The Modern Drama

Introduction: The following essay by Maurice Maeterlinck is from Le double jardin (1904); the English edition, The Double Garden (1920), translated from the French by Alfred Sutro, has long been out of print and out of copyright. Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a celebrated literary figure and philosophical-cultural thinker in his native Belgium, France, and well beyond, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. He was a major participant in the Symbolist movement, and his “fairy play” The Blue Bird (1908) has been adapted in various stage, screen and musical versions, including a Shirley Temple vehicle in 1940, and George Cukor’s 1976 film. Of special interest to Screening the Past readers are Maeterlinck’s theoretical essays on modern forms of drama, forms that he pioneered in his own early plays written between 1889 and 1894. In recent years, Jacques Rancière has returned to Maeterlinck’s evocative, reflective essays as an important turning-point in 20th century culture, especially in his Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013). “The Modern Drama” is a text that, in several uncanny passages, almost predicts the birth, many years later, of a ‘slow cinema’. – Adrian Martin


When I speak of the modern drama, I of course refer only to those regions of dramatic literature which, sparsely inhabited as they may be, are yet essentially new. Down below, in the ordinary theatres, ordinary and traditional drama is doubtless slowly yielding to the influence of the vanguard; but it were useless to wait for the laggards when we have the pioneers at our call.

The first thing that strikes us in the drama of the day is the decay, one might almost say the creeping paralysis, of external action. Next we note a very pronounced desire to penetrate deeper and deeper into human consciousness, and place moral problems upon a high pedestal; and finally the search, still very timid and halting, for a kind of new beauty, that shall be less abstract than was the old.

It is certain that, on the actual stage, we have far fewer extraordinary and violent adventures. Bloodshed has grown less frequent, passions less turbulent; heroism has become less unbending, courage less material and less ferocious. People still die on the stage, it is true, as in reality they still must die; but death has ceased – or will cease, let us hope, very soon – to be regarded as the indispensable setting, the ultima ratio, the inevitable end, of every dramatic poem. In the most formidable crises of our life – which, cruel though it may be, is cruel in hidden and silent ways – we rarely look to death for a solution; and for all that the theatre is slower than the other arts to follow the evolution of human consciousness, it will still be at last compelled in some measure to take this into account.


When we consider the ancient and tragical anecdotes that constitute the entire basis of the classical drama; the Italian, Scandinavian, Spanish or mythical stories that provided the plots, no only for all the plays of the Shakespearian period, but also – not entirely to pass over an art that was infinitely less spontaneous – for those of French and German romanticism, we discover at once that these anecdotes are no longer able to offer us the direct interest they presented at a time when they appeared highly natural and possible: at a time when, at any rate, the circumstances, manners and sentiments they recalled were not yet extinct in the minds of those who witnessed their reproduction.

To us, however, these adventures no longer correspond with a living and actual reality. Should a youth of our own time love, and meet obstacles not unlike those which, in another order of ideas and events, beset Romeo’s passion, we need no telling that his adventure will be embellished by none of the features that gave poetry and grandeur to the episode of Verona. Gone beyond recall is the entrancing atmosphere of a lordly, passionate life; gone the brawls in picturesque streets, the interludes of bloodshed and splendour, the mysterious poisons, the majestic, complaisant tombs! And where shall we look for that exquisite summer’s night, which owes its vastness, its savour, the very appeal that it makes to us, to the shadow of an heroic, inevitable death that already lay heavy upon it? Strip the story of Romeo and Juliet of these beautiful trappings, and we have only the very simple and ordinary desire of a noble-hearted, unfortunate youth for a maiden whose obdurate parents deny him her hand. All the poetry, the splendour, all the passionate life of this desire result from the glamour, the nobility, tragedy, that are proper to the environment wherein it has come to flower; nor is there a kiss, a murmur of love, a cry of anger, grief or despair, but borrows its majesty, grace, its heroism, tenderness – in a word, every image that has helped it to visible form – from the beings and objects around it; for it is not in the kiss itself that the sweetness and beauty are found, but in the circumstances, hour and place wherein it was given. Again, the same objections would hold if we chose to imagine a man of our time who should be jealous as Othello was jealous, possessed of Macbeth’s ambition, unhappy as Lear; or, like Hamlet, restless and wavering, bowed down beneath the weight of a frightful and unrealisable duty.


These conditions no longer exist. The adventure of the modern Romeo – to consider only the external events that it might provoke – would not provide material enough for a couple of acts. Against this it may be urged that a modern poet, who desires to put on the stage an analogous poem of youthful love, is perfectly justified in borrowing from days gone by a more decorative setting, one that shall be more fertile in heroic and tragical incident. Granted; but what can the result be of such an expedient? Would not the feelings and passions that demand for their fullest, most perfect expression and development, the atmosphere of to-day (for the passions and feelings of a modern poet must, in despite of himself, be entirely and exclusively modern), would not these suddenly find themselves transplanted on to a soil where all things prevented their living? They have lost their faith, yet are charged with the fear and hope of eternal judgement. In their hours of distress they have discovered new forces to cling to, that seem trustworthy, human and just; and behold them thrust back to a century wherein prayer and the sword decide all! They have profited, unconsciously perhaps, by every moral advance we have made – and they are suddenly flung into abysmal days when the least gesture was governed by prejudices at which they can only shudder or smile. In such an atmosphere, what can they do; how hope that they truly can live there?

But we need dwell no further on the necessarily artificial poems that arise from the impossible marriage of past and present. Let us rather consider the drama that actually stands for the reality of our time, as Greek drama stood for Greek reality, and the drama of the Renaissance for the reality of the Renaissance. Its scene is a modern house between men and women of to-day. The names of the invisible protagonists – the passions and ideas – are the same, more or less, as of old. We see love, hatred, ambition, jealousy, envy, greed; the sense of justice and idea of duty; pity, goodness, devotion, piety, selfishness, vanity, pride, &c. But although the names have remained more or less the same, how great is the difference we find in the aspect of quality, the extent and influence of these ideal actors! Of all their ancient weapons not one is left them, not one of the marvelous moments of olden days. It is seldom that cries are heard now; bloodshed is rare and tears not often seen. It is in a small room, round a table, close to the fire, that the joys and sorrows of mankind are decided. We suffer, or make others suffer, we love, we die, there in our corner; and it were the strangest chance should a door or a window suddenly, for an instant, fly open, beneath the pressure of extraordinary despair or rejoicing. Accidental, adventitious beauty exists no longer; there remains only an external poetry that has not yet become poetic. –And what poetry, if we probe to the root of things – what poetry is there that does not borrow nearly all its charm, nearly all its ecstasy, from elements that are wholly external? Last of all, there is no longer a God to widen, or master, the action; nor is there an inexorable fate to form a mysterious, solemn and tragical background for the slightest gesture of man; nor the somber and abundant atmosphere, that was able to ennoble even his most contemptible weaknesses, his least pardonable crimes.


There still abides with us, it is true, a terrible unknown; but it is so diverse and elusive, it becomes so arbitrary, so vague and contradictory, the moment we try to locate it, that we cannot evoke it without great danger; cannot even, without the mightiest difficulty, avail ourselves of it, though in all loyalty, to raise to the point of mystery the gestures, actions and words of the men we pass every day. The endeavour has been made; the formidable, problematic enigma of heredity, the grandiose but improbable enigma of inherent justice, and many others besides, have each in their turn been put forward as a substitute for the vast enigma of the Providence, or Fatality, of old. And it is curious to note how these youthful enigmas, born but of yesterday, already seem older, more arbitrary, more unlikely, than those whose places they took in an access of pride.

Where we are to look, then, for the grandeur and beauty that we find no longer in visible action, or in words, stripped as these are of their attraction and glamour? For words are only a kind of mirror which reflects the beauty of all that surrounds it; and the beauty of the new world wherein we live does not seem as yet able to project its rays on these somewhat reluctant mirrors. Where shall we look for the horizon, the poetry, now that we no longer can seek it in a mystery which, though it still exists, does yet fade from us the moment we endeavour to give it a name?

The modern drama would seem to be vaguely conscious of this. Incapable of outside movement, deprived of external ornament, daring no longer to make serious appeal to a determined divinity or fatality, it has fallen back on itself, and seeks to discover, in the regions of psychology and of moral problems, the equivalent of what once was offered by exterior life. It has penetrated deeper into human consciousness; but has encountered difficulties there no less strange than unexpected.

To penetrate deeply into human consciousness is the privilege, even the duty, of the thinker, the moralist, the historian, novelist, and, to a degree, of the lyrical poet, but not of the dramatist. Whatever the temptation, he dare not sink into inactivity, become mere philosopher or observer. Do what one will, discover what marvels one may, the sovereign law of the stage, its essential demand, will always be action. With the rise of the curtain, the high intellectual desire within us undergoes transformation; and in place of the thinker, psychologist, mystic or moralist there stands the mere instinctive spectator, the man electrified negatively by the crowd, the man whose one desire is to see something happen. This transformation or substitution is incontestable, strange as it may seem; and is due, perhaps, to the influence of the human polypier, to some undeniable faculty of our soul, which is endowed with a special, primitive, almost unimprovable organ, whereby men can think, and feel, and be moved, en masse. And there are no words so profound, so noble and admirable, but they will soon weary us if they leave the situation unchanged, if they lead to no action, bring about no decisive conflict, or hasten no definite solution.


But whence is it that action arises in the consciousness of man? In its first stage it springs from the struggle between diverse conflicting passions. But no sooner has it raised itself somewhat – and this is true, if you examine it closely, of the first stage also – than it would seem to be solely due to the conflict between a passion and a moral law, between a duty and a desire. Hence the eagerness with which modern dramatists have plunged into all the problems of contemporary morality; and it may safely be said that at this moment they confine themselves almost exclusively to the discussion of these different problems. This movement was initiated by the dramas of Alexandre Dumas fils, dramas which brought the most elementary of moral conflicts on to the stage; dramas, indeed, whose entire existence was based on problems such as the spectator, who must always be regarded as the ideal moralist, would never put to himself in the course of his whole spiritual existence, so evident is their solution. Should the faithless husband or wife be forgiven? Is it well to avenge infidelity by infidelity? Has the illegitimate child any rights? Is the marriage of inclination – such is the name it bears in those regions – preferable to the marriage for money? Have parents the right to oppose a marriage for love? Is divorce to be deprecated when a child has been borne of the union? Is the sin of the adulterous wife greater than that of the adulterous husband? &c., &c. The entire French theatre of today, and a considerable proportion of the foreign theatre, which is only its echo, exist solely on questions of this kind, and on the entirely superfluous answers to which they give rise.


On the other hand, however, the highest point of human consciousness is attained by the dramas of [Bjørnstjerne] Bjornsen, of [Gerhart] Hauptmann, and, above all, of [Henrik] Ibsen. Here we touch the limit of the resources of modern dramaturgy. For, in truth, the further we penetrate into the consciousness of man, the less struggle do we discover. It is impossible to penetrate far into any consciousness unless that consciousness be very enlightened; for, whether we advance ten steps, or a thousand, in the depths of a soul that is plunged in darkness, we shall find nothing there that can be unexpected, or new; for darkness everywhere will only resemble itself. But a consciousness that is truly enlightened will possess passions and desires infinitely less exacting, infinitely more peaceful and patient, more salutary, abstract and general, than are those that reside in the ordinary consciousness. Thence far less struggle – or at least a struggle of far less violence – between these nobler and wiser passions; and this for the very reason that they have become vaster and loftier; for if there be nothing more restless, destructive and savage than a dammed-up stream, there is nothing more tranquil, beneficent and silent than the beautiful river whose banks ever widen.

Again, this enlightened consciousness will yield to infinitely fewer laws, admit infinitely fewer doubtful or harmful duties. There is, one may say, scarcely a falsehood or error, a prejudice, half-truth or convention, that is not capable of assuming, that does not actually assume, when the occasion presents itself, the form of a duty in an uncertain consciousness. It is thus that honour, in the chivalrous, conjugal sense of the word (I refer to the honour of the husband, which is supposed to suffer by the infidelity of the wife), that revenge, a kind of morbid prudishness, pride, vanity, piety to certain gods, and a thousand other illusions, have been, and still remain, the unquenchable source of a multitude of duties that are regarded as absolutely sacred, absolutely incontrovertible, by a vast number of inferior consciousness. And these so-called duties are the pivot of almost all the dramas of the romantic period, as of most of those today. But not one of these sombre, pitiless duties, that so fatally impel mankind to death and disaster, can readily take root in the consciousness that a healthy, living light has adequately penetrated; in such there will be no room for honour or vengeance, for conventions that clamour for blood. It will hold no prejudices that exact tears, no injustice eager for sorrow. It will have cast from their throne the gods who insist on sacrifice, and the love that craves for death. For when the sun has entered into the consciousness of him who is wise, as we may hope that some day it will enter into that of all men, it will reveal one duty, and one alone, which is that we should do the least possible harm and love others as we love ourselves; and from this duty no drama can spring.


Let us consider what happens in Ibsen’s plays. He often leads us far down into human consciousness, but the drama remains possible only because there goes with us a singular flame, a sort of red light, which somber, capricious – unhallowed, one almost might say – falls only on singular phantoms. And indeed nearly all of the duties which form the active principle of Ibsen’s tragedies are duties situated no longer within, but without, the healthy, illumined consciousness; and the duties we believe we discover outside this consciousness often come perilously near an unjust pride, or a kind of soured and morbid madness.

Let it not be imagined, however – for indeed this would be wholly to misunderstand me – that these remarks of mine in any way detract from my admiration for the great Scandinavian poet. For, if it be true that Ibsen has contributed few salutary elements to the morality of our time, he is perhaps the only writer for the stage who has caught sight of, and set in motion, a new, though still disagreeable poetry, which he has succeeded in investing with a kind of savage, gloomy beauty and grandeur (surely too savage and gloomy for it to become general or definitive); as he is the only one who owes nothing to the poetry of the violently illumined dramas of antiquity or the Renaissance.

But, while we wait for the time when human consciousness shall recognise more useful passions and less nefarious duties, for the time when the world’s stage shall consequently present more happiness and fewer tragedies, there still remains, in the depths of every heart of loyal intention, a great duty of charity and justice that eclipses all the others. And it is perhaps from the struggle of his duty against our egoism and ignorance that the veritable drama of our century shall spring. When this goal has been attained – in real life as on the stage – it will be permissible perhaps to speak of a new theatre, a theatre of peace, and of beauty without tears.

About the Author

Maurice Maeterlinck

About the Author

Maurice Maeterlinck

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a celebrated literary figure and philosophical-cultural thinker in his native Belgium, France, and well beyond, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911. He was a major participant in the Symbolist movement, and his “fairy play” The Blue Bird (1908) has been adapted in various stage, screen and musical versions, including a Shirley Temple vehicle in 1940, and George Cukor’s 1976 film.View all posts by Maurice Maeterlinck →