Maeterlinck: Memory and the Blue Bird of Happiness


In 1910, the blue bird of happiness landed in the United States, in New York, to be specific, on Broadway. The Blue Bird was a philosophical play written by Maurice Maeterlinck, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year for it and other works. His Pelléas and Mélisande is better known today, as productions of the Debussy opera continue to enliven the stage. But at the start of the 20th century, The Blue Bird was all the rage, emerging in film and song, baptizing airplanes and race cars, and like most popular cultural symbols, being reduced to its simplest iteration: the blue bird of happiness.

Maeterlinck did not mind. He wrote entire volumes about the behavior of bees, termites, ants and spiders, and his observations of the human species were no less keen. He was a philosopher, poet, playwright, essayist and novelist with nearly 60 works published between 1889 and his death in 1949. He was considered one of the most brilliant and original writers of his time, banned by the Vatican, adored in Japan, translated into 25 languages. Yet today he has been entirely forgotten, except in a very few places. With a newly ubiquitous blue bird flitting – twitting? – around, it seems a good moment to retrieve its creator Maeterlinck from the other side of the Mirror of Oblivion.

Born in Ghent, Maeterlinck remains thus far Belgium’s only claim to the Nobel Prize for Literature, and even then, he wrote in France and in French. Arguing in favor of his nomination, a group of Belgian parliamentarians noted that their culture had been submerged by three centuries of foreign occupation, and that his original Belgian voice should be recognized, even if expressed in French. A private Fondation Maurice Maeterlinck has been established in Ghent to try to keep his reputation alive, assisting a great-great nephew, Nicolas Maeterlinck, to publish an illustrated book on places that influenced his writing.[1]

If the blue bird flew 20 miles west of Paris, it would land in Médan, a village nestled between the banks of the Seine and a bluff of forest, and that is where I came across Maeterlinck. He had bought the village castle in 1924 as a country compromise, close enough to the big city for his young wife, Renée, and far enough away for him to breathe the air. The Maeterlincks kept an apartment with a garden on rue Raynouard in Paris, but he wrote that the pollution in the city was so dense it turned the flowers black. He liked the country. The castle in Médan wasn’t his first, and it wouldn’t be his last, but it suited him for a dozen years. His homes, which included a monastery and a casino, tended to be theatrical settings in which he produced dramatic works. I moved to Médan from the Normandy countryside, as did Maeterlinck, also as a country compromise, 25 years ago. The pollution in Paris has been largely cleaned up, but I prefer birdsong to bus traffic. 

Like many castles, Médan’s began as a hunting pavilion, just the type of place where the princess meets the fairy who changes her destiny. The castle was first constructed in the mid-16th century and renovated into various forms through the 18th century. Maeterlinck wrote to a friend that he would be in good company:  the poet Pierre Ronsard and the king Henri IV had slept there. He noted that Médan also was the home of writer Emile Zola’s villa, which was not nearly as grand as the castle, so he considered his purchase “the revenge of symbolism over realism.” That was a pretty sophisticated contest for a rural village of some 300 residents, most of whom were growing grapes and tending livestock.

With the homes of such literary masters as Maeterlinck and Zola, the village has added a pen and paper to its seal, and has put itself on the regional tourist trail of writer’s homes. Zola, who lived in Médan from 1878 to 1902, also put the accent on the ‘e’ in Médan in an attempt to smarten things up a bit. He referred to the house he bought on the banks of the Seine as “a rabbit hutch” and greatly expanded it, adding wings with each new literary success. The train track that ran through his back yard, connecting Paris to Le Havre, inspired him to write La Bête Humaine (The Beast Within) in 1890. He said he wondered about the lives of the passengers he could see going by, an early precursor to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. From the farmers and peasants of the early 20th century, Médanais today (1,400 residents) mostly commute into Paris, a 25-minute train ride on a good day. The line still runs through Zola’s back yard.

Maeterlinck and his wife Renée left Médan in 1936 after the election of the leftist Popular Front. He wrote to his American friend Florence Perkins: “We expect to emigrate to Portugal where I have good friends and where life is tranquil and sheltered from the taxman, who here takes just about everything I earn.”[2] Maeterlinck worried about money. He made a lot of it, but castles are expensive, to buy and to keep. In 1930, he purchased a palace, constructed but not finished by a Russian investor who planned it as a casino in the hills above Nice. Then the notary ran away with his payment of 2.8 million FF (about $15 million today), and he had to buy it again. He and Rénee named it Orlamonde, after the mother of seven princesses in a poem he had written. Today it is a luxury hotel called the Palais Maeterlinck.

The Blue Bird brought him fame, if not happiness. He hated the social duties of a literary star, the interminable dinners and fancy parties the French referred to as pince-fesses in benighted days before the #MeToo/BalanceTonPorc movement. But then, as now, authors must make appearances. In 1919, he and Renée traveled to the United States for the launch of a Blue Bird Campaign for Happiness, which, to its credit, was a fundraising effort for postwar needs in Belgium and France. It was also America distilling a philosophical idea to its simplest form, and then making money from it. Isn’t that what we do best? Maeterlinck was quoted as saying he “liked the Americans too much to be sincere in his remarks regarding them.”[3]

Maeterlinck was fêted with a Blue Bird for Happiness ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, organized by Anne Harriman Vanderbilt. Everyone dressed as characters from Maeterlinck’s plays;   particularly vivid was a flock of society debutantes as blue birds. Mrs. Vanderbilt had spent the war in France, organizing support and relief through The American Hospital of Paris and various associations. She and her husband had lived just across the Seine from Médan, in their chateau at Carrières-sous-Poissy, while Maeterlinck spent the war in the south of France. He had volunteered at the start of the war for the Belgian Army, but at age 52, his service was declined.

The Blue Bird ball was covered in detail in The New York Times, the story dated December 27, 1919. “While the ball stood as a message of happiness, the city, the first week of January, is to glow in blue. At the suggestion of Mrs. Vanderbilt, the Retail Dry Goods Association has recommended to all merchants to decorate their windows that week with suggestions of the Blue Bird,” the reporter wrote.

The story itself is told in the form of a fairy tale, much along the lines of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, nine years before The Blue Bird was first performed, in Moscow. Two children are set on a quest to find a blue bird, seeing through a special Diamond the world with souls come alive, in the Land of Memory, the Palace of Night, the Forest. The Diamond provides perception that ordinary people cannot see, a front-row seat in the struggle between good and evil. The children encounter false pleasures in The Luxuries, named as The Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Knowing Nothing, the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Doing Nothing, the Luxury of Satisfied Vanity, and, from the man who lived in castles, the Luxury of Being a Land Owner. When the Light is turned on them, these Luxuries are revealed as empty and ugly and rush off to hide in the Cave of Miseries. Symbolically, thus, happiness does not lie in material goods.

The children do not find the blue bird, but wake up and discover it was all a dream. A neighbor (who in the dream was the fairy Berylune) asks Tyltyl (the boy) to give his turtledove to her sick daughter, and as he finds happiness in giving it to her, the bird begins to appear blue. The next morning the girl comes to announce that she has been cured, she is well! Tyltyl reaches out to show her how the bird eats, and she instinctively pulls back, thinking he is going to take the bird. It flies away. Tyltyl addresses the audience: “If someone finds it, will you give it back? We will need it to be happy later...” Curtain falls. Happiness lies in giving, not in keeping.

After it opened on Broadway in 1910, The Blue Bird toured the United States, playing in Billings and Texarkana, Kalamazoo and Scranton, rivaling audience records held by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The play’s popularity was immediately echoed by a boom in marketing, from playing cards to paper napkins, whiskey to ladies’ hats, all blue, all bird. It was made into a film for the first time in 1910 and then a dozen times over before the most recent version, by Gust van den Berghe in 2011.

Where did Maeterlinck find inspiration for The Blue Bird? Avian symbolism occurs in ancient civilizations east and west, but historians believe Maeterlinck may also have read 18th century philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg on the issue. Swedenborg analyzed Biblical references to birds, matched them to their characteristics, and provided a symbolist primer. Dove is to peace as vulture is to death and eagle is to nobility. If a bird is an idea, it is quick, graceful and celestial. Just ask Twitter. Europe has few blue birds in nature. In the Americas, there is an Eastern, Western and Mountain blue thrush (Sialia genus), but it doesn’t have a European counterpart. Nor does French culture have a symbolic blue bird of happiness, bien sur que non. Yet, while its national bird is the barnyard rooster (cross, bossy, vain), the seriousness with which France takes literature has brought it 14 Nobel prizes, more than any other nation, and that doesn’t include Maeterlinck’s award. In Europe in general, the literary bird par excellence is the nightingale.

Maeterlinck and Renée moved on to New York City with the Nazi occuption of France in 1940. He arrived there a star in the literary firmament, interviewed by The New Yorker, announced by The New York Times. Customs officials let through the Pekingese lap dogs but confiscated two parakeets. “Perhaps it is for the best. Blue birds are the symbol of happy times,” he remarked.[4]

Maeterlinck’s shining moment of symbolism had been overtaken by a cruel and vicious realism. It was difficult to dress the suffering of France and Belgium under the Nazi occupation in metaphoric fairy tales. Nonetheless, he tried. He wrote a production of Jeanne d’Arc that turned into a thinly disguised discussion of Marshal Pétain’s situation, and then a play Les trois justiciers (The Three Justice-Givers), turning on corruption, choices, and redemption. His tools were those of the interior, of moral and personal spirituality interacting with the brutality of the outside world.

His poems, plays and stories have been set to music by masters from Debussy to Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg to Boulanger. In his Nobel award, the committee cited his works for “the richness of their fantasy and their fairy-tale form, a deep sense, all in calling out, in a mysterious manner, the imagination of the spectator himself.” If anyone considers that fairy tales are no longer told, I would point to the spate of super-hero films as well as others of critical success such as The Shape of Water. Happily ever after has not lost its appeal.

Maeterlinck fell ill during his stay in the United States and did not return to France until 1947, at the age of 85. He never returned to Médan, but stayed at Orlamonde, gazing at the blue Mediterranean until his death two years later. In the 1960s, Renée sold off part of the Médan land, rented the castle to a printer for awhile, and then it fell into abandon. The current owners purchased it in 1977 and brought it back to life. In 2007, a local theater group gathered 200 village volunteers to stage L’Oiseau bleu (The Blue Bird), echoing a 1931 performance at the castle that starred Renée Maeterlinck. This one was held outdoors, at the foot of the castle ramparts, on what is today Ronsard Square. The village hall, where smaller events are held, is the Salle Maeterlinck. We go there for dances and dinners and the mayor’s annual New Year’s greeting. When my children were young, we decorated it for Halloween parties. For Saint Jean’s eve, we have a big bonfire and village dinner. Part of the reason I’m writing this is I can see our days in Médan coming to a close, this time a city compromise for convenience. The kids are grown and gone, the house and garden are a lot of work. But it feels so keenly like letting the blue bird fly off. I hesitate, especially in the spring when the flowers bloom in symphony movements, first the plum trees, then the cherry, bring in the lilacs and let fall a touch of wisteria. It is a fine place to live and write.    

In many of his works, Maeterlinck blurred past and present, life and death as interchangeable on a spiritual level. In The Blue Bird, the children go through the Land of Memory, where their deceased grandparents are awakened only when the living think of them. In his last book, a memoir of his childhood published in 1948, he said that in thinking of his past friends, he was bringing them back to life. “Sometimes I see them again in a very clear hallucination, they are always seated around a long table, but the table seems to be only a reflection in cloudy water,” he wrote. “Does the forgetting pursue the memory or the memory pursue the forgetting?”[5]

Do we leave the past behind, or bring it with us into the future?

Our memory of Maeterlinck has faded, but the glimmer of his ideas continues to resurface in unexpected places, in a hashtag shorthand for perfect snow and sky on Twitter, today’s go-to blue bird, or somewhere over the rainbow. Maeterlinck gave us the bird, but happiness is for us to find.

[1] Nicolas Maeterlinck, Maurice Maeterlinck. Des rêves habités, Editions Pandora, 2012.

[2] Quoted in Anouk van Renterghem, “’Ma Chère Florence’: Maurice Maeterlinck – Florence Perkins. Vingt Ans de Correspondence,” «Nous comptons émigrer au Portugal où j’ai de bons amis et où la vie est tranquille et à l’abris du fisc qui ici, prend à peu près tout ce que je gagne.»

[3] Jeffrey Mehlman, Emigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

[4] Mehlman, Emigré New York.

[5] Maeterlinck, Bulles Bleues. Souvenirs heureux. Bruxelles, Le Cri, 1992. (“Parfois je les revois dans une hallucination très nette, ils sont toujours autour de la longue table, mais cette table semble n’être que son reflet dans une eau trouble. Est-ce l’oubli qui poursuit le souvenir ou le souvenir qui poursuit l’oublie?”)