Critical Context

Paul Claudel’s work is a product of a wide variety of disparate forces, but the two strains that dominate are the Symbolist tradition and his devout Catholicism.

The Symbolist movement was exemplified in poetry by Stephane Mallarme and in drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. For the Symbolists, truth cannot be represented literally but is evoked through symbols, legends, myths, and moods. Claudel shares their interest in subjective or spiritual truth, and he uses symbols freely in his writing. His plays are not as amorphous as those of the Symbolists, however, for he attempts to integrate spirituality with the immediate experience of human life.

Claudel’s Catholicism began with his conversion on Christmas Day, 1886, and it dominates his work. The plays written before Break of Noon tend to be highly autobiographical. One of his earliest works, Tete d’Or (pb. 1890; English translation, 1919), depicts one man’s struggle for power and his absolute refusal to submit. L’Echange (pb. 1901; the exchange), written during Claudel’s stay in America, is a bitter denunciation of superficial concern for material wealth rather than eternal values.

Break of Noon is often viewed as the midi of Claudel’s career as well. Although it, too, is based on an autobiographical event (Claudel met and had a passionate affair with a married woman during a sailing trip), it represents Claudel’s new ability to fuse...

(The entire section is 459 words.)