From the first this atavistic trend in avant garde drama was very much a child of its time, reflecting a general intellectual climate that had been produced by literary movements earlier in the nineteenth century. The seeds can be found in the late romantic fascination for the ‘night side of nature’, out of which came two related positions, both equally antagonistic to the rationalistic and factual documentation of naturalism. One is well represented by Rimbaud’s notorious claim that ‘One must be a visionary…The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, immense and reasoned derangement of the senses. ’ The other can be characterized by the symbolist stress on ‘suggestive indefiniteness of vague and therefore spiritual effect’ (Poe).
In the theatre, the most noticeable effect of symbolist theories was an undramatic progression into abstraction and stasis, a withdrawal from the audience epitomized by the number of plays that followed Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande (1892) in being performed behind gauzes. 1 But certain aspects of their work do anticipate subsequent productive developments. Thematically a great many symbolist plays were associated with religious revivalism of the time, whether in the traditional terms of Edmond Harancourt’s updated mystery play, La Passion (performed on Good Friday 1890, in Holy Week 1891 and at Easter 1892), or in the esoteric and occult Babylonian spectacles of Joséphin Péladan’s Théâtre de la Rose Croix. Technically their more interesting devices were attempts to find symbolic ‘correspondences’ between colours and sounds which led to multi-level, synaesthetic productions, plus an emphasis on expressive tone and pitch in speaking, rather than on the sense of what was said, together with the development of mime to portray psychological states in immediate, physical terms, instead of describing these in dialogue.
The aim was to reach a deeper level of reality than deceptive surface appearances—to embody the inner nature of archetypal man in concrete