Paul Claudel Essay - Critical Essays


Jean Giraudoux, who hardly ever agreed with Paul Claudel in aesthetic matters, believed that Claudel was one of the prophets who come to visit Earth once every three or four hundred years. The post-World War II generation of France concurred with these sentiments of Giraudoux. Thanks to the initiative onstage of Jean-Louis Barrault, the aging Claudel found attentive ears among the youngest of the French intelligentsia. The literary destiny of Claudel had suddenly changed: The writer whom some critics had accused of not writing in French was now recognized as one of the greatest masters of the French language, although his theater serves neither the rules of classicism nor the revolution of the Romantics: Claudel set his own rules from the beginning and proved that art meets the needs of new times only when it renews itself. In his dramas, he broke away from psychological analysis and sought to teach that the grandeur of human beings lies not so much in their intricate nature as in their destiny, which carries them into eternity. Because the world of humans is universal because it is religious, the horizontal dimension of life calls for its complementary and vertical dimension. It is this latter dimension that serves the soul as its natural atmosphere. No doubt, the journey of the soul is tragic, for every visible thing constitutes an obstacle to the soul on its way to salvation. The tragic hero in Claudel’s drama must learn that temporal existence is a means of redemption: It passes, but not without opening the doors to another existence. The tragic sense of life is thus accompanied by a deeper joy. By placing life into its proper perspective, Claudel reaffirms the age-old wisdom that, just as happiness is the result of healthy relationships between human beings, joy consists for man and woman in recognizing their relationship with God. The destiny or fatality of the ancient world of the Greeks has been replaced in Claudel’s drama by a providential and loving God who directs and attracts humanity.


Claudel began to write in his early youth. He wrote L’Endormie, his first drama, between 1886 and 1888, although he claims to have written it earlier, perhaps in 1882-1883. Its sources may be traced to the myth of beauty and the beast, to Roman de Renart (c. 1175-1205), to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), or even to John Keats’s Endymion (1818). The subject matter is rather simple: The young playwright has been infatuated in his dream by Galaxaure, a beautiful woman whom he follows into a forest. There, some fauns lead him to a cave, where he finds Galaxaure asleep; she has been waiting for some time for the poet to awaken her. When the poet penetrates the cave, he finds not the beautiful woman but an ugly, snoring being, a huge “paunch.” In his fright and disappointment, the young poet runs away from the scene, pursuing now in his anger Volpilla, one of the fauns, who makes fun of his adventure.

With this early play, Claudel reveals two major aspects of his theater: first, the ever present comic atmosphere that runs parallel to his most dramatic interpretation of life, and second, the idea of the impossibility of love that opposes Claudel to the Romantics. Yet Claudel has been called a Romantic by Henri Peyre. André Malraux, in his Les Voix du silence (1951; The Voices of Silence, 1953), affirms that The Tidings Brought to Mary responds to the dream that Victor Hugo had about the perfect drama, described in his preface to Cromwell (1827; English translation, 1896). Claudel, however, was a Symbolist who never betrayed reality and who always respected the two faces of life: the grotesque and the sublime.

The extraordinary phenomenon in Claudel’s theater is that his personal life animates it so much that the evolution of his drama is identical with his personal spiritual growth. Although the supernatural is always present in it, the movement progresses from revolt and destruction, through suffering, toward reconciliation and peace. Under a faithful autobiography, the spectator discovers the universal man; as Antoine Vitez writes, Claudel “has given of his own life an entirely mythological reading.”

Tête d’or

The giant figure of Cébès rises from the very first scene of Tête d’or, as a “new man” in front of “unknown things,” one who is fundamentally “ignorant,” wondering about the meaning of life and death, love and hatred, salvation and redemption. He is endowed with an immense desire to know, to live, to act, and with a strong will not to die. Simon Agnel is returning from a long exile, carrying on his shoulders the dead body of his wife. While he is burying the dead woman, his old friend, Cébès, who loved the same woman, recognizes him. Cébès himself, as Agnel later discovers, is marked with the sign of death. On the one hand, then, there is Agnel, who promises a future in which he intends to rebuild the world; on the other hand, there is the dying Cébès to tell about the joy of the last hour: “It is joy,” he says, “that you find in your last hour, and I am this very joy and the secret which cannot be told.” On hearing the word “joy,” Agnel would like to know its origin, meaning, and purpose, but death prevents Cébès from answering. It is, then, up to Agnel to find joy in his own way. It will not take very long for him to find out that the road to joy leads through suffering and transfiguration. He renounces love, assumes a new identity (he is now called Tête d’or), eliminates the vestiges of the past, and, after his victory over the enemy, murders the Old King. He then sends the Princess into exile and takes into his power the destiny of the Empire. “I want everything,” he exclaims. This exclamation startles the Tribune of the People, who, like a Greek god, warns him, “Listen to me, young man, your success made you lose the sense of measure.” The superhuman efforts did not, indeed, suffice for Tête d’or to reach all of his lofty goals, and the second time he must face the same enemy, his army suffers a crushing defeat, and he is mortally wounded.

At this point, however, the drama reaches a turning point. The failure of Tête d’or does not mark the denouement; on the contrary, he is given the opportunity to find his complete identity. Before the hour of his death, Tête d’or could be considered as an old brother of those existential heroes of André Malraux or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who, in order to experience the meaning of their existence, plunge themselves into fulfilling action. Mere action, however, cannot stretch existence beyond its temporal dimensions: The last act always demands the meaning, or the conclusion, of death. Tête d’or has never been able to answer the question he raised to himself: “Who am I?” That is why he is a pagan.

The drama is saved from its pessimistic conclusion by the mysterious presence of the Princess. She is a living symbol, standing “behind” Tête d’or to explain her fidelity to the present, hope in the future, and love for the life hereafter. She knows that she must die for the other: “I will not let you die in despair,” she tells Tête d’or. From a purely existential point of view, one could say that the life of the Princess grazes the limits of the absurd. “I was born to love,” she says. “And I die for. . . .” With the unfinished sentence, she turns the spectator’s attention from a philosophical level to the realm of theological truth: “No one dies for himself.” The Princess changes her role and name from one play of Claudel to another: At times she is the Church, at another time she is Wisdom, or Love; in Tête d’Or, it is she who opens the eyes of the hero to the source of light and teaches him that the quality of death illumines the whole of life.

Death as a major theme—“The evil of death, the knowing of death”—appears from the very first plays of Claudel and continues its presence throughout his whole body of work. This consciousness of death had its genesis in Claudel’s childhood. He often recalled the shock he experienced during the long-lasting suffering of his grandfather, who died of cancer. He was similarly marked by the great number of suicides that plagued his small native town of Villeneuve-sur-Fère. During his own unhappy childhood, he thought many times of suicide. Finally, the exile he had to embrace in his professional life was a constant reminder of Rimbaud’s warning that “the real life is absent.”

The City

Tête d’or measures the worth of life through the kind of death by which the hero draws his ambitious life to conclusion. The City widens the scope of the playwright’s interest and proposes to explore the destiny of the city. This play can be best understood if studied within the framework of present-day ecological concerns. Malraux summed up the essence of this consciousness when he said that the present epoch “learned that even civilizations are mortal.” Cities, like human beings, are born and die. The city that Claudel proposes to study does not possess an existence that is independent from people, for people are the city. “Pollution” and “renewal” reflect the quality of life and the health of the human spirit. Claudel believed that the visible city stands for human creativity; it is a work of art: “The city is the form of humanity.”

The poet, aware of his creative power and sensing the heart of the city, is called on to envisage the “renewal” of the city at large. As Lambert de Besme and Avare contemplate the city from the high ground of Besme’s garden, they tell in a few words what they think the city is: For Besme, it is the space where two individuals cannot join each other; the closer they come, the farther they find themselves from each other. Avare sees in the city a place that merely “glitters with a fabricated light.” He does not hide his disgust for the people who populate this “habitat of corruption,” nor does he hide his intention to destroy it all. A revolution that tears down the whole city will answer his wishes.

The poet stands in the middle of all these events. His name, Cuvre (which combines cur, heart, and uvre, work), symbolizes the nature of the work of reconstruction to be performed. The poet’s role is threefold. His first role, as Besme explains, is through “his song without music” and his “word without voice,” which tunes humanity to the “melody of this world. . . . You explain nothing . . . but all things become explicable by you.” His second role is to give to the city of after-revolution a king, his own son Ivors, who was born of Lala. This son-king is the fruit of his love for the woman. By the time of the “reconstruction” of the city, Cuvre has become a bishop, and, as such, through his divine-poetic word, he leads the city to God. This third and theological role of Cuvre is coupled with the political program that Ivors has already...

(The entire section is 4550 words.)