Claudel and Russia

For the majority of the Russian public, Paul Claudel’s name remained in the shadows for  several decades, though his works had been discovered or rediscovered in Russia  several times since the beginning of the XX ° century, a process that continues  at this beginning of the XXI° century.

The first “discoverers” were the Russian symbolists, who had direct links with the French cultural world, were intimately familiar with  new French poetry and translated it very often.  They sensed in Claudel a truly  innovative poet, although his poetry was quite different  from  Russian prosody and from its  system of images. Claudel’s name appeared for the first time in 1904 in the literary review Vessy (“The Scales”, the Muscovite symbolists’ organ), under the pen of the  chief editor, the famous poet Valery Briussof. Briussof  gives an account of Connaissance du temps (first part of Claudel’s  Poetic Art ), , a work full of originality  and talent according to him, that was not like most of  modern literature. In the years following 1910 Claudel was already read – in French – in  literary and cultivated circles. One realizes  the “underground” coincidence between Claudel’s universe and that  of Viacheslav  Ivanof, master of the first generation of Russian symbolists, who later converted to Catholicism. Both were brilliant translators  of Eschylus’s tragedies. Some literary critics, such as Innokenty Annensky (himself a poet and famous expert and translator of French verses) in 1908, quoted his name in their studies on modern poetry.

At the same time people  began to translate Claudel into Russian. One should  quote first the poet and painter Maximilian Volochine (1877-1932). Volochine translated one of  Claudel’s Great  Odes, Les Muses (published in the literary review Apollon in 1910, n° 9) and also the drama Le Repos du septième jour. In those translations Volochine tried to find the equivalent to  Claudel’s poetic language,  delving into the deep resources of his own language: he used archaic expressions, the lexical units of Slavonic, in order to make “his powerful rhetoric” resonate in the Russian ear. But those attempts found almost no audience at this time.

From Volochine’s pen we also have two remarkable essays: “Preface to Les Muses” and “Claudel in China” – that presented to Russian readers   Claudel’s epic thought. From  his point of view, Claudel “draws his soul’s nourishment from three underground sources: oriental wisdom, Catholicism and Hellenic archaism, and his thought is built on Eschylus, Plotinus and Lao-Tseu” (translated by C.Brémeau), that corresponded deeply to the language of his own creative thought.  Moreover, Volochine recognizes that Claudel aspires,  as he does, to this “eastern knowledge”, to this “flight” “ in order to achieve  for  himself  distance from Europe and to become penetrated with  new knowledge systems, and  a new  logic of art.” (Translated by J.C.Marcadé).

The discovery of Claudel’s theatre  dates back to the years 1912-1913, just after the creation ofThe Tidings Brought to Mary  in Paris, byLugné-Poe, and in Germany, on the experimentalstage at Hellerau. Critics from very different ideological horizons, such as Boris Eichenbaum, Evgueni Pann and Anatoli Lounacharski, after having seen  Claudel’s dramas in other countries, wanted  it to  be shown on a Russian  stage. Claudel was presented as one of the advocates of the new theatre, as the inventor of  a modern mystery play, “a mystery that does not give up, does not abandon life, mystery of the living forces, mystery of  flesh and blood…”(Boris Eichenbaum , “On  Paul Claudel’s mysteries”, 1913. “ The way of Claudel as creator goes from  tragedy to the mystery play…Every play ends not only with  a disaster, but with a kind of new synthesis; in every one of them, after all the storms and the tempests , arises the great rainbow of peace of the soul,  burnt by the Sun of life, refracted in human tears” (Ibidem) . Evgueni Pann (1896-1958) published a review  of The Tidings Brought to Mary   staged by Lugné-Poe  at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre  in the review Maska  ( “The  Mask “ N°7, 1913-1914) under the title  “For the defense of  expressive art”. His text is so rich in details that he allows us to reconstruct   this famous show, its scenography, its light, the whole content of the action. The other substantial essay by E.Pann, “The  drama of eternity in Paul Claudel’s works”, was published  on the eve of war in 1914  in the Yearbook of the imperial theatres, the official theatrical review of Saint-Petersburg. Here the dramas of l’Arbre are perfectly explained as being texts devoted to the theatre; it is a true program for translations and theatrical realizations to come. But an era was ending , another one was beginning.

E.Pann, in  collaboration with N.Vilkina, translated The Exchange  for his first stage production  in Moscow, at the (Chamber) Kamerny Theatre, in February 1918. This Russian Exchange came outat the turning point of two moments: the project was imagined before the October revolution, at the beginning of autumn 1917, but was realized after the coup in Petrograd, on  the eve of bloody revolutionary fights in Moscow.

In the history of the Russian theatre, the creation of Claudel’s Exchange in Moscow is a unique event, because it was marked by the collaboration between two great directors,  Vsevolod  Meyerhold and Alexander Taïrov, who were absolutely different and even opposed to  each  other. Between them, it was also a kind of “exchange” of creative ideas, an extremely complicated exchange, with profits and losses. The other meaningful fact of this show was the scenery created  by the painter Georgi Yakoulov, who came from Meyerhold’s “side”, scenery that inaugurated the constructivist theatre style.

On the stage, one saw  a closed “space”, “full of meaning ” and even aggressive towards the characters. According to a critic, “It’s a skeleton of nature, not only the skeleton but an idea of this skeleton. Skeleton-like rocks, a similar  tree, and above, the rotten and disintegrated sun in a few discs looks at the earth and the naked ribs of its  skeleton”. The heroes found themselves in a closed, hostile world,  that induced them to move in a strange way; this supernatural space awakened passions in their souls.

Neither Meyerhold nor Tairov were interested in religious and mystical questions, they understood Claudel’s Éxchange as adrama of modernity that spoke of the spiritual problems of the XX° century. The main theme of their work was  man’s tragic  battle  with nature’s forces and the power of an inhuman civilization. However, in spite of all the failings of the scenery and of the interpretation, the dramatic qualities of Claudel’s text produced the greatest impression on the audience and on the critics, without any ideological resistance. One hoped that there would be a continuation.

It’s in 1920 that the second Claudel play produced in Russia appeared on the same stage of the Moscow Kamerny Theatre. Tairov realized this project with the great tragedian of his theatre (and his wife) Alice Koonen. His collaborators were the poet Vadim Cherchenevitch, from the ‘imaginists” group who specially translated the drama for the show, and the architect Alexander Vesnine, creator of the decors and of the Cubist costumes. This remarkable production drew a lot of people and provoked passionate discussions because it was the moment when the new Soviet ideology began to form  opinion against a “reactionary” and “obscurantist” Claudel.

For Tairov,  The Tidings Brought to Mary ,  was the true mystery, but a non-religious one and even “sacrilegious”. In his opinion, in The Tidings Brought to Mary, , “…it’s the FAITH in the depths of the human soul,  that is the starting point of the dynamic action, faith whose  force and  sincerity  are able to lift up  mountains, faith that  draws the play  towards the most intense emotions”.

But for him faith had an absolutely human meaning, “earthly” and to prove this idea, he ended the play  with  “the mystery of the dead child’s resurrection”, by Violaine’s miracle, removing the fourth act.  One can call this decision  “sacrilegious”, but one knows that Claudel himself  had the same idea in 1938 when he was talking  with Charles Dullin about the project (which failed) to stage The Tidings Brought to Mary.

After Tairov’s production,  in the 1920’s, Claudel’s dramas were the subject of some theatrical experimentations, so an unfinished version of the Trilogie (free adaptation by Ivan Aksionov of the Hostage  and of  Crusts , under the title of The century Tiara) by Meyerhold’s actor pupils. In 1923 came out  Alexander Movchenson’s translation of Proteus, which was paradoxically the sole Claudel drama published in Russian  at this time  (the texts of The Exhange  and of The Tidings Brought to Mary  translated for the theatre, remained unpublished). One supposes that this translation was ordered by  Tairov but without any documentary proof. After that, Claudel became   persona non grata  in the theatre and in Soviet literature. The iron curtain had fallen.

Twenty five years ago, one could notice the almost complete absence of Claudel’s texts in  Russian translations, except for some poems hidden  in the anthologies, some quotations in the summaries of French literature or in the rare philological studies. During the 1970-1980’s, Anna Vladimirova, Valentina Kuzmina, Anna Sabachnikova  studied Claudel’s themes in the framework of their academic researches.

Nowadays, Soviet censorship being removed, the author’s works draw the interest of the researchers and of the doctorate students of the new generation – in Moscow, in Saint-Petersburg, in Nijni-Novgorod… The passion of  discovery or of  rediscovery animates their texts, which  converse with those of the symbolist era. It is significant that the subject “Claudel in Russia at the beginning of the XX° century” has  now been taken up again in several different places , not only by Russian specialists (among them Elena Galtsova) but also French and Americans (K.O.Tribble). Among the publications recently devoted to Claudel, one can cite the Acts of the first Franco-Russian symposium in 2003 at Boldino, near Nijni-Novgorod : On Pouchkine’s land , a meeting with  Claudel , an unexplored universe (Nijni-Novgorod, 2005, in two languages). The first monograph dealing with  Claudel’s theatre history was published in Saint-Petersburg in 2009 (Inna Nekrassova : Paul Claudel and the European stage of the XX° century).

Many of the poet’s works have been published in Russia during recent  decades. Two translations of Break of Noon  were brought out – including  a free adaptation of the 1949 version by L.Cherniakova  (Moscow, 1998) that has  already been produced  on Russian stages. There exist three different translations of The Tidings Brought to Mary. . Dmitry Tsyvian, from Saint-Petersburg, has translated and annotated the versions of 1912 and 1948 (the latter published in Italy in 1999),  that came out in an academic edition in  Saint-Petersburg. The poetess Olga Sedakova who has translated the 1948 version proposes a new approach to   Claudel’s style, arguable but very appealing. One has to add to that Proteus  and l’Ours et la Lune, translated by the author of the present lines (Saint-Petersburg, 2007), (“Supplement to the study on Claudel’s comedy ”). The complete edition  of  The Satin Slipper  translated by K.Bogopolskaia was brought out in 2010 in Moscow. Soon the translations of Tête d’or and of The Exchange will be published..In short,almost all Claudel’s dramas (except the Trilogy and the minor works) exist in Russian, but in scattered editions.

His verses and his prose also attract  Russian translators.  During  the years 1990-2010, isolated texts were published in journals, as well as  L’Oeil écoute, a collection of  critical essays translated  into Russian by A..Koulish, and published in Kharkov in 2005, by an Ukrainian editor.  The most difficult remains Claudel’s poetry, its great  forms of which up to now no one has found a real equivalent. From his gigantic poems we can only read fragments : a very small book of selected poems , by O.Sedakova and M.Grinberg (1992) and a book published  under the title A drop of divine honey, by A.Kurt and A. Raiskaya, (Moscow, 2002), reserved for “connoisseurs” due to its too limited printing. The same translators have just published their translation of Knowing the East  (Moscow, 2010), a huge work of which one can only regret that it is not accompanied by comments.

Inna Nekrassova  

Professor at the State theatre Academy, Saint-Petersburg