This text was written in China between 1895 and 1896. Claudel arrived in Shanghai as substitute consul on 14 July 1895.
Written during the last first months of this stay in the Middle Empire, The Rest on the Seventh Day was completed on 17 August 1896 (date mentioned on the manuscript). Exceptionally for Claudel’s works, it was never reworked by the author, who seems to have abandoned it once it was finished. “I have finished The Rest on the Seventh Day which the work itself is enjoying at the bottom of a deep drawer” (letter to Maurice Pottecher 26 February 1897).
The action takes place in an ancestral China. The emperor is worried about the pain that is ravaging his country: the dead have invaded the world of the living and give them no rest. The emperor wonders what wrong was committed and how to remedy it. To find answers, he seeks out the services of a necromant who brings forth the ghost of the Emperor Hoang Ti. Since he does not get an answer, the emperor decides to descend to the underworld in hopes of learning how to redeem the sins of men. Act II takes place in total darkness. The emperor meets his mother’s shadow and has a long discussion with the devil concerning the origin of the wrong. It is the Angel of the Empire who reveals to him the key to the mystery : the evil will end if man dedicates the seventh day to prayer and rest. Grouped around the crown prince, the court is waiting for the emperor: a revolt is threatening. The emperor has returned; he has become blind and his face seems devastated by leprosy. His royal scepter has taken the form of a cross. His return and the message he brings promise to reestablish peace and unity to the empire. The emperor gives up power to his son and retires into the mountains.
Beneath the appearance of a Chinese work, The Rest on the Seventh Day uses themes developed in the other dramas in the collection L’Arbre: politics, theology, intimate drama. The Rest on the Seventh Day uses a variety of different traditions: ancient culture, the necromancy scene in Act I evokes the nékuia, the evocation of the dead in chant X of the Odyssey , the meeting between the emperor and his mother recalls that of Ulysses with his own mother, the apparition of Hoang Ti is like the beginning of the Eumenides (third part of the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Claudel published Agamemnon in 1896 in a personal translation) in which appears the ghost of Clytemnestra. The descent to hell owes no doubt a debt to Dante, both admired and criticized by Claudel; despite his reserves, critics have underlined certain analogies between the hell presented in Claudel’s drama with the Hell of the Italian poet (use of the terms of enclosure and circle, division of hell into enclosures, structure with different places of suffering…).
Nonetheless, the drama gets its title from the Biblical universe, borrowed from the Old Testament, Exodus. XXXV, 1-2. On the other hand, the subject seems to be inspired by Chinese tradition and civilization: Claudel had been struck by the links between the dead and the world of the living.
“Death, in China, takes up as much room as life. The dead person, as soon as he has died, becomes someone important and suspect, a bad protector, morose, someone who is there and whom you have to conciliate” (Knowing the East).
Some days after his arrival in Shanghai, Claudel had probably witnessed the ceremony of the dead described in Knowing the East, a poem with a fantastic tonality in which some critics have seen one of the possible origins of The Rest on the Seventh Day.
Claudel is inspired by a seen and lived China but also, as demonstrated Yvan Daniel, a cultivated China, perceived with the same vision by the Jesuits. Claudel was discreet concerning his readings. He made allusion to Father Joseph de Premare whose writings could have influenced the drama. The readings and some by Thomas d’Aquin make this Chinese drama the beginning of a theological reflection about the evil, redemption. The chief, the emperor is the spiritual guide. He’s solving a crisis which is not only that of a family but of an immense empire; there is order and unity with a suffering and the going down to Hell is like the Passion.
There is also an intimate and spiritual drama: the final returning by the emperor is like the expression of a monastic life which will be confirmed in France some years later in 1900.
The drama was never reworked. It is clearly composed by three acts. The structure is classical and the action is developing in three acts delimitated. The first act is that of a crisis with the disorder linked to the intrusion of dead in the word of living. The second act is that of the emperor going down to Hell and the third act is the going back of the emperor with the resolution of the crisis due to sacrifice. The drama is then about an invitation leading the character to a truth the writer of the drama wants to deliver: the necessity to have spiritual values and to respect the order organized by God. The drama is progressing according to an initiation to Christian mystery: ignorance, lesson by the devil, and lesson by the angel who is explaining the emperor to fight the devil, the initiation to knowledge and conquest of oneself due to suffering and ordeal. The ignorance to knowledge, the word of living to the word of dead will be materialized reading one act to the other. The structure of the drama has a symbolistic meaning This Chinese drama uses special effects (sight, sound, odor) linked to unnatural: the necromancy scene, the apparition of the of the emperor Hoang Ti, the intervention of the devil, then that of the angel, the golden mask of the emperor hiding leprosies and just showing a mouth… This drama is about theology and poesy. We admire the audacity of the author imagining an entire act, the second act in total obscurity. From that infernal night, abolishing bodies and décor emerge masculine and feminine voices; that creates the identity of the characters and the space of the scene. The rest in the seventh day is then a drama without material aspect that can be useful.
The drama was created the15th December 1928 for the National Theatre in Varsaw with a staging by Waclv Radelesky then in Fulda in german language in 1954. In France, the creation was in 1965 for the theater de l ’Oeuvre, with a staging by Pierre Franck with Fernand Ledoux as the emperor and Maria Casares as the demon. More recently it was in 1993 in the théâtre 14 (staging by Jean Bollery) and in 2003 in the théâtre du Nord Ouest for an “Intégrale Claudel” (the second act was played in total darkness).