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  • Maeterlinck—Meyerhold—Maxwell: the Hundred-Year Evolution of a "Cold Minting of Words"
  • Sam Stedman (bio)

Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's words were published in a collection entitled Le Double Jardin (1904) almost one hundred years before Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players received their first Obie for House (1998). They express Maeterlinck's drive to reform the prevailing realism of his day, with its obsessive concern with psychology and empirical detail to the exclusion of the grander, infinite forces of the cosmos with which art, he felt, should be contending. My recent experience with Maxwell's work and style has led me back to this Symbolism—one of the founding inspirational wellspring movements that influenced so very many subsequent revolts against, and revisionings of, a changing realism throughout the twentieth century—as a means of understanding how Maxwell's work fits into the global picture of changing Western performance practice from the late-nineteenth century through to the new millennium.

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Jim Fletcher at the hotel room desk in Richard Maxwell's Showcase.

Photo courtesy of New York City Players

It is not so much Maeterlinck's prevalent mysticism, or his desire to eliminate conflict in favour of an "enlightened consciousness" ("Modern" 60), that pointed me in his direction when I was first exposed to Maxwell's work, though I will allude to these considerations later on. Rather, it was my recollection of Vsevolod Meyerhold's convictions regarding an appropriate approach to the production of a Maeterlinck text that really set this train of thought in motion. In "The Theatre Theatrical," Meyerhold lays out the following principles "concerning diction:"

  1. 1. Needed is a cold minting of words, absolutely free from any vibration (tremolo) or weeping. Complete absence of tension or gloom.

  2. 2. The sound must always have support, and the words must fall like drops in a deep well; the clear impact of the drops is heard without the vibration of the sound in space. No indistinctness in the sound, no words with howling endings as when reading 'decadent' verses.

  3. 3. A mystic tremor is more forceful than the old-style temperament which was always uncontrolled, externally coarse (swinging of arms, beating of breast and thighs). The inner thrill of the mystic tremor is reflected in the eyes, on the lips, in sounds, in the pronunciation of words; an outer calm during volcanic experiences. And all without tension, lightly. (174–5)

These three tenets that collectively call for an extreme simplification of realism's obsession with excessive detail, it seems to me, carry a good deal of the impetus and trajectory [End Page 95] for Maxwell's current challenge to contemporary realism. Here, it is certainly not my desire to take anything away from Maxwell's achievements or originality (if we still believe in such a thing as the latter). If anything, I hold Maxwell in the highest regard for finding a way of reviving these creatively rich artistic principles in a way that has sufficiently caught hold of the popular imagination to garner major awards, for I've always had a bit of an "art-crush" on both Maeterlinck and Meyerhold.

My daylong experience with Maxwell began with a three-hour workshop in a rehearsal room at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse in Toronto in April 2009. The workshop opened with a series of exercises. Several participants had been pre-selected to memorize and do some basic preparation for a scene from Maxwell's play entitled End of Reality (2006). The actors were called to the stage; Maxwell quickly blocked the scene, and instructed the actors to perform it. The result was what one would expect: the actors had acted the scene. Maxwell then asked that the scene be run again, this time without the lines, and perhaps more importantly, without the acting. Just the blocking was to be reproduced: the movement necessary to get from A to B, as he described it. For instance, one physical sequence off the top of the scene involved the spilling of a cup of coffee, which was commented upon verbally by another character. This action stayed because it was a necessary part of...


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pp. 95-98
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