Break of Noon

(Partage de Midi)

1 – The drama

Partage de Midi is a drama in three acts, which bears everywhere the marks of high style while mixing, with the freedom of great art, several levels of language. It is written in free verse, which is according to Claudel himself, verses that, even “if they cannot be scanned”, present a respiratory, musical, intelligible, emotional unity (Claudel exposes these ideas in a letter to the first critic of Partage, Eugène Marsan, published by François Chapon).

This drama presents four characters: Ysé – the only woman – and three men: de Ciz, her husband, Amalric, her lover, and Mesa, her passion. Its subject, such as the quotation from Hosea (11:4), which is the secret key, gives to understand in the Preface of 1948, is the suffering of the young Mesa whom a destructive love passion paradoxically leads back to God, after a false monastic vocation had distanced him from it. The first act brings together on the deck of an ocean liner the four characters who are going to China. It’s noon and the sun is blinding, deadly. A symbolic closed-door session begins. Somewhere in the middle of the sea and of life, four characters cross the line without return. Three adventurers and a civil servant in the heyday of colonialism, one would think at first, because the play begins with a comedy of manners that serves as an igniting spark for the drama that will follow. Ciz is about to exploit the official who is interested in his wife, while Amalric, who regrets not having married her ten years earlier, also takes a chance with her, but quickly realizes that his time has not yet come. On the contrary, Mesa feels an immediate and devouring passion for the blonde Ysé to whom he confides his distress: when he wanted to become a monk, God rejected him, and now, sin adding to humiliation, he falls in love with a forbidden woman! However, as this truly fatal woman – and she alone – has the key to his soul, “the path of God is blocked by an irreducible obstacle,” Claudel writes in his late preface. This obstacle is the sacrament of matrimony. Ysé is a married woman.

The second act takes place a few days after the arrival in Hong Kong, in a cemetery. A clear reference to Hamlet, the collage of quotations from both Pierre Loti and the Gospels, and above all a disturbing kinship with the adulterous loves of David and Bathsheba make the background less obviously realistic than the ship of the previous act. While Ciz hesitates to risk his life on a trip where lucrative but shady and dangerous business attracts him, Mesa and Ysé declare their passion in a great opera-like duet. They plot against Ciz, and manage to decide him to leave, hoping to get rid of him permanently (as King David arranges to put send Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to die in war). The act ends with a blasphemous quotation from the Gospels (Matt. 15:28) which completes the portrayal of Mesa as a false friend and traitor, while Yse had been able to find, in order to condemn her husband, the terms of the denial of Saint Peter (Matt. 26:72). In this act, the overcharged passion of the lovers is therefore entirely subject to the attraction of evil and death. This is the moment when, as the author says, “the flesh desires against the spirit.”

Despite the sound and fury of an insurrection that threatens Europeans in South China, the third act transposes the action to the final stage of life. The essential proposition of the drama emerges: “the cause of the spirit that desires against the flesh” will henceforth be pleaded “in all its atrocity” and “until the dossier is exhausted”. It’s evening and soon night. Retired at home, Ysé awaits the return of her man, this Amalric with whom she is living now. We hear the child she had from Mesa crying in another room, a Mesa she ditched when they resolved to part momentarily so that she could hide her pregnancy (the overtly displayed relations of the consul Claudel with Madame Vetch had scandalized the French colony of Fou-tcheou). Ysé recapitulates her past liaison – a mortally deadly affair, but flamboyant – while Amalric tells her that they are going to blow up in their mined house: better to die than fall into the hands of the insurgents (the Boxers, no doubt). He goes out to finalize the preparations for the explosion, and then Mesa enters, having come from who knows where to save her and their son. He addresses her with the most bitter reproaches, to which she opposes a total silence. The scene that we guess to be endless is finally interrupted by the return of Amalric. Summoned to choose between her two lovers, it is he that Ysé decides to follow. Her betrayal is confirmed. The two men come to blows. Amalric has the upper hand. The opportunistic couple leaves Mesa injured after stripping him of his pass and going so low as to search his pockets. Just as she wants to take it with her, Yse realizes that her child is dead. Mesa, who dwells alone in the mined house, addresses God in a monologue that is familiar and sublime at the same time. He questions the meaning of his life, of his passion, examines his conduct, confesses his sin, finally implores to die. Ysé suddenly reappears. On a whim, it seems, she abandoned Amalric. As in the meantime Ciz is dead, which lifts the prohibition that weighed on the union of the Catholic lovers, they marry each other on the verge of death in a ritual where the profane and profaning passion is inseparably mixed with the most ardent faith and the very sacraments of the Church. The curtain falls just as Mesa finishes saying this “Mass of August” to which they provide, by actually dying, the body and blood of a symbolic sacrifice. The height of amorous and religious exaltation is then reached in a true apotheosis of love, and no one doubts in the hall that such lovers, who rejoice at surrendering themselves to the powers of fire and night, have entered alive into the afterlife.

2 – Commentary

While following the plot, the story we have just read shows that the author gradually transforms into a mystagogical adventure an action whose values and landmarks are in the first act strongly anchored in the physical, material world. But imperceptibly, the characters, who first present themselves realistically, metamorphose before our eyes, then enter a process of realization of their deep being, that only passion can bring to conclusion. In a first stage, they seem to stylize their own role, to the point of bordering on social and moral caricature, while, ever more attracted by the symbolic direction taken by their lives, they clarify the nature of the desire that determines them or submit to it obscurely. During a kind of initiation into the ways of the heart, the beautiful Madame de Ciz is instructed by Mesa – a character in charge of the young poet’s pitiful social figure, but whose spiritual gaze, animated by a desire for the absolute, gradually absorbs the vital principle of the other characters, and orders them to the subjectivity of the author. To please Mesa, whom she then calls “her teacher”, Ysé first agrees to play (against herself!) the role of the forbidden woman. Then entering through the door of crime into the mystery of death, she becomes (and no longer represents only) the feminine soul of the hero doomed to the sufferings of purgatory, while he himself, rendered entirely spirit, celebrates his liberation from the contingencies of love, in a victorious apotheosis (“the great Male in the glory of God, the man in the splendor of August, the victorious Spirit in the transfiguration of Noon”). It is therefore understandable that the last appearance of Ysé, this soul-woman over whom Mesa must triumph at the moment of the ultimate transformation, shows her “in a state of hypnotic trance”, wandering in her abandoned house like a kind of desolate ghost, before, her sacrifice accomplished, she turns into a jubilant muse and disappears into the inspiring night.

This white lady who joins Mesa not to try to make him escape, but to rise with him to the heights of a poetic and mystical redemption, is it really Yse – an Yse who would have suddenly “converted” to religion, as some think -, or is it rather a hallucinated Yse that the wounded man, riveted to his deathbed (a sofa!), illusorily summons? It is impossible to decide, probably because the finale is played on several levels (“I always think several things at once,” Claudel wrote to his critic Marsan). The first levels are those of a fictional reality where the author, unhappy in love, releases a compensatory fantasy; we do not know whether to credit it to the imagination of the drama or reserve it for the hallucinations of the only hero in whom all the stakes of the action are about to be absorbed. Only then the level of the last causes appears where passion and pain probed by a desperate conscience finally make sense: “Why? Why this woman? Why the woman all of a sudden on this boat? That Mesa and Ysé recompose the figure of the original couple of Genesis (“And God created man in his image, he created them male and female”), and the whole tragic passionate adventure of Mesa-Claudel is inserted in an imaginary sacred order (solemnly founded by the Eucharistic pseudo-rite), in a symbolic cosmic order (the Chinese legend of star lovers who each year confront each other without ever being able to meet on either side of the Milky Way), finally in the religious order that the author considered true (the biblical account of David and Bathsheba, adulterous and criminal lovers who are among the ancestors of Christ, as the Catholic poet does not fail to recall).

If we can talk about Mesa-Claudel, it is because an acute autobiographical issue is involved. Remaining without news of Rosalie Vetch, the woman he loves passionately, with whom he has lived for several years, but from whom he must temporarily separate while preparing to join her – then learning that she loves another and that he has probably lost her, Claudel goes mad with grief. He then feels doubly betrayed: neither God wanted him, a few years before, when he thought he could enter the orders and was sent back to the world (second stay of the diplomat in China), nor the woman he loves who he thought returned his love could keep her faith. Unable to accept the ruin of his love, he then tries to join his Beatrice, but she shies away and soon flees when pursued. It was in these dramatic circumstances that the poet began to write Partage de midi. From this first version of the work, there remain three successive states, the last of which manages to find a way out of the tragedy of the abandoned being, who has been thrown into external darkness: silence of God, silence of the beloved woman. In the last scene, the end of the passion is denied, the extreme pain that nevertheless remains is converted into a grandiose expiation, the separation expands the space to the dimensions of the cosmos, the ordeal of deprivation transforms the lovers into heroes, in short the author overexpands his own life up to the height of the misfortune he suffers, so much so that he transfigures it.

The play finds in this gesture of appropriation its own artistic stake. The poet orients the theatrical form towards an assumption of the autobiographical subject, whereas this form is defined on the contrary by the confrontation of wills and the concert of voices. The action is dramatic, certainly, but the writing tends towards this dithyramb from which the Greek tragedy is derived and with which the poet will seek to reconnect, rewriting Tête d’Or in the evening of his life (attempt quickly interrupted). With its considerable importance, the lyrical voice (Mesa) makes the pain heard arousing its feminine echo (Ysé). Engaged by a quartet of well-balanced forces and voices, the play seeks to identify itself more and more with the expression of an isolated consciousness which, heroically confronting death, dares to question and finally to assume the silence of the abyss (“Sygè l’Abîme”, the ultimate words of Knowing the East). The whole adventure, which was that of four or five people handed over to each other by the chance destiny of an unexpected encounter, is gradually possessed by writing that organizes around the sole spiritual destiny of the poet what was at the time subject to the circumstances and vagaries of life (especially social), and succeeds in satisfying in a superior manner the demand for meaning of a being who thus asserts himself as truly unique and, if not divine, as in the image of God.

3 – The text

The first version of Partage de midi (1905) was self-published in 1906 by the Bibliothèque de l’Occident, which provided a limited edition of 150 copies, most of which were sent secretly to a small circle of friends of the author. Out of discretion and scruples, Claudel long refrained from spreading his work in France. A public edition of this text was published in the Mercure de France only in 1948, that is, when Claudel gave his play to Barrault. He had long reconciled with Rosalie Lintner – he paid her and their daughter Louise a pension-, he had written The Satin Slipper, also inspired (but less directly) by the passion of Fou-tcheou, and had it performed. Having finally agreed to mount Partage, working with Jean-Louis Barrault, he felt the need to give a less unfair portrait of Ysé, to rid the text of its “lyrical costume”, and to give an edifying end to the adventure. Neither the meaning nor the art of the new versions that he then wrote in the urgency of the stage performance remain the same. On the one hand, he wants the drama to turn into a parable. On the other hand, he has removed from his writing the marks – or stigmata, as you like – of expressionism.

Partage de midi can be read in the edition given by Gérald Antoine (Folio-Théâtre, Gallimard, 1994). This work contains the full text of the first complete version of 1905 as well as the previously unpublished unfinished states, a biographical preface, a chronology, notes on the text, extracts relating to the drama of the late correspondence of the poet and his beloved, a bibliography, and finally a critical essay. It opens with the preface that the playwright wrote in 1948 to introduce the late publication of the work. This brief but essential text makes it possible to understand the new versions in the light of the intentions that presided over both the alterations scattered throughout the main events and the recasting of certain passages of the second and third acts (these versions of 1948 and 1949, the preface of 1948 and a presentation intended for the press appear in the Complete Works, vol. XI, 1957).

La Pléiade also published the 1905 version, followed by the new version for the 1949 stage (Théâtre, t. 1, 1956, Introduction by Jacques Madaule). Gérald Antoine presented in a volume that serves as a complement to his edition published in the Folio collection, a work grouping together comments by Claudel and variants of the different versions, classified according to the processes implemented in the rewriting (Paul Claudel, Partage de midi, un drame revisité: 1948-1949, édition de Gérald Antoine, L’Âge d’Homme, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1997).

If we omit some furtive and fugitive Parisian performances, we can say that the drama was officially performed for the first time in France by Jean-Louis Barrault in 1948 (premiere on December 16). Edwige Feuillère played the role of Ysé, Jean-Louis Barrault that of Mesa, Pierre Brasseur played Amalric, Jacques Dacqmine was Ciz. The Claudel-Barrault correspondence contains a series of letters on Partage de midi (Cahiers Paul Claudel 10, Gallimard, 1974, letters 118 to 135, and Complete Works, t. XI). Under the title Mittagswende, the drama was performed in German at the Städtisches Opern und Schauspielhaus Hannover (world premiere: 25 May 1922).

Antoinette Weber-Caflisch
(University of Geneva)