Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
The early works of Paul Claudel, produced under the influence of the French Symbolists but already reflecting his religious convictions, were published anonymously during the 1890’s but not staged. In 1892, he wrote a play about a character named Violaine, which he later expanded to The Tidings Brought to Mary ...
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- Critical Essays
The early works of Paul Claudel, produced under the influence of the French Symbolists but already reflecting his religious convictions, were published anonymously during the 1890’s but not staged. In 1892, he wrote a play about a character named Violaine, which he later expanded to The Tidings Brought to Mary. When it was produced in 1912, it was the first of his plays to be staged, and in its poetic quality and religious theme it set the pattern for his later works.
With L’Otage (pb. 1911; The Hostage, 1917), Claudel moved to another period of history, the Napoleonic era. As in his previous play, the historical setting is merely the background for a fictional situation. In this play, the heroine protects Pope Pius VII by marrying a villain, thus, like Violaine, sacrificing herself for others.
While this play established Claudel’s reputation, his real recognition came in the 1940’s, perhaps because his theme spoke to an age which was well aware of the conflict between good and evil and the need for God, and certainly because the directors of the decade felt that his works were worth staging—however difficult the process might be. When Le Soulier de satin (pr. 1943; The Satin Slipper: Or, The Worst Is Not the Surest, 1931) was produced in 1943, French audiences were enthusiastic about the spectacular staging, as well as about Claudel’s poetic power. The complexity of this play is evident; although Claudel described it as a Spanish play taking place over four days, through the visions of its characters The Satin Slipper actually ranges through an entire century and moves to Bohemia, Italy, Africa, and America, and then to sea. Again Claudel’s emphasis is not on history, but on his theme, the conflict between worldly desires and heavenly aspirations.
Another work which achieved recognition in the 1940’s, long after it was written, is Partage de midi (pb. 1906; Break of Noon, 1960), which was published in a limited edition in 1906 and produced in 1916, but which became well known only after a 1948 production. Again, the setting is semi-historical, but the real conflict is spiritual. Like Pierre, a young man has loved a woman who cannot belong to him. He has never committed himself fully to anything, however, even to her. At the point of death at the hands of Chinese revolutionaries, he comes to understand God’s purposes. By suffering and by accepting death, he has at last become fully committed and thus learned to live.
With these productions of the 1940’s, Claudel’s reputation at last reached the level that it deserved. Critics view him as a great symbolist playwright and rank him, along with T. S. Eliot, as one of the finest religious playwrights of the twentieth century.