The Tidings Brought to Mary

In 1912, Paul Claudel’s first play to be performed « The Tidings Brought to Mary » remains  his most popular and emblematic one. The story of this text is a long one, as it passes through many different versions. The first version “La Jeune Fille VIolaine” appears in 1892, in the form of a drama inspired by the author’s tempestuous childhood and the atmosphere of his native land. A second version dated 1899 has a more mystical tone. Later, in 1911, Claudel reworks  the play giving it a wider range as illustrated by its new title “The Tidings Brought to Mary”. The heroine, Violaine, gradually becoming  a saintly figure, is assimilated to the Virgin Mary. In 1948 on the occasion of its performance in Paris at the Théâtre Hébertot, a new and final  version is written “for the stage”.

Its action “a mystery composed of 4 acts and a prologue” is situated “in a conventional Middle Age ” and is based on the rivalry of two sisters, Violaine and Mara. In the prologue, Violaine, eldest daughter of the well to do peasant of Champagne, Anne Vercors, greets Pierre de Craon, who suffers from leprosy,  in the early morning, on his departure, giving him a kiss that is witnessed by Mara. .. In Act I, on the morning of the same day Anne Vercors announces to his wife that he is leaving for Jerusalem. Beforehand he wishes Violaine to become engaged to their neighbour, Jacques Hury. But Act II reveals that  Mara loves Jacques. She will instill suspicions in him, more so since he learns that Violaine has acquired leprosy;  Jacques after a fit of violent reproach ends by leading Violaine  to a leper-house. Act III is situated seven years later. . It is Christmas Eve. Mara appears, bringing to her sister , who is a blind recluse, the little girl she has had with Jacques and who has suddenly died. ,   Facing Mara’s violent grief, Violaine performs a miracle. The little girl returns  to life. But this miraculous act redoubles  Mara’s hate of her sister.  At the beginning of Act IV, Mara intent on Violaine’s death pushes her down a sand quarry. At this point the Father is seen returning from his absence carrying in his arms the dying Violaine. Mara speaking out in front of all obtains her sister’s forgiveness. Violaine dies in an atmosphere of general peacefulness.

This simple overview already perhaps reveals the different levels of interest of the play, described  by Claudel himself as “certainly a summit of my work… having several directions,  towards almost all of  my different possibilities.” To remain on the level of extremes, , The Tidings Brought to Mary is anchored in precise realism yet  elevates  itself to  the supernatural. This drama drawn from the native roots of the author presents at first a profound human interest. It shows crudely the diverse facets of the amorous rivalry of two sisters and the reactions of the two men who love them as well as the reactions of their parents. But simultaneously the supernatural significance transcends the story. Already at the very beginning leprosy appears mysteriously linked to moments of errant sensuality  that will become a malediction. But it is above all the miracle accomplished in front of  the public that gives a religious dimension to what Claudel depicted as “the drama of a soul possessed by the supernatural”. Not only does he make Violainea saintly figure who resurrects a child, but Mara also is touched  by the supernatural . Through her “fanatical (enraged) faith she believes that God can do her good”, and  the destiny of the two sisters is inextricably united. Thus could the author summarize the play which occupied  him for  50 years: “the representation of all the human passions connected to a Catholic  worldview.”

The writing of Tidings is no less remarkable. It is an eminently  literary text where theatre and poetry are joined through a variety of images and the constant musicality of the verse which  Claudel viewed as  “an opera in words”. This does not exclude the great scenic force of the play. A product of a  typical Symbolist  dramatic  creation, Tidings was created by Lugné-Poe in 1912 at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, and attracted later, by its  striking plasticity, the  greatest directors of the 20th century– Gaston Baty in 1921, Louis Jouvet in 1943, and although they could not realize their projects,  Jacques Copeau and Charles Dullin.  Claudel himself often intervened in the staging of his well-loved play. Performed throughout the world, as much by professionals as amateurs, Tidings has not ceased to send out its multiple appeals to the public. It was even transposed as an opera (by Renzo Rossellini in 1970) and as a film (by Alain Cuny in 1991).