The rewriting of La Ville began in late 1894 or early 1895, while Claudel was still at his post in Boston. It continued until 1898 in China, where he had been assigned after Boston. The writer seems to have thought of revising his drama as early as July 1893, that is a few months after the publication of the first version, published without the author’s name by the Librairie de l’art indépendant. In a letter to Suarès dated 22 June 1905, Claudel stressed the close link that connected, more than Tête d’Or, The City of 1893 to his conversion: “the first two acts were written before my conversion and the last since.” This is explained, perhaps, by the abundant and fragmented character of a text that could leave an impression of confusion, with more than thirty characters, groups of workers and bourgeois, a virtual absence of plot and main characters, a sometimes-hermetic language.
Claudel resumed his play at the end of his stay in the United States, which, despite the persistence of friendly contacts, had separated him from symbolist and Parisian literary circles. In New York, then in Boston, he composed The Exchange, translated Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and revised the first version of Tête d’Or. It is in the continuity of this literary work that he rewrote The City, a task that took him an unusual time (about four years): the play was considerably remodeled. It was this second version that was published in L’Arbre.
Act I of this second version takes place in the gardens of the character Besme, which dominate the panorama of the city. Four characters confront and oppose each other: Lambert de Besme, the conservative politician, Avare, the revolutionary anarchist, Isidore de Besme, the scientist, and Coeuvre, the poet. Refusing to marry Lambert, her adoptive father, Lâla chooses to marry Coeuvre. In the second act, we learn that Lâla left Coeuvre, with whom she had a child, for Avare. The revolution triumphs and Besme is executed by the insurgent mob. Act III opens with the ruins of the war-torn city. Fourteen years have passed. Men wanted to establish an ideal city, in vain. Avare withdraws, having appointed as king Ivors, the son of Lala and Coeuvre. Dressed in the insignia of bishop and escorted by the clergy, the latter converts Ivors: the reign of the sword and the blade has given way to the kingdom of God.
This schematic summary struggles to account for the deep meaning of the drama, masked, as is often the case with Claudel, under the clichés of a banal sentimental plot. This work, whose first version was composed among the pangs of conversion, questions the construction of the City, which is also a metaphor for self-construction. To build the City, it is necessary to erase the old order, which is at once political, economic and intellectual, to allow the advent of a new order, embodied by Ivors at the end of the play. This advent presupposes the passage through death and purification. The City of Act I, dominated by the law of the market and the positivism of the scientist, resembles the cursed cities of the Bible, Sodom or Babylon. It takes the death of Lambert and Besme in Act II, which takes place in a cemetery, and the destructive action of Avare, for the City of Act III, based on love of neighbor, prefiguration of the heavenly Jerusalem, to be established. This apocalypse that the drama retraces also draws on historical reality: the Babylon devastated by war and burned recalls the Paris of the Commune. Claudel continues here the reflection he had pursued in The Exchange: the ideal city, a community of humans conceived on the model of the Church, presupposes a balanced and harmonious exchange between the individual and the collectivity.
It is also a quest for oneself and an interrogation of poetry that are developed in this complex work. Conceived as symbolic figures, the characters are not only the support for a debate on political or spiritual values. They can be understood as the instruments of a conflictual dialogue opposing the different facets of a plural self: political conservatism (Lambert) against anarchist revolt (Avare), scientific knowledge (Besme) against poetic knowledge (Coeuvre)… The dialogues that confront the characters two by two are numerous in the play: they are the engine of a dialectic advancing towards a truth through the union of poetry and faith. The City consecrates the role of women through the character of Lâla, which announces in many ways that of Ysé in Break of Noon. Difficult to define, this female figure, unfaithful, elusive and puzzling, embodies the mystery of Grace and has the function of suggesting by the feeling of lack that she creates the strength of love that unites men among themselves as it unites them with their creator.
The rewriting of The City required significant revisions. The playwright reduced considerably the number of characters: from more than thirty to eight (including the two secondary characters who appear at the beginning of Act III, Gérin and Thyrsée). This second version introduces individualized characters, Lambert, Avare, Besme, Coeuvre, Lâla and Ivors. They are members of the same family, whose fate is followed during the play. Claudel thus returns to a more traditional dramaturgical construction, to which filiation brings a marked continuity compared to the text of 1893.
Thus simplified, the dramatic structure is also tightened around a knot that crosses several threads. The first, political, confronts Lambert and Avare. The second, intellectual, opposes Besme and Coeuvre. The last, sentimental, is organized around Lâla to oppose the three male figures. The female presence, reduced to a single character, connects the three acts and, through filiation, makes it possible to overcome conflicts, in particular the political question, with the child, Ivors, born of poetry and Grace and crowned king. Like The Exchange, but in a different way, the drama consecrates the exchange of values that could appear antagonistic. This progression towards the final truth is done through scenes with two characters, which replace the choral scenes of the first version. One can easily see in this refined and strongly agonistic dramaturgy the influence of the Aeschylean dramaturgical model, from which Claudel sought to draw the “secrets of the dramatic art”.
The play was premiered the year of Claudel’s death, at the International Theatre Festival in Strasbourg on 20 June 1955, directed by Jean Vilar. The latter repeated it at the Avignon Festival during the summer and at the Palais de Chaillot in the autumn. The cast included Maria Casarès (Lâla), Philippe Noiret (Avare), Georges Wilson (Lambert), Roger Mollien (Ivors), Jean Vilar (Besme) and Alain Cuny (Coeuvre). The set and costumes were by Léon Ghischia, the music by Maurice Jarre. The second version of The City was subsequently revived (Berlin, October 1955; Brussels, 1974), directed notably by Bernard Sobel at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre in 1986.