“I obeyed more swiftly than the rest / But other laws than his.” (Ardiane)
Maeterlinck’s take on the Bluebeard story is the work from which I find it easiest to summarise how I feel about the whole damned corpus (that I’ve read thus far). So: it’s not difficult to imagine how Maeterlinck’s popularity came about – he attacked traditional stage convention (as the naturalists had already, and recently) but rather than closer to reality aimed deeper into his own uncharted unreality. His own peculiar strain of determined contrariness fed more from fairy and folk tales than the proven range of romantic stage templates. For avant-gardists of whatever inclination, each play expanded possibilities further – in attempting to stage personal symbolism rather than the shared currency of conventional meanings, Maeterlinck was a seamouth for further experimentation. And, since he preferred symbols with no set value, the plays were ultimately unresolvable, not simply reducible as the allegories which had so long locked and indexed fantasy to reality. Cliches, after all, are only those expressions once so powerful that they – by echoing, or copying, or cloning through many artists’ work and audiences’ memories – claim a place in culture as a piece of shorthand.
(An aside: above, the first part of Pina Bausch’s version of Bartok’s ‘Barbe Bleue’ opera – only vaguely related, but heart-arrestingly-not-literally powerful – seek out the others).
“He loves me: I am beautiful: So shall I learn his secret.” (Ardiane)
Ardiane has been cited as a feminist heroine for refusing the role of obedient wife – given six silver keys, plus one of gold she is forbidden to use, she reflexively ‘…throws away the keys of silver, which tinkle and ring on the marble flags.’ Her nurse uses the former to show her the treasures they unlock: ‘the two leaves of the door glide of their own motion into lateral recesses…countless gems…fall like a crumbling mass of violet flames…’ (and this is a good example of Maeterlinck’s startlingly innovative – precisely because ‘challenging’ – staging effects). Said nurse disgraces her position rather with gem-lust, but Ardiane can’t muster any enthusiasm: “I seek the forbidden door”.’
Behind this, she learns without much to do, are Bluebeard’s previous five wives and, caught, she joins them (when said monster, sad, says “It was a very little thing to ask,” it’s actually quite touching). But then: KER-SLAM. Our preternaturally calm protagonist wanders into darkness as if conducting a listless lap of a cottage garden – “fear not; he is wounded, he is overcome / But knows it not as yet.” Without spoiling the ending, the ragged, long-captive wives edge out of the dark…