“Sentimental and dramatic testament”, both “summation” and “reflection” of previous dramas, The Satin Slipper is the “opus mirandum”, the major work in which the author affirmed that he had brought together the essential matter of his life, his art and his thought. Begun in 1918, at the return from his mission in Brazil, pursued in Denmark and in Japan, where the third act was lost during the earthquake of September 1, 1923, the drama was completed in 1925.
The Satin Slipper is first of all a drama of love in which Claudel, as a result of his reunion with the woman who inspired Break of Noon, tried to find the “healing”, “resolution”, “explanation” and “conclusion” to his own adventure. Like Mesa in Break of Noon, Rodrigo, the hero of The Satin Slipper, is passionately in love with a married woman, Prouhèze, whom he must give up. After the death of her husband, Prouhèze will marry Don Camille, an officer who has her at his mercy, and will refuse to give herself to Rodrigo, both in order to avoid being unfaithful to the sacrament of marriage and in order not to disappoint the passion of a lover whose infinite desire cannot tolerate human limits. Unable to be “his paradise”, she will be “his cross”, unable to “give him heaven”, she will be able to “tear him away from earth” (Day 2, scene 14). Her sacrifice and her death will contribute, through the virtue of the Communion of the Saints and the reversibility of merits, to the salvation of Camille and of Rodrigo, who will be able to achieve, at the price of total impoverishment, complete “deliverance” and supernatural joy (4th Day, last scene).
Thus an adulterous passion will have served the salvation of souls, according to the subtitle of the work, borrowed from Calderon—“the worst is not always sure”—and the words of Saint Augustine, “etiam peccata”, chosen as epigraph and repeated by Prouhèze’s Guardian Angel: “Even sin! Sin also serves” (3rd Day, sc. 8). The sentimental drama deepens into a mystical drama. “The scene of this drama is the world”, wrote the author superbly, “and especially Spain at the end of the 16th century, unless it be the beginning of the 17th century”.
In fact the action takes place during the Renaissance, at the time of the Conquistadors, when Spain is the champion of Catholicism in Europe, in Africa, in the New World and even in the Far East.
Thus we witness the combat of the Spanish armies in the service of the Christian God against all heresies, in America where Rodrigo is Viceroy of the Indies, in Mogador where Prouhèze imposes her authority on the renegade Don Camille, in Bohemia where the Protestants are defeated at White Mountain, in Flanders, in Spain, where a disastrous expedition of the Great Armada against England and the victorious battle of Don Juan of Austria at Lepanto are being prepared.
The Satin Slipper thus appears, in spite of some intentional anachronisms, as a “vast fresco” and a historical parable illustrating the spirit of an era and of a civilization that are animated with conquering faith.
However, the gravity of the subject does not prevent a large measure of gaiety, fantasy in the staging and the dialogue, as well as numerous overtly comic, parodic or burlesque scenes. An Announcer, a kind of stage manager who is charged with presenting and commenting on the play, if necessary scolding the actors, confers on the drama the appearance of dramatic action.
The intervention of the machinists and the conscious exhibition of the inner workings of the theater accentuate the artifice and create an ironic distance. Various episodic characters, fishermen, pedants, courtiers, servants, soldiers, a Negress, a Chinaman, swirl around the protagonists and thus introduce not only episodes or amusing intervals, but an ironic and critical dimension that contributes to de-dramatizing suffering and creating the climate of joy, enthusiasm and liberation which suits the dominant feeling that the author felt and wanted to suggest.
The diversity of locations, the contrast in tones, the multiplicity of characters and the complexity of an action combining several plots bring about an original composition, in which an apparent disorder hides a real dramatic and symbolic unity. The play, explained the author, is constructed like a tapestry, in which the design is formed by a multitude of threads of different colors, intermingled in such a way as to bring out a single motif. Into the somber and sacrificial love drama of Rodrigo and Prouhèze is mixed, in fact, like a white thread into a black, the idyllic and cheerful drama of Dona Musique and the Vice-Roy of Naples, which will be succeeded, in the same register, by that of their son, Jean of Austria, and Dona Sept-Epées, spiritual daughter of Rodrigo and Prouhèze. Supernatural characters, Saint James and the Guardian Angel, mix with the human heroes. Thus the scene is constantly varied, transported from one continent to the other and from earth to heaven. But the diversity of the elements cannot mask the profound unity of the subject, which is “deliverance to captive souls”, obtained at the same time on a sentimental, historic and mystical level. This composition, founded on movement, variety, effects of contrast and color, itself in accord with a period, and these characters, animated by the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, have often and correctly been accorded the quality of baroque.
For a long time, the characteristics and the dimensions of the drama, “Spanish Action in four Days” like that of the dramatists of the Golden Century, indifferent to the unities of time, place and tone, prevented its being staged. Created by Jean-Louis Barrault at the Comédie-Française in 1943, in a shortened version, it was represented in its integral version at the Théâtre d’Orsay in 1980, then revived by Antoine Vitez in 1987, at the Festival d’Avignon, in the court of honor of the Popes’ Palace.
By turns dramatic and mystical, poetic and comical, lyrical and familiar, The Satin Slipper is truly, as Claudel intended it, a “summation” or, as Jean-Louis Barrault called it, his “synthesis”.
>> L’année du Soulier de satin en mémoire de la mise en scène d’Antoine Vitez, cour d’honneur d’Avignon, 1987
The Satin Slipper, summary
The play is divided in four parts, called according to the Spanish theater model « days ».
The action takes place during the period of the great discoveries when the caravels of the conquistadors navigated the seas.
Chance has thrown, following a shipwreck, the young Don Rodrigo of Manacor onto the African coast; the first face that he sees when he opens his eyes is that of Doña Prouhèze, the wife of Don Pélage, governor general of the Présides. A love of an absolute nature is born between the two young people.
Unable to resist any longer the voice of Rodrigo who is calling her, Doña Prouhèze takes advantage of a trip to Spain to transmit a letter to Rodrigo: she gives him a rendez-vous in an inn, by the sea, in Catalonia. At the same time, Don Camille, a cousin of Don Pélage, an unscrupulous adventurer, presses the young woman to leave with him for the citadel of Mogador where he must rejoin his command. Far from becoming upset by the refusal that he receives, Don Camille, as if he has access to the secrets of Destiny, gives Prouhèze a rendez-vous in Africa.
Before leaving her husband’s house, accompanied by the faithful Don Balthazar charged by Don Pélage to watch over the young woman, and to leave to rejoin Rodrigo, Doña Prouhèze, in the mystery of prayer, offers the Virgin her satin slipper, in order that, as she says, if she is rushing towards evil, that it at least be with a wounded foot.
And, well decided to slip away from Don Balthazar, deaf to the voice of her Guardian Angel, Prouhèze, disguised as a man, runs to join the man she loves.
But the rendez-vous will not take place because, in the night, on the route to Santiago de Compostela, Rodrigo has been wounded by false pilgrims and transported dying to the castle of his mother, Doña Honoria.
Parallel to this action, Doña Musique, a niece of Don Pélage, leaves for her part, chaperoned by the black Jobarbara, and guided by a quirky Neapolitan Sergeant, to find a mysterious viceroy of Naples.
Doña Prouhèze will spend some time near Don Rodrigo in the castle of Doña Honoria but she will refuse to enter the room of the wounded man. This is where Don Pélage soon arrives carrying a mission for the young woman: take the command of Mogador, on the African coast, where Don Camille is suspected of playing a double game. Doña Prouhèze leaves immediately without seeing Rodrigo again. He himself, scarcely recovered, takes to the sea in the wake of the young woman’s boat. The king has ordered her to carry a letter to the new commander of Mogador…
We discover that the fanciful Viceroy of Naples really does exist; surrounded by his closest friends, he spends his time in the Roman countryside, discussing art and the Catholic Church! And very soon, he will meet Doña Musique, escaped from a shipwreck; and the two young people will spend their first night in the heart of the Sicilian virgin forest! At this moment, Saint James, whose constellation, keystone of the ocean, illuminates the night of those who are separated by the abyss, appears and consoles the two lovers who “both flee and pursue each other”.
When he arrives, Rodrigo will not be received by Doña Prouhèze. She will not even open the king’s letter, but will write on the back, as a response, “I’m staying, go away.” And she gives to Don Camille, the apparent conqueror of the moment, the task of returning it with biting irony to Rodrigo. However, on the ramparts of Mogador, as the envoy of the king returns to his apartments, a woman suddenly starts to walk ahead of him and and they wrap themselves in an embrace that will only have lasted a second. Up above in the heavens, the Moon contemplates this double shadow that, however ephemeral its existence, will “forever be a part of the indestructible archives”.
Doña Musique has followed her husband, the Vice-Roy of Naples, to Prague and we find her, pregnant with the future Jean of Austria and surrounded by four saints, praying for peace in the heart of Europe, in the church of Saint Nicholas in the quarter of Mala Strana.
Doña Prouheze, for her part, having become a widow, abandons her body to Don Camille, marrying him for reasons of strategic power. Don Rodrigo, having become Viceroy of the Indies, leads a bitter life in his rundown palace in Panama, surrounded by a court that has neither splendor nor gaiety. His mistress, Doña Isabel, plots to get rid of this lover who doesn’t love her and have the power pass into the hands of her husband Don Ramire.
Alone at the head of the fortress of Mogador, Doña Prouhèze, in the distress of a day of excessive suffering, writes a letter to Don Rodrigo asking him to deliver her from Don Camille. This “letter to Rodrigo” will become a veritable legend on the seas between the old and the new worlds. Bringing misfortune to all who touch it, it will take ten years, passing from one continent to the next, before arriving in the hands of its recipient and on the way cost the life of Don Léopold Auguste, the old reactionary academic who loves grammar.
This letter will serve as a weapon for Doña Isabel to get Rodrigo out of Panama since Rodrigo leaves immediately to deliver Prouhèze. In reality, the Guardian Angel announces to her in the night that death will be her deliverance.
Thus, when she climbs up to Rodrigo’s caravel, it is not to leave with him but to entrust him with Marie des Sept-Epées, the daughter she had with Don Camille. For her part, she returns to earth where all is ready for the citadel of Mogador to explode at midnight. In death, Prouhèze will become an “eternal star” for Rodrigo.
The entire fourth “day” takes place some ten years later, on the sea off the Balearic Islands, and shows us a whole world of fishermen, sailors, worn-out conquistadors, of courtiers as ridiculous as they are obsequious. Disgraced for having abandoned the Americas, Don Rodrigo, having lost a leg while fighting the Japanese, earns his living painting “images of saints”, rough pious images sold to the sailors he passes. Doña Sept-Epées, his spiritual daughter, tries to reawaken the old conquistador’s spirit of adventure, and bring him with her along with her friend the faithful Butcher-Girl, to attack the fortresses of Barbary and deliver the Christian prisoners in the prisons of North Africa. But Rodrigo is more interested in listening to another female voice, that of a false Mary Stuart, an actress sent by the King of Spain who dreams of humiliating Rodrigo whose old boat offends the majesty of the floating court. Her mission is to persuade him to come and govern England at the very time that Spain has just seen all its dreams of glory and power destroyed by the terrible defeat of the Invincible Armada. Summoned before the King, Rodrigo imprudently becomes excited by some great and generous projects. He is immediately arrested for high treason and sold into slavery. An elderly gleaner sister takes him along with an armful of old clothes, varied objects, old flags, broken pots, at the very moment when we hear trumpets and a cannon shot in the distance announces that Marie des Sept-Epées has just reached the boat of the man she loves, Jean of Austria, the future victor of Lepanto.