Thursday, October 29, 2015


The esteemed 1911 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), began to write articles and to give speeches for the Allies after the 1914 German invasion of Belgium, the country of his birth.  He spent the next three years trying to motivate other countries such as Italy to join the allied forces.  In 1917 he returned to a villa near Nice, France and spent the rest of the war there; however, it had been suggested to him that a propaganda play which could be produced in countries where sympathy for Belgium was lacking would be a major contribution to the war effort.

Maeterlinck wrote the play The Burgomaster of Stilemonde, in a three week period, during 1917. In the forward to the play, he states that it is “only a war and propaganda drama.”  The script was quickly translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (1865-1921) a Dutch-English man of letters, who was famous as a translator. He had been translating Maeterlinck’s writings since 1904. This play was also rapidly translated into Spanish and Swedish. The play was published in English during 1918 and labeled by reviewers in Great Britain and the United States as “The Great War Play.” 

“Burgomaster” is different from Maeterlinck’s earlier plays. It is a realistic tragedy based on political events that had occurred only a few years earlier.  For Maeterlinck to write a play in the here and now of time and memory was so very different from his earlier style based on symbols and myth. After that phase, he wrote dramas relating to inward conflicts as well as primordial experiences. He expressed moods as well as subconscious and half-realized feelings.  Maeterlinck is credited with creating Static drama. His fame was based on his most popular plays The Intruder (1890), Pelleas and Melisande (1892) and The Blue Bird (1908). 

There was an additional consideration for Maeterlinck since his play was related to newsworthy events that had recently occurred.  Maeterlinck was also using an event that other playwrights had used as the basis for their plays. I have posted two other plays: The Sorrows of Belgium by Leonid Andreyev (posted 10/3/15) and The Hate Breeders by Ednah Aiken (posted 9/24/15) that address the general topic of the Belgium invasion. At this time, there are five more plays based on the invasion of Belgium by Germany that I may use for future posts. While each playwright approached this invasion from a different perspective, Maeterlinck’s plot and characters had to be especially rousing given that he was writing about the country of his birth and a nation that held him in high esteem.

The Burgomaster of Stilemonde is a play in three acts.  The time is the end of August 1914 at Stilemonde, a small town in Belgian Flanders. The time in this drama is tightly held to a total of nine hours in a single day.  Act One commences at 10 AM and ends at noon; Act Two begins at 2 PM and ends at 4 PM; Act Three begins at 5:30 PM and ends at 7 PM.  One is frequently reminded of the clock’s time throughout the course of the play.

The action of the play is set in the Burgomaster’s (Mayor) study on the first floor of his home.  The Burgomaster is an honorable man who lives comfortably and enjoys the respect of his townsmen. The Burgomaster learns from his male secretary that a battalion of German soldiers is rapidly advancing on their small town and his German son-in-law, a Lieutenant in the German army, is with the brigade. Lieutenant Otto Hilmer arrives with several German officers and warns his father-in-law that he must act in a prudent manner.  Hilmer’s wife, Isabel, who he has not seen for several months, is in the house and she is expecting a baby.  So it is clear that in addition to feelings related to being invaded by another nation, this family must also struggle with loyalty to it various members.  The central conflict of the play commences when a German soldier of rank is murdered on the Burgomaster’s property. Someone must pay the penalty for this act and if the actual murderer is not found, the Burgomaster will be shot at 7 PM precisely.  

I found that I could not read this play through in one sitting, as I usually do, since the injustice of both the familial and nationalistic situations became very immediate and disturbing.  This type of reaction may happen when viewing the staged version of a play, but it is unusual when it happens to me during a reading of the script.  The characters are so clearly drawn and they dominate as well as determine the action.  The Burgomaster pops off the page as a real and convincing person.  He realizes the significance of every situation and the logical development of the course of every action. One understands the fate of the Burgomaster’s family represents the suffering of the nation.

This play is worth one’s time to read it.  I will discuss in my next post the production history of the play, one actor who played the role of the Burgomaster for twenty years and the reception of the reviewers to the play in production, as well as to its publication in book form.

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