For the critic, the sad inevitabilities are death and taxonomy. He cannot avoid genres, isms, and zeitgeists, unless he wants the past to be unintelligible and the present to seem as random and strung out as an evening of “performance art.” “Victorian art” did pass away, and its heirs were “modernists.” While reports of modernism’s demise remain premature, there are plenty of “postmodernists” happy to accompany the poor old thing to the lawyer’s for a bout of will-making—if only they could find a law office in this maze of deconstructed street-markers. It is summing-up time.

But taxonomic generalizations, however unnecessary, always oversimplify the realities of the individual artwork, the event as it happened, the actual artist with his unique history and sensibility. Anthologies like Daniel Gerould’s sampler of 15 one-act “Symbolist” plays remind us of the dangers of classification. To frame elegant schemata about “the rise of modern drama” is a whole lot more pleas ant than knuckling down to an unfamiliar play like, say, Andrei Bely’s Jaws of Night and trying to work out not only its meanings and structure (the easy part) but also its worth either for its own time or for ours (the hard part). Gerould has done a salutary job to the extent that his selected plays call into question even his own prefatory generalizations about Symbolist drama. The plays force his readers once more to dehypostasize their convenient indices.

What is clarified by linking together the Strindberg of Coram Populo, the Yeats of The Shadowy Waters, and the Maeterlinck of The Intruder under a common label, a label shared not only by less-talented dramatists of their generation but also by painters as unlike each other as Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, and Carlos Schwabe, and a string of poets going back to Poe and Baudelaire? The answer is not “nothing.” The answer must be an ongoing, volumes-long critical exchange in which are debated different readings, surprise introductions of yet-to-be noted artworks, different methodologies of criticism and of historiography. Early-modernist Symbolism is neither a simple fact nor a textbook definition, but an arena with a sign out front summoning all critically minded readers and spectators interested in any of its exhibits to come in and wrestle. What ideas would I wish to bring along to such a match?

Not unpredictably, I would stress the dialectical patterns of cultural his tory during the West’s past few centuries. Our first true modernists certainly had in common a view of themselves as cultural rebels. Preserving the Ro mantic role of the artist as a solitary seer setting himself “over against” his society, they expanded that role to a public performance: the Symbolists included our first thoroughgoing Bohemians (exhibit A: Gauguin). They re belled against two contemporaneous but distinct “ideas” that they saw dominating high-Victorian culture: They reviled a materialism evidenced not simply in an expanding, industrial society “vulgarized” by nouveaux riches, but more importantly in an art that enshrined surface verisimilitude—the scientistic notion that straight observation could be objective, and moreover that it was the sole route to under standing. Secondly, they repudiated the cultural triumphalism that we associate with “Whig history”—a post Enlightenment optimism at once self satisfied and “evolutionary,” manifest not merely in morals but also in academic art-training.

The “Realists” and “Naturalists,” in all the mimetic arts, had championed the materialism while going to bat against the Whiggery. The “Impressionist” and “Pointillist” painters, in pursuit of greater objectivity in their observations, had found that their objects themselves dissolved; they ended up casting doubts on verisimilitude even as they studiously ignored academic idealization. It remained for the Symbolists to take arms against both sets of received ideas at once, in full blown opposition. Against the security of materialism they posited another, invisible world, by no means the rational idea-realm of a Plato, but rather a personal, alogical, intuited realm to be approached through the artist’s sub conscious mind and, at times, seen to interfere with the act of perception itself. And against the security of cultural self-satisfaction they went hay wire. In the theater as in painting, Symbolism was an attitude of mind that still affects our theatrical art so deeply that no question of “mere historical niggling” arises when the Symbolists are haled up for review.

The Symbolists, in sum, were all anti-Realists. They would not see dramatic characters as continuously integral or as interpretable from information about their fictional “lives.” Their only other common denominator was that they all took themselves very seriously. (When theater artists began to entertain doubts about self-serious ness, we moved into another loop of the dialectic.) No other common characteristic can be found among them, not even a common idea of exactly how a symbol worked, not even a uniformly definable “subjectivism.”

Some theater artists propounded a resurrected Winckelmania of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” holistic, synesthetic, Wagnerite, and orotund. Appia, Craig, Dalcroze, Bely, and other high-minded mystagogues pushed a “religion of Art” to un Victorian extremes, jumping Hegel’s triads to get to Hegel’s Geist. Other Symbolists were gamier, finding in libido the “other world” closed off to them by cultural norms. Here there stretches a gamut from the Dionysianism of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy to the festering erotolatry of the “decadents” (in drama, Wilde’s Salome, Wedekind’s Lulu plays, and almost anything by Mme. Rachilde). At this end of the spectrum the erotic itself dissipates into the heavy perfume of diabolism, Rosicrucianism, and lesser, do-it-yourself mystagogies.

But Strindberg, poring through his own subconscious and the “symbolic objects” cluttering his private attic in search of form and meaning, stands alone-until a newer generation of “Expressionists” tries to imitate him. (His brief Coram Populo, however, is scarcely more than a diabolistic, Biercean parody of medieval mystery drama.) Maeterlinck too stands alone, a serious formal experimenter working to elucidate a sense of mystery lurking behind common appearances and terse, cryptic language. For all his love of the enameled opacity of fairy tales (Pelléas et Mélisande, The Death of Tintagiles), his Intruder is set in an ordinary room, in modern dress: technically, we are at the font of Pinter and Mamet. Yeats, immersed in Irish mythology, No plays, and his own occultism, is far too elegant and economical in his poetic dramas, far too eclectic in his stylistic borrowings, to be lumped with anyone else of his time.

Symbolism’s stage career, then, can be pictured not as itself a Symbolist but as a Pointillist painting-pre dominantly violet spots with occasion al dabs of pure gold. The gold aside (the truly retrievable plays of Strindberg, Maeterlinck, and Yeats), we can still value the violet swarm that settled on stage during the two decades spanning the onset of our century. The playwrights and scene-designers called Symbolists, no matter how their individual intentions differed, broke the hold of a rationalistic, “realistic” drama that had been building ever since Cardinal Richelieu and his newly minted French Academy clamped the lid of a synthetic classicism on Pierre Corneille in 1636.

The Symbolists elucidated their precursors in retrospect: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Brand, for example. And they opened a door to a possible poetry that few of them were capable of achieving themselves-an audio-visual poésie du théâtre quite different from (not inherently better than) the poetry of character-in-action that had been their inheritance. It is not the Symbolists’ fault that their successors have shown no greater skill in creating masterpieces than they had; no artistic “project,” still less an “attitude of mind,” guarantees talent, pace some Symbolists’ self-confidence.

That self-confidence, the mystico ponderous self-absorption of capital-A Art so often present in Symbolist plays, was a caricature of Matthew Arnold’s High Seriousness, not a clean break with it. So was the holism, the striving for the unitary Effect. By the turn of the century (heralded by an anarchic eccentric, Alfred Jarry) there were theater artists, Symbolists to the degree that they rejected what Symbol ism rejected, who nevertheless saw in ironies of form-juxtapositions of conflicting modes and “fragments” – a truer mirror of post-Victorian sensibility. They had at their backs not a Wagnerian-operatic, not a tragic, certainly not a “Realist” model for theater, but rather a comic one: a tradition of subliterary entertainment popular since theater’s beginnings-the ancient mime (not to be confused with the Pantomime). The intelligentsia in certain cabarets and salon-revues had dabbled with this tradition at least since Crabbe, perhaps since Fielding; a heritage of “theatricals” rather than “drama.” But this generation saw not only wit but also jagged beauty and oblique truth in traditional popular entertainments: circus clowning and acrobatics, Harlequin pantomimes, Punch-and-Judy shows, marionettes, and eventually the movie clowns and honky-tonk entertainers filtering out of “lowbrow” America.

That is the burden of Green and Swan’s historical and critical investigation, The Triumph of Pierrot. And a floppy, shape-shifting burden it is for the poor authors, who at times remind one of some surreal Laurel-and-Hardy team trying to get an immense water balloon up a rocky hill without bursting it. Their book is not about theater alone but about “the Modern Imagination” in ballet, painting, film, music, fiction, and poetry as well. Most of the chapters were parceled out to one or the other of the authors: Green shows himself to be broadly cultured, brilliantly allusive, belletristic, metaphoric, and often hopelessly disorganized; Swan is methodical, historical-minded, and frequently so frustrated by the sheer immensity of his topics that he simply neglects large parts of them.

It would appear (we can only guess at this) that the book’s kernel lay in noting the sudden proliferation of actual Pierrot figures in Symbolist art, and their persistence thereafter: Picasso’s saltimbanques and Roualt’s luminous clowns, plays like Blok’s Balaganchik and Margueritte’s Pierrot Assassin de sa femme (the latter in Gerould), Diaghilev’s Carnival ballet. The next step (logically) was to grasp the wide range of meaning, for modernists, not only of Pierrot in particular but also of the whole commedia dell’arte and clowning tradition out of which he stepped. But this in turn had to lead to pan-artistic consideration of such broad topics as illusion-and artifice (the maschera), self-denigrating ironies (Prufrock as self-exhibiting fool), ironies of juxtaposition, tonal dissonances, theatrical formalisms, and the inwardly earnest “aestheticism” of a Nabokov, just for starters. A wonderful idea for a lengthy thesis, if you have a thesis.

Green and Swan indeed have several, and they are interesting ones. But with neither a consistent critical vocabulary nor an abiding historical parameter, the ideas refuse to stand in line and be counted. To take, as a lone example, the chapter on theater: Is the topic to be the reappearance of Pierrot like characters, the actual influence of commedia styles in acting and improvisation, or the spread of various “theatricalisms” by which an audience is informed from this outset, “This is (only?) play, not real life, not mystical revelation”? Well, all and none of the above. We get a fine summary of Vsevelod Mcyerhold’s career, some apt remarks on Evreinov, and some disconnected, painfully inadequate notes-in-passing on Mayakovsky, Reinhardt, Pirandello, Copeau, Brecht, Ionesco, and Dürrenmatt.

Not a word about the pantomime-terrifiant approach to acting that Firmin Gémier developed from his role as Jarry’s Ubu and applied to a famous Shylock performance and a completely commedia-style Taming of the Shrew. Not a mention of Pitocv’s “minimalist” production of Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped in the Paris of the 20’s, nor of that quintessentially Pierrotesque character of the interwar years, Ghelderode’s Pantagleize. No notice of Copeau’s own role as Andrew Aguecheek in his seminal Twelfth Night, nor of his influence on Jouvet’s playing of Mosca in a film of Volpone still available—and nothing whatever of Copeau’s pupil, Etienne Decroux, the originator of the modern French mime style arid the teacher of Marceau, Reynders, and (at one or more removes) dozens of other living mimes. Not a word on Karel and Josef Capek’s (sadly neglected) Adam the Creator, utter silence on G.K. Chesterton’s ironic fantasia of a showman with “Ubermarionettes,” The Surprise.

The solution need not be exhaustiveness-though that could be at tempted-but to define one’s theme so cogently that principles of inclusion and exclusion remain evident. Though this desideratum eluded Green and Swan, their book deserves to be called a superb hodgepodge, fecund in the possibilities of its inspiring future cultural historians. It is they who will do what remains to be done: argue with it be infuriated by it, expand upon it, put it in order. 

To turn to Weaver’s competent biography of Elenora Duse is to waken from Schwdrmerei to a landscape of clay, solid but quotidian. Duse emerges as the first internationally celebrated actress to make a specialty of her silences—the provocatively “unsaid”—and to be capable equally of projecting the grande dame and the unglamorous peasant. In these qualities alone she stood as the first major performer who might have conquered both the “subtextual” characterization of a Realist like Chekhov and the mysteriosity of a Symbolist like Maeterlinck. It is impossible, finally, to recapture a full sense of performances that “melted into air, into thin air” long before one was born, and to this donnée of theater history must be added the plain facts that Duse did not take on Chekhov, and that, despite her interest in Maeterlinck, only his Manna Vanna entered her repertory-not, it would appear, very memorably. 

Yet no discussion of the modernist “break with Realism” can overlook Duse, whose career, enthusiasms, and even love-life fell athwart this break. She was the first star of Verga’s “Naturalistic” Cavalleria Rusticana, the mistress of neo-Romantic, quasi Symbolist poet Gabrele d’Annunzio and the leading interpretor of his plays, and a tireless performer of Ibsen. Duse’s own artistry must be the focus of Weaver’s book for any reader who is not a professional theater historian. Yet, insofar as Weaver amply gives us the “hard edges” of a theatrical life of the period-the incessant travel, the quarrels, the fulsome goals at loggerheads with the economies-we are put in possession of a Pierrotesque perspective on the artistry itself.


[Doubles, Demons and Dreamers: An International Collection of Symbolist Drama, edited by Daniel Gerould (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications) $21.95]

[The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination, by Martin Green and John Swan (New York: Macmillan) $25.00]

[Duse: A Biography, by William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $19.95]