Less valued, in the context of literary studies, than Claudel’s earlier dramatic works and less accomplished than The Satin Slipper, of which it appears as a kind of supplement, The Book of Christopher Columbus is nonetheless one of Claudel’s most exciting dramatic works in the late career of Claudel as a man of the stage and theatre. A true work in progress, the work has undergone different versions and rewrites depending on its destination.
A new kind of musical drama
The work was commissioned by the famous German director Max Reinhardt in April 1927. He wanted a dramatic script, a pretext for a grandiose staging including a large musical part. Claudel, at first reluctant, finally became passionate about the project, and wrote his text quickly during the summer of 1927. It was no longer a simple script, but a real drama in two parts and 26 scenes, each functioning like a dramatic painting. Avoiding an umpteenth historical drama on the life of Christopher Columbus, Claudel puts this past history into perspective with our times, represented by a choir, made up of our contemporaries, who attend and participate in the whole drama, while commenting on the adventure. Starting from scene 5, the old Christopher Columbus dies and becomes a spectator of his own life presented through an Explainer who is the reader of the “Book of the Life and Travels of Christopher Columbus”. It is therefore already a formula of epic theatre close to Bertolt Brecht that Claudel explores with a freedom totally unheard of during the same period in France.
The work requires a grandiose staging, and Claudel relies on the use of a revolving stage to create spectacular new effects. In addition, he uses cinema to broaden the possibilities of the scene: the screen can thus simultaneously offer a close-up detail to the dramatic action, or complete the resources of the scene by offering, for example, an exploration of
Christopher Columbus’ consciousness in scene 4 of the second part. Finally, the work requires a very important musical accompaniment for which he imposed the requirement of working with Darius Milhaud. The challenge was to rethink the aesthetics of the musical drama inherited from Wagner in favor of a new form of collaboration synthesized through the concept of “music in its nascent state” (see Musical Collaborations). But, despite the regular presence of rhythmic spoken words for the role of the Explainer, Claudel judged that Milhaud had pushed the work to the operatic side, losing the novelty he wished to give it. In Milhaud’s version, the work is simply entitled Christopher Columbus, which is a clear sign of appropriation.
For many reasons, Max Reinhardt abandoned the project. It is in Berlin, at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, translated in German, that the work was created using exceptional means. France will only know musical performances, in 1936 and 1939.
The Book of Christopher Columbus and the radio
Claudel was disappointed with the scene of the storm in the second part: in his opinion, it lacked violence. In 1937, Milhaud suggested that Claudel should contact Radio-Luxembourg for an attempt at sound and noise effects for four scenes, but the result was disappointing.
On the other hand, almost ten years later, in 1947, the opportunity was offered to retry the experiment on the scale of the whole drama within the framework of the programs of the French Radio network. The spoken text is well in the foreground and André Jolivet composed a skillful musical accompaniment including Martenot waves and numerous percussions. However, once again, Claudel is disappointed with the overall result.
The idea of making The Book of Christopher Columbus a simple theatrical text seems to stem from these disappointments. He considers the possibility of a “Chr[istophe] Columbus without music, but with wild animation” in a letter to Barrault in 1941. On June 2nd 1947, a first creation took place at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, in Paris, by the amateur troupe “Les Feux tournants”, directed by Jean Doat. Claudel, who attended the performance, judged it “very interesting”. After an Italian premiere by Guido Salvini in Genoa in 1951, the most notable production was directed by Jean-Louis Barrault, which premiered in Bordeaux in May 1953 before being revived in Paris at the Théâtre de Marigny, with new music by Darius Milhaud, much simpler and almost completely different from the initial version. It was a real success this time. Barrault took the drama to Latin America on a major tour of his company in 1954, then to England in 1956, Canada and the United States in 1957, and Japan in 1960. It was brought back to Paris in the winter of 1960-61, and was revived in 1975. In 1990, the director Pierre Barrat proposes in Strasbourg and on tour a new staging which would remain faithful to the stage music of Darius Milhaud. Today, this purely theatrical version is the most popular one and the Folio edition even makes it one of the rare works by Claudel that can be studied as early as secondary school.
Barrault’s staging had an unforeseen consequence on the version of Christopher Columbus as a musical drama: discovering the staging during a performance in Paris in 1954, Milhaud decided to use his original version to solve a difficulty posed by the very structure of the drama: the second part of the work, more abstract, seemed to be less dramatic than the first. The composer took the initiative to invert the two parts, simply retouching, with the help of Pierre Claudel, Paul Claudel’s eldest son, the role of the Explainer. At the same time, he made a number of cuts to densify his work. This new version was premiered in Paris, in oratorio version, by Manuel Rosenthal, in 1956. Today, despite the imbalance noted by Milhaud, this questionable revision is regretted.
The film script project
In May 1946, there were talks of “film projects” around The Satin Slipper and The Book of Christopher Columbus. Claudel’s imagination gets carried away, and he writes down his “Ideas for a film on Christopher Columbus” on 14 May 1946. He then works on it intermittently until a more precise project takes shape in March 1947. Claudel meets Italian producers on several occasions and a director is approached: Jacques Becker, but the latter ends up abandoning the idea. Today, there remain several versions of the project which seems both daring and unrealistic in the commercial cinema of the time: Claudel plays a game of film within the film, staging the dispute between two “producers”, each wanting to propose their own direction.