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"MONNA VANNA" was published, like "Le Temple Enseveli," in 1902, and acted in the same year. It is the first of Maeterlinck's plays to have a precise date--the end of the fifteenth century. Prinzivalle, a mercenary of Florence, is besieging Pisa. He is a dreamer, a Platonist, a lover of beauty. In his childhood he met Monna Vanna, and his love has endured. She, though he touched her heart, has all but forgotten him, and is sleepily happy as the wife of Guido Colonna, a Pisan noble. Prinzivalle is willing to feed the starving Pisans if Monna Vanna, clad only in a mantle, is sent out to his tent at night. He wishes, it might be supposed, to learn whether she is one--for he knows her to be pure in life--who is well enough versed in spiritual love not to regard the body separately, or whether she has become the slave of social circumstances. That a virtuous woman becomes less virtuous by having only a mantle on, is a point that should trouble even a prude or a rake in the proving. Let that pass. Monna Vanna, who has no cause for suspecting Prinzivalle's identity, consents to go. Guido, a high-minded, possibly pure-living man, assumes that her honour is to be sacrificed, although he is told that Prinzivalle loves her. He raves; asks whether no other man's wife will do; declares that "our love has been a mere lie," and that he has "to bear it all"; and in vain orders that she shall be taken to a dungeon, as if she were his property; i.e. according to the spirit of the play, which need surprise no reader of" Le Trésor des Humbles," he does not love her utterly.
Prinzivalle loves Monna Vanna with a love to which Joffroy Rudel's was a pleasant whim. He does not lay a finger on her. Slowly she remembers, as he recalls how they first met in a Venetian garden in June. She bethinks her of the spiritual grossness of her marriage, but not until after long argument. Guido has made her "at least as happy as one can be when one has renounced the vague and extravagant dreams which seem beyond human life." Very slowly, Prinzivalle's words disturb the early love, where it lies beneath the thin but heavy veil of married bliss. . . . In the dawn, with one kiss upon his brow, she takes him back to Pisa, to save him from his enemies.
The Pisans, starving no longer, greet Vanna deliriously. But Guido shows no joy; all night he has been planning revenge; he wants to hear from her the sickening tale which he has been telling himself. He pushes her rudely back when she would tell the crowd her story. Hearing that her companion is Prinzivalle, he rejoices. He believes that Vanna has delivered the enemy into his hands. "There is a justice after all": she is "greater than Lucrece or Judith." She explains. At first he thinks that she is mad, then that she loves Prinzivalle; and on the latter thought he orders his enemy to a dungeon, and will see him tortured. Whereupon Vanna lies, for Prinzivalle's sake, and begs that she shall be allowed to torture him, all to herself. Guido believes and consents, and her last words are to him, as he grants her the key of the dungeon:
"'Yes, it has been a bad dream . . . but the beautiful one will begin. The beautiful one will begin.'"
She will escape with Prinzivalle.
The mere outline of this play, like that of "Sur Béatrice" or" Barbe Bleue," does not reveal much of Maeterlinck: it might have been the work of many other very different dramatists. Nor are the characters at once or obviously exceptional. Guido and his father, Marco Colonna, remain without surprises for us throughout the play. Guido is an ordinary possessive husband, but in a high place, and in an extraordinary position which tests him, and finds him wanting, whatever standard is applied. Marco is more remarkable, but quite credible as an old man of the Renaissance. He is sent to Prinzivalle to attempt to make terms, and he comes back to say that the condition of relief is the surrender of Monna Vanna; but he is in no haste to tell it to Guido, because he has met the Platonist Ficino in the enemy's camp, and has found Prinzivalle a sensitive humanist who loves not war, and he is confident of attuning his son to the same key. Monna Vanna at first is not surprising. When her husband hears that she accepts the painful condition, he thinks that she means to kill Prinzivalle, and then, when she explains that this would mean that the city would not be relieved, he supposes at once that she loves the enemy, and asks, "Since when?" But no one except Guido would find it impossible to believe that she is surrendering herself only to save the people. Guido threatens to kill her. She only says that he will do it if love commands; to which he replies, repeating her words contemptuously because she has spoken of love which she does not know. He insults her in his pride and misery. She wants to look into his eyes--as Ablamore did with Astolaine--his eyes, which he has turned away whilst repulsing her. Apparently she sees there the truth--that this man's love is only a frantic, tyrannous affection for a beautiful thing entirely subject to his will and body, that he is one to whom her purity is but a sensual delight.
In the first scene of the second act Prinzivalle is expecting the sign which is to announce that Monna Vanna is coming. He says to his secretary that it is a strange thing that a man will risk his destiny, his reason, and his heart, for a thing as frail as the love of a woman. He is about to have a happiness which he has been expecting since he was a child. Evidently this happiness cannot be the mere physical union with Monna Vanna, against her will: that could not be "the only happiness which he has dreamed of since he had dreams .... " Monna Vanna comes in. He asks her if she is naked under the mantle, and she answers "Yes," and also prepares to divest herself, but is checked by a movement from Prinzivalle. This bold stroke may be right because it is bold, since a cold inventor could not have dared so much. Prinzivalle, however, genuinely surprises us when he points to his bed and begins to be eloquent about a warrior's bed, where she will lie upon the skins of aurochs and rams that are unfamiliar with a thing so sweet and precious as a woman's body. This speech suggests rather Maeterlinck's than Prinzivalle's thoughts upon the occasion. But a moment later he is on his knees, calling her Vanna as he had been used to do when he was twelve and she eight. Vanna's memory slowly and sadly awakens--she remembers that he went away and never came back. She reproaches him, that he never found her out though he loved her; she even says that it is never too late for one who has found a love that can fill a life. She, if she had loved so, would have told destiny--she speaks like Joyzelle--to move out of her path. Nevertheless, she has accepted the love that has fallen to her; she loves Guido with a love less strange than Prinzivalle's, but more equable, faithful, and sure. tie asks her if she has trembled or hesitated since accepting this condition and since seeing him: she has not. He confesses that he had no clear intention when expecting her, and that a word or gesture would have inflamed his hate; but, on seeing her, he knew at once that this was impossible--and she also knew no fear, and had even felt that she knew him though she could not remember how. They are talking together, as Vanna says, as though they were alone on a desert island, and they are in a solitude magically wrought by memory and first love. But she thinks of her husband and his suffering. She does not return alone, because Prinzivalle is warned to fly from treachery. She will save him by taking him to Pisa and standing surety for him. She is happy at the sight and sound of Pisa rejoicing, and she gives him "the only kiss she can give him," upon the brow.
While Pisa is expecting the return of its saviour, Marco is reasoning with Guido in the accents of Arkël, of Aglavaine, of Merlin, of Maeterlinck himself. He urges Guido to make no sudden, "irrevocable decision," telling him that a man who wishes to be just can only choose among several acts of varying injustice, and that for us, "the playthings of irresistible forces," there is "goodness, justice, and wisdom" in the mere lapse of time. But Guido's one aim is to destroy the supposed ravisher of his wife, and he curses his father. The old man, remembering his own youth, accepts this benignly, asking only to be allowed to wait and see Vanna throw herself into her husband's arms. He greets her, and she, throwing herself into his arms, tells him she is happy. She wishes to tell the crowd, as well as Guido, what has happened; but he, who has repelled her approach, bids them all go. He forgives Vanna, and applauds her as greater than Lucrece or Judith when he thinks that she has brought in Prinzivalle with treachery, and he anticipates revenge. He tries now to kiss her, but she thrusts him back in order to explain the truth; for she can now speak not truth only but "the profoundest truth, the truth one speaks only once, that brings life or death in its train." She explains that Prinzivalle loves her, and has therefore spared her. Guido will not believe that he has spared her. At last he thinks that he understands--she loves Prinzivalle; but still he does not believe her. He offers to let them go away free if she will confess what he is convinced of and is gloating over in the stupefaction of rage and despair. She only repeats that she has spoken the truth, that Prinzivalle did not touch her. This condemns Prinzivalle in the eyes of Guido, whose rage culminates either because she persists in the supposed lie notwithstanding his generosity, or because he now believes her and sees in this mystic chastity something silently condemning himself. Only her simulated revulsion and confession at the last moment gives her the key of her lover's dungeon that she may torture him, as Guido thinks--but in fact that he may escape with her out of the evil dream into a beautiful one. Marco understands, and his judgment is Maeterlinck's: "It is life that is right." In the version of the play prepared for the music of Henry Février a fourth act is added, showing Prinzivalle and Vanna escaping at dawn and disappearing together with all the world and all their life before them.
Marco's judgment that "Life is right" is more terrible than "Necessity is stern," and it is also pedantic. It is Maeterlinck's formula for surrender to the mystery and strength of the infinite. It in no way affects the quality of this brilliant play. Great gifts, including that of good fortune, were needed to make "Monna Vanna" so vivid, moving, and pictorial upon the surface, and at the same time so essentially spiritual. He has done this without any of his old paraphernalia: no towers, vaults, or impassable doors. Even the scene in the tent might have been used by another dramatist with little difference. That Prinzivalle should fall in love with Vanna is easily credible; but that he--though a man of "dissolute habits" apparently--had loved her since early childhood, that she should remember this childish mutual affection, that she should gradually recover it, and at last lose her time-honoured love for her husband under its spreading triumph--this perhaps only Maeterlinck would ask us to believe. And we believe it as we read a scene like this:
V. Vous me connaissez donc?... Qui êtes-vous? . . .
P. Vous n'avez jamais vu celui qui vous regarde, comme on regarderait, dans un monde de fées, la source de sa joie et de son existence . . . comme je n'espérais pas vous regarder un jour?...
V. Non .... Du moins je ne crois pas ....
P. Oui, vous ne saviez pas . .. et j'étais sûr, hélas! que vous ne saviez plus .... Or vous aviez huit ans, et moi j'en avais douze, quand je vous rencontrai pour la premiere fois ....
V. Où cela?...
P. A Venise, un dimanche de juin. Mon père, le vieil orfèvre, apportait un collier de perles à votre mère.--Elle admirait les perles .... J'errais dans le jardin .... Alors, je vous trouvai sous un bosquet de myrtes, près d'un bassin de marbre .... Une mince bague d'or était tombée dans l'eau .... Vous pleuriez près du bord .... J'entrai dans le bassin.--Je faillis me noyer; mais je saisis la bague et vous la mis au doigt .... Vous m'avez embrassé et vous étiez heureuse ....
V. C'était un enfant blond nommé Gianello. Tu es Gianello? . . .
V. Qui vous eût reconnu? . . . Et puis votre visage est caché par ces linges .... Je ne vois que vos yeux ....
P. (écartant un peu les bandages). Me reconnaissez-vous, lorsque je les écarte? . . .
V. Oui... Peut-être .... Il me semble .... Car vous avez encore un sourire d'enfant .... Mais vous êtes blessé et vous saignez aussi ....
P. Oh! pour moi ce n'est rien .... Mais pour vous, c'est injuste ....
V. Mais le sang perce tout .... Laissez-moi rattacher ce bandage .... Il était mal noué .... (Elle rajuste les linges). J'ai soigné bien souvent des blessés dans cette guerre .... Oui, oui, je me rappelle .... Je revois le jardin avec ses grenadiers, ses lauriers et ses roses .... Nous y avons joué plus d'une après-midi, quand le sable était chaud et couvert de soleil.
P. Douze lois, j'ai compté .... Je dirais tous nos jeux et toutes vos paroles ....
V. Puis un jour j'attendis, car je vous aimais bien. Vous étiez grave et doux comme une petite fille, et vous me regardiez comme une jeune reine. Vous n'êtes pas revenu ....
The phrase, "Vous n'êtes pas revenu," recalls the "Nous ne nous verrons plus" of "Alladine et Palomides"; the whole scene, the fountain and the lost ring and the girl weeping, recalls "Pelléas et Mélisande," but with a difference. In the earlier play the scene had an unreal, vaguely significant beauty; in the later one, memory makes the beauty natural and the significance is genuinely that of moments not known as priceless until they are past. In the earlier play he invented the episode out of an inexperienced love of beauty; in the later he seems to have discovered it in life. Yet it would be possible to see in his first use of it a beauty as of intuitive divination which is wanting in the second.
From this point there is nothing difficult to accept, save the moral speeches of Marco, and these are worthy of a place in Maeterlinck's essays or on the lips of a formal chorus rather than of a character in the play. One of the best of critics, Edouard Schuré, has, in a brief note on "Monna Vanna," regretted that the escape should be due to a lie. Maeterlinck's "Life is right" is a convenient reply, but there is no need of it. The critic would not blame Vanna for a lie in her position, but presumably blames the dramatist for allowing the best to depend upon the lie. There is no need to argue in favour of white lies, especially when they are conceived in the utmost passion of a pure mind; they are judged white by those who come after, not by those who profit, and, it may be, suffer by them. To avoid the lie I should fear to see the heart's blood of Prinzivalle and Vanna, and perhaps Guido himself. After placing his characters in Italy of the fifteenth century he was bound to provide a conspicuous and decisive conclusion: a melancholy shutting of the door would not have been audible among princes and warriors. If there is a weakness, it is that Vanna should see a beautiful dream beginning, and that the dramatist should encourage a feeling of cheerfulness, when it is certain that, so long as the revengeful Guido lives, the evil dream will remain with the lovers. This cheerfulness is less fitting for two lovers in the fifteenth century than to-day. In that age two such dream-lovers would have had little chance of eluding the vengeance of Guido .... But this incongruity is slight, and even questionable, and is no high price for the triumphant combination of a noble presence and a delicate spirit in the play. The need for this combination, which might have to be condemned by the most austere criticism, is to be sought in Maeterlinck's character. He is fond of saying that an old man reading by a lamp may be more tragic than the "tragic loading of this bed," but his personal taste demands something more--stupendous castles, subterranean vaults, weird forests, strange islands, and now the opulent colour and movement and morale of Renaissance life. Whatever the surroundings, they have usually been not so much irrelevant as contrastful, and it is so in "Monna Vanna" also. Two children continue their dream while a city starves and is relieved, and a prince violently laments the loss of his lawful wife.
Like "Sur Béatrice" and "Joyzelle" this play is an illustration of "La Morale Mystique," and like them, though in a less degree, it has the weakness of using characters belonging to no place or time, unless it be our own; and, if it be our own, then the picturesque setting is a needless and even unfair distraction. As an artist appealing to audiences of theatres, Maeterlinck has advanced in this play, and has shown himself capable of holding an ordinary stage, whilst remaining faithful in the main to his proper ideals. At the same time he has practically relinquished the aim apparent in his earlier plays of making for these ideals a dramatic scheme peculiarly his own, and, at least by its independence of the world of to-day and yesterday, fit for the exhibition of characters dwelling in the world of his imagination and of the future.
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