Playwright Paul Claudel. Wikimedia Commons

The Design Seen in Tidings

Written almost 100 years ago, Paul Claudel’s profound commentary–the play, The Tidings Brought to Mary–on the depths of fulfillment the heart can reach impacts on the post-modern world with force, setting the stage for the upcoming New York Encounter.
Giacomo Maniscalco

A year later, a handful of blocks to the southwest of last year’s event but still in Manhattan’s midtown, the New York Encounter will kick off its second edition. Spanning from Friday, January 14th, to Monday the 17th, the weekend-long public cultural festival is looking to grow both in size as well as content as it becomes more and more our own, and our way to live faith in the public square. Among conferences regarding the relationship between science and faith, a presentation of Fr. Giussani’s The Religious Sense, exhibits with guided tours, and musical performances, the 2011 New York Encounter, which will take place in Manhattan Center’s beautiful Hammerstein Ballroom, will also feature as one of its main events the Storm Theatre (in collaboration with the Black Friars Repertory Theatre) production of Paul Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary.

Claudel’s literary work is one of special importance to us, one very close to the heart of Fr. Giussani. “Objectively, The Tidings Brought to Mary is one of the greatest works written in this century,” said Giussani years ago in a speech presenting the play to some university students, adding that Claudel’s masterpiece, despite being largely misunderstood and unacclaimed today, contains within it “all the genius of Catholic Christianity.”

Peter Dobbins, President and Artistic Director of the Storm Theatre, agrees with Giussani’s insightful synopsis, as he gets ready to put on this show that he first directed in the spring of 2009. He recalled how, in choosing to work on The Paul Claudel Project (which also included The Satin Slipper and Noon Divide), he viewed it as a “noble venture, to work on one of the great playwrights of the century who is really not done here at all.”

The story is deeply rooted in our history with the Movement. I remember the first time I was advised to read it, at fourteen years of age, upon confiding to my community responsible that I had fallen in love with a girl and I needed help. This was and still is common practice, for us to really follow Fr. Giussani’s footsteps, learning and loving this play as a personal possibility for growth. In that same talk to university students in 1982, Fr. Giussani describes the play’s theme as love, but love that “is the generator of what is human according to its total dimension.” This love, “the creative love of totality,” is exemplified by the three main characters of the play: Pierre de Craon, Violaine, and Anne Vercors. For Fr. Giussani, these three comprise a central figure contrasted to the secondary figure played by the other characters: Mara, Elizabeth, and Jacques. The difference between the two sets of characters is this love as the acceptance of reality.

In a Single Moment

Throughout the storyline that Peter Dobbins describes as being, yes, simple, but also very big and complex, we come across many moving moments, many dramatic encounters and dialogues. For Mr. Dobbins, the play is centered on a single moment, a scene between two of the central figures, and perhaps the most striking characters of the play, Pierre de Craon and Violaine. It is a simple, beautiful act of immense kindness and compassion. The play, Mr. Dobbins says, is about this action and how everyone responds to it. It is an action which changes everything but which confronts all the characters and begs a judgment from them.

Fr. Giussani recounts that very scene, that crucial moment in the play, when Pierre de Craon says, “Sanctity is […] doing the will of God with promptness; it has to do with remaining in our place.” The contrast is with a reactive, personal, measured, and calculated love which is presented as a common way of living, by good, decent people, but that cannot, however, face all of life. It is a limited form of love. This idea is clearly expressed in what Giussani defines as “the most beautiful love scene ever written,” between Violaine and Jacques, who are engaged to marry. That very act of immense compassion which has now changed everything imposes itself upon the two of them, and Violaine is open; she realizes that everything is given and accepts it gladly, despite the immense amount of pain that it will cause. Jacques, on the other hand, is shocked, and scandalized, as Giussani says, for Jacques “everything has to be calculated, precise, and convenient.” The difference between Jacques and Violaine, between the central figure and the secondary figure is what Fr. Giussani calls “the relationship with the infinite” which is what really defines life, a relationship with the Mystery, as Pierre de Craon, a builder of cathedrals, says to Violaine: “It’s not up to the stone to decide its place, but up to the Master of the Work who chose it.”

For Fr. Giussani, this text simply contains all the Christian ideals that are expressed in a beautiful and clear way. He concluded his address to the university students by quoting the other of the three characters that make up the central figure, Anne Vercors: “The purpose of life is not to live… It is not a question of living, but of dying […] and giving what we have joyfully. This is what is meant by joy and freedom, by grace and eternal youth! […] Why be tormented when it is so simple to obey?” Giussani comments, “These pages contain the ideal of everything. Their theme is love, that is, the conception of one’s own being in function of the total design. This design has a name, it is a man, Christ, and our life is called to be in function of Him, in a way that may be through burning pain, or the exceptional thrust of generosity, or the normality of daily obedience. The alternative is meanness.” Fr. Giussani presented this play to us and urged us to read it and live it, as a true question, a stance on reality on which we must decide every single day.

Word and Action

“For a great play such as this one you try to get out of the way as much as possible, to let the play talk,” says Director Dobbins, though he adds that this is really no easy script to direct: “I just try to, as Shakespeare would say, ‘fit the word to the action and the action to the word.’ I have no concept on top of it; I just try to make my best attempt at understanding what Paul Claudel is doing and then I try to help my actors get that.”
The Hammerstein Ballroom has a huge and impressive stage, but Mr. Dobbins is considering that “the beauty of this play is in its simplicity.” He plans on creating a different, smaller stage where the actors will be much closer to the audience. “I just think that would set the absolute right mood,” explains Dobbins.

The Tidings Brought to Mary will be performed on Saturday, January 15th, at 8:00 pm, as one of the events of the 2011 New York Encounter. This production is a perfect, concrete example of manifesting our reality to the world, a perfect “stage” to set as the New York Encounter prepares to tackle the diverse and important subjects of science, reason, religion, the economy, literature, music, and much more with the awareness that a play like this, with Giussani’s help, brings to us. We urge everyone to read it and to attend the performance, to be confronted with the challenge of Catholic ideals, and to attend the whole of the New York Encounter with this desire to face it as an opportunity for all.