Cutting Ball Theater has carved its niche in the Bay Area theatre landscape as a producer of avant-garde theatre, from new experimental pieces like Eugenie Chan’s Bone to Pick & Diadem to reenvisioned classics like its three-actor interpretation of The Tempest. Cutting Ball’s latest play, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas &Melisande, however, actually goes back to an earlier artistic movement that predates the avant-garde theatre movement: Symbolism. The difference between the two movements reflects the historical developments in the world from the 19th century to the 20th.
Symbolism grew out of a desire to differentiate itself from Naturalism, the movement that became popular at the turn of the 19th century and continued to dominate much of the last century, starting with Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. The goal of Naturalist dramatists is often described as “to put a slice of life onstage.” The naturalistic Stanislavksi system of acting, developed by Constantin Stanislavksi as he directed the premieres of many of Chekhov’s plays, is still taught in acting classes today.
Symbolism, by contrast, embraces “the sumptuous lounge robes of extraneous analogies,” according to Jean Moréas, who named the movement in 1886 in one of its founding manifestos, Le Symbolisme, “because the essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea itself.” The Idea is the truth lying beneath the surface of what we can perceive. Charles Baudelaire’s collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal kicked off the movement, inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.
However, as much as Symbolism represents a break with the gritty realism of Naturalism, Pelleas & Melisande reveals that there are some similarities between the two movements. The intense moments of exchange between Melisande and her husband whom she betrays echo those of Miss Julie and her servant/lover Jean in the landmark Naturalist play Miss Julie by August Strindberg: the stillness, the pauses, the silence, each waiting for the other to make the next move. What is not said matters more than what is said. The subtext pulsates, filling the stage, and is stronger than the actual text, which skirts around the delicate issue at stake. In the tense standoff when Melisande’s husband Golaud catches her letting her hair down from the tower to his brother Pelleas, he reproaches her not with accusations of infidelity, but with the trifling charge, “You two are like children.” On the surface, his words seem harmless, but his tone betrays his murderous jealousy. Maeterlinck acknowledges the importance of the subtext in his essay “The Treasure of the Humble,” in which he says, “Side by side with the necessary dialogue will you almost always find another dialogue that seems superfluous.”
Another similarity between Naturalism and Symbolism is in their stance on fate versus free will. Naturalism sprang from Darwin’s introduction of his theory of evolution in the 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Naturalism dictates that individuals do not have control over their lives, but rather are controlled by environmental factors. Naturalist dramatists thought they could objectively examine human behavior under the microscope of the stage. While Symbolist dramatists were much more concerned with the spiritual realm, they also believed in predetermination. In Pelleas & Melisande, both Pelleas and Melisande are described as “having the look of someone who will die young.” When Golaud weeps at Melisande’s deathbed after attacking her in a fit of jealous rage, he is told that he is not responsible for her death, because she was fated to die early. Although the play’s chain of events is set in motion by Golaud’s discovery of Melisande crying next to a spring, the title Pelleas & Melisande almost seems to suggest that they are star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet, destined to die for their love.
In the decades following the debut of Pelleas and Melisande, the changing social forces of industrialization and two world wars turned the world turned on its head; people could not fathom the senseless slaughter of millions. This led artists to challenge the very existence of an objective reality. Movements reacting against Naturalism’s focus on reality sprang up alongside Symbolism. Bertolt Brecht, for example, thought that portraying life as it was onstage just perpetuated the status quo instead of improving it, and developed his Epic Theatre as a response. Existentialists, on the other hand, questioned that life had any meaning at all and concluded that meaning was a concept made up by humans. Absurdism was likewise born. For the first time, plays were made that did not have any of the elements that had previously defined plays, like plot, setting and character development. All of these elements contributed to the development of avant-garde theatre.
Although there is a great deal of distance in time and substance between the Symbolist and avant-garde theatre movements, Cutting Ball’s production of this seminal Symbolist work shakes the audience from its complacency as a passive observer as much as the company’s more avant-garde work. This is underscored by the rearrangement of the space. The stage, a long rectangular platform, sits between two rectangular seating areas that face each other, not allowing any member of the audience to escape being seen. Like Cutting Ball’s other work, the production demands that the audience interprets what it sees for itself, regardless of the artistic movement from which the work stems. While Pelleas & Melisande is not challenging in the same way as Cutting Ball’s more avant-garde productions, like Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays by Will Eno, it refuses to let its audience off the hook. The familiar human experiences it presents, like loving and hating someone at the same time, or loving someone you know you should not, are cloaked in the play’s unfamiliar world, giving one the uncomfortable feeling that more meaning lurks beneath the surface than one can grasp. And yet the play refuses to interpret itself for the observer.
Pelleas & Melisande plays at Exit on Taylor through November 27. Cutting Ball will continue its exploration of the roots of avant-garde theatre with this season’s Hidden Classics Reading Series, devoted to August Strindberg. The work of this Swedish playwright, who was a contemporary of Maeterlinck, straddles multiple artistic movements, including Naturalism, Symbolism and Expressionism.