Oratorios and Ballets

Man and His Desire (L’Homme et son désir), 1917–18, 1921

In 1917, when serving as Minister Plenipotentiary in Rio de Janeiro with Darius Milhaud as his secretary, Claudel attended a performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune given by the Ballets Russes, who were touring South America at the time, and was enthralled. So much so that he made overtures to Nijinsky concerning a project for a ballet set in the Brazilian forest. Taking advantage of the combined talents of Milhaud and Audrey Parr (the wife of a British diplomat), who had a remarkable talent for drawing and design, he worked on the idea during 1917 and 1918. The eventual result was the ballet scenario entitled L’Homme et son désir (Man and His Desire). Unfortunately, Claudel was ignorant of the fact that Nijinsky had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was no longer able to dance. The ballet would in the end be given its first performance in June 1921 by the Ballets Suédois at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

The scenario evokes the exquisite torture that the twin ghost of a dead Woman inflicts on a Man who, in his sleep, is simultaneously beset by the terrors of the jungle. At the dress rehearsal the obvious nudity of the principal interpreter, Jean Börlin, caused a major scandal, which the press gladly reported, giving it widespread coverage. It took Claudel many a year to recover from the resulting “enormous heap of abusive, stupid comments”, believing that they fuelled the incomprehension he felt himself to be a victim of in his capacity as an artist. Nevertheless, Man and His Desire was performed no less than 56 times by the Ballets Suédois between 1921 and 1924.


Text : Th II, 249 ; O.C. XIII, “Théâtre VIII”, 215.


– “L’Homme et son désir”, Th II, 1143 ; “Nijinsky”, Pr 384 et “Sur la danse”, ibid., 162; C.P.C III et XIII
– Monique Dubar : « Claudel, trouveur de la danse”», in Cahier de L’Herne Paul Claudel sous la direction de Pierre Brunel, Éditions de l’Herne, 1997, p. 308-325
– Hélène Laplace-Claverie : « L’Homme et son désir, récit d’un rêve ou récit rêvé ? », in Paul Claudel 19. Théâtre et récit, textes réunis et présentés par Pascale-Alexandre Bergues, Lettres modernes Minard, 2005, p.113-125
– Jacinthe Harbec : « Temporalité, spatialité et modernité dans le ballet L’Homme et son désir de Claudel et Milhaud », in Musique et modernité en France, dir. S. Caron, F. de Médicis et M. Duchesneau, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2006, p. 193-219
– Mary Fleisher : «Paul Claudel, Jean Börlin and the Ballets Suédois», in Embodied texts : Symbolist Playwright-dancer Collaborations, Editions Rodopi B.V., 2007, p.253-301
– Michel Wasserman : Claudel Danse Japon, Classiques Garnier, 2012


Woman and Her Shadow (La Femme et son ombre), 1922, 1923

Claudel was appointed ambassador to Japan in 1921 and took up his post in November of that year, arriving with a glowing reputation of being a writer as well as a diplomat. In the summer of 1922 he was approached by people from the world of kabuki who had got wind of the turbulent première of Man and His Desire. They requested his permission to stage the ballet themselves as part of a performance of dance, with the music being adapted by a local westernising composer. Claudel could not imagine how his ballet could be considered separately from the music of Milhaud and suggested instead that he work on the basis of a scenario à la japonaise to be embellished by traditional Japanese music. This was agreed.

At first, he came up with the outline for a “mimodrama”. Then, when asked for some poems in addition—in order, as is proper in kabuki, that the dance might have a sung accompaniment—he produced a second version, one that verges on lyrical drama. The plot is vaguely reminiscent of the love triangle in Man and His Desire, but is now inserted into the context of those dance plays involving ghosts that are one of the forms of kabuki.The male protagonist, believing he is assailing the jealous spectre of his former lover, in fact slays his new mistress.

The first production of Woman and Her Shadow took place in March 1923 at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo. It benefited from the performance of actors nowadays deemed legendary specialists in the kabuki style of the period, from set design and costumes by the great painter Kaburagi Kiyokata, and from music by Kineya Sakichi IV, maestro of nagauta (accompanied recitative). However, the relatively formulaic character of the plot, which makes use of a somewhat hackneyed narrative topos, along with what was seen as being a touristic version of the Japanese tradition meant that the production came in for harsh criticism from the local press. Nevertheless, the play marks a milestone on the path that would lead to The Book of Christopher Columbus and the oratorios of the 1930s.

Performances of Woman and Her Shadow at the Imperial Theatre, Tokyo, ran from the 26th to the 31st of March, 1923. It was also put on at the Thèâtre Marigny on June 15th, 1948 by the Ballets Roland Petit with music by Alexandre Tcherepnine and choreography by Janine Charrat.


Text : Th II, 533 ; O.C. III, “Extrême-Orient I”, 333.

Bibliography :

– “Le drame et la musique”, Pr 143 ; “Kabouki”, ibid., 1176 ; “Propos sur un spectacle de ballets”, O.C. IV, “Extrême-Orient II”, 391
– Michel Wasserman : Claudel Danse Japon, Classiques Garnier, 2012


Beneath the Ramparts of Athens (Sous le rempart d’Athènes), 1927

This work—which represents “an intermediary stage between the scenarios for ballet or mimodramas and the dramatised oratorios”—was written at the request of Philippe Berthelot for the centenary of the birth of his father, the well known chemist Marcelin Berthelot. The manuscript is dated “Washington, April 1927”.

To discuss the great scientist, Claudel chose to depict certain pilgrims as they come to visit the tomb of a “fictional ancient Greek philosopher called Hermas” (Théâtre II, p. 1484) which is situated beneath the city walls of Athens. The music by Germaine Taillefer aims “to create, as a backcloth to the drama, a kind of tapestry of sound whose colours keep the spectators entertained and give them some relief by suffusing the aridity of the philosophical discussion with their pleasing vibrancy” (Théâtre II, p. 1485).

It was performed as part of the gala reception given in memory of Marcelin Berthelot at the Élysée Palace and was directed by Louis Jouvet.


Text : Th II, 1114 ; O.C. XIII, “Théâtre VIII”, p. 247.


Wisdom, or the Parable of the Great Banquet (La Sagesse ou la Parabole du festin), 1934–35, 1945.

This oratorio recasts in dramatic, musical form Claudel’s text entitled La Parabole du festin (inspired by Luke 14: 16–24), written in 1925. The libretto was written at the request of Ida Rubenstein, herself supported by Darius Milhaud. It was completed in 1935. Like the host in the Gospel parable (and Wisdom in Proverbs 9: 1–6), Wisdom makes her round of invitations. Since the righteous, the sighted and the intelligent turn her down, she gathers together all kinds of infirm people and builds a city for them which rests on seven pillars, symbol of a humanity reconciled with God.

The first performance was given in Rome on February 15th, 1950.


Text : Th II, 1190 ; O.C. XIII, “Théâtre VIII”, p. 221.

Bibliography : C.P.C. III.


La Danse des morts (The Dance of Death), 1938–40

During a visit to the Historical Museum of Basel in January 1938, Claudel was inspired by a copy of a now partially destroyed medieval depiction of a danse macabre. On May 23rd of the same year he completed the libretto for an oratorio on this theme that was so popular in the Middle Ages. Arthur Honegger, to whom the oratorio is dedicated, was approached to provide the score. “What struck me above all about this dancing daisy-chain of people,” Claudel confided, “was less its sinister aspect than its cheerfulness”.

The oratorio is in the form of a dialogue between man and God, the words of the intertwining responses being mostly based on biblical texts. The heading of Section VI— “Hope in the Cross”—underlines the fact that death and true Life are not antithetical, for death is the only way to resurrection.


Text: Théâtre, tome II, Pléiade, 1965, 1259 ; Œuvres complètes, XXIX, Gallimard, p. 265.
Cf. “Une visite à Bâle”, Œuvres en prose, Pléiade, 1965, p. 939.

Texts cited and abbreviations:

Théâtre, tome II, Pléiade, 1965 : Th II.
Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, tome III, 1952, tome XIII, 1958, tome XIV, 1958, tome XIX, 1962, tome XXIX, 1986 : O.C. III, O.C. XIII, O.C. XIV, O.C. XIX, O.C. XXIX.
Cahiers Paul Claudel 3, “Correspondance Paul Claudel-Darius Milhaud 1912-1953”, Gallimard, 1961. Préface de Henri Hoppenot. Introduction et notes de Jacques Petit : C.P.C. III.
Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault, n°1, 1953, “Claudel et Christophe Colomb”.
Œuvres en prose, Pléiade, 1965. Préface de Gaëtan Picon. Textes établis et annotés par Jacques Petit : Pr.
Journal, tome I, Pléiade, 1968 : J I.