Background of “The Intruder”

By Jessilyn Marth

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WATER LILIES – Claude Monet. Artist: Claude Monet,1916. Impressionism. Series: Water Lilies. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Intruder premiered in Paris, France on May 20th, 1891. And in 1891, France was in its Third Republic. This time period is commonly defined as 1870-1940, beginning with the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and ending during World War II in 1940 when the National Assembly voted to create decrees that would ultimately result in a new constitution for France (Pinkney 357-358).  The Third Republic, in spite of party struggles, became “accustomed to the practice of parliamentary democracy, developed its economic potential, created a colonial empire, and by shrewd diplomacy forged the alliances that enabled it to resist German might in 1914” (Pinkney 305). More specifically, within the Third Republic is the time period from 1871-1914, before World War I, which is known as La Belle Époque or “The Beautiful Era.” La Belle Époque was full of optimism; peace in Europe encouraged a thriving arts community and technological advancements. It was considered “one of the great ages in French literature, art, and science” (Pinkney 319). This era produced great works by poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, and painters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre Renior, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso (Pinkney 319). And, these writers and artists were deemed the “Decadents” in regards to the decadence of the prospering arts scene (Deak 2). Also during this time, chemist Louis Pasteur and physicists Pierre and Marie Curie found success within the scope of French science (Pinkney 319).

The Yellow Christ. Paul Ganguin. 1889. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
THE YELLOW CHRIST – Paul Gaunguin. 1889. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maeterlinck’s The Intruder was a product of this era, an era of great innovation in the arts and sciences. This climate fostered the growth of the Symbolist Movement, which lasted from 1885-1895 (Deak 3). The Intruder‘s premiere, being 1891, was introduced to the public at the “privileged moment of symbolism;” it was called such due to the extreme popularity and height of the movement in the 1890s (Deak 3). In fact, the premiere of The Intruder was held at Théâtre d’Art, one of the two prominent symbolist theaters, the other being Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. These theaters were considered prominent because of the number of symbolist shows they housed; Between the two, they were home to at least 40 symbolist productions from the years of 1890 to 1897 (Deak 4). Specifically, The Intruder‘s opening was held at the Théâtre d’Art as a part of a benefit for the French poet Paul Verlaine and Paul Gaunguin, a French Post-Impressionist painter whose bold art greatly affected the symbolist Movement (Knapp). Paul Gaunguin is known to have said, “Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature even as you dream before it, and think more about creating than about the outcome.” (le Pichon 73). Just as this statement of Gaunguin shows, a symbolist belief was that the invisible or dream world could become visible by means of creating symbols (Symons). This is important to The Intruder because the “Intruder” is an invisible force throughout the duration of the play. Additionally, Maeterlinck’s work was showcased for these prominent symbolists, which only reiterates the strength of the ties The Intruder has to symbolism. 

The Symbolist Movement was primarily a European movement which found its heart in France. The symbolism that characterized this movement was “suggestive rather than cut-and-dried” (Hovey). As seen in The Intruder, the Dutch clock increasing its noise suggests that something unexpected is going to happen soon, but no character or stage direction explicitly states why the Dutch clock becomes so noisy. Along with it being suggestive, the movement, in particular, brought forth “literature in which the visible world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream” (Symons). Behind every word, every phrase, every action, everything was “lurking universality, the adumbration of greater things” (Hovey). Meaning was more than abundant in symbolist plays; it was everywhere. Anything could mean something, and it probably did mean something. A Sister of Mercy appears at the end of the play, but she never states her purpose. Even she, as a character, has the ability to be a symbol. 

A Sister of Mercy, of the religious order. Image courtesy of mercycareservices.org.
A Sister of Mercy – the religious order. Image courtesy of mercycareservices.org.

The Intruder has no set time period; Maeterlinck gives no year in which the play is to occur or any indication that it necessarily needs to be in the late 19th century, the time when he wrote the play and it first appeared on stage. The world of the play, therefore, has a universal time period. This timelessness was characteristic of symbolist plays, and Maeterlinck was influenced by the works of Mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Jakob Boehme to delve into “areas where feelings and sensations were no longer restricted to the phenomenological realm” (Knapp 31). The visible world was only one part of reality, the other was the invisible world (Knapp 31).

Also, the world of the play is defined by Maeterlinck’s sparce stage directions at the top of the first page of the play. Even though he is not extensive in his description of the setting, what he does mention holds value in relation to the symbolic nature of the play. Maeterlinck sets the play in an “old country house.” The location does not change throughout the entirety of the play. He specifies that there is a “Dutch clock” and “stained-glass windows, in which the color green predominates.” By making certain to mention these in particular, Maeterlinck gives weight and significance to these items. A Dutch clock is defined by its pendulum, and the inventor was Christian Huygens in 1656, a Dutch astronomer, physicist, and mathematician of note. Huygens may be important in respect to the play because he published works on the subject of optics, which essentially is the study of light and its properties — the behavior of the visible and the invisible (Bell). Because light in is one of Maeterlinck’s heaviest symbols in The Intruder, and because the symbolists and mystics held a fascination with seen versus unseen realities, the Dutch clock could be a direct reference to the scientific exploration of the visible and invisible, especially because the La Belle Époque era was a time of growth within both the sciences and arts (Knapp 31).

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Tiffany Stained-Glass Windows from Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church. Image courtesy of in.gov.

Additionally, the stained-glass being mostly green may be linked to the standard religious interpretation of green in stained-glass; green “symbolizes faith, immortality and contemplation; spring; triumph of life over death.” (Knight). Because Maeterlinck has a death at the end of the play at the same time a Sister of Mercy appears, the green, in this case, could be representative of the triumph of spiritual life over and beyond that of worldly death.

Moreover, the drama surrounds a family in a stage of waiting. The world of the play is their world, their home, and the audience waits with them as the play goes on.

Works Cited

Bell, A. E. Christian Huygens and the Development of Science in the Seventh Century. London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1947.

Deak, Frantisek. Symbolist Theater. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Print.

Hovey, Richard. The Plays of Maurice Maeterlinck. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1894. Web. TheatreHistory.com. 21 March 2014.

Knapp, Bettina L. Maurice Maeterlinck. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. Print.

Knight. “Color Meanings in Religious Stained Glass” Glass by Knight: Stained Glass Art Studio. 2009. Web. 21 March 2014.

le Pichon, Yann. Gauguin: Life, Art, Inspiration. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986. Print.

Pinkney, David H. History of France. Arlington Heights, Illinois: The Forum Press, Inc., 1983. Print.

Symons, Arthur. The symbolist movement in literature. New York: E. P. Dutton & Comapny, 1919. Print: The Open Library.