Pelléas et Mélisande

Definition

Theater

  • The best-known play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a pseudo-medievalfantasy first performed in 1893 in Paris. The acknowledged masterpieceof theatrical symbolism, it was the first play staged byAurélien-François Lugné-Poë at his Théâtrede l'Oeuvre. Mrs Patrick Campbell played Mélisandein the first London production at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in1898; she also took the play to New York four years later. J. M. Barriewrote that "Mrs Campbell is beyond comparison, better than shehas ever been in anything else." In the play her jealous husbandwas played by Mrs Pat's real-life lover Johnston Forbes-Robertson.Fauré later provided incidental music, while Debussy'sopera Pelléas et Mélisande was first staged in1902.

    Wandering in the forest, Golaud meets and falls in love withthe beautiful but enigmatic Mélisande. He marries her and takesher to live in his castle by the sea. However, an intense relationshipsoon develops between Mélisande and Golaud's younger brother,Pelléas. Conscience stricken, Pelléas bids her farewellfor ever, but Golaud, misunderstanding the situation, stabs him todeath in a frenzy. Mélisande bears Golaud's child and, forgivinghim, dies.

    The play is best known for the 1904 French-language productionat London's Vaudeville Theatre in which Sarah Bernhardt,then aged 59, played the youthful Pelléas to Mrs Pat's Mélisande.It was during this production that one of the theater's longest-runningon-stage jokes began. When Mrs Pat complained that a fishpond usedin one scene was a shoddy cut-price job compared to that used in thefirst London production, Bernhardt, piqued at this one-upmanship,arranged for a hideous-looking fish to be placed in the pond; whenMrs Pat bent to gaze dreamily into its depths during the performance,she became helpless with laughter. A year later the two stars tookthe play on a provincial tour. Mrs Pat, informed that nothing couldmake Bernhardt laugh on stage, bought a tobacco pouch in the shapeof a fish, painted on gills and scales, and tied it to the bottomof the pond. When Bernhardt saw the fish she was unperturbed and bentgracefully down to scoop it out; however, since it was secured firmlyto the bottom of the pond, the actress lost her balance and nearlyfell in. Neither mentioned the incident after the curtain fell. Atthe next day's matinée, in a scene in which Bernhardt was requiredto take Mrs Pat's hand tenderly, the Frenchwoman slipped a raw egginto her palm and squeezed. Mrs Pat continued without a smile, althoughBernhardt was shaking with mirth, tears running down her cheeks. Duringa later performance, when Bernhardt caressed Mrs Pat's hair, the latterused the cover of her long tresses to slip a live goldfish into herpartner's hand. Bernhardt continued unperturbed, holding the squirminggoldfish for the rest of the tender scene. Again nothing was said.

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