The French author and diplomat Paul Louis Charles Claudel (1868-1955) is best known for his plays, in which he explored the relationship between man, the universe, and the divine in a highly poetic and original style.
Paul Claudel was one of a group of celebrated writers, all born about 1870, who gave French literature a new orientation. Though quite different from one another, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Charles Péguy, Colette, and Claudel all revolted against 19th-century positivism, as well as against the extremes of symbolism which denied reality to the external world. Each, in his own way, experimented with new ways of using the French language and offered new visions of the world and new views of the function of art.
Claudel was born on Aug. 6, 1868, at Villeneuve-sur-Fère-en-Tardenois on the border between the provinces of Champagne and the Ile-de-France. His family, of peasant and petit bourgeois stock, was Roman Catholic but not particularly devout. He received his early education in the various provincial towns where his father worked as a civil servant. In 1882 the family moved to Paris and enrolled young Paul in the famous lycée Louis-le-Grand. As a schoolboy, he was solitary and pessimistic and rebelled against the pervading philosophies of determinism and positivism, which denied man his free will and made him merely a product of his heredity and environment. He rejected his whole traditional literary education to take refuge in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and especially Arthur Rimbaud, who was to be a lifelong source of inspiration. Rimbaud, he wrote later, revealed the supernatural to him and was in part responsible for his return to the Catholic faith, which he had abandoned.
While studying for a diplomatic career, Claudel underwent on Christmas Day 1886, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a profound mystical experience which was to shape his destiny. During the singing of the Magnificat, he suddenly knew that he believed in a living and personal God. His complete conversion and return to the Church were accomplished only after 4 years of study and spiritual struggle to reconcile the opposition between his intuition and his intellect.
This spiritual crisis is evident in Claudel's first works. Tête d' Or (1889), his only non-Christian play, is the tragedy of an adventurer who tries to find salvation solely through his own strength and intelligence and ignores an inner voice counseling humility. This play, like all that were to follow it, rejects all the conventions of the French theater, be they classical, romantic, or realistic. It offers a new conception of poetic drama in which psychology and logical dramatic action give way to symbolism and imaginative truth. The play also uses the completely original line of verse, known as the verset claudélien, in which Claudel wrote all his poems and plays. The rhythmic pattern of the lines of different lengths is intended to reproduce the natural breathing and heartbeat of the poet or actor in order to indicate the emotional intensity of the passage. In Claudel's second play, La Ville (1890), he sees the city, and eventually the entire world, as a single body, a maison fermée (closed house) in which each member is responsible for the salvation of the other members.
In February 1893 Claudel received his first diplomatic post, as vice-consul in New York. From then until his retirement in 1935, he lived almost continuously outside France. He served as French ambassador to Japan (1921-1927), the United States (1927-1933), and Belgium (1933-1935).
Claudel's experiences outside France, and especially outside Europe, influenced his work and thought in many ways. His discovery of non-Western conceptions of the theater encouraged him to experiment with revolutionary and, at the time, largely misunderstood dramatic techniques. Most importantly, however, Claudel's travels throughout the world contributed a cosmic dimension to his Catholicism, rendering it often unacceptable to his more orthodox coreligionists.
The moving religious drama Partage de Midi (1906) is partly based on an episode in Claudel's life that occurred in 1905, the year before his marriage. Like the hero of this play, after considerable spiritual anguish Claudel had rejected a religious vocation. He also fell in love with a young married woman and learned for the first time the meaning of great love, suffering, and sacrifice.
Claudel's long lyric poems Cinq Grandes Odes (1910) and La Cantate à trois voix (1931) are meditations on the relationship between the Creator and the created world, on the role of the poet, and on the function of love. These themes reappear in L'Annonce faite à Marie (1912; Tidings Brought to Mary), Claudel's best-known play. In a medieval setting, the apparent paradox of human relationships is resolved when Violaine, the heroine, reveals how love, separation, suffering, and even evil lead men to understand both their role in the salvation of others and also the divine order of the universe.
Le Soulier de satin (1929; The Satin Slipper), considered by many to be his greatest play, is a complicated and gigantic drama of the Renaissance, a period Claudel believed to be the beginning of a new era of Catholicism. Against a background of violence, conquest, and passion, the characters work out their destinies in a plot that reveals Claudel's characteristic themes: man's desire for the infinite, the limitations of human love, and the necessity of human love as an instrument of salvation.
Claudel divided the last 20 years of his life between an apartment in Paris and his Château de Brangues. Although he wrote no more poems or plays, he composed lengthy reflections on various scriptural texts. During these years, when his plays were staged, he often attended rehearsals and made changes in his texts for the stage. In 1946 he was elected to the French Academy. He died in Paris on Feb. 23, 1955, and was accorded a state funeral at the Cathedral of Notre Dame before his burial at Brangues. He was survived by his widow, five children, and many grandchildren.
Further Reading on Paul Louis Charles Claudel
Jacques Madaule has made the most comprehensive study of Claudel to date. Especially recommended are three of his volumes, in French: Le Génie de Paul Claudel (1933; rev. ed. 1947), Le Drame de Paul Claudel (1936; rev. ed. 1964), and Claudel et le langage (1968). In English, Wallace Fowlie, Paul Claudel (1957), is an excellent short study. Joseph Chiari, The Poetic Drama of Paul Claudel (1954), is a sympathetic treatment of his theater. Recommended for general background material on modern French poetry and theater are Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1950); Wallace Fowlie, A Guide to Contemporary French Literature: From Valéry to Sartre (1957); Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (1958; rev. ed. 1960); and Jacques Guicharnaud, Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Genet (1967).
Additional Biography Sources
Chaigne, Louis, Paul Claudel: the man and the mystic, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1961.