Maeterlinck’s L’Oiseau bleu, Hollywood and Textual Instability

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It is clear that popular culture can alter the way a literary work is perceived, but less often considered is the extent to which popular culture can alter the text itself. When Gérard Genette pondered this question, he suggested that divergent interpretations always preserve a single, monolithic text. A closer look at the example of Maurice Maeterlinck’s iconic L’Oiseau bleu, however, provides compelling evidence that interpretations can also lead to divergent texts. At its first performance in Moscow in 1908, Maeterlinck’s dreamlike féerie about a brother and sister’s quest for the elusive bluebird of happiness was considered injouable. In part owing to its technical challenges, by 1976 the play had become a vehicle for many, often lavish adaptations in Hollywood, designed to flaunt the technical achievements of its producers. Three of these productions are considered: the first, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski in 1908; the Hollywood 1940 version starring Shirley Temple; and the novel 1976 USSR-USA co-produced film, starring Elizabeth Taylor. Whereas Americans embraced Maeterlinck for his cheerfulness in times of crisis, Parisian audiences had come to regard L’Oiseau bleu’s Americanized optimism as proof that Maeterlinck had compromised his integrity. éditions Fasquelle nevertheless released a new edition after the 1976 film, which established a different text from that of the first 1909 edition, including several alterations destined to make the piece more light-hearted. An analysis of these texts reveals that the shifting aesthetics we commonly associate with movie adaptations can also play an important role in changing literary texts themselves.

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Correspondence to Andrea S. Thomas.

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Thomas, A.S. Maeterlinck’s L’Oiseau bleu, Hollywood and Textual Instability. Neophilologus 94, 421–437 (2010) doi:10.1007/s11061-009-9178-4

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  • Maeterlinck, Maurice (1862–1949)
  • L’Oiseau bleu
  • Textual criticism
  • Adaptation
  • Twentieth-century theatre