The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1063

Act 1 of Break of Noon begins on the deck of a large steamer somewhere in the Indian Ocean, bound for China. It is noon, and the atmosphere is one of blinding white light. Among the passengers is Yse, a beautiful but unfulfilled woman who is accompanied by her children and her husband of ten years, de Ciz. Also traveling on the ship are Amalric, an economic adventurer, and Mesa, a mysterious, religious, egotistical man. Yse reveals that she feels bound by her children and that she has never felt at home; her home, she states, is a chaise longue “and eight parcels on the baggage list.” She reminisces with Amalric about an earlier affair between the two of them, recalling that she rejected him because he was too sure of himself and did not need her. She admits that she is interested in Mesa but tells of his previous rejection of her interest.

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When Yse and Mesa converse, Mesa admits that he is attracted to her, but it is meaningless since “love is a comedy and I have no sense of humor.” Still, the two share a sense that their meeting was fated. Mesa alludes to his trip to France as preparation to leave the world of men and come face to face with “Him.” He knows that he can never have a fulfilled relationship with a woman, because a woman asks a man to give himself to her entirely and he knows that he cannot give his soul to another. He is tormented by this sense of division and seeks wholeness and integrity. He reveals his suffering from having lived in utter solitude, finding that the only thing that truly belongs to him is his pain. The two vow not to love each other, and Yse laments the happiness of a woman who finds a man to whom she can give herself.

Rejecting this as sentimental talk, Amalric discusses all that surrounds them in terms of its potential for profit. Act 1 ends at sunset, as they each realize that they have passed some meaningful point in life and may never return. They are all aware of “the impossibility of stopping anywhere.”

Act 2 is set in a European cemetery overlooking Hong Kong. The afternoon is dreary and dark, and the sky is threatening. Mesa is in the cemetery waiting for Yse. He curses European views of death and life and reveals that he now feels tainted and evil, but at least he is suffering. Mesa exits, and Yse enters with de Ciz. He is leaving for a month, and she begs him not to go. She is in a state of dread, knowing that she is tempted to do something that will utterly destroy her. She begs him, “Do not walk out in the middle of my life.” He replies that he must go, for he lives for initiative, risk, and a chance of better things.

After de Ciz leaves, Mesa enters, and he and Yse embrace. Mesa describes Yse not as happiness but as that which takes the place of happiness. Yse is content, for now Mesa is nothing but a man who loves her. The middle section of the act is a prolonged love duet of great intensity. The two lovers totally renounce the world, the past, and the future. Even though Yse is “the forbidden,” Mesa cannot resist her, nor can she resist him.

After de Ciz returns, he tells Mesa that he has decided to accept a position in Hong Kong that Mesa offered him, even though it is a steady job, not a spectacular opportunity. Mesa talks him into accepting another assignment that will take him away from Yse and possibly endanger his life. De Ciz thanks Mesa as a true and loyal friend, and Mesa replies, “You won’t find another like me.”

Act 3 takes place some years later, at dusk. Yse is living in a house with Amalric; they are now a couple. They are under attack by Chinese revolutionaries and face almost certain death. Amalric has designed a time bomb as a means of dying with some dignity and escaping torture. Yse adopts a posture of servitude toward him, attempting to be “a good wife.” She laments abandoning her husband and her children and then abandoning Mesa as well, even though she was pregnant. She is clearly unstable, moving from moments of great love for Amalric to moments of great despair over her past and the potential judgment of God.

Amalric exits to inspect the grounds, and Mesa, in a direct copy of the opening of act 2, appears. He declares his love for Yse, but she does not respond. In an extended monologue he begs her to understand, reviles her for sleeping with Amalric while still pregnant with his child, and laments what might have been. He finds it impossible to accept the fact that she does not love him. Through it all, Yse never speaks. Amalric returns, and he and Mesa struggle; Mesa is injured, and Yse and Amalric prepare to flee. Yse exits to get the child, but when she returns, she announces, without explanation, that the child is dead. She and Amalric leave without looking at Mesa.

Mesa regains consciousness and speaks a “canticle.” He admires the night sky and speaks to the stars as “sisters.” He questions God, Christ, and the stars. Wondering why Yse came into his life at the moment she did, he moves past the desire to demand answers, recognizing the ego that lies at the center of his being. Through the pain and terror of his relationship with Yse, he has recognized the terrible pain of God’s love for humans, and he announces his readiness for death.

Yse enters “in a kind of hypnotic trance,” dressed entirely in white. She runs to Mesa and they embrace, seeing each other as creatures of God. The pain is ended, fear is vanquished, and only an eternity of love awaits them. She confesses her sins, and through penance they find transcendence.

This plot summary, it should be noted, is based on the original version of the play. Two later versions exist, including the third revision done for the famous 1948 production by Jean-Louis Barrault. The third version is considerably more prosaic than the original, particularly in the final section, in which verse sections have been deleted in favor of dialogue.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Paul Claudel’s most evident dramatic device is his use of poetic language full of imagery. His images are not simple one-word expressions; rather, they are developed in extended passages of poetry. The opening of act 1 offers three examples in the first three pages. The atmosphere is described as a “desert of fire,” in which the light is not like sunlight but like lightning and “everything seems horribly pure.” Immediately following is a description of the sea as a “cow thrown to the ground, to be branded with a red hot iron.” The third example is Amalric’s description of Yse as a “thoroughbred and it would amuse me to mount her, if I had the time!” Yet he sees her as a riderless horse who is out of control. The density and intensity of this imagery are hallmarks of Claudel’s writing.

In Break of Noon, Claudel’s imagery focuses on elemental forces, colors, and animal images. The elemental forces are used to connect the rather melodramatic love story with universal ideals and desires. Claudel uses the sun, the sea, fire, and wind to enfold the love story within the power of the universe. At the end, the canopy of stars is the focus for a direct communion between Mesa and the Eternal. Color is used throughout to generate excitement. On several occasions Yse is connected with the color gray, which stands midway between black and white, evil and good. The other color imagery tends toward harsh, powerful colors, including greens, reds, and black—the colors of life, blood, and death. Animal images are particularly strong in act 1; the horse, the cow, and the sheep are images that link the characters with various stages of evolution. The horse is the sensual quality, the cow is the eternal mother, and the sheep is the mindless follower.

Claudel also uses the settings for each scene to establish the strong sense of atmosphere that pervades his writing. Act 1 takes place in the middle of an endless sea. It is a limited time and place in which normal roles, rules, and expectations seem not to apply. There are no visible boundaries, and time has lost its usual controlling power. This setting neatly parallels the situation in the major characters’ lives.

The second act is set in a cemetery, providing ironic comment on the love scene that takes place there and foreshadowing the role that death is to play later in the act and in the remainder of the play. The final act takes place in a house under siege. The stage directions call for sandbags and windows blocked with mattresses. This setting provides a direct parallel to the union between Amalric and Yse, as does the sense of impending disaster.

An unusual aspect of the play is the offstage action, which is never fully explained. Between act 2 and act 3, Yse has left Mesa, and the reasons for this are never made clear. During act 3, Yse leaves the stage for a few moments and returns to announce that her child is dead. The audience is left with the assumption that Yse killed the child, yet this is never made clear, nor are her motives examined. Some critics consider these open-ended developments to be a weakness in the play’s structure; others consider them consistent with the characters’ lack of selfunderstanding, for they cannot comprehend or explain their own actions.


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Beaumont, Ernest. The Theme of Beatrice in the Plays of Claudel, 1954.

Berchan, Richard. The Inner Stage: An Essay on the Conflict of Vocations in the Early Works of Paul Claudel. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1966. Describes Claudel’s early works, taking into consideration the conflicts caused by his being drawn to both a religious and a poetic vocation following his 1886 conversion to Roman Catholicism. Break of Noon is seen as a regression, intensified by personal experience, to earlier love-quest motifs.

Caranfa, Angelo. Claudel: Beauty and Grace. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1989. Places Claudel in the twentieth century trend in French literature toward transcendent themes. The contrasts in Break of Noon between light and darkness, and the flesh and the spirit exemplify the attempt to harmonize physical and spiritual impulses.

Claudel, Paul. Claudel on the Theatre, 1972.

Ferlita, Ernest. “Break of Noon,” in his The Theatre of Pilgrimage, 1971.

Flower, J.E. “Claudel,” in Forces in Modern French Drama, 1972. Edited by John Fletcher.

Fowlie, Wallace. “Claudel,” in his Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theatre, 1960.

Fowlie, Wallace. Introduction to Break of Noon, by Paul Claudel. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960. Translator Fowlie’s introduction to the play is informative and perceptive. Provides background to the 1948 production overseen by Claudel and discusses the work’s place in Claudel’s corpus.

Gillespie, Michael. “Partage De Midi: From the Page to the Stage,” in Claudel Studies. III (1976), pp. 95-102.

Knapp, Bettina L. Paul Claudel, 1982.

Lumley, Frederick. “The Discovery of Paul Claudel,” in his New Trends in Twentieth Century Drama, 1972.

Nagy, Moses M. “Revolt and Reconciliation in Partage De Midi,” in Claudel Studies. III (1976), pp. 103-112.

Russell, John, trans. The Correspondence 1899-1926 Between Paul Claudel and André Gide. London: Secker & Warburg, 1952. The insightful and revealing comments and opinions on their work, lives, and beliefs shared by these two giants of French literature put the autobiographical Break of Noon as much in focus as any critical interpretation.

Waters, Harold A. Paul Claudel. New York: Twayne, 1970. A thorough general introduction to Claudel’s life and work. Asserts that Break of Noon rectifies the paradox Claudel often witnesses regarding the existence of sin and the loving nature of God.

Watson, Harold. Claudel’s Immortal Heroes: A Choice of Deaths, 1971.

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Critical Essays