I first heard of Axël by Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (to give him his full title) when its most famous line was quoted by Colin Wilson in The Outsider. Towards the end of the play, its young hero, Count Axël of Auersperg, having declared his love for the heroine Sara, realises that, from this point on, life can only be an anticlimax. Sara has just suggested a good two pages’ worth of places they might go, wonders they might see, raptures they might endure, but he replies:
“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”
And so the pair share a cup of poison — a “magnificent gem-encrusted cup”, that is, because at this point Axël and Sara are virtually swimming in a recently-uncovered stash of gold, silver, gems and jewellery — and the play ends with their deaths.
At one time I was determined, having read Wilson’s Outsider a couple of times, to go through all the books he mentioned in it, reading them, too. (I recently compiled a list of the works he mentions, and put it up on my site.) I’m now pretty sure I’ve no interest in reading every book Wilson alludes to, but Axël somehow remained one I wanted to try. It’s difficult to get hold of, despite being translated into English twice (by H P R Finberg in 1925, and Marilyn Gaddis Rose in 1970); Wilson himself might have only known it through Edmund (no relation) Wilson’s summary in the final chapter of his 1931 critical study of “imaginative literature”, Axel’s Castle (and by “imaginative literature” he meant mostly the French Symbolist poets — Edmund Wilson seems to have hated fantasy, famously denouncing both Lovecraft and Tolkien). But, finally, I tracked down a paperback copy of Gaddis Rose’s translation, published in 1986 by the Soho Book Company, in a suitably French-decadent yellow cover.
The play opens with Sara, an orphan consigned to a nunnery, just about to take her final vows. It’s a rich ceremony, and one the church has much interest in, Sara being quite wealthy. Sara herself says nothing while she’s presented at the altar and lectured (at length) by the Archdeacon, who, finally, asks if she will “accept Light, Hope and Life” in devoting herself fully to God. With one word — her first, and it’s a “No” — it’s as though the very church comes crashing down around her. Nuns run for cover, the abbess starts shrieking and the Archdeacon — inevitably — delivers another lecture. Then Sara throws a handy axe through a window and makes her getaway.
The second act shifts to a castle in remote Auersperg in Germany, in whose dark, endless forests the young Count Axël spends his days in hunting and his nights receiving instruction from the mysterious Master Janus. A visitor, Commander Kaspar, hears a legend about the young Count’s father. When Germany was threatened by Napoleon, an enormous portion of the country’s wealth was given to a select group of military men to hide in some remote spot, in case Napoleon should win through and claim it for spoils. The old Count hid it in his lands, then was killed (in a plot by several of his countrymen who wanted the treasure for themselves). Only his wife knew where the treasure was, and she died soon after. When the Commander confronts Axël with this story, the young Count, who up to this point has been entirely civil towards his guest, takes instant offence and calls for duelling swords. There then follows a very, very long portion in which Axël defends his unwillingness to either look for the treasure himself or let anyone else do so. (The translator, in her foreword, says that Axël has “perhaps the most tedious second act in modern drama”, and it’s this long justification scene she’s talking about. Yeats, who initially enthused about the play during its first performance, later recommended that, should it ever be brought to Britain, its second and third acts should be reduced in length “enormously”.) Axël, contemptuous in every way of the complacency, materialism and worldliness Commander Kaspar represents, kills him in the ensuing duel, then, disgusted with himself, goes to see Master Janus.
Master Janus is an occultist — “I do not instruct; I awaken” — and he tries to pull Axël out of his despondency by declaring his pupil’s disgust with both himself and worldly life in general to be only an indication that:
“…you are ripe for the supreme Test. The vapour of the blood shed for the Gold has just diminished your essence. The fatal effluvia envelop you, penetrating your heart—and, under their pestilential influence, you have become a child again, stammering mere words. Heir to the instincts of the man you killed, you live through the old thirst of voluptuousness, power, and pride, inhaled and reabsorbed into your organism, lighting up the reddest blood in your veins. O redescended from the sacred thresholds, the former mortal is going to come back to life in the disavowing eyes of the guilty Initiate! The Hour has come…”
And so on. Janus has an answer for everything — a long answer, in technical occult jargon — but it always seems to boil down to the same thing. Whatever Axël says, however much he disavows or rejects, it’s “Then at last you are truly ready to begin,” as though everything up to now has been a mere preparation. And, as the act continues, you get the impression that this is how it will always be with Master Janus — always a beginning, always a promise of some great transformation to come, but never the fulfilment. Finally seeing this, Axël bursts out with:
“I want life! Not more knowledge!”
And he banishes Janus. (Who, as he leaves, mutters, still self-justifying: “…the Work nears fulfilment.”)
In the final act, Sara comes to the castle. She, it turns out, knows where the rumoured treasure is hidden. At night, she creeps down to the crypt and presses a certain death’s-head decoration, opening a secret vault overflowing with coins and gems (“a scintillating torrent of gems, a rustling rain of diamonds”). But she’s unaware that Axël is hiding in the crypt, having come down there to end his life. After a brief misunderstanding (Sara, armed with two pistols, shoots Axël, wounding but not killing him), the two fall instantly, passionately in love. Sara gives her speech about all the things they could do; Axël gives his:
“If we accepted life now, we should commit a sacrilege against ourselves. As for living? our servants will do that for us.”
And so the play ends, with the self-slain Axël and Sara a Romeo and Juliet caught, not between Montagues and Capulets, but Idealism and Reality.
Villiers de l’Isle-Adam worked on Axël for almost twenty years. Despite his title, he was not rich. Significantly — considering the buried-treasure plot in this play — his father wasted the last of the family wealth buying up estates, often at inflated prices, convinced they’d contain buried treasure. At the age of seventeen, Villiers went to Paris, to pursue a similarly fruitless task, though the treasures he sought to unearth were of the imagination. He became a poet and, once the wealthy aunt who supported him died in 1871, spent most of the rest of his life in poverty. (He died in 1889.) During the time he worked on Axël (as well as other works — his Contes Cruels are his most-read work), he passed from Catholicism to Occultism and back to Catholicism again, a movement tracked by the play’s many renunciations: of Catholicism, materialism, Occultism, then life itself. He did achieve some success towards the end of the 19th century, as poetic and artistic Symbolism came into fashion, but by this time his health was failing. On his death-bed, he planned a legal case against God for taking away his life before he could finish his work.
Axël is a play more to be read than performed. (When it was performed, it was about five hours in length. Some of the speeches are very static and go on for pages.) It might have looked fabulous had it been set-designed by Gustave Moreau — certainly the ending would have, with Sara bathed in jewels like one of Moreau’s Salomés — and perhaps could have been twinned, in a buttock-numbing double bill, with Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, another archetypal Symbolist drama.
Its series of renunciations (the acts are titled “The Religious World”, “The Tragic World”, “The Occult World”, “The Passional World”, after what each rejects) remind me of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which certainly has Symbolist affinities. But Axël ends merely in death, a final renunciation, whereas Lindsay’s work turns its last, all-encompassing world-rejection into its protagonist’s transformation and a return, with renewed purpose, to the world he’d rejected.
Another comparison is the 1970 film Performance, if Count Axël were (as his umlaut suggests him to be) a heavy metal singer in retreat, self-cosseted and no longer able to create, and with Sara in the James Fox role, only not a gangster on the lam but a nun on the run. But, again, Performance hints at some sort of transformation beyond its concluding deaths, whereas Axël doesn’t.
Axël lacks that final vitality. At times, its rejections feel like a list of its writer’s resentments and self-justifications rather than a genuine stand for truth. In her foreword, Marilyn Gaddis Rose calls it “the epitome of Symbolist drama”, and it does, at its best, feel like a Moreau painting — scintillatingly bejewelled and Romantically doomed — but, as with Moreau, the figures are too stiff to feel like real human beings, and the whole thing is ultimately too static to work as drama. It’s one of those works, I think, it’s perhaps better to know about than to read, and maybe it’s better — as with Axël and Sara’s love — as a single line and a hint of what might have been:
“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”