Pelléas et Mélisande: The Play

Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolism has always been iimbued with Pythagorean Metaphysics postulating the cycles of creation and destruction governing human destiny. Nowhere is this more evident than in his famous symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande where this idea of eternal cycles is developed using symbols, nuances and allusions analogous to a harmonic progression in music.

Not surprisingly many leading composers of the time were so fascinated and inspired by Maeterlinck’s play that within a dozen years of its publication in 1893 at least four different versions of music based on the work were published, each one a major masterpiece of its own kind and genre. Claude Debussy started work on his eponymous opera even before the premiere of the play but did not publish it until 1902. The first composer to publish was Gabriel Fauré, followed by Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Jean Sibelius. In addition, there was an overture by Cyril Scott, and also a suite by William Wallace which incidentally predated Debussy's opera,  but these  and other lesser known versions are seldom played nowadays.

The world of Symbols

It is a pre-Raphelite dream-world with the suggestive name Allemonde (like Allemagne, or Germany?) which could be anywhere yet nowhere, the gloomy realm of old king Arkel who is half blind, where ominiously the “blind man’s well” has lost the miraculous power of restoring sight to the blind, where beggars are dying in a famine.

This wasteland of human follies and failings, of beauty, infatuation, love, jealousy, lies, murder, leads all the way to dusty death. Even dust has become a symbol. In the opening act the servants are seen scrubbing furiously to clean the steps and gate of the castle but in vain, when somebody mocks them, saying no matter how hard they scrub or how much water they use they’ll never be able to wash this castle clean!

Here the atmosphere is more important than the plot, and symbols more potent than reality, where random coincidences are never rationalized. In the second act, just at the moment when Mélisande dropped her wedding ring her husband Golaud had a dangerous fall when his horse bolted all of a sudden for no reason, almost killing him.

Death is an ever present symbolic metaphor in the lives of the characters whose acts are pre-ordained from the beginning. The lengthening shadow of the lovers just before they are attacked by Golaud, in act four, portends death. So is the silent shadowy procession of the maid servants, in the final act, who enter Mélisande’s bed chamber and range themselves against the wall around her deathbed and wait. All of a sudden they drop on their knees before any body else realizes it, at the exact moment of Mélisande’s death, confirmed by the attending physician who says simply ..”they are right...”.

Outline of the Play

Against this unreal background the main drama involves three central characters caught in the most fateful age-old love triangle, a ‘forbidden love’, which leads inexorably to its tragic end.

After the opening scene about the dusty steps at the castle gate, the focus shifts to Prince Golaud, King Arkel’s grandson, who is lost in a forest while out hunting, and meets a beautiful mysterious young woman Mélisande who seems to be lost and forlorn. After reassuring familiarization, he eventually marries her and brings her to the castle, where she meets King Arkel, Golaud’s mother Genevieve and half-brother Pelléas with whom Mélisande forms a close bond.

Pelléas soon realizes he is inextricably in love with Mélisande who feels the same way. He tries to leave the castle, but is prevented from doing so on account of his father’s illness. They meet again at the abandoned spring, the ‘blind man’s well’ where a playful Mélisande accidentally drops her wedding ring into the water; she later hides the truth about the missing ring from Golaud.

Mélisande is next seen at the tower window of her room singing while combing her luxuriously long hair, when Pelléas appears outside below the window, followed by a rapturous exchange of love. Golaud meanwhile had been spying on them for some time, at first warning his half-brother to stop this ‘childish game’, but lateron suspecting the worst, after more spying aided by his young son Yniold hoisted on his shoulders.

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After some time when his father has recovered, Pelléas again tries to go away to see a dying friend, but is temporarily dissuaded by Mélisande and they agree to a final tryst at the fountain. When the palace gates close for the night, the realization of being locked out all night, instead of causing alarm, turns them ecstatic in their passionate love. Golaud who had all along been eavesdropping on them bursts in from the dark and kills Pelleas in a jealous rage. Mélisande is slightly injured, and Golaud is wounded - by his own sword.

A few days after the servants had found the bodies of the almost dead Mélisande and the unconscious Golaud huddled together outside the castle gate, Mélisande gave birth to a tiny premature baby and was on the verge of dying, implausibly from the small wound that would not even kill a little bird. Golaud wanted to know from Mélisande the truth about the ‘forbidden love’, but she was too weak even to hold her tiny baby, and her incoherent answer even when they were briefly alone failed to satisfy the distraught Golaud who lamented not knowing “the truth” . Arkel silences him, …” Hush! … she must not be disturbed... the human soul likes to depart in silence...alone.”

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Precursors and sources

Notwithstanding the enigmatic protagonists, the central theme of the play is the familiar story of ‘forbidden love’ redolent of the myths of Tristan and Isolda, or of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, or Lancelot and Guinevere, each with the same predictable dénouement.

Even the names of the characters seem deliberately portentous. Pelléas alludes to the knight Sir Pelleas from King Arthur’s court. More obscurant is the association of Golaud with Sir Gawain. The origin of the name Mélisande can be traced to many sources ilike the Celtic folklores, the myths of Melusine, and the fairy tale of Blue Beard, as well as to historical legends like Charlemagne’s daughter Melisande, or the Queen Melisande of Jerusalem during the second crusade.

The interesting episode featuring Mélisande letting down her long hair through the tower window should be familiar to many readers of the fairy tale of Rapunzel collected by the Brothers Grimm, which comes from Persinette the earlier French version of the Persian tale of Rudāba going back to the 10th century.