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||Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) - in full Maurice Polydore-Marie-Bernard Maeterlinck, also called Count Maeterlinck|
Belgian playwright and poet who was awarded in 1911 the Nobel Prize for Literature. Maurice Maeterlinck was closely associated with the French literary movement called symbolism, which used symbols to represent ideas and emotions. Among Maeterlinck's most famous plays is The Blue Bird (1908), a fairy tale with the theme of the search of happiness.
"Indeed, it is not in the actions but in the words that are found the beauty and greatness of tragedies that are truly beautiful and great; and this not solely in the words that accompany and explain the action, for there must perforce be another dialogue besides the one which is superficially necessary. And indeed the only words that count in the play are those that at first seemed useless, for it is therein that the essence lies. Side by side with the necessary dialogue will you almost always find another dialogue that seems superfluous; but examine it carefully, and it will be borne home to you that this is the only one that the soul can listen to profoundly, for here alone is it the soul that is being addressed." (from 'The Tragical in Daily Life' by Maurice Maeterlinck in The Treasure of the Humble, 1916)
Count Maurice-Polydore-Marie-Bernard Maeterlinck was born in Ghent, Belgium, into a prosperous family of francophone and Catholic tradition. His father, Polydore Maeterlinck, was a retired notary and a small land owner, and mother, Mathilde (Van den Bossche) Maeterlinck, was the daughter of an affluent lawyer. The surname is said to have been originated from a bailiff, who gave corn to the poor in a year of famine.
As a child Maeterlinck lived in Oostacker. He attended the Jesuit Collège de Ste.-Barge, a period of seven years' tyranny, as he later recalled. However, there he met two future poets, Charles van Lerberghe and Grégoire Le Roy. With them he contributed to La Jeune Belgique, a nationalistic literary review. His first poem, 'The Rushes', Maeterlick published at the age of 21. Because his family objected to his trifling with poetry, he was sent to study law at the University of Ghent.
After graduating in 1885, Maeterlinck spent some time in Paris. Maeterlinck became acquainted with the symbolist poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, who was much interested in occultism. Maeterlinck himself published a translation of Jan van Ruysbroeck L'Ornement des noces spirituelles (Ruysbroeck and the Mystics). After returning to Oostacker, Maeterlinck practiced law, but did not give up his writing.
In 1889 Maeterlinck published a volume of verse, Les Serres chaudes (Hot House Blooms), full of fin-de-siècle mysterious images. It was followed by La Princesse Maleine (Princess Maleine), a play set in an unreal Flanders in an undetermined time. Both were privately printed. Maeterlinck's avant-garde plays did not gain popularity among the public but his literary colleagues in Paris were enthusiastic. Princess Maleine was praised by the influential literary critic Octave Mirbeau, who announced that is was a masterpiece, "comparable-shall I dare say it?-superior in beauty to the most beautiful in Shakespeare."
In the1890s Maeterlinck wrote several symbolist
dramas, among them Pelléas and Mélisande,
later produced with musical setting by Claude Debussy. Maeterlinck was
furious when Georgette Leblanc (1895-1941) was replaced in the opera by
the American Mary Garden, and he wished the production will fail.
Debussy's opera was crushed in 1902 by critics, but four years later it
gained a huge success and was praised among others by the writer Romain
Rolland. When Richard Strauss heard the opera he said: "There's nothing
in it. No music. No development."
In the tragic story of lovers, Maeterlinck used dark stage sets and haunting sound effects to create an emotional response from the audience. Strauss suggested the subject to Arnold Schönberg, who abandoned the idea of an opera. His tone poem, which was scored for a very large orchestra, was completed in February 1903. Alban Berg spoke of the work as "a symphony in one movement". The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also composed music for the story. The music was commissioned by the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. At the première on 17th March 1905, Sibelius himself conducted the orchestra. A year after, when the play was again included in the theatre's programme, Harriet Bosse, the third wife of the Swedist writer August Strindberg, played the role of Mélisande. Lying on her deathbed in the last act, she was so moved when the orchestra played 'The Death of Mélisande' that she cried every time.
During the summers, Maeterlinck lived quietly at Oostacher, his family's country home, and returned to Ghent for the rest of the year. In 1895 Maeterlinck met Georgette Leblanc, an actress and opera singer. She was unable to get a divorce from her Spanish husband, but they lived together for the next twenty-three years. At that time Maeterlinck started to take a more realistic approach to his subjects, leaving certain melodramatic aspects of symbolism. He wrote for his wife several plays: Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896), Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1901), Monna Vanna (1902), a historical drama set in the quattrocento Pisa, and Joyzelle (1903), about victorious love.
In 1896 Maeterlinck moved from Ghent to Paris. Leblanc took the leading role in most of his plays and she also prepared The Children's Blue Bird. From this period dates Maeterlinck's metaphysical essays Le Trésor des humbles (1896, The Treasure of the Humble), La sagesse et la destinée (1898, Wisdom and Destiny ) and La Vie des abeilles (1901, The Life of the Bee), in which he examined analogies between the activity of the bee and human behavior. Noteworthy, bee-keeping had been Maeterlinck's hobbies since youth. In these writings Maeterlinck rejected Schopenhaurian negativism and replaced it with a view tempered with victorious optimism. It is possible, he though, for human being to alter the destiny if he or she so wills. A human being is double: he or she lives both an inner and exterior existence. "It is always a mistake not to close one's eyes, whether to forgive or to look better into oneself," Maeterlinck wrote in Pelleas and Melisande.
The famous statement (there are various versions of it), "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live," was not coined by Albert Einstein, but Maeterlinck made a similar connection in The Life of the Bee by arguing: "You will probably more than once have seen her fluttering about the bushes, in a deserted corner of your garden, without realizing that you were carelessly watching the venerable ancestor to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them), and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine." (The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, translated by Alfred Sutro)
Maeterlinck's most famous play, The Blue Bird, was first produced in 1908 by Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theater, where it ran for nearly a year. The work, an allegorical fantasy conceived as a play for children, have been widely translated and adapted into screen several times. In the story Mytyl and Tyltyl, the children of a poor woodcutter, fall asleep after a disappointing Christmas. They dream that the fairy Berylune sends them to find 'the bird that is blue'. They set out the journey with a diamond with which they are able to see the souls of the objects that surround them. The children visit the Land of Memory. In the forest they are attacked by animals and trees but the faithful Dog saves Tyltyl's life. The journey continues through the Palace of Happiness and Kingdom of the Future before the children return home and are awakened by their mother. Berlingot (the fairy Berylune), their neighbour, begs Tyltyl's little bird for her dying children. Tyltyl notices that the bird is blue and the one they have been looking for. The child recovers but the bird escapes and the children ask the audience to return it.
The Blue Bird was produced in 1909 at the Haymarket Theatre in London, rivaling in popularity J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. A New York performance followed in October 1910 and in 1911 the play was performed in Paris at the Théâtre Réjane, Paris. In the United States the play was so popular that its sequel, The Betrothal (1918), was first produced there. Walter Lang's film version from 1940, starring Shirley Temple as Mytyl, vanished soon. George Cukor's remake from 1976, starring Elizabeth Taylor in four roles, was a gesture of friendship between East and West. In this Russian-American co-production, Russian actors were in minor roles.
The Swedish Academy, which awarded Maeterlinck the Nobel Prize for
Literature, was aware that a broad mass of Swedes wanted to give the
honour to Strindberg.
The previsous year the Prize had gone to Selma Lagerlöf, a minor
writer, who had been supported by the Royal Family and the Academy. An
Anti-Nobel was created for Strindberg, who refused to receive it on the
same evening as the Nobel itself.Strindberg did not want to meet
Maeterlinck, saying: "I admire Maeterlinck's works, and have written
some fine things about them – but one should never meet. One can't talk
about what is written . . . and the rest isn't worth talking about."
During World War I Maeterlinck lectured for the Allied cause in Europe and in the United States. Before the war Maeterlinck had felt a sympathy towards the Germans, but the invasion of Belgium changed his attitude. His hatred and patriotic outrage against the destroyers of his homeland he expressed in Les Débris de la guerre (1916, The Wrack of the Storm): "No nation can be deceived that does not wish to be deceived; and it is not intelligence German lacks . . . No nation permits herself to be coerced to the one crime that man cannot pardon. It is of her own accord that she hastens towards it; her chief has no need to persuade, it is she who urges him on." Maeterlinck's relationship with Leblanc ended and in 1919 he married Renée Dahon, who had acted in The Blue Bird. They made their home outside Paris at the Château de Médan and wintered at a villa near Nice called Les Abeilles. Maeterlinck's interest shifted from fantasies towards naturalistic psychological subject-matters.
Between the wars, Materlinck wrote essays and plays, among others La Vie des termites (1926), which draws paralles between totalitarian systems and termite colonies. In 1932 Maeterlinck was made a count by King Albert. On the eve of World War II, Maeterlinck went to Portugal under the protection of Antonio Salazar and then fled to the United States. These years were financially hard for the writer. His works were ignored and he was unable to collect royalties from the sales of his books in Europe. In 1947 he returned to his home in Nice. Maeterlinck died of a heart attack on May 6, 1949. He was buried according to his agnostic world view without religious ceremonies.
Like the Spanis philospher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, Maeterlinck saw that the essential enigma of the human condition is the issue of death. His last book was Bulles bleues (1948), a collection of happy reminiscences. It has been argued, that Maeterlinck's plays, with their unspoken dialogue, sense of fatality, and mysteries below the everyday surface, anticipated the art of Harold Pinter. Nevertheless, it is his essays that assured him of a vast readership after his plays went out of fashion. (see Philip Mosley, in 'Introduction,' The Intelligence of Flowers, 2008) In The Treasure of the Humble, writing of an old man sitting in his armchair, Maeterlink said that "I am persuaded that in reality this motionless old man lives much deeper, and much human and much broader life than the lover who strangles his mistress, the army officer who wins a victory, or 'the the husband who avenges his honor'."
For further reading: Maurice Maeterlinck by Edward J. Thomas (1911); Maurice Maeterlinck: A Biographical Study: With Two Essays by Harry and Maurice Maeterlinck Gerard (1915); Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy by Otto Heller (1918); Souvenirs: My Life With Maeterlinck by G. Leblanc (1932); Magic of Maeterlinck by P. Mahony (1951); Maurice Maeterlinck by W.D. Halls (1960); Prophets of Dissent by O. Heller (1968); Maeterlinck by A. Bailly (1974); Maurice Maeterlinck by B.L. Knapp (1975); Maeterlinck's Symbolism by H. Rose (1977); Maurice Maeterlinck: A Study of His Life and Thought by W. D. Halls (1978); Modern Drama in Crisis: The Case of Maurice Maeterlinck by L.B. Konrad (1986); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre by Patrick McGuinness, Patrick B. McGuigan (2000); 'Introduction' by Philip Mosley, in The Intelligence of Flowers, translated by Philip Mosley (2008); Spatiality and Subjecthood in Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Maeterlinck, and Jarry: Between Page and Stage by Leo Shtutin (2019) - Note: Georgette Leblanc's brother Maurice Leblanc created the famous gentleman criminal Arsène Lupin.