Love is hell in The Satin Slipper, the Roman Catholic epic of salvation that Paul Claudel published in 1929, little expecting ever to see it on the stage. Behind the drama lies the imbroglio that shaped his life: a tortured affair in his 30s—Claudel’s first sexual entanglement of any kind—with a married mother of four who vanished without a trace carrying his child.

The pair’s theatrical avatars are the conquistador Don Rodrigue, Spain’s viceroy in the New World, and Doña Prouhèze, an Amazon for Christ with an island citadel in the Atlantic to defend. Spanning oceans, theirs is a long story. Though the lovers’ carnal desire goes unconsummated, Rodrigue and Prouhèze think of little but the flesh and their immortal souls, clothing their agony in white-hot theological debate. A letter upon which much depends takes 10 years to arrive. That’s how it was in the Age of Discovery, circa 1500.