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"AGLAVAINE ET SÉLYSETTE"
AGLAVAINE ET SÉLYSETTE," the play which appeared in the year of "Le Trésor des Humbles," is Maeterlinck's first play of character. The scenery and the Arthurian names of some characters are the chief points in which it resembles its predecessors. Meleander and his wife Selysette are expecting the arrival of Aglavaine, widow of Selysette's brother, whom they have asked to come and live with them. He reads out her letter saying that, though she has only seen him once, three years ago, she feels as if she had known him from infancy. Meleander tells his wife that Aglavaine is beautiful as no other woman is, and that "nothing can live near her that is not true." Selysette, nevertheless, wants to go away. Meleander and Aglavaine have been writing to one another, but she has not seen the letters; yet Meleander thinks her happy. At sunset Aglavaine arrives and kisses them. Meligrane, Selysette's grandmother, awakening from a strange dream, will not take a kiss from her. Selysette promises to take her to an old tower on the shore, of which her sister Yssaline has found the key. She will love Selysette like a small sister. But Selysette, overhearing Aglavaine and Meleander confessing their love, runs away, and Aglavaine sends her husband after her and cries. Alone in the park Selysette reflects that her husband pities her, and when he kisses her dare not look at her except with a seeming prayer for forgiveness. She sees Aglavaine asleep near a well and awakens her instead of pushing her in, so that Aglavaine says she has loved against her will.
She tells Selysette that she and Meleander love her. Selysette says that she loves her, but that she is concealing her knowledge of things from her husband and keeping back her tears. Aglavaine says that she would go away if Meleander no longer loved his wife. She speaks of going away. She must not, and Selysette tells her she may kiss Meleander even when his wife is not there. Meligrane notices that Selysette grows thin, and thinks that either she must die or Aglavaine must go away; and Aglavaine says she is right, and promises never to kiss Meleander again, telling her moreover that he loves Selysette better than Aglavaine. Meleander tries to tell Selysette that he loves them both. Selysette now goes often to her tower to see a great strange bird. Meleander tells Aglavaine that when she is there and Selysette gone, he forgets his wife. A month passes, and Selysette is often at her tower, not so unhappy but more troubled. She is sorry to be happy, for she has a secret and will never weep again. But Aglavaine tells her she is going away, and had better never have come; to which Selysette replies that if Aglavaine had never come she herself would never have been either happy or unhappy. Selysette wishes to go away or to die, for thus she would be yet more happy. Aglavaine has seen her up in the tower dislodging stones; she throws away the new key, but Selysette finds the old one that was lost. And now Selysette is taking her sister Yssaline to catch the green bird. She kisses her grandmother good-bye; she kisses Meleander so violently that his lip bleeds. After climbing the tower, she returns to kiss her grandmother again, and leaves her sobbing. She goes up to the top of the tower again with Yssaline, and, talking to her of things the child does not understand, she leans out and falls. They can learn from Yssaline only that Selysette had seemed less sad than usual. "Love," says Meleander, "is as cruel as hate." Aglavaine asks the dying woman to forgive her. All that Selysette will say is that she was leaning over the wall and she fell ....
Without the tower, this would have been a modern play of refined middle-class life. For the first time the characters have a perfectly recognizable foundation in common reality; they are changed by Maeterlinck's handling, indeed, but they are not metamorphosed and reduced, like Maleine or Alladine, or seen as a spectacle in a dream, like the seven princesses or the people of "Intérieur." Aglavaine is at bottom a common type: the glib, confident woman "in sympathy with advanced thought," but sicklied over with the pale cast of Maeterlinck. Selysette is the pretty little, womanly, misunderstood wife, who turns out to be more golden at heart than Aglavaine, with her superior powers of speech. Meleander could be happy with either, but he cannot keep them separate. A little longer and he might have been freed by a virtuous conspiracy of the two. Selysette's decisive action solves the difficulty, and two persons will be happy where formerly three were unhappy. The characters explain themselves and one another. We see not only their acts and feelings, but what they think of these. It is full of sharp turns such as are not to be found in the earliest plays -- turns that reveal the working of the spirit with exquisite truth, as when Meleander is reading aloud Aglavaine's beautiful letter, and Selysette will see that the sun is setting, and that her grandmother is asleep and is not happy. "Oh! I want to kiss her," she says, and Meleander goes on reading the beautiful letter. Selysette's quickness of instinct is a wonderful piece of nature. Meleander is thinking of nothing whatever but Aglavaine. Selysette's spirit is feeling about among a hundred things in darkness. She is easily interrupted by Yssaline coming in with the key to her tower, and then, in the same breath as she tells Yssaline her nurse is waiting she asks, "Is she beautiful?" Of course Meleander does not know whom she is speaking of. Then again, when he has told her that nothing can live near Aglavaine except what is true, Selysette repeats his words merely. He says: "Selysette?" She: "Meleander?'' Then he goes on and forgets her big blank question, and proposes, with the optimism of the blind, that when Aglavaine comes they shall be even happier than they were before. There are times, indeed, when Selysette speaks not only the thoughts but the very words of real life, as when she is petulant with Meleander and says that when she does something that pleases him, it is because she has been trying to imitate Aglavaine, which is just after the speech where she expresses with such tragic lucidity and calm -- as if she had learnt it by heart -- the result of her deep brooding about Meleander and Aglavaine.
"'I have often said to myself that I am only a poor little creature who could never follow in your footsteps; but you have both been so good to me that I did not realize this as soon as I should, and you have often wanted me to go with you, because I was sad. And when I was there, each of you seemed very light-hearted, but there was not the same happiness in your souls, and I was between you like a stranger shivering with cold. And yet it was not your fault, nor was it my fault either. I know full well that I cannot understand; but I know also that this is a thing that has to be understood .... '"
To which Meleander replies with self-revelation as complete:
"'My dear, dear, good Selysette, what is it that you think you do not understand? . . .'"
and proceeds to tell her that one soul is beautiful in one way, and another in a different way. It is all very modern and perhaps very English. In Muther's "History of Modern Painting," when he turns from the English to the Flemish, he says that "Belgian painting differs from English as a fat Flemish matron from an ethereal young lady." But in Fernand Knopff he finds a Belgian artist who, "standing in connection with Maeterlinck and the literary decadents, has introduced an intellectual and spiritualized and delicate trait into the fleshly and sensuous Flemish art." In Aglavaine and in Selysette we seem to see those "blind and blue-eyed girls" whom Knopff depicts as "thoughtfully looking before them, with their heads resting on the table; slender women sitting dreamily at the piano in the dusk, lost in a world of sound," or "beings with aristocratic movements and an ethereal delicacy, standing with a serious air in the melancholy landscape." Of their Belgian fleshiness they retain only so much as makes them extraordinarily inactive. None of these women can ever be angry or make a wild gesture, unless it is Queen Ann of Jutland. When Selysette kills herself she does not leap from the tower, but gently lets herself slide out into the air -- an act impossible to any but the most inactive body, if not to that.
Aglavaine is perhaps Maeterlinck's own mouthpiece, and she talks out of a book when she deliberately and in so many words proposes that her lover's wife should strive towards "the love that disdains the pettiness of love." Meleander replies to her with words more closely connected with experience, but still too much like an extract from one of Maeterlinck's essays. He says that it is futile and exhausting to struggle to make their love like that of brother and sister, and says that it is by "the kiss" that all is transformed, that the eyes of a woman who loves see more clearly than the sister's. When Selysette asks what would happen if Meleander loved Aglavaine more than his wife, she replies that he will love the same thing in both of them, and that he could not love one without the other. In fact, when first she came among them she was "wiser than one had need to be," wiser, that is to say, with a too purely reasonable and expressible wisdom. It is significant that she altered her mind and came to see something in foolish human goodness which can do without such wisdom, and to believe that in the less conscious Selysette there was something beyond herself; she sees that life will not conform to her plans. Under Selysette's undesigned tutelage she learns some of the "feeble, tortuous wisdom" of ordinary woman, and is going to tell her that she no longer loves Meleander or is loved by him, and will therefore leave them, just as Astolaine, to save Palomides, tells her father that she loves him no more. Meeting Selysette-"little Selysette" -- she is powerless and almost stupid beside the penetrating natural creature. In the end she confesses herself blinder than any wretched girl. Nor does she ever reach a point equal to that where Selysette talks to Yssaline before she falls from the tower, for she is as Philosophy compared with Life. Yssaline does not understand her sister, who teaches the child to tell the others that she was not sad before the end. She tells her that she cannot understand her words now, but that a day will come when she can, and then she will never forget this scene, and will weep over it; and therefore she asks forgiveness; but the child turns to see the flocks of birds coming back to the tower. This is the Selysette who taught her that it would be better to be in error all a lifetime than make one weep who is in error.
This last dialogue between Selysette and Yssaline is a perfect specimen of Maeterlinck's tragic irony:
Yssaline. On ne voit presque plus le soleil, petite sur ....
Sélysette. Attends, attends encore, ma petite Yssaline, car autre chose approche à mesure qu'il s'éloigne, et j'y vois bien plus clair à mesure qu'elle s'approche Je ne sais plus si j'ai bien fait de te mener sur cette tour; et cependant, il fallait bien que quelqu'un vint ici, car il en est qui voudront tout savoir, et qui seront heureux pourvu qu'ils ne sachent pas .... A présent, petite sur, tout ce que je te dis, tu ne le saisis pas .... Oui, mais un jour viendra oh tu saisiras tout, et oh tu verras tout ce que tu ne vois pas pendant que tu le vois .... Alors tu seras triste et tu ne pourras oublier ce que tes pauvres yeux apercevront tantôt. . . Et cependant ne faut-il pas que tu voies sans comprendre, afin que d'autres aussi ne comprennent pas? . . . Mais tu ne pourras pas t'empêcher de pleurer lorsque tu seras grande, et cela pésera peut-etre sur ta vie .... Et c'est pourquoi, je te demande de ma pardonner aujourd'hui sans comprendre, ce que tu souffriras plus tard en comprenant trop bien ....
Yss. Les troupeaux rentrent, petite sur ....
Sél. Et demain les troupeaux rentreront aussi, Yssaline.
Yss. Oui, petite sur ....
Sél. Et demain les oiseaux chanteront aussi ....
Yss. Oui, petite sur ....
Sél. Et demain les fleurs fleuriront aussi ....
Yss. Oui, oui, petite sur ....
Sél. Pourquoi faut-il que ce soit la plus jeune ....
Yss. I1 n'y a plus qu'une petite ligne rouge, petite sur ....
Sél. Tu as raison; il est temps .... C'est toiméme qui m'y pousses; et les étoiles aussi s'impatientent déjà .... Adieu, mon Yssaline, je suis très, très heureuse.
Yss. Moi aussi, petite sur, hâte-toi, les étoiles vont venir ....
Sél. Sois sans crainte, Yssaline, elles ne me verront plus... Lève-toi, assieds-toi dans ce coin, et laisse-moi serrer les bouts de mon écharpe autour de ta poitrine, car le vent est bien froid ....
Maeterlinck himself, apart from his characteristic handling, is prominent in the book. He makes Aglavaine's letter say what Arkël said in "Pelléas et Mélisande," but with a difference: that they can make their lives marvellous so that even if sorrow comes to them it will first have become beautiful; and he makes her say that she is "glad to have suffered," and wait for the silence to speak, and tell her lover that their souls speak before the words are uttered, and reply to Selysette -- when she has asked if Meleander said that his love for her was deeper than he had known -- that if he had said so she would not have been sure that it was true. He puts into her mouth the speech about that deeper truth which is out of reach of words, however beautiful. But the obsession of God or Fate is absent from the play. Aglavaine, it is true, speaks of the "simplicity of things" against which it is vain to strive, but this is something very different from the hidden queen of" La Mort de Tintagiles," though it is terrible. Not until the last moment is it certain that Selysette will decide to die; we feel at least that she had a purpose and felt a choice, though up in the tower she asked why it was that the younger of the two "had" to go. She is always "little" Selysette, but perhaps "little" has become with Maeterlinck one of those terrible mots propres which cannot be avoided, expressing him in spite of himself: Selysette herself half laughs at it.
The castle is not terrible in this play; it is old, but not dark, and the old grandmother Meligrane is not grim, in spite of her inexorable wisdom and her refusal to kiss Aglavaine. The sun shines here, and not until it set could Selysette throw herself down. Nor is the tower, with a long corridor according to custom, wholly sinister, even though Meleander would like the key to be lost for ever. He was giddy during his only ascent. Selysette and Yssaline alone have climbed it often. It is surrounded on three sides by the sea, and was once a lighthouse. Now it is ruined and haunted by seabirds and doves, who recognize Selysette and will not be driven away. Nevertheless, this tower is not a natural part of the dwelling-house of this pale wife. Ibsen would have put her in a modern house -- a doll's house. Selysette is a Nora who would certainly not have killed herself had she lived at Bedford Park or Hampstead, instead of a castle by the sea with a gull-haunted tower. A romantic suicide instead of "the dull sound of a door shutting in the lock" was the price to be paid for this last indulgence of his taste for castles and towers. It was a princely expenditure. Maeterlinck presents a tower to Selysette where another dramatist would either have made her build one, as Solness did at Lysanger, or have contented her with a castle in Spain. But although the characters are modern the play is no more a modern play than it is an Arthurian romance. Modernity is only so much colour for the painter; he dips his brush in our pale blood to help make a picture of an old castle; it is colour just as the names -- Aglavaine, Meligrane -- are colour; nor is the philosophy in it any more than colour. What survives in the mind from this play is not the solution of a problem of one man and two women by suicide, nor yet an Arthurian family going to and fro in a castle. It is the tower that survives -- a high, crumbling tower amid wings that sway and circle, and over the top-most edge, where it is broken, a beautiful girl, pale and very quiet, leaning out in a dream to reach a strange pale-green bird that has come newly to the tower. On the top of the tower, in solitude, away from the castle and high above it, looking out towards the sea, she seeks a solution which she could not find down in the world. She returns out of this backwater into the main stream of eternity in order to be happier than before, with more than a half-belief that Meleander and Aglavaine will remain in it for as long as possible.
Mr. J. W. Mackail tells us of some one who read "Aglavaine et Selysette" and declared himself ''sick of that tower." But it is a mistake to confuse it with the tower of" La Princesse Maleine," "Alladine et Palomides," etc. Not only has it no dungeons and Plutonian waters, but it is not in any sense a tower of dream. It is an extraordinary tower sprung up during the night at the edge of some suburb or watering-place. It should thus be painted, casting its shadow upon "Lyndhurst" and "Bella Vista." Nor is the invention to be blamed. The music of the place is doubled by it, and it has perhaps been among the influences that produced the first verse of the lyric chorus sung upon the entrance of Deirdre in Mr. W. B. Yeats's choice play of "Deirdre":
|"Why is it?" Queen Edane said,
"If I do but climb the stair
To the tower overhead,
When the winds are calling there,
Or the gannets calling out
In waste places of the sky,
There's so much to think about
That I cry -- that I cry?"
Take away the tower from "Aglavaine et Sélysette," and we might have had an Ibsenitish play of inferior reality. As it is, we have something as perfect and as rare as anything of Ibsen's.
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