The Coûfontaine trilogy

L’Otage/The Hostage

Conceived in the beginning of 1908, while Claudel was posted to Beijing, L’Otage was not completed until 1910 in Prague, and was published in the NRF in December 1910 and January-February 1911.

The plot is set at the end of the First French Empire, in the estate that Sygne de Coûfontaine, an aristocrat whose parents were guillotined during the Terror, patiently reconstructed. One night, while she is watching over her accounts, her cousin Georges, lieutenant of the King exiled in England, arrives. He has boldly kidnapped the Pope during his transfer to a prison of Napoleon, and holds him hostage at Coûfontaine. Georges, whose wife and children are dead, offers to marry Sygne. He has an interview with the pope, whom he proposes to take to England in order to remove him from Napoleon, but who refuses to allow himself to be exiled from his apostolic see.

In the second act Turelure comes to Coûfontaine; he is a former servant of the family, defrocked novice, sans-culotte during the Revolution, responsible for the death of Sygne’s parents, who has become prefect of the Empire, in charge of the police in the department. He has heard of the pope’s abduction and knows that he is hidden in the house. He is in love with Sygne and offers her, at the price of a terrible blackmail, to marry her in exchange for the freedom of the Pope. The priest Badilon, aware of the horror of the sacrifice he suggests to his penitent, nevertheless encourages Sygne to resolve to accept this deal to save the pope. At the end of a painful debate, Sygne, after having refused violently to marry this man she hates and who is the executioner of her parents, resigns herself to this atrocious sacrifice.

The last act is set in the spring of 1814, when the Emperor Napoleon is desperate and the enemy armies besiege Paris. Turelure, now prefect of Paris, agrees to capitulate and return France to the legitimate King, demanding that Sygne renounce her rights in favor of the son she had conceived. Georges, lieutenant of the King, is in charge of the negotiation. Resigned to accepting the end of the monarchy by divine right, he is determined however to assassinate Turelure to deliver Sygne from a hated marriage. But he is killed during the exchange of fire, as well as Sygne who threw herself in front of her husband, less to protect him than to end her own life. The King solemnly makes his entrance and Turelure, as a reward for his services, is named count.

In a version intended to be staged, the author has substituted for the final “masquerade” a pathetic confrontation between the dying Sygne and Turelure who begs her, in the name of her eternal salvation, to forgive him. In both versions, Sygne’s attitude, stubbornly silent or too exhausted to express herself on the verge of death, remains ambiguous. The author himself, frightened by the cruelty of the sacrifice imposed on his heroine, tried, not without hesitation, to believe in her salvation.

The Hostage is characterized by the desire to insert the action, by a multitude of allusions to the characters and events of the time, into a precise historical framework. The author has nevertheless justified, in the name of the freedom of creation, to take multiple liberties with the reality of history, in particular the abduction of the Pope. Claudel also has sought to lend to the situation, plot and dialogue an eminently realistic and dramatic character, endeavouring, if not to eliminate, at least to restrict effectively the tirades and lyricism that characterized his earlier dramas. The drama, however, is laden with historical and religious symbolism that goes far beyond the bounds of plot and time frame to give the action universal significance, illustrating the ongoing conflict not only between social classes and political ideologies, but also between human aspirations and religious values.

Successfully created by Lugné-Poe at the Théâtre de L’Œuvre in June 1914, L’Otage was performed by the Comédie-Française in 1934. The play has had numerous performances in France and abroad. In recent times, we will remember the stagings, often controversial and sometimes inspired by questionable scenographic or political biases, of Marcel Maréchal at the Théâtre du Rond-Point in Paris in 1995, Jean-Marie Serreau at the Comédie-Française in February 1968, Bernard Sobel in Genevilliers in 2001.

Le Pain dur/Crusts

Claudel composed Le Pain dur from 1913 to 1915, while he was consul of France in Hamburg, then, after the declaration of war, settled in Bordeaux with the Ministry. The play was published in 1918 by the NRF.

Le Pain dur is the “continuation” of L’Otage, twenty years later, under the reign of Louis-Philippe. Covered with honors after having served every regime, Turelure, grown old, lives with his mistress, Sichel, a Jew whom he tyrannizes. Then arrives the son born to him from Sygne de CoûfontaIne and whose baptism was celebrated at the end of L’Otage. An officer during the conquest of Algeria, Louis has contracted debts, both financial and emotional, to a young Polish woman, Lumîr, who wants to recover this money to contribute to the liberation of her homeland enslaved by foreign powers. The plot is ordered around this hoard of ten thousand francs that Turelure holds on him and that Louis and Lumîr also covet, in concert with Sichel, all three ganged up against the old man who defies them believing that he holds them in his power and who is not, despite his age, insensitive to the charm of Lumîr. During a violent altercation between Louis and Turelure, who refuses to give up the money, Louis, his arguments exhausted, fires two pistol shots at his father. Both shots fail, but Turelure dies of fear and emotion. Louis, more or less involuntarily parricide, inherits his father’s property and returns the money he owes to Lumîr, offering to take her with him to Algeria. But the latter, although she loves Louis, chooses to return to her homeland to serve without hope the cause of her compatriots. Louis then cynically proposes to Sichel to marry him to erase his debts. An alliance of interests is thus concluded, willy-nilly, between two families and two religions, while the statue of Christ that Sygne de CoûfontaIne had saved in L’Otage is symbolically sold at a low price.

Le Pain dur, as its title and the epigraph borrowed from St. Paul about the ruthless and desperate universe of the pagans suggest, is one of the darkest and most desolate that Claudel wrote. The drama, the author wrote, offers a “sinister picture” in which all the characters, animated by “unleashed instincts”, fiercely selfish passions and the most sordid interest, confront each other in a cruel blackmail game both material and sentimental, which culminates in a half-voluntary parricide and financial imbroglios concluded by a matrimonial arrangement that is for the two surviving parties only a agreement of self-interest, in which ambition competes with greed. Lumîr alone, in her patriotic passion, accedes at times, according to Claudel, to “that Faith which has no better food than despair”.

The writing of the drama, in keeping with the characters and the tone of the action, is deliberately dry and prosaic, inspired, in the author’s words, by a tone of “continual irony”. Between Turelure and the three characters who agree to plot his death is formed an alternately brutal and hushed, cynical and hypocritical dialogue, where each plays to disconcert and deceive the partner by means of both insinuating and ambiguous formulas.

The characters, through their psychological portrait and their dramatic function, also have a symbolic meaning illustrating the various aspirations and currents of thought that crossed the nineteenth century. While Turelure, by exalting the transformation of the Coûfontaine estate into a paper mill and speculating on the construction of railway networks, embodies the nascent capitalism, and his son Louis, an officer in Algeria, participates in the beginnings of colonial expansion, Lumîr expresses the nationalist demands of oppressed Poland. An essential role belongs to the character of Sichel, representing, according to Claudel, “the Jewish fact” to which he has never ceased to give the keenest interest, and in particular the emancipation of Jews wishing to escape the ancestral curse and occupy their full place in modern society and development of the economy.  Le Pain dur, like L’Otage, is a historical drama where the characters and the action depict a moment in French society.

Created in Germany in Mannheim in 1927, the play was staged in Geneva in 1941 by the Pitoëff company, then in France in 1949 at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in a staging by André Barsacq. Le Pain dur was also performed as part of the presentations of the Trilogy at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon in 1989 and at the Théâtre du Rond-Point in 1995 in the staging of Marcel Maréchal.

Le Père humilié/The Humiliation of the Father

Conceived in Hamburg as early as July 1914, Le Père humilié was composed in Rome between November 1915 and July 1916, amid the enthusiasm and wonder of his stay in the Italian capital and published in the NRF in September and October 1919.

Le Père humilié is thesequel” of Le Pain dur as Le Pain dur was a continuation of L’Otage. The action takes place in Rome, from 1869 to 1871, during which Garibaldi’s troops seize the Papal States and in 1870 war is declared between Germany and France, which is allied with Italy. The first act takes place in the gardens of a villa in Rome, where a Polish exile, Prince Wronsky, gives a costume party where Pensée de Coûfontaine, blind daughter of Sichel and Louis de Coûfontaine, who has become French ambassador in Italy, meets Orian and Orso de Homodarmes, nephews of the Pope, both in love with her. Pensée takes Orian on a walk through the gardens where they confess their love to each other. Act II is set in a cloister where the pope converses with a Minor Friar, to whom he confides his concern and dismay at the threats to the States of the Holy See, then with Orso and Orian of Homodarmes, the latter of whom he advises to renounce his passion in order to give himself to his religious vocation and to step aside in order to let his brother marry Pensée. In Act III, set in September 1870, when Rome has been conquered by Garibaldi and France defeated by Germany, Orian, who had been away for a year, meets again with Pensée whom he has not stopped loving and both give in to their passion. The engagement of Orso and Pensée is broken. In the last act, in 1871, Pensée is expecting a child by Orian. But Orso comes to announce the death of Orian killed on the battlefield in the war against Prussia. He has brought back his head, then, in a corrected version of the drama in 1946, his heart in a basket of flowers. Pensée will marry Orso to safeguard her honor and raise her child, while remaining unfailingly loyal to Orian.

Although the historical framework borrowed from the events of Italian unity and the war of 1870 is respected, the story here is less important, unlike in the previous plays of the Trilogy, than the love drama, marked by the painful memory of the passion of Break of Noon, and the spiritual drama, generated by the debate, as in Break of Noon, between religious vocation and human love, and above all the mystical drama, inspired by the conflict between amorous passion and religious aspirations, and alluding to the question of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Pensée, daughter of the Jew Sichel and Louis, son of Sygne de Coûfontaine attached to the monarchist and Catholic tradition, is divided between two heritages and two vocations. Blind, she is similar to the Synagogue, as it is represented with a blindfold at the doors of Strasbourg Cathedral. The child she conceived with Orian, the Pope’s nephew, and who was to be the hero of a new drama that Claudel never wrote, signifies the hope of reconciliation between Rome and Israel, on which Claudel never ceased to reflect and to which he subsequently devoted many writings, notably in The Gospel of Isaiah and A Voice on Israel. Even more profoundly, Orian’s vocation and the symbolism of the character of Pensée, the love of Orian, whose name is light, and the blind Pensée, representing both the Old Testament and the night of faith, “the bride of the Song” and the soul in search of God, give the drama a truly mystical meaning and resonance.

The emotion felt by Claudel in Rome and the elevation of the spiritual conflict depicted in the drama led the author to reconnect in this work with the lyrical tone he had renounced in the two previous dramas. The sweetness of the nocturnal feast in the garden of the first act, the melancholy of the amorous elegies in the ruins of the Palatine, the pain and nobility of the attitudes and feelings in the denouement, enhanced, in the 1944 version, by a lyrical finale, the writing and tone of the Père humilié make it, according to Claudel, in a letter to Georges Crémieux of September 7, 1945, “a drama all of feeling and poetry,” and even, he wrote in 1946, “the most musical of all my dramas.”

Created in Germany in 1926, Le Père humilié was not performed in France until 1946, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, directed by Jean Valcourt, without much success. The play was revived in 1962 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, directed by Bernard Jenny, then at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, in 1995, as part of Marcel Maréchal’s performance of the three plays of the Trilogy.