu'ici; j'avais cru le rendre heureux en l'envoyant demander la main de la princesse Ursule… Il ne pouvait pas rester seul, et depuis la mort de sa femme il était triste d'être seul; et ce mariage allait mettre fin à de longues guerres et à de vieilles haines… Il ne l'a pas voulu. Qu'il en soit comme il l'a voulu : je ne me suis jamais mis en travers d'une destinée ; et il sait mieux que moi son avenir. Il n'arrive peut-être pas d'événements inutiles…

This is one of Maeterlinck's earliest plays, first performed in 1893, and must have contributed richly to his reputation. The title of the play makes it easy to guess the plot. Although Golaud falls in love with Mélisande in the second scene and marries her, in fact she and his brother Pelléas end up fatally attracted to each other, and Golaud kills them both when he finds out. (Actually it's not clear if the wound or childbirth is the cause of Mélisande's death, but basically he stabs her and she dies.)

It's a pretty basic narrative – doomed adulterous love is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but I guess it resonated well in the 1890s. I wasn't overwhelmed by its elaboration in the script. Mélisande literally comes out of nowhere (she is cited in TV Tropes as a classic Fragile Flowerreview of a Canadian production last year that seems to have worked.

The Blue Bird / L'Oiseau Bleu

Second speech from Act II Scene II (Tyltyl and Mytyl are looking for the Land of Memory and think they may have found it):

MYTYL: There's the board!… MYTYL: II y a l'écriteau!…

This play is about the original Blue Bird of Happiness, which Tyltyl and Mytyl are sent to find by their neighbourhood fairy. Each scene takes them to a different allegorical place – the Fairy Bérylune's palace; the Land of Memory where the children meet their dead grandparents and siblings; the Palace of Night; the Forest, where the trees that have been attacked by the children's woodcutter father come alive; the Palace of Happiness; the graveyard where the dead are rising (or perhaps not); and the Kingdom of the Future, inhabited by the souls of children waiting to be born. Massive spoiler alert: it turns out that they had the Blue Bird of Happiness at home all along, and in the last scene it escapes and the play ends with the children breaking the fourth wall asking the audience to help find it again.

This play was first performed in 1908 in Moscow, and became a Broadway hit in 1910, presumably jogging the minds of the Nobel committee (it is the most recent work by Maeterlinck mentioned in their citation). There's a lot more to work with than in Pelléas and Mélisande. Reading through it, I thought how expensive it would be to stage – each scene needs to an elaborate set, different from the rest; the first scene features the magical animation and personification of Tylo the dog, Tylette the cat, and the concepts of Bread, Sugar, Fire, Water and Milk; and there are lots of birds, some of them blue. Tylette the cat is a great villain, conspiring with Night against the children and the dog. The ending is pretty weak but the journey is rather entertaining. I'm not surprised that a Japanese anime studio managed to spin 26 episodes out of it in 1980 (on Youtube, dubbed into Italian, starting here). It would be easy to do this wrong, but fun to try and do it right.

Not surprisingly it has been filmed several times. Here is the 1918 silent version:

Here is the 1940 version starring Shirley Temple:

And here is the first of several parts of a widely panned 1976 version directed by George Csukor and starring
Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner and Robert Morley, with a young Patsy Kensit as Mytyl:

The Life of the Bee / La Vie des Abeilles

Second paragraph of third chapter ("The Foundation of the City", about how bees build hives):

Here, in the new abode, there is nothing; not a drop of honey, not a morsel of wax, neither guiding-mark nor point of support. There is only the dreary emptiness of an enormous monument that has nothing but sides and roof. Within the smooth and rounded walls there only is darkness; and the enormous arch above rears itself over nothingness. But useless regrets are unknown to the bee; or in any event it does not allow them to hinder its action. Far from being cast down by an ordeal before which every other courage would succumb, it displays greater ardor than ever. Scarcely has the hive been set in its place, or the disorder allayed that ensued on the bees' tumultuous fall, when we behold the clearest, most unexpected division in that entangled mass. The greater portion, forming in solid columns, like an army obeying a definite order, will proceed to climb the vertical walls of the hive. The cupola reached, the first to arrive will cling with the claws of their anterior legs, those that follow hang on to the first, and so in succession, until long chains have been formed that serve as a bridge to the crowd that rises and rises. And, by slow degrees, these chains, as their number increases, supporting each other and incessantly interweaving, become garlands which, in their turn, the uninterrupted and constant ascension transforms into a thick, triangular curtain, or rather a kind of compact and inverted cone, whose apex attains the summit of the cupola, while its widening base descends to a half, or two-thirds, of the entire height of the hive. And then, the last bee that an inward voice has impelled to form part of this group having added itself to the curtain suspended in darkness, the ascension ceases; all movement slowly dies away in the dome; and, for long hours, this strange inverted cone will wait, in a silence that almost seems awful, in a stillness one might regard as religious, for the mystery of wax to appear. Ici, dans la demeure nouvelle, il n’y a rien, pas une goutte de miel, pas un jalon de cire, pas un point de repère et pas un point d’appui. C’est la nudité désolée d’un monument immense qui n’aurait que le toit et les murs. Les parois, circulaires et lisses, ne renferment que l’ombre, et là-haut la voûte monstrueuse s’arrondit sur le vide. Mais l’abeille ne connaît pas les regrets inutiles; en tout cas elle ne s’y arrête point. Son ardeur, loin d’être abattue par une épreuve qui surpasserait tout autre courage, est plus grande que jamais. A peine la ruche est-elle redressée et mise en place, à peine le désarroi de la chute tumultueuse commence-t-il à s’apaiser, qu’on voit s’opérer dans la multitude emmêlée une division très nette et tout à fait inattendue. La plus grande partie des abeilles, comme une armée qui obéirait à un ordre précis, se met à grimper en colonnes épaisses le long des parois verticales du monument. Arrivées dans la coupole, les premières qui l’atteignent s’y cramponnent par les ongles de leurs pattes antérieures; celles qui viennent après s’accrochent aux premières et ainsi de suite, jusqu’à ce que soient formées de longues chaînes qui servent de pont à la foule qui s’élève toujours. Peu à peu, ces chaînes se multipliant, se renforçant et s’enlaçant à l’infini, deviennent des guirlandes qui, sous l’ascension innombrable et ininterrompue, se transforment à leur tour en un rideau épais et triangulaire, ou plutôt en une sorte de cône compact et renversé dont la pointe s’attache au sommet de la coupole et dont la base descend en s’évasant jusque la moitié ou les deux tiers de la hauteur totale de la ruche. Alors, la dernière abeille qui se sent appelée par une voix intérieure à faire partie de ce groupe, ayant rejoint le rideau suspendu dans les ténèbres, l’ascension prend fin, tout mouvement s’éteint peu à peu dans le dôme, et l’étrange cône renversé attend durant de longues heures, dans un silence qu’on pourrait croire religieux et dans une immobilité qui paraît effrayante, l’arrivée du mystère de la cire.

I found this much the most digestible of the three books – perhaps I'm just not very good at seeing the potential in theatre scripts. It's quite short, and it's basically about bees. Maeterlinck was a keen bee-keeper, he knew what he was writing about (in this case at least – a later book about termites was allegedly plagiarized), and his enthusiasm is infectious. As the quote above demonstrates, it's a detailed, lyrical and rather passionate work, if somewhat anthropomorphic.

The downside is that, like a lot of nature writing of the time (the book was first published in 1901), it is a rather politically conservative text. There is no room here for departure form the natural order; although queens may be overthrown and replaced, this happens only as part of the set natural cycle of returning to the status quo. Bees manifest the importance of knowing your place and sticking to it. I was irresistibly reminded of Laline Paul's The Bees, one of the first books I read for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which turns exactly the same setting into a revolutionary parable.

And in conclusion, I think Maeterlinck's conservatism is the reason I can't get excited about him (just as it was probably what moved the older Carl Bildt to recommend him for the Nobel Prize). Pelléas and Mélisande follow their own instincts rather than the rules of polite behaviour, and die horribly. The Blue Bird is actually to be found at home rather than on an extensive quest. The bees are a perfect hierarchical society. Some of it is told very well, and it has provided a hook for other creators to hang great work on. But it’s not really my cup of tea.