Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

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.

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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 profane and the sacred. L’ Annonce faite a Marie (pr., pb. 1912; The Tidings Brought to Mary, 1916) is thematically connected to Break of Noon in its depiction of the need for suffering to achieve true happiness. Regarded by some as his most important work, Le Soulier de satin (pr. 1943; The Satin Slipper: Or, The Worst Is Not the Surest, 1931) totally affirms the fusion of two beings through the combination of human passion and divine love.

Claudel’s later works are essentially experiments in theatricality, influenced by contemporary ballet and Oriental theater. Several pieces were commissioned by the Russian dancer and mime artist Ida Rubinstein. The use of elaborate stylized gesture and music are essential to these works; in Le Livre de Christophe Colomb (pb. 1929; The Book of Christopher Columbus, 1930), even the cinema is used to crystallize the theatrical moment.

Although his reputation as a poet was firmly established early in his life, Claudel’s importance as a dramatist was recognized only later. Most of his earlier works were not written for performance, and most were performed long after their writing. Break of Noon was first performed in 1948 under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault. This event came about only after considerable pressure from Barrault and a complete rewriting of the work. The success of this work led to productions of various other works, but productions of Claudel outside France are still relatively rare.

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Critical Evaluation