Searching for our blue birds of happiness: Opening the door to the rich world of theater through research of Maurice Maeterlinck


The play L'Oiseau bleu (The Blue Bird) is largely responsible for popularizing the “blue bird of happiness,” presenting it as the target of a quest for siblings Tyltyl and Mytyl. Its author was Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian playwright, poet, essayist, and Nobel Prize in Literature recipient who was active from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Mariko Anazawa, who is known both in Japan and abroad as an authority in Maeterlinck studies, tells us that “Now, during the Corona pandemic, Maeterlinck’s words echo in our hearts more than ever,” that those words, which depict the small tragedies of everyday life while highlighting the truths that lie behind them, are a light at the end of the tunnel that is this pandemic. From the depth of Maeterlinck’s world to the richness of the art of physical expression that is theater, Professor Anazawa considers the power of art from a wide range of perspectives.

Mariko Anazawa Theater and Performance Studies Course
Department of Art Studies
Faculty of Letters
Professor Anazawa’s research focuses on symbolist theater, particularly the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck. After obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Université Paris-Ⅲ (Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle), she obtained a Ph.D. in Literature and Comparative Literature from Université de Strasbourg. She has been an IATC Executive Committee member since 2014, and she took her current position at the University in 2018. She is on the executive committee of La Société Franco-Japonaise de Théâtre, and a member of the Japan Society for Theatre Research, the Western Theater Comparative Studies Group, and others. Her lifework is finding relations between theater and art in the time of Maeterlinck.

An attraction to Maeterlinck, who views the unseen

Since my time studying abroad in France, I have been analyzing and researching Maurice Maeterlinck’s early scripts for what are called “symbolist theater.” Symbolist theater was an avant-garde school of theater that arose in response to the realism of late nineteenth-century playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, who wrote plays that realistically present social problems. Maeterlinck tends to focus on that which is normally unseen, the small dramas of everyday life that everyone can relate to.

His early work Intérieur (Interior), for example, is simply the story of a woman who commits suicide, and how a neighbor must deliver that news to her family, yet it quietly conveys that there are many daily tragedies in this world, trivial on a large scale but profound to families and those around them. I became devoted to the study of Maeterlinck through an attraction to his delicate and poetic world, one that lends an ear to the voices of those who died without leaving a message behind.

In my graduation thesis at Université Paris-Ⅲ, I researched and analyzed the performance program created by Edvard Munch, the painter best known for his famous work “The Scream,” who helped to create stage sets for Henrik Ibsen. My advising instructor at the time recommended that I continue to graduate school, and a professor I met there introduced me to the deep world of Maeterlinck, having just supervised and published the complete works of Maeterlinck’s plays. At the time I only knew The Blue Bird, but I soon became fascinated by the poetic, avant-garde world of pale light in Maeterlinck’s early plays, which focus on the unseen great truths and tragedies of everyday life.

My father was an art historian, and he too studied abroad in France, and my mother was a museum curator. Due to my father’s influence I’ve been attracted to France since I was in elementary school, and I was determined to study in Paris. When I was in high school, without permission I wrote a letter to one of my father’s French acquaintances about the possibility of study abroad there, an act for which I was severely scolded. Even so, that was enough to show how serious I was, so my father agreed to allow his only daughter to study in Paris. From the day I first arrived, Paris has been a special place for me, far more than a simple infatuation. It is also where I discovered the path that led to my Maeterlinck research while studying theater. I had many opportunities to encounter art since I was little, but I never thought I would become a researcher. I’m sure that the wonderful researchers and excellent librarians I met is what led me to develop as a researcher.

Maeterlinck’s words amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

After completing my studies and returning to Japan, while teaching at a university that taught the practice of theater I started researching how Maeterlinck was accepted in Japan. In the Meiji and Taisho eras, writers such as Bin Ueda and Ogai Mori introduced Maeterlinck to Japan, creating an excitement that could be called Japan’s “season of Maeterlinck.” His influence spread here in unique ways, for example in Ogai’s novel depictions of female characters and his writing scripts taking Noh as a subject.

I summarized my research into Japanese acceptance of Maeterlinck as a doctoral thesis, which I submitted to and was accepted by the Université de Strasbourg in France. My thesis caught the eye of a publisher, and a condensed version of it was published in May of this year under the title Maeterlinck et les Japonais (Maeterlinck and the Japanese). In the future, I would like to further my research on how Maeterlinck was accepted in other countries around the world, the relationship between French theater and art in Maeterlinck’s time (from the end of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century), and especially the stage sets and costumes used in theaters in the Interwar period.

When rereading Maeterlinck during the COVID-19 pandemic, I notice that there are many things that I feel. For example, in his essay La sagesse et la destinée (Wisdom and Destiny), he writes:
Is it idle to speak of justice, happiness, morals, and all things connected therewith, before the hour of science has sounded—that definitive hour, wherein all that we cling to may crumble? The darkness that hangs over our life will then, it may be, pass away; and much that we do in the darkness shall be otherwise done in the light. But nevertheless do the essential events of our moral and physical life come to pass in the darkness as completely, as inevitably, as they would in the light, Our life must be lived while we wait for the word that shall solve the enigma, and the happier, the nobler our life, the more vigorous shall it become; and we shall have the more courage, clear-sightedness, boldness, to seek and desire the truth. (From the translation by Alfred Sutro)

In passages like this I see the light of hope at the end of the dark tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Maeterlinck also teaches that wisdom can turn darkness into happiness. I cannot help but wonder whether a second Maeterlinck renaissance, another season of Maeterlinck will occur not only in Japan, but worldwide.

Knowledge provides wings that carry us high and far

In the first year of the Theater and Performance Studies Course at our University, students will study art widely and relatively, and they are divided into courses from the second year. In the Theatrical Physical Expression Course that I teach, second-year students search for a theme they would like to study while learning through practice what physical expression is, while third-year students engage in more specialized studies through groupwork and search for materials to use in their graduation thesis. This course of study is intended to teach us that book learning alone is insufficient for academic study of the theatrical arts, which is representation through the medium of physical expression.

I try to ensure that students in my seminars and courses can speak independently. The professors and researchers I have studied under so far have all allowed me to learn in my own way rather than simply handing down knowledge from above. There are no vertical relationships in scholarship, and I hope to continue learning as a fellow researcher along with my students from a position of equality. Of course, I do hope to pass on what knowledge and information I have.

I think the most interesting aspect of university learning lies in groupwork and discussions, thinking as much as you can by yourself, then sharing your thoughts with others in words and listening to opinions that differ from yours. That process helps everyone to grow. I often encounter students who have difficulty expressing their thoughts at first, but learn how to do so through multiple discussions. Indeed, many students who choose to enroll in the Department of Art Studies are by nature very sensitive.

Some students majoring in the Theater and Performance Studies Course like to watch theater, while others have been involved in theater since high school and others are active in ballet or other forms of dance. Those who like watching theater have preferences ranging from Takarazuka to musicals—recently even musicals based on anime—but in nearly all cases they are interested in physical expression, particularly theater.

It is very important for those who actually stand on the stage to engage in theory and research while they also practice physical expression. I’ve seen theater education in France for a long time. Theory is an absolutely necessary part of practice, and in the world of French theater philosophy is important too. Without that backing, if you’re just doing whatever you want on stage, you won’t get your message across to the audience. You need to study more deeply, more artistically. The more you know about what excellent actors and directors thought and practiced in the past, the richer your expression will be. Some people might say that knowledge just gets in the way, but from my experience, physical expression becomes abundantly fruitful only through both practice and theory.

For example, an actor playing the role of Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet needs to know something about the time in which Shakespeare was alive and about at least four of his other works, or his degree of understanding and reading of the work will be insufficient. Furthermore, he needs to supplement the role with his imagination and knowledge as to why this work is being performed now and how he should use his body to play Romeo in the twenty-first century.

Many students in the Theater and Performance Studies Course want to learn about theater widely, so there are many areas in which they can find work. Some have been involved in theater for many years and will continue performing even after graduation, while others will have jobs that support performers, such as stage directors. Of course, many also go on to work at general companies. People who have spent four years studying art, especially theater, have developed a richer humanity, so I think they can function well in any field.

There are few universities in Japan that give a broad education of the world of art, and those few tend to be very large schools, but Meiji Gakuin University has just the right number of students, allowing you to study broadly and deeply. Knowledge provides wings that carry us high and far, and one of the great attractions of this department is the excellent environment it provides for doing so.

Learning from the past, grasping the multisensory power of art

Art and theater have been considered to be of less importance during the pandemic, but in the end it is art that remains after even nonnormal times. Art can save us as we face major crises in our lives. I have experienced that myself many times in my life, and it still occurs. Even before the current pandemic, there have always been crises in the world that have long troubled humanity, including war, conflict, famine, and disaster. Even so, we have always had art and theater. By learning about the artworks produced in each era, along with the struggles people had to overcome in that era, we can feel bravery and hope regarding what we’re going through now. I believe that is the meaning of studying art.

The pandemic did a lot of damage to theater worldwide, but theater is an artform involving physical representation, and we can think of this experience as having reaffirmed it as a once-in-a-lifetime artform with multisensory appeal. In Europe, the closure of theaters due to lockdowns resulted in previously unseen videos being released and distributed free of charge, so now is the perfect time to learn about history and experience past works. For many years I have been part of the International Association of Theatre Critics, an international organization under UNESCO headquartered in Paris, and as of May 2021 I have been an IATC Executive Committee member for seven years. Taking advantage of the network I’ve cultivated there, I hope to vividly inform my students of what is happening in the international world of theater.

Another change that resulted from the pandemic: When analyzing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, widely recognized as a Theatre of the Absurd masterpiece, many students said they did not understand it well. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, they can better understand the meaning behind the incoherent exchanges that occur while the main characters are waiting for the eponymous Godot. This surprised me at first, until I realized how the pandemic had turned our daily lives into something like Theatre of the Absurd, allowing us to more instinctively understand that mindset. This allowed us to realize the significance of reading such older works now in 2021.

By the way, Maeterlinck’s “blue bird” is considered simply as a metaphor for happiness in Japan, but in various countries and cultures it has also been considered a symbol of hope, peace, love, and various other meanings. Maeterlinck himself did not explicitly present that interpretation in his play, so the meaning of the bird is left to the viewer and the era of the performance. We can presume that viewers are each in pursuit of their own blue birds. Analysis and research is perhaps the one that I myself pursue.

The art of physical expression that is theater allows you to consider your life as it was in your past and now. There are no lies in bodily expression, or rather, no successful lies. The interesting part of it is its multisensorial approach to feeling, thinking, and expressing yourself. I hope that as many students as possible will encounter this rich world.