Claudel always wanted to interfere in the production of his plays and so, little by little, he acquired a good understanding of stagecraft. Staging a play, for him, was not simply a routine matter of adapting the text to suit specific material conditions and circumstances. It was also, above all, an opportunity to engage in genuine artistic creativity.
1 – A Few Characteristic Features
- Particular attention paid to diction.
The first vocal quality demanded by Claudel is musicality, the very opposite of a monotonous style of declamation. Then, gradually, he opts for a form of diction that is more supple and lively. Furthermore, vocal economy rather than an increase in volume is the condition of its impact. To express and convey forcefulness, Claudel prefers instead that the words be pronounced syllable by syllable and, notably, that the consonants be emphasized.
- Particular attention paid to gesture.
The first requirement is that a given gesture should be executed soberly and in unhurried fashion so that, far from being a mere automatic reflex action, it enhances the meaning of the words. As for the movements of the actors about the stage, Claudel minimises these as much as possible, at times to the point of giving an impression of immobility. However, the economical use of gestures is compensated for by their significance, which is often highly symbolic: “Each movement is an act with a meaning”.
- Particular attention paid to the musical accompaniment.
Claudel always wished to add a musical dimension to the staging of his plays, to establish new relationships between drama and music. In the first place, the ideal music for the stage in his opinion is that created by the human voice, making the most of all its possibilities, from whispers and murmurs to song, “music emerging from poetry, as poetry emerges from prose”. In addition, Claudel exploits the ambiguity of what might be called “parallel music”; that is, music that is seemingly at odds with what is taking place on stage but that in fact brings out its deeper meaning. Finally, just like Japanese theatre, he favours live music with the musicians being physically present on stage, fully integrated into the spectacle.
Claudel mainly collaborated with the following two great composers: Darius Milhaud (The Tidings Brought to Mary, The Book of Christopher Columbus) and Arthur Honegger (The Satin Slipper).
2 – Perpetual Renewal
Despite his adherence to certain principles, Claudel’s approach to stagecraft is characterized above all by his habit of constantly revising things, as a result of his various enthusiasms and his open-minded receptiveness. Just as with cuts to the text of a play and its consequent reorganisation, readjustments to its staging were not seen by Claudel as being a tiresome submission to external constraints but as a lucky, new source of inspiration.
It was mainly in connection with the scenery that changes were made, sometimes to the point of leading to contradictions. In particular, Claudel would often switch from a demand for realism to a desire for stylisation, even starkness, and vice versa—even for the selfsame play. For example, during the production of The Tidings Brought to Mary that he oversaw in Hellerau in 1913 he pushed for an absence of scenery but, when directing the same play at the Comédie Française just before his death, he wanted an over-elaborate decor. As Gérald Antoine put it, this is because “with Claudel, truth lies not in the opposing of contraries but in their summation”.
3 – The Art of Realizing a Theatrical Vision
The reason why Claudel changed his mind so often when his plays were being staged is because, in each case, his intention was to implement a predetermined mental picture—incidentally, one to which his works were not perhaps always suited. His enthusiasm for the innovations he came across in the other arts—music, dance, opera and cinema—gave rise to a desire to repurpose them for his own plays, in a way that was at times artificial. Yet this attempt to recreate his plays according to a theatrical vision that was always new is what allows one to describe Claudel as a metteur en scène in the strongest and most contemporary sense of the term. However, it was because his vision was at times difficult to actualize that he often clashed with those directors who had a strong personality, such as Copeau, Dullin, Jouvet and even Barrault. Nevertheless, Claudel can undoubtedly be said to have followed in the tradition of the great visionaries of theatrical aesthetics of the first half of the 20th century.
René Farabet, Le jeu de l’acteur dans le théâtre de Paul Claudel, Minard, 1960.
Paul Claudel, Mes idées sur le théâtre, Gallimard, 1966.
Michel Lioure, L’Esthétique dramatique de Paul Claudel, Colin, 1971.
Yehuda Moraly, Claudel metteur en scène : la frontière entre les deux mondes, Besançon, Presses universitaires franc-comtoises, 1998.
Alain Beretta, Claudel et la mise en scène : autour de L’Annonce faite à Marie (1912–1955), Besançon, Presses universitaires franc-comtoises, 2000.
Pascal Lécroart, Paul Claudel et la rénovation du drame musical, Belgique, éditions Mardaga, 2004.