Paul Claudel, whose dramas have been compared to the works of Aeschylus and William Shakespeare, is regarded as one of the major writers of the first half of the twentieth century. A traditionalist in his religious beliefs after a life-altering conversion to Catholicism in 1886, he was nevertheless very much a product of and spokesperson for his time in his efforts to find themes and an idiom expressive of love and faith in contemporary terms.
The economy of action in Break of Noon, which many critics regard as Claudel’s most realistic play (a second version debuted in 1948 and was published in 1949), makes clear that the work’s drama resides in the internal moral and spiritual struggles of the characters. These struggles are broadly drawn. Mesa, who is generally equated with Claudel’s alter ego in this somewhat autobiographical work, falls in love with a married woman, arranges for her husband’s absence from the scene, and has a child by her, fully aware at all times that he is flirting with his own eternal damnation.
In the characters of De Ciz and Almaric, Claudel provides plausible foils to Mesa’s highly refined spiritual sensibilities. The adventurous De Ciz is incapable of perceiving any action as right or wrong, good or evil. Almaric, on the other hand, is an atheist and recognizes wrongdoing only to the extent of reveling in it. Mesa, the former seminarian who confesses to a belief in God as the only significant other, is the most culpable of the play’s characters because he believes in sin and then knowingly commits it.
Only Ysé seems capable of recognizing the limits of her own moral authority and tries to exercise that power effectively for the better. In the first act, Ysé forces Mesa to swear that he will not love her; in the second, she begs De Ciz to take her with him, and in the third, she leaves Mesa for his own good. With these actions, she is trying to do the right thing, although she knows that there is no solution to the problem posed by the desire between her and Mesa. Ysé is not sure that there is a God, but she believes in the real presence and power of the spirit more than Mesa does.
Mesa’s fatal flaw is his...
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