The second version of Tête d’Or was revised in 1894, as evidenced by the manuscript acquired by the BNF in 1990. The full text was first published in L’Arbre.
This drama with Shakespearean accents traces the heroic and dazzling trajectory of Simon Agnel. Returning to his home, where he has met again with the young Cebes, Simon saves his homeland attacked by enemy armies. Under the name of Tête d’Or (Golden Head) he seizes the throne, assassinates the old king and expels his daughter, the Princess. He then sets out to conquer the world. Reaching the Caucasus, where the girl had fled, he expires alongside her, covered with wounds, after winning victory over the Asian troops. Crowned by Tête d’Or, the Princess dies in turn. The army of Tête d’Or turns back to the West.
Composed in 1889, the first version of Tête d’Or transposed under the guise of an epic drama the existential and religious crisis experienced by the young writer, who had converted the same year 1886 both to Rimbaud and to the Catholic religion. Published in 1890, this drama had, in Gide’s words, the effect of a “bomb” in literary circles. Four years after the publication of this first play, Claudel returned to his work to revise it. He then left France for the United States, first New York, where he had been appointed vice-consul and where he landed in April 1893, then Boston, where he managed the consulate until February 1895. While translating Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, he composed The Exchange and rewrote Tête d’Or and The City. Despite exile and the difficulties of adaptation, these American years were, by the poet’s own admission, years of equilibrium and happiness. The rewriting of the drama testifies to this.
Admittedly, the revisions made do not radically transform the meaning of the drama. We find in it the moral and philosophical crisis of an era, marked by history (the war of 1870, the Commune, the difficult beginnings of the third republic) and by Renan’s positivism. We also find the elements of the internal debate born from the conversion of 1886 and opposing, through allegorical characters, the old (Cebes) and the new (Tête d’Or), the pagan desire for earthly goods (Tête d’or) and the biblical Wisdom (the Princess). Tensions remain, perceptible, for example, in the words, taken from the first version, pronounced by Tête d’Or, refusing to submit to the Princess, figure of Grace and of the Church: “But for me, I do not want you. / May I die lonely! / Again/ Like a flame rolls/ In my chest the great desire! ». The philosophical pessimism inspired by Schopenhauer has faded, however, while biblical references have multiplied: despite the hero’s ultimate revolt, submission to faith is henceforth acquired.
Despite its epic violence, it is to symbolism that we must relate this allegorical drama that transposes a quest for identity and an existential questioning. The revisions made to the text aim to emphasize the symbolic significance of the fiction by associating it more with the stage, as evidenced by the increased number of stage directions. The playwright is concerned with detailing gestures, movements, sound and visual scenery, costumes. Thus, the costume worn by the Princess in the first part (red dress, golden cape, mitre) is characterized by a liturgical tone that immediately orients towards the meaning to be given to the character. The drama opens and closes with the image, textual and scenic, of the tree that gives its title to the entire collection: the tutelary tree of Tête d’Or that the hero addresses at the end of the first part is echoed by the tree on which the Princess is crucified in the third part. A desire for clarity and dramatic efficiency seems to have guided the entire rewriting. Corrections specify space (with the mention of Caucasus for example) and temporality, while the structure of the drama is simplified: Claudel suppresses digressive episodes (the lamentations of the Mourners in the second part). On the formal level itself, the playwright was keen to make the text more accessible: some provocative enjambements (V/ Ous) disappear, the syntax is sanitized, as are the lexicon and images. In the article he devoted to Tête d’Or in the NRF (October 1911), Jacques Rivière expressed his preference for this second version which, thanks to these corrections, had gained in unity according to him.
The play was premiered on 21 October 1959 at the inauguration of the Odéon-Théâtre de France, in the presence of the then President of the Republic, General de Gaulle, and the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault, with Alain Cuny as Tête d’Or and Catherine Sellers as the Princess. The play was revived in 1968 at the Odéon for the centenary of Claudel’s birth with the same cast. We must also mention the confidential performances given by Louise Lara in 1924 (March 22, 23, 25 and 26) and in 1927 (October 22, 23, 24) as part of her test theater, the laboratory “Art and Action” of the rue Lepic: the scenography elaborated by Edouard Autant was organized around the motif of the tree, simulated on stage by a stretched drapery which, depending on the lighting, could represent the shaft of a tree as that of a column.