Ardiane and Barbe Bleue or, The Useless Deliverance by Maurice Maeterlinck is the last of six plays offered in Bluebeard Tales From Around the World. The heroine's name varies from Ariane to Ariadne to Anne to Adriane which was used in the translation from the French by Bernard Miall that appears in the book. The play is very different from anything else in the collection and thus fascinated me as I read and reread it during editing. The play was adapted into the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Ariadne and Bluebeard) by Paul Dukas.
First, here's a short bio about Maeterlinck from the Nobel Prize site since he won the medal in 1911:
Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), born in Ghent, Belgium, came from a well-to-do family. He was educated at a Jesuit college and read law, but a short practice as a lawyer in his home town convinced him that he was unfit for the profession. He was drawn toward literature during a stay in Paris, where he associated with a number of men of letters, in particular Villiers de l'Isle Adam, who greatly influenced him. Maeterlinck established himself in Paris in 1896 but later lived at Saint-Wandrille, an old Norman abbey that he had restored. He was predominantly a writer of lyrical dramas, but his first work was a collection of poems entitled Serres chaudes [Ardent Talons]. It appeared in 1889, the same year in which his first play, La Princesse Maleine, received enthusiastic praise from Octave Mirbeau, the literary critic of Le Figaro, and made him famous overnight. Lack of action, fatalism, mysticism, and the constant presence of death characterize the works of Maeterlinck's early period, such as L'Intruse (1890) [The Intruder], Les Aveugles (1890) [The Blind], and the love dramas Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), Alladine et Palomides (1894), and Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896). The shadow of death looms even larger in his later plays, Joyzelle (1903) and Marie Magdeleine (1909), Maeterlinck's version of a Paul Heyse play, while L'Oiseau bleu (1909) [The Blue Bird] is marked by a fairy-tale optimism. Le Bourgmestre de Stilemonde (1919) [The Burgomaster of Stilemonde] was written under the impact of the First World War.Maeterlinck later tainted his career with an act of academic plagiarism which can be read about on Wikipedia.
Maeterlinck developed his strongly mystical ideas in a number of prose works, among them Le Trésor des Humbles (1896) [The Treasure of the Humble], La Sagesse et la destinée (1898) [Wisdom and Destiny], and Le Temple enseveli (1902) [The Buried Temple]. His most popular work was perhaps La Vie des abeilles (1900) [The Life of the Bee], which was followed by L'Intelligence des Fleurs (1907) [The Intelligence of the Flowers], studies of termites (1927), and of ants (1930). In later life, Maeterlinck became known chiefly for his philosophical essays. In 1932 he was given the title of Count of Belgium.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
His play of Ardiane and Barbe Bleue or, The Useless Deliverance is fascinating and definitely anticipates the 20th century trends and sensibilities. You can read a synopsis of the operatic adaptation (which changed almost nothing from Maeterlinck's original) at Wikipedia.
It's hard to talk about the play without revealing its twisty ending, so SPOILERS here. Ardiane ends up trying to rescue the wives, who are not dead, only imprisoned, as well as Bluebeard. Ultimately, they refuse to be helped, to change their circumstances, to move forward. They stay behind with the wounded Bluebeard. Ardiane departs, free herself, but defeated in her efforts.
Yes, there is all kinds of analysis and symbolism here--Maeterlinck is considered a pioneer of the Symbolist movement. It makes for a great paper and comparison to the other tales in Bluebeard's history.
Here is a short piece on the play from The Academy, Volume 61 (I'm not going to blockquote it):
As to Ariane et Barbe Bleu, M. Maeterlinck warns us against taking them too seriously. They do not claim to convey deep moral or philosophic ideas, but are of the nature of little texts begged from him by musicians as subjects for lyric embroidery. According to Mr. Miall, they are actually being set to music by a M. Gilkas. They are, in fact, slight enough, and although they are marked by many of the familiar features of M. Maeterlinck's manner, the symbolism is simple and less clouded than usual. They require a somewhat spectacular setting, such as an exceptionally poetic opera-comique might perhaps afford. In one there are showers of jewels—emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, pearls, rubies, and diamonds—over the stage; in the other a sudden magical and luminous efflorescence of divine flowers. The more charming of the two—in its unpretending way—is Ariane et Barbe Bleu. The basis of the plot is, of course, our childhood's ancient fairy-tale of Blue-Beard. But Ariane does not go the way of her predecessors. She is the modern woman, ardent for light and knowledge. She goes to set her sisters free, and they will not be set free. The play, by the way, has as subtitle, La Delivrance Inutile. She enters the castle, with the deliberate purpose of disobedience:
Before all things we must disobey. That is the primal duty, when an order comes with threats and is unexplained. The others were wrong, and if they were lost, it was because they hesitated.
She is an indomitable and baffled spirit. Passing the jewels by, she goes straight to the forbidden door and penetrates to the hidden caverns beneath. There she finds all her sisters, all the dear, sad, loving women of the earlier plays, Selysette and Melisande, Ygraine and Bellangere and Alladine. She embraces them, and bids them take heart.
Can you not laugh yet—laugh and clap your hands?
And all the rest are silent! What is this?
What are you? Will you live in terror thus
Always? I do not see you smile at all,
While with your eyes—incredulous eyes !—you watch
My every gesture. Will you not believe
The joyful news? O do you not regret
The light of day, the birds among the boughs,
The high green gardens blowing overhead?
Do you not know the world is in the Spring?
I yester-morning, wandering by the way,
Drank in the light, the sense of space of dawn,
So many flowers beneath my every step,
I knew not where to set my careless feet
Have you forgot the sunlight and the dew,
Dew in the leaves, and laughter of the sea?
The sea but now was laughing as it laughs
On days whereon it knows the wind of joy,
And all its thousand ripples approved my feet,
Its ripples singing on the sands of light ....
She puts herself at their head, teaches them to break out of their dungeon, herself bursts the bars and lets the light, the divine light which they had falsely taken for a superincumbent ocean, flood in. She decks and adorns them, hangs the jewels upon them, frees them even from the constraint of their raiment, bares Selysette's arms and lets the marvel of Melisande's hair flow loose. Her passion and audacity master them for a while. They are on the point of leaving the castle, and then they fail her. The peasants, angered at Barbe Bleue's wickedness, have attacked him. He is brought in wounded, and the women cluster round with soft hearts and tears of pity. Ariane is herself the first to cut his bonds. But her purpose has not changed. Can they be brought to leave him?
Selysette (running after her, and stopping her.)
Where are you going?
Far away from here.
Down yonder, where I am awaited still. . . .
Do you come with me, Selysette?
But when will you return?
I shall not.
Are you coming, Melisande?
(Melisande looks to and fro, from Ariane to Barbe Bleue, and does not reply.)
O see the open door, the far blue hills!
Ygraine, are you not coming?
[Yraine does not turn her head.]
Now the moon,
The stars, illumine every road. And you,
Bellangere, do you come?
No. . . .