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'monna, Vanna' Post by :dhouse Category :Essays Author :Arthur Symons Date :November 2011 Read :935

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"monna, Vanna"

In his earlier plays Maeterlinck invented a world of his own, which was a sort of projection into space of the world of nursery legends and of childish romances. It was at once very abstract and very local. There was a castle by the sea, a "well at the world's end," a pool in a forest; princesses with names out of the "Morte d'Arthur" lost crowns of gold; and blind beggars without a name wandered in the darkness of eternal terror. Death was always the scene-shifter of the play, and destiny the stage-manager. The people who came and went had the blind gestures of marionettes, and one pitied their helplessness. Pity and terror had indeed gone to the making of this drama, in a sense much more literal than Aristotle's.

In all these plays there were few words and many silences, and the words were ambiguous, hesitating, often repeated, like the words of peasants or children. They were rarely beautiful in themselves, rarely even significant, but they suggested a singular kind of beauty and significance, through their adjustment in a pattern or arabesque. Atmosphere, the suggestion of what was not said, was everything; and in an essay in "Le Trésor des Humbles" Maeterlinck told us that in drama, as he conceived it, it was only the words that were not said which mattered.

Gradually the words began to mean more in the scheme of the play. With "Aglavaine et Sélysette" we got a drama of the inner life, in which there was little action, little effective dramatic speech, but in which people thought about action and talked about action, and discussed the morality of things and their meaning, very beautifully.

"Monna Vanna" is a development out of "Aglavaine et Sélysette," and in it for the first time Maeterlinck has represented the conflicts of the inner life in an external form, making drama, while the people who undergo them discuss them frankly at the moment of their happening.

In a significant passage of "La Sagesse et la Destinée," Maeterlinck says: "On nous affirme que toutes les grandes tragédies ne nous offrent pas d'autre spectacle que la lutte de l'homme contre la fatalité. Je crois, au contraire, qu'il n'existe pas une seule tragédie où la fatalité règne réellement. J'ai beau les parcourir, je n'en trouve pas une où le héros combatte le destin pur et simple. Au fond, ce n'est jamais le destin, c'est toujours la sagesse, qu'il attaque." And, on the preceding page, he says: "Observons que les poètes tragiques osent très rarement permettre au sage de paraître un moment sur la scène. Ils craignent une âme haute parce que les événements la craignent." Now it is this conception of life and of drama that we find in "Monna Vanna." We see the conflict of wisdom, personified in the old man Marco and in the instinctively wise Giovanna, with the tragic folly personified in the husband Guido, who rebels against truth and against life, and loses even that which he would sacrifice the world to keep. The play is full of lessons in life, and its deepest lesson is a warning against the too ready acceptance of this or that aspect of truth or of morality. Here is a play in which almost every character is noble, in which treachery becomes a virtue, a lie becomes more vital than truth, and only what we are accustomed to call virtue shows itself mean, petty, and even criminal. And it is most like life, as life really is, in this: that at any moment the whole course of the action might be changed, the position of every character altered, or even reversed, by a mere decision of the will, open to each, and that things happen as they do because it is impossible, in the nature of each, that the choice could be otherwise. Character, in the deepest sense, makes the action, and there is something in the movement of the play which resembles the grave and reasonable march of a play of Sophocles, in which men and women deliberate wisely and not only passionately, in which it is not only the cry of the heart and of the senses which takes the form of drama.

In Maeterlinck's earlier plays, in "Les Aveugles," "Intérieur," and even "Pelléas et Mélisande," he is dramatic after a new, experimental fashion of his own; "Monna Vanna" is dramatic in the obvious sense of the word. The action moves, and moves always in an interesting, even in a telling, way. But at the same time I cannot but feel that something has been lost. The speeches, which were once so short as to be enigmatical, are now too long, too explanatory; they are sometimes rhetorical, and have more logic than life. The playwright has gained experience, the thinker has gained wisdom, but the curious artist has lost some of his magic. No doubt the wizard had drawn his circle too small, but now he has stepped outside his circle into a world which no longer obeys his formulas. In casting away his formulas, has he the big human mastery which alone could replace them? "Monna Vanna" is a remarkable and beautiful play, but it is not a masterpiece. "La Mort de Tintagiles" was a masterpiece of a tiny, too deliberate kind; but it did something which no one had ever done before. We must still, though we have seen "Monna Vanna," wait, feeling that Maeterlinck has not given us all that he is capable of giving us.

(The end)
Arthur Symons's essay: "Monna, Vanna"

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