01-02-2009 - Traces, n. 2

new world

“Love Gives Birth
to What Is Human”

This March, Storm Theater of New York City will be staging Paul Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary. In anticipation of it, Crossroads Cultural Center hosted a discussion

By Thomas D. Sullivan

On February 6th, Crossroads Cultural Center in New York hosted a presentation on Paul Claudel’s play, The Tidings Brought to Mary. Despite being held in the august setting of Columbia University’s Earl Hall, real life got mixed up into a discussion of drama.
The event, subtitled, “The eternal human questions in Paul Claudel’s play through the eyes of Msgr. Luigi Giussani,” featured presentations by three speakers: Dr. Evelyn Birge Vitz, Professor of French at New York University; Peter Dobbins, Artistic Director of the Storm Theatre, which will be mounting a production of Tidings in New York March 13th through April 4th; and Christopher Bacich, U.S. National Coordinator of Communion and Liberation.
Dr. Vitz provided a biographical sketch of Paul Claudel: Born in the Champagne region of France in 1868, raised in a religiously indifferent household, his life would orbit around one moment: his conversion, at age 18, during a Christmas service in Notre Dame Cathedral.
“I wrote the play with my blood”. Claudel’s Catholicism was “complicated.” Dr. Vitz noted that the poet and playwright had twice attempted to enter the monastery, but had been unsuccessful. On a sea voyage (part of his lengthy and distinguished diplomatic career), during a game of “find the slipper,” he found the slipper, on the foot of a woman–a wife and mother of four with whom he launched a four-year affair.
He would later dramatize that relationship in Break of Noon; Dr. Vitz quoted Claudel’s comment, “I wrote that play with my blood.” For those who have not read or seen Claudel’s work, those words hint at his honesty and intensity. In citing that comment, Dr. Vitz connected literature and real life in a way that’s often missing in discussions of literature and drama.
While Claudel later married in the Church, and become the father of five, Dr. Vitz noted that he would delve back into his past, writing and re-writing his plays, trying “to make sense of sin.”
The Tidings Brought to Mary is set in the Middle Ages, and Dr. Vitz  stressed that Claudel, like Sigrid Undset in her novels such as Kristin Lavransdatter, used that setting not to highlight an era of serene faith and an escape from a doubtful modern age, but to show the challenges that the faithful faced. The France of Tidings has no king, while the Church has a pope and two anti-popes (Dr. Vitz noted that Claudel took artistic liberties with the chronology of events of that time).
Peter Dobbins, Artistic Director of the Storm Theatre, prefaced his remarks by saying that he wasn’t used to speaking to a university audience, so to prime himself, he joked that was going to imagine that he was at a bar with a beer in hand. Thus relaxed, he went on to explain his fascination with Claudel’s drama, citing a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where a group of actors appear, and the Danish prince asks the pompous Lord Polonius to treat them well.
Polonius replies: “My lord, I will use them according to their desert.”
And Hamlet responds:

“God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.” (Act II, scene 2)

For Dobbins, this is Claudel’s vision of how God treats us–according His own honor and dignity, not according to what we deserve. This is the sort of thing you don’t expect to hear at a quasi-academic event: something essential about life.
The Tidings Brought to Mary, Dobbins said, gets to the heart of what is most human–to love. The character of Violaine shows, he said, the power of sacrificial love.
Dobbins said that the play reveals “the architecture of salvation and the mechanics of grace.” What is grace? “Crazy love. … It’s just not normal” to love as God does–and “we’re always the love object.”
“How is that put into motion?”
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord… Be it done unto me according to thy will.”

Love gives Birth to what is Human. Tidings will be part of a series of Claudel plays that the Storm Theatre will stage this March and April, and Dobbins has for a long time been itching to incarnate these dramas. He described a scene in another Claudel play in which the intermingled shadow of two lovers has its own monologue. This may seem simply weird, but it has the feel of inspired oddity. Doesn’t a relationship have a character?
Christopher Bacich is the U.S. National Responsible of Communion and Liberation, had a number of discussions about Tidings with Fr. Giussani, who had also written about it in a book, Mie Letture [My Readings].
Fr.Giussani saw The Tidings Brought to Mary is the Catholic masterpiece of the 20th century, Bacich said. The theme of Tidings is: Love gives birth to what is human. And love generates truly inasmuch as it gives birth to a people.
Picking up on Dr. Vitz’s comments about the less-than-ideal conditions portrayed in Tidings, Bacich said that its characters’ world is one of “confusion, and difficulty, and struggle”–like ours.
Bacich said that the proof of the greatness of love, for Claudel, is that it cannot simply be for the satisfaction of one or two people–love needs to reach out further. Father Giussani, Bacich said, had highlighted six characters, contrasting three characters in Tidings with three others who, ultimately, love less. For the greatest characters of Tidings, love is a total giving; for the lesser characters, “love is not a total gift.”

“Laughing”. In summary, Bacich quoted one of Claudel’s characters:
“Is the object of life only to live? Will the feet of God’s children be fastened to this wretched earth? It is not to live, but to die, and not to hew the cross, but to mount upon it, and to give all that we have, laughing! There is joy, there is freedom, there is grace, there is eternal youth! …What is the worth of the world compared to life? And what is the worth of life if not to be given? And why torment ourselves when it is so simple to obey?”
Note that word “laughing”–how is that possible? To mount the cross, laughing?
When celebrity, youthful good looks, and wealth are the great goods our popular culture offer us, the possibility of suffering–suffering joyfully, knowing that your pain is fruitful–is intriguing. This is something we all need to wrestle with. And one wonders how it will look on stage, in the form that Peter Dobbins and his Storm Theatre cast give to Claudel’s words.
 In the question and answer period, Professor Pamela Kirk Rappaport, a professor of theology at St. John’s University in New York, spoke about her experiences attending Claudel’s plays in France in previous decades: They were full of joy and life; they had “so much playfulness and joy.” A deeper playfulness, and a deeper joy.