Say “Claudel” and you might think of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s mistress and the subject of the 1988 movie Camille Claudel. But Paul Claudel (1868–1955), her younger brother, is considered one of the great playwright-poets of the last century. Critic George Steiner put the Frenchman, who was also a diplomat, on par with Brecht. Yet Claudel’s plays are rarely professionally produced in this country—possibly due to some of his work’s spectacular requirements (1928’s The Satin Slipper is 12 hours long, with over 50 characters), the difficulty of verse translation, and the dramas’ overtly religious themes. Claudel’s alleged misogyny, anti-Semitism, and imperialist leanings probably don’t help, either. But now, during the Lenten season, Storm Theatre is collaborating with Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, a company made up of priests and laypeople, on the ambitious “Paul Claudel Project,” which will produce three of his greatest plays over the next year—beginning with the 1912 medieval drama The Tidings Brought to Mary, a miracle play about two sisters, one jealous, one saintly, set in 15th-century France. The Satin Slipper and the 1906 Break of Noon will follow.
Storm has produced plays on religious subjects before—in 2006-07, they mounted four plays by Karol Wojtyla, a/k/a Pope John Paul II—but they’re also known for their excellent productions of 19th-century Irish melodramatist Dion Boucicault and other large-cast classics. This past fall, artistic director Peter Dobbins helmed a snappy revival of Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. For the Claudel collaboration, Storm leaves its home in an Episcopal church on West 46th Street for the Paradise Factory on East 4th Street, the run starting March 13.
“In times of great crisis, people ask questions that they might not normally ask—questions that go to the heart of questions like, ‘Why are we here?’ ” says Dobbins, discussing the impetus for the Claudel Project. “This world is just where we work things out. Advertising tells us heaven can be on earth, but it can’t be.” Dobbins is rehearsing at the Church of Notre Dame on Morningside Drive. A large sign outside reminds us of Jesus’ fast.
For Dobbins, Violaine, the virtuous sister in Tidings, who contracts leprosy through a merciful kiss, is a kind of Christ figure—she shows her materialistic sister and faithless fiancé the meaning of grace. Leprosy doesn’t seem like a happy ending, but “it’s all about crazy love,” he says. Speaking by phone from a ministry in Ohio, Father John Cameron—who founded Blackfriars Repertory in 1998, as a revival of the Blackfriars Company (1940-72)—stresses love, too, calling the play “an astounding statement about the possibility of love transforming a person’s life. Why should I settle for anything less than the infinite?” He and Dobbins assert that the play is not meant just for Catholics, but for everyone—although their notion of love is a Catholic one. The way these men defend the play’s theology both annoys and fascinates, a reaction audience members might also have to Claudel’s frustrating, compelling play.
Says Professor Tom Bishop, director of the Center for French Civilization & Culture at New York University: “The Tidings Brought to Mary is probably the most limited to believers of all of his plays—it’s difficult to get into. Nevertheless, I’m struck by the powerful poetry and poetic vision, even in this play which is too Catholic for me.” For him, The Satin Slipper, with its gorgeous pageantry, and Break of Noon, about an adulterous relationship, deal with the “relationship of man and the universe, and can attract anybody.”
In rehearsal, the director gives actions, not sermons, to his cast—who play venal, human characters. But Dobbins’s faith may underscore Tidings‘ mystery—and help it reach beyond the choir.