Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the style had its beginnings with the publication Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The characteristic emphasis on an internal life of dreams and fantasies have made symbolist theatre difficult to reconcile with more recent trends.
Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s drama Axël (rev. ed. 1890) is a definitive symbolist play. In it, two Rosicrucian aristocrats become enamored of each other while trying to kill each other, only to agree to commit suicide mutually because nothing in life could equal their fantasies. From this play, Edmund Wilson adopted the title Axel’s Castle for his influential study of the symbolist literary aftermath. Maurice Maeterlinck, also a symbolist playwright, wrote The Blind (1890), The Intruder (1890), Interior (1891), Pelléas and Mélisande (1892), and The Blue Bird (1908). Lugné-Poe (1869–1940) was an actor, director, and theatre producer of the late nineteenth century.
Lugné-Poe “sought to create a unified nonrealistic theatre of poetry and dreams through atmospheric staging and stylized acting”. Upon learning about symbolist theatre, he never wanted to practice any other form. After beginning as an actor in the Théâtre Libre and Théâtre d’Art, Lugné-Poe grasped on to the symbolist movement and founded the Théâtre de l’Œuvre where he was manager from 1892 until 1929. Some of his greatest successes include opening his own symbolist theatre, producing the first staging of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), and introducing French theatregoers to playwrights such as Ibsen and Strindberg. The later works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov have been identified as being much influenced by symbolist pessimism. Both Constantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold experimented with symbolist modes of staging in their theatrical endeavors.
Australian Catholic University Useful lecture notes discussing several 20th Century theatre styles, including symbolism.