- Théâtre et exégèse: la figure et la gloire dans ‘L’Histoire de Tobie et de Sara’ by Hélène de Saint-Aubert
Claudel’s Histoire de Tobie et de Sara is based on the book of Tobit (as entitled in the New English Bible), apocryphal according to Protestant tradition but declared canonical by various early Church Councils in the Catholic tradition. The play’s interest within the Claudelian œuvre lies in its theatrical form, which includes a screen for the projection of images, a bare platform on stage, and an engaging lyrical text including liturgical elements in Latin, accompanied by detailed gestural aspects of movement. Claudel wrote the first version of the play, as Hélène de Saint-Aubert points out, in the form of a moralité in 1938, following on from his commentary of the story in 1935. From the dramatic perspective, Saint-Aubert’s analysis, in the first book devoted to the play, is fundamentally based therefore on the idea of what she terms an exegetical theatre, where the theatrical aesthetic as such projects Claudel’s interpretation of the story. For Saint-Aubert, Claudel’s aesthetic is deeply rooted in the idea that everything is a ‘figure’ of something, where the physical world and ‘literal’ history are symbolic of a transcendent meaning. But Claudel’s notion of figure, according to Saint-Aubert, is not a static juxtaposition of elements, but a nodal polysemic point pregnant with diverse meanings operating simultaneously out of each other. This enables Claudel to manipulate the movement of history or the story backwards and forwards through evocations of the Old and New Testaments, thus producing a dynamic version of anagogic biblical interpretation much favoured in the Jesuit teaching of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This ‘total’ perspective is articulated through various textual themes such as the young Tobias prefiguring the advent of Christ, personal conversion, and mystic marriage. Central to the play is the spiritual status accorded to Israel and the concept of the Nouvelle Alliance between Church and Synagogue. Indeed, Saint-Aubert mounts a stout defence or, at least, offers a sympathetic understanding of Claudel’s version of the philo-Semitic project, which remains so problematic and which was so much a part of some Catholic thinking in the first third of the twentieth century, particularly among the convertis of whom Claudel himself was the ideal example (on this subject, see my review of Brenna Moore’s Sacred Dread in French Studies, 67 (2013), 576). One problem with the book is that little upfront guidance is provided concerning the various versions of the text frequently alluded to in the analysis. In addition, while Saint-Aubert’s erudition and contextual knowledge are certainly impressive, this is also, paradoxically, the book’s weakness, since the text seems to refer implicitly or explicitly to almost everything in Claudel’s writing or the Catholic tradition one can imagine. The reader is presented with what amounts to considerable information overload, which, added to the minutest dissection of the text itself, makes smooth reading of the book very difficult. In these circumstances, getting from beginning to end becomes almost the academic version of [End Page 408] an unbeatable personal best. On the other hand, the book is certain to be the definitive study of the play for some time to come.