The Exchange is a doubly American play: composed in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, it presents an action that takes place in the same country. Claudel began the play in 1893, as soon as he arrived in New York, and completed it in Boston in June or July 1894 (letter to Maurice Pottecher of July 19, 1894).
The genesis of the play coincides with the beginnings of its author in his diplomatic career. After being admitted to the administration of Foreign Affairs and spending a year at the Quai d’Orsay, Claudel is appointed vice-consul in February 1893 and posted to New York, where he lands on 2 April 1893. At first, exile weighs on him and he is bored at the consulate. He reads a great deal, some of which – Tocqueville, Charles G. Leland’s works on Indian folklore – will nourish The Exchange. He is nevertheless seduced by the cosmopolitanism of the city, whose gigantism surprised him when he arrived. At the end of 1893 he is assigned to Boston where he remains until February 1895. It is during this short stay in America that he writes The Exchange. In 1951, more than fifty years later, he will revive his play at the request of Jean-Louis Barrault who wishes to put on and rework it: it will be the second version of The Exchange.
The action takes place on the east coast of the United States, in the property where a wealthy American businessman, Thomas Pollock Nageoire, and Lechy Elbernon, an actress, live. A young penniless couple, Louis Laine, who is part Indian, and Marthe, his wife, act as caretakers. Louis met Marthe in France, in the countryside where she had lived without ever leaving her village. Dreamer, fond of freedom and vast horizons, Louis has just cheated on the sensible Marthe with Lechy Elbernon. For his part, Thomas Pollock, for whom “ gold is the only thing of worth”, covets Marthe, whom he ends up buying from Louis for a wad of dollars. The love crossover ends badly. Louis decides to leave, abandoning both Marthe, who tries in vain to keep him, and Lechy Elbernon, who threatens him with death. Desperate and sensing misfortune, Martha launches a long complaint, in which she asks for justice before God and the universe. But destiny is fulfilled. Lechy Elbernon takes revenge: she has her lover murdered, brought back dead on his horse, and she burns down the house of Thomas Pollock, who is thus ruined. She collapses dead drunk on the ground while Martha accepts Thomas Pollock’s outstretched hand.
The title of the play sums up the action remarkably. However, it takes place at different levels and we cannot confine ourselves to the sentimental exchange and the commercial exchange that the latter entails, with the sale of Martha for a handful of dollars. Just as La Jeune Fille Violaine has the appearance of a tale or a melodrama, The Exchange has the appearance of an American vaudeville that goes wrong: love confusion, adultery, jealousy, murder …
Indeed, as in the other dramas of L’Arbre, this crude fable conceals a quest for identity and a reflection on material, economic, spiritual and aesthetic values. The Exchange is first and foremost an intimate drama where, following the conversion of 1886, the conflicting facets of a plural self are projected: an exchange of myself with myself, in a certain way. Claudel made this admission to Marguerite Moreno: “I painted myself as a young fellow who sells his wife to regain his freedom. I made the treacherous and multifaceted desire for freedom an American actress, opposing it to the legitimate wife in whom I wanted to embody ‘the passion to serve’. In short, it is I who am all the characters, the actress, the neglected wife, the young savage and the calculating merchant” (letter of April 29, 1900).
This exchange also brings together the Old World, represented by both Marthe, the French peasant girl, and Louis, the last survivor of an Indian race on the verge of extinction, with the New World, embodied by Thomas Pollock Nageoire. Following The City (the first version dates from 1890-1891), Claudel continues his reflection on civilization and on the construction of a new order. The composition of The Exchange has often been linked to the publication of L’Argent by Zola in 1891. In fact, in 1893, Claudel was thinking of a dramaturgy of gold. Like the naturalist novel, but in a very different way, the play evokes the economic and financial realities of an America in full reconstruction after the Civil War: trusts, financial crisis, factories… To this individualistic, mechanical and soulless universe, it opposes old Catholic Europe and the vast pagan horizons of an Indian world sinking and disappearing after the wars of colonization.
The Exchange orchestrates above all a reflection on values. The new order, social and moral, can only be based on real values: thus we must understand the alliance concluded at the end of the play between Marthe and Thomas Pollock, who knows how to exchange false values (the package of dollars) to acquire the authentic values embodied by the young woman. The characters of the play represent values that are both opposite and complementary, by which they attract and confront each other in turn: Louis Laine, figure of Rimbaud and the cursed poet, was seduced by Marthe, whose first name refers to the two women mentioned in the Gospels, Martha and Mary Magdalen. The play questions the – still difficult – reconciliation of poetry and spiritual values, whose victory, at the end of the play, remains very ambiguous.
The Exchange is a change from the complexity of early dramas composed by Claudel, including dramas rewritten and published in L’Arbre. One often speaks of classicism about this play. In fact, the structure is simple: three acts that take place over a day, from dawn to sunset, in the same place. The three unities – time, place, action – are respected in a closed space that puts four characters face to face. Such a concentrated structure is remarkable in Claudel’s theatre.
Equally exceptional, the playwright set the scene in a specific place: America in the nineties. Even if he does so through often very elliptical, not to say encrypted allusions, he evokes the concrete realities of this country that he is discovering: its history, Indian folklore, its economic, social, financial situation …
The Exchange is not, however, a realistic “slice of life”. The Indian legends that nourish the text do not have as their purpose any particular local color. They are the foundation of the poetry of the text and serve the tragedy that constitutes Louis’ character. Similarly, the three unities do not seek to create an appearance of verisimilitude that the playwright does not care about. They force the characters into confrontation, placing them in a dramatic situation that must reveal them to themselves.
This drama does have strong scenic effects: the nudity of Louis at the beginning of the play, the horse that brings the corpse of the young man at the end, the dead drunk actress… In 1894 Claudel said he had thought of having his play performed. However, this first version of lThe Exchange is mostly a spoken drama with duos, trios, quartets, as well as Marthe’s superb monologue opening Act III.
The play was first produced on 22 January 1914 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, directed by Jacques Copeau. Copeau played Thomas Pollock, Dullin played Louis Laine, Marie Kalff played Marthe, and Louise Marion played Lechy Elbernon. It was performed very often thereafter, notably by Georges Pitoëff in 1937, at the Théâtre des Mathurins, with Ludmilla Pitoëff in the role of Marthe, and, more recently, by Antoine Vitez (Théâtre national de Chaillot, 1986). Some directors, however, are seduced by the more modern parodic tone of the second version.