Claudel and Holland

Two Dutch pioneers

The Netherlands have played a part both  modest and crucial in Claudel’s work and career. The admiration that Claudel showed for Dutch art is well known. During his ambassadorship in Brussels in 1933-1935, Claudel  made some trips to  the Netherlands, among others in order to present “Some ideas of a French poet on Dutch art”. This lecture,  given at The Hague and Amsterdam in November 1934,  was  published in February 1935 in the Revue de Paris  under the title of “Introduction to Dutch painting”. In the same journal Claudel publishes in June 1935 his “April in Holland”. These activities are mentioned in the Dutch press, but Claudel seems not to have had a great reputation as an art critic in the Netherlands.

On the other hand, he was very well known and appreciated as a dramatic author. Dutchmen have at several times played a decisive role in the reception and the promotion of Claudel’s dramas. In 1892, W.G.C.Byvanck is the first critic writing on Claudel, who is then totally unknown. The poet was always very grateful  to him about that.  Byvanck’s texts published in Dutch in De Nederlandsche spectatorand De Gids have been recently translated into French. In spite of these first  efforts, Claudel’s fame still remains very limited  for a long time, all the more so because his plays are not produced.  Around 1910, the Dutch actress Marie Kalff is the first one to embody Claudel’s characters on stage. Kalff, a great admirer of the symbolist theatre, settled in France in order to work with Lugné-Poe. After having left the Theatre de L’Oeuvre, she undertakes European tours during which she recites symbolist verses and plays scenes of his preferred dramas (notably those of Maeterlinck). In 1908, she discovers Claudel’s work, probably through Henri-René Lenormand. Lenormand  relates in his memoirs their joint efforts to bring to the stage Claudel’s dramas.  

“I tried to kindle enthusiasm in the committee (of the New Art Theatre) for La Jeune fille Violaine which , published since 1901 in l’Arbre, had created in me  one of these youthful  enthusiasms  that threatened to abolish my personal ambitions.  I nurture some pride for having been the first man of the theatre to feel  that Paul Claudel’s tragedies included  in the Mercure de France edition were playable and that they would be, some day, taken for the gospel of a  restored theatrical art. Marie Kalff, who was not yet my wife, had undertaken a tour of recitals where she revealed  Claudel’s message. So she was the first Marthe, the first Ysé, the first Violaine, whom she was longing to play on stage. One night I read [in a public reading] the Jeune fille Violaine … the impression was of  cold respect, of bored  astonishment. None of the  writers present had been touched  by  grace.”

The couple Kalff-Lenormand comes into contact with Claudel in order to try to produce one of his dramas. In a letter dated 20 February 1909, the author says that he is touched by this initiative, but he turns down their offer on the pretext  that he prefers to preserve his anonymity.

However he appreciates that Marie Kalff has presented  extracts of his dramas, thus preparing  minds  for the first complete performances. When Claudel accepts at last to have  The Tidings Brought to Mary,  produced, he insists that Marie Kalff play Violaine’s role : “It’s a big stake that I play, and it is not without emotion that I come  to the stage. But I have great trust in you. The experience will be able to succeed only if all your colleagues  are animated by the fervour and the faith in the works with which you are filled “. Unfortunately, the actress falls sick and must be replaced by another one. It’s one of the greatest disappointments  of her life. She will take her revenge when playing Marthe in L’Échange at the Vieux-Colombier Theatre in 1914.

Performances in the Netherlands

Byvanck’s and Marie Kalff’s work as pioneers had  primordial importance for Claudel’s reception  in France as well as in the Netherlands. During the 1910 years, Claudel’s name begins to spread in  Dutch artistic circles and the two main innovators of Dutch theatre decide to bring it to the stage. Eduard Verkade produces The Hostage  in 1918 with the Koninklijke Vereeniging het Nederelandsch Toonel, the official company of the Stadsschouwburg from Amsterdam. Two years later, his successor Willem Royaards produces The Tidings Brought to Mary .

The reviews  of these first two performances set  the tone for  Claudel’s critical reception in the Netherlands. Generally, the critics consider Claudel  an important modern author who shows the way towards an innovation of  theatrical art. At  the same time, his fervent Catholicism meets opposition. After the Second World War, the interest given to Claudel’s dramas quickly decreases. Concerning the performance of The Hostage  in 1952, Emmy van Lokhorst notes that “Claudel’s work, though born of the purest  religious conviction, is no longer able to move us”. It’s also the general tone  of the reviews  of  Crusts  performance at the Zuidelijk Toneel in 1999.

Critical reception

After the two Byvanck articles, there was  a long period of silence around Claudel. In 1909, his name reappears under the name of Pieter van der Meerde Walcheren, a young Dutch convert who moves in the Catholic circles around Jacques Maritain. In 1909, Van der Meer praises Claudel in De Groene Amsterdammer. Without yet mentioning his Catholicism, he presents him rather as an avant-garde artist. This           article inaugurates four decades of a very active Claudel welcome into Dutch Catholic circles. His work suits the ideal of a Catholic revival that  young Dutch Catholics are nurturing. Following the example of Maritain, they consider themselves as the propagandists of a counter-culture that is both  antimodern and ultramodern. For the members of this spiritual trend, Paul Claudel is the perfect choice as an author because he offers the  rare combination of a sound Catholic faith and  great innovative  power as an artist. Moreover, he is a prestigious writer and recognized everywhere in Europe. From  the twenties on, avant-garde Catholic journals such as De Gemeenschap and Roeping vow a real cult to Claudel.

On their side, the non- Catholic critics blame Claudel for his mystical obscurity  and his ideal of the submission of art to faith. The dismissal of Claudel’s proselytism reaches its peak in the debates around Rimbaud. On  several occasions , the poet Jan Jacob Slauerhoff denounces the hypothesis of Rimbaud’s conversion.

For the numerous Dutch writers who turn towards Gide’s ideas and those of the NRF, Claudel represents the enemy. The publication  of his correspondence with Gide in 1950 encourages  some critics to take [negative] positions in relation to Claudel’s Catholicism. After this last clash, the attention brought to Claudel’s works decreases very quickly. Today, unlike his sister Camille, he is not at all known by the Dutch public. In 1999, Crusts  was played before an indifferent and confused public: the Dutch are no longer able to appreciate or  to understand his plays.

This waning of the interest given to Claudel’s works became apparent as early as   1955. The obituary articles published then reveal nostalgia for  a bygone past. During the period between the two wars, there were  in the Netherlands circles of young Catholics, proponents of a decidedly  modern art, that formed the ideal public for Claudel’s dramas and Claudel willingly let himself get trapped in this religious ‘ghetto’. It’s probably the reason why his reputation has not survived  the secularization that has marked the Dutch culture of the second half of the twentieth century.Maaike Koffeman, Radboud University,