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A x e l: Play and Hearsay Marilyn Gaddis Rose In Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel, the Archdeacon pronounces words of both reproach and prediction upon Eve-Sara-Emmanuele de Maupers: “ Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (The Cross stands as long as the world turns).” 1 It is Christmas Eve of 1828 in a Flemish convent with carols ringing to the Infant Jesus. Yet the willful heroine whose name suggests wife and mother with God indwelling refuses to become a nun, and instead must flee a cloister. But she is fated to find her life in death at the center of existence, the axis of spiritual continuity in a fleet­ ing world. For later in the piece, during the early hours of Easter in a fortified castle in the Black Forest, Sara finds her distant cousin Axel of Auersperg. And it is he who persuades her to consummate their supreme love by drinking from a chalice filled with poison and dew.2 As Sara slumps down upon Axel’s already prone body, inevit­ ably cruciformed by the release of ecstatic dying, Villiers says that around this couple, dedicated to the “ exile of heaven,” stir “ distant murmurs of the wind in the forest vastness, the surge of the plain, the hum of life.” In his earnest intellectual dillettantism, Villiers moved through many anti-positivist “isms” during the fifteen or so years he worked on Axel. Villiers, a talented and entertaining eccentric, enlivened parties by reciting Poe’s short stories or by accompanying himself at the piano as he sang all the parts of Wagner’s operas. In 1869, coin­ cidentally the year he met Wagner, Villiers began work on Axel. The play never pleased its author even unto his death in 1889, though it had been published by the review La Jeune France in 1885 and 1886. Despite Villiers’ dissatisfaction, Axel is a whole which shows a coherent personal synthesis of occultism, Idealism, Catholicism (which he never ceased to practice), and the Symbolist cults of Wagner and Poe. Axel is everything a work written by a first-generation Symbolist should be. Known by misleading reports, it follows its Romantic predecessors, leads its post-Symbolist successors, while being in itself a typological compendium of Symbolism. Villiers probably was pro­ tecting himself from disappointment when he wrote in his preface to the second version of Axel in February, 1885, that it was a “kind 173 174 Comparative Drama of dramatic poem and nothing more.” 3 The fact remains that he thought in terms of staging it and projected a musical score for it. Most likely he would have been gratified by the five-hour performances on February 26 and 27, 1894, at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris. The program reads “récitation” ; however, the production used cos­ tumes, sets, and music by Alexandre Georges, who, incidentally, made no use of Villiers’ own musical themes.4 The 1894 production was a turning point in Villiers’ reputation, which began to wane in France and grow in the British Isles and America. His is a reputation as anomalous as it is persistent: he has remained a writer whose Axel everyone has heard of but very few have read. As is well known, W. B. Yeats was in the audience, February 26, 1894. He paid direct tribute to the play, notably in “The Autumn of the Body” (1895), “The Tragic Generation” in the Autobiographies, and his preface to H. P. R. Finberg’s translation of Axel in 1925. Later Edmund Wilson gave the play currency among students of Symbolism when he published Axel’s Castle in 1931. Never particular­ ly lucky in life, Villiers was lucky in his legend-makers. But both Yeats and Wilson were too creative themselves not to read Axel selectively. Yeats was essentially monolingual. Although he had read it slowly and with considerable help from Arthur Symons before seeing it, he admitted that he had read it “almost as learned men read newly-discovered Babylonian cylinders.” 5 He could hardly have followed more than the mood and movement of the ritualistic spectacle. He says in the Autobiographies that Villiers and Pater shaped his own Rosa Alchemical and...


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