The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

The Tidings Brought to Mary begins with a prologue, set late at night in the large barn at Combernon, the home of the Vercors family. At the back of the barn is a large, heavily bolted door, on which are painted figures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Pierre de...

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The Tidings Brought to Mary begins with a prologue, set late at night in the large barn at Combernon, the home of the Vercors family. At the back of the barn is a large, heavily bolted door, on which are painted figures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Pierre de Craon enters on horseback. Then Violaine Vercors steps out from behind a pillar. Citing the unseemliness of their being alone together at that hour, Pierre urges her to leave, but she refuses, reminding him tauntingly of an earlier occasion when he attacked her with a knife but failed in his attempt on her virtue. Asking her forgiveness, Pierre insists that it was the only time he had ever acted in such a way, and it is clear that Violaine believes him, for she assures him that she has not betrayed his secret.

In the dialogue that follows, Pierre reveals the reason for his year-long absence from Combernon. The day after his attack on Violaine, he had discovered a sign of leprosy. Because his work building churches is so important, he has been permitted to continue, keeping his disease a secret but remaining distant from his workmen. He has come to Combernon to open the door which leads to Monsanvierge, the holy mountain above, where lives an order of nuns. It is Violaine who goes to the heavy door and turns the key for him. She tells Pierre that she will soon be married to the man she loves, Jacques Hury. Pierre admits his own love for her and his bitterness about his affliction, which makes him an outcast. In pity, Violaine kisses him; in the background, her sister, Mara Vercors, watches.

The first act is set in the Vercors kitchen. Anne Vercors is discussing his plans with his wife, Elisabeth Vercors. He wishes to give his daughter Violaine in marriage to Jacques Hury, the poor boy whom he has reared and whom he thinks of as a son. He also intends to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even though Mara Vercors tells her mother that she loves Jacques desperately and threatens to kill herself if she cannot have him, Anne bestows his daughter Violaine on Jacques.

The second act takes place two weeks later. Anne is gone, and Elisabeth has noticed strange behavior in her older daughter, particularly when she speaks of the forthcoming marriage. Soon the reason for her behavior becomes evident: Violaine tells Jacques that although she loves him, she can never let him touch her. She then shows him the signs of leprosy upon her body. Jacques is furious. With Mara’s story of the kiss in his mind, he now believes that Violaine is corrupt. When Mara sees the two, she is overjoyed, for she knows that the marriage will never take place. At the end of the act, Violaine leaves, supposedly to visit Jacques’s mother.

Act 3 takes place seven years later. The setting is a forest, where peasants are discussing the road that Pierre has constructed for Charles, now about to be crowned king. Mara enters and inquires for the leper woman. Violaine then appears and guides Mara to her cave. Violaine is now blind. After telling Violaine that Elisabeth is dead and that Anne has not returned, that she is happily married to Jacques and that the farm is doing well, Mara reveals her real reason for coming. She gives Violaine the corpse of her baby and demands that she bring the baby back to life. At Violaine’s request, Mara reads the Christmas service, and then the miracle occurs. The baby is alive again, but her black eyes have now changed to blue.

Act 4 takes place a year later in the large kitchen at Combernon. Pierre enters, carrying Violaine, who has been badly injured when a cartload of sand fell on her. Jacques reacts with hostility. When he calls Pierre a leper, Pierre assures Jacques that he is cured; to another question, Pierre admits that Violaine kissed him many years ago, then exits. Coming to consciousness, Violaine tells Jacques that the kiss was innocent. She also tells him that it was she who brought his child back to life. As they talk, Jacques realizes that it was Mara who led Violaine to the sand pit and pushed the cartload of sand on top of her. Pierre returns and carries out the dying woman. Then Anne returns, and Jacques must tell him the tragic story of his two daughters. Offstage, Violaine dies in Anne’s arms. In the final section of the play, with the example of Violaine before them, Jacques and Anne manage to forgive Mara for all the evil that she has done, and Pierre plans to set a statue of Violaine on the roof of the church that he is building. At the end of the play, the long-silent bell of Monsanvierge rings once again.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

The Tidings Brought to Mary is a play in which the action is psychological, not physical. Pierre’s attack on Violaine took place before the play, and both Mara’s attack on her and Violaine’s death are described, rather than enacted for the audience. From a visual standpoint, only the scenes in which Violaine reveals the marks of leprosy and in which she revives the baby are truly dramatic. However, even the miracle involving the baby takes place under the shelter of Violaine’s cloak.

It is the ebb and flow of emotions, portrayed in poetic dialogue, that give this play its dramatic impact. From the beginning, the dichotomies are established: good and evil, love and hate, compassion and hardness of heart, spirit and flesh, life and death. Instead of good characters in opposition to evil characters, the battle between good and evil is fought in every heart. Thus while in most plays characters such as Mara and Jacques would be punished for their selfishness, in Paul Claudel’s drama the Christian substitute for poetic justice is the redemption of those who have been dominated by evil, the penetration of the world by good.

The theme of redemption is reflected dramatically in the intricate exchange of roles between Violaine and Mara. Mara became the wife of Jacques and the mother of his child in Violaine’s place. In the miracle scene, however, Violaine seems to have borne the child again and, as the change in eye color suggests, to have become her mother. When Violaine dies, the audience is told that she is buried in Mara’s wedding dress, thus in death being perhaps the wife of Jacques or perhaps becoming Mara. In either case, the goodness of Violaine has penetrated the other characters.

Even the settings of Claudel’s play have theological implications. The homeliness of the barn and the kitchen, for example, emphasize the fact that human redemption must take place in the ordinary world. Against this background, the songs of angels and the peals of bells from deserted convents, evidencing the existence of a very real invisible world, are even more dramatic than they would be in less-prosaic settings.

Claudel’s play is filled with liturgical elements: hymns, homilies, and theological lessons. This pattern can be seen in the climactic scene in which Violaine brings the baby back to life. After a stylized series of questions and answers between the sisters, the bells ring, and Mara reads a series of scriptures and a homily while Violaine prays. Then an angel choir sings, and the baby is reborn under Violaine’s cloak. Violaine’s role is emphasized by the fact that when the baby emerges, she has milk on her lips and the blue eyes of Violaine instead of the black eyes of her mother. However, even though it would be categorized as a miracle, the scene is as subdued as the mass it imitates. Beneath the liturgy, the action is spiritual: Violaine is in some sense offering her suffering for the life of the child.

When one examines the dramatic techniques of The Tidings Brought to Mary, one must conclude that every aspect of the play, from characterization to setting and structure, was based on its theological theme. Instead of hampering the playwright, the domination of theme may well have aided him. Certainly it unified his effort and contributed to his success in what might have seemed an impossible task: to bring the drama of salvation to modern audiences.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124

Sources for Further Study

Brockett, Oscar G. “Anti-Realist Alternatives.” In Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since 1870. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Chiari, Joseph. The Poetic Drama of Paul Claudel. 1954. Reprint. New York: Gordian Press, 1969.

Fowlie, Wallace. Paul Claudel. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1957.

Gassner, John. “Paul Claudel.” In Masters of the Drama. 3d ed. New York: Dover, 1954.

Heppenstall, Rayner. “The Playground of Paul Claudel.” In The Double Image: Mutations of Christian Mythology in the Work of Four French Catholic Writers of Today and Yesterday. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.

Paliyenko, Adrianna M. Mis-Reading the Creative Impulse: The Poetic Subject in Rimbaud and Claudel, Restaged. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

“Paul Claudel.” In Guide to French Literature. Detroit: St. James, 1992.

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Critical Essays