The Story of Tobias and Sarah

The Story of Tobias and Sarah holds an unprecedented place in the Claudelian corpus. Composed in June-July 1938, published by Gallimard in April 1942, the play borrows from multiple genres – theatre, morality, tale, liturgical ludus, narrative, exegesis, homily, – and uses a great diversity of registers: the burlesque of the acrobats mimes or of Anna next to the pathos and lyricism of old Tobias or the angel, the oneirism and the use of marvels communicate a spirit of childhood that coexists with the existential and metaphysical impulses of Tobias the Old assuming the forms of the Cross (I, 6) or recovering his sight (III, 3).

A true laboratory for a total avant-garde theatre, The Story of Tobias and Sarah plays the Gesamtkunstwerk card and has recourse to multiple arts — theatre, dance, mime, cinema, music. It is in the tradition of the Ballets Russes that we must situate the scenes of dance or mime – Stravinsky was first approached by Ida Rubinstein, sponsor of the play, to compose the music. And if Claudel turns to the Middle Ages by opting for the genre of the morality (as Brecht did), it is to innovate, again and again. The allegorical ballet of The Trees of Paradise (II, 7) offers a surreal and jubilant reverie on glorious bodies, in an unfailing union of the word and the flesh; the cinema shows shadows in the symbolist manner or bouquets of non-figurative colors – such as the “light iridescence” of the Celestial Jerusalem in the finale; Noh haunts certain scenes of mimes. The play implements a particularly innovative and successful experience of total theatre.

Claudel adapted a book of Scripture, the Book of Tobias, through a dramatic exegesis, following the commentary written in 1935 and published in Les Aventures de Sophie. Like no play by the author before it, The Story of Tobias and Sarah is inspired by the Bible in its entirety, which it quotes, rewrites and comments in a single gesture, in a remarkable experience of exegetical theater and analog writing, which never questions the theatricality of the work. Claudel thus continues by the theatre the enterprise carried out at the same time in Le Poëte et la Bible; he delivers a particularly polysemic exegesis of this biblical narrative rather neglected by the Patristics. The play meditates, among other things, on God’s need for the human soul in prayer and represents the communion of the saints, glosses the anagogic meaning that the union of woman and man can acquire, in line with the Satin Slipper and Break of Noon, delivers a dramatic little sermon on angels, the role of Israel in history or the different stages of the life of the soul (Anna or atheism; Tobias the Younger or the neophyte; Sarah or the wife of the seventh houses; Tobias the Old or a Job oscillating between revolt and the nights of the great mystics).

If we add that the play provides essential keys to the last formulations of Claudelian poetics, in line with Du Sens figuré de l’Écriture, published a year before the composition of the drama, we understand that the small morality play of 1938, although it could not compete with the power of the great Claudelian masterpieces, deserves at least to be (re)discovered, and replayed, in the initial spirit in which it was conceived, that of an exegetical theatre being at the same time a fully total theater.

The only critical edition of the play (first version) appears in volume II of the Théâtre de Claudel, published by Gallimard, coll. La Pléiade, 2011, edited by Didier Alexandre and Michel Autrand.