Pelléas et Mélisande (play)

Pelléas et Mélisande (play)

"Pelléas et Mélisande" (1892) is a famous Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters.

Cast of Characters

* Arkël, king of Allemonde
* Geneviéve, mother of Pelléas and Golaud
* Pelléas, grandson of Arkël
* Golaud, grandson of Arkël
* Mélisande
* Little Yniold, son of Golaud (by a former marriage)
* A physician
* The porter
* servants, beggars, etc.


Golaud discovers Mélisande by a stream in the woods. She has lost her crown in the water, but does not wish to retrieve it. They marry and she instantly wins the favor of Arkël, who is ill. She falls in love with Pelléas. They meet by the fountain, where Mélisande loses her wedding ring. Golaud grows suspicious of the lovers, has Yniold spy on them, and discovers them caressing, whereupon he kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande. She later dies after giving birth to an abnormally small girl.


The main theme is the cycle of creation and destruction. Pelléas and Mélisande form a bond of love, which, step by step, cascades to its fatal end. Maeterlinck had studied Pythagorean metaphysics and believed that human action was guided by Eros (love/sterility) and Anteros (revenge/chaos). The juxtaposition of these two forces brings about a neverending cycle of calm followed by discord and then change. Pelléas and Mélisande are so much in love that they disregard the value of marriage, provoking the ire of Anteros, who brings revenge and death, which restores order.

Several factors indiciate the initial reign of Eros in the play. There is a famine in Arkël's kingdom, indicating that the time for change is nigh. The servants complain that they cannot throughly wash the dirt from the steps of the castle. [Knapp. 68-71.]

Water is a key element in the play. It appears in several forms throughout the work: Mélisande arrived in the kingdom by "sea", Golaud finds her by a "stream", she loses her wedding ring in a "fountain", Golaud and Pelléas discover "foul-smelling waters" under Arkël's castle, Mélisande is often seen crying and mentions her "tears" several times. Moreover, most of the characters' names contain liquid consonants: Pe"ll"éas, Mé"l"isande, Arkë"l", Go"l"aud, Ynio"l"d.

Since the play is set in a fictional place and existential reason is absent, "Pelléas et Mélisande" can be considered a fairy tale.


"Pelléas et Mélisande" first premiered on May 17, 1893 at the Bouffes-Parisiens under the direction of Aurélien Lugné-Poe. Lugné-Poe, possibly taking inspiration from The Nabis, an avant garde group of Symbolist painters, used very little lighting on the stage. He also removed the footlights. He placed a gauze veil across the stage, giving the performance a dreamy and otherworldly effect. This was the antithesis to the realism popular in French theatre at the time.

Maeterlinck was so nervous on the night of the premiere that he did not attend. Critics derided the performance, but Maeterlinck's peers received it more positively. Octave Mirbeau, to whom Maeterlinck dedicated his play, was impressed with the work, which stimulated a new direction in stage design and theatre performance. [Bettina Knapp. "Maurice Maeterlinck". (Twayne Publishers: Boston). 67-76.]

In Music

The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. Perhaps the best known is the impressionist opera by Claude Debussy. Earlier, in 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for the play, from which he later extracted a suite. Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905. The story is also the basis of Arnold Schoenberg's early symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" of 1902-03.


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