Jean Cocteau Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Cocteau Drama Analysis

Early in his career, during and after World War I, Jean Cocteau wrote scenarios for ballets and adaptations of Greek myths. His plays of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s were highly original and brought him much attention. Cocteau gave the Oedipus legend a lasting form in his opera-oratorio Oedipus-Rex, and Antigone bears historical significance beyond its considerable intrinsic merits. In the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, under the influence of Jean Marais, Cocteau turned to contemporary problems, creating taut psychological dramas in the style of Boulevard drama; Intimate Relations is the most highly regarded of these middle works. Cocteau’s later plays reflect his interest in reaching back into the past for both subject and form. Renaud et Armide and L’Impromptu du Palais-Royal appeal, respectively, to Jean Racine and Molière for models. The Eagle Has Two Heads returns to the nineteenth century romantic melodrama for conventions and to the period’s history for plot elements. Bacchus combines historical drama and the Erasmian colloquy to create a mood-picture of the early Reformation. In these plays of his final years, Cocteau created works of transcendent stature. Of these, The Eagle Has Two Heads is the most beautifully crafted and most often performed.

Although it can be claimed that Cocteau’s plays fall into distinct groups, or periods, the essential unity of all of Cocteau’s plays must be noted. That he consistently chose a perverse or inverted vantage point, in order to astonish his audience with the unexpected, reflects the essential relation of his art to society. Cocteau added immensely to the arsenal of modern stage techniques; he had a keen ability to pick a subject to pieces and, in the process, demonstrate the absurdity of the whole. Always ready to draw out those elements that another playwright might have omitted, Cocteau, at his best, could also pare down to a minimum what was to be included.

In Bacchus, a dramatic masterpiece from Cocteau’s late period, the playwright has a character speak a line that might be taken as a summation of the standard view of critics that he had produced too many works: “You speak too much to say one memorable word.” Yet while it is true that Cocteau poured forth so many volumes of plays, as well as so many other works, brevity and conciseness are the hallmarks of the works just treated. Moreover, in these plays, Cocteau combines the quality of a subtle artist who elusively moves by indirection with that of the “astonisher” of the bourgeoisie—that of the social and political satirist completely without partisan dogma. Few twentieth century writers have succeeded in being scandalous to the extent of being persecuted, even beaten, and having their works banned, and yet without ever having taken a clear partisan position. In this trait Cocteau recalls an earlier French iconoclast: Voltaire succeeded in fighting the Church without being an atheist; Cocteau, in lambasting the establishment without being a Marxist.


Antigone clearly demonstrates this capacity, at once, to draw out and to pare down the elements of the original drama, so much so that Sophocles would have found Cocteau’s version, if not unrecognizable, at least, un-Sophoclean and un-Greek. The play was a significant contribution to the neoclassical movement in the arts of the 1920’s. Igor Stravinsky and Les Six were setting forth the aesthetic of the pared-down and the streamlined in music. Picasso, who did the scenery for Antigone, was making thin-lined sketches of classical subjects; indeed, it is commonly believed that he adopted this style under the direct inspiration of Cocteau’s own drawing style. Cocteau’s thin single line in ink, which captures the essentials of form and meaning, graphically embodies, not only the style of Cocteau’s neoclassical works, but also the aesthetic underlying all his works. In all the arts of this avant-garde neoclassicism, Greco-Roman subjects are used wherever possible; they are rendered, however, with a style and for a purpose that is modern. Sometimes a small touch in the dialogue of Antigone, more often, in the stage directions, makes it clear that the work is about modern France, indeed, about the modern experience.

Cocteau heavily underlines those elements in Creon the Tyrant that would be found in any twentieth century ruler. Like his modern counterparts, he lives in constant fear that the opposition is secretly plotting his downfall. Above all, Creon mistakenly believes that money is the wellspring of everyone’s deeds. He even accuses the obviously irreproachable seer Tiresias of taking foreign bribes. Money, which is but one element among many in the work by Sophocles, is heavily underscored by Cocteau in his delineation of Creon. The supreme irony of Creon’s tragedy is that his downfall results not from a group of paid subversives, motivated by worldly considerations of money and power; rather, he receives justice from someone who is inspired by moral sanctions.

Yet the agent of Creon’s undoing has a further irony—it is a young woman, Antigone. When Antigone tells her sister that they must jointly act according to higher ethical demands and bury their brother in spite of Creon’s law forbidding it, Ismene replies that she cannot, because women are helpless in the face of male power. Although Ismene proves unable to take action with her sister, she desires, in accordance with her conception of women, to partake of the martyr role that grows out of Antigone’s act. Female submission in the face of male domination is the essence of Creon’s conception of political power in the largest sense. He says that disorder is his greatest fear and that nothing would strike at the primal basis of his order with more certainty than the revolt of the women. “City,” “family,” and even the army depend on keeping women in their place within the patriarchal structure, and consequently, nothing is more deadly than should it happen that “the anarchist is a woman.” Creon puts the matter even more brutally to his son Haemon, saying that the city is but a wife to its leader. In a patriarchal structuring of both family and city, both a wife and the people must be kept subordinate to the male in power. Cocteau’s choice of lines for Creon cuts even deeper: As he believes that money is the motivating force of those who resist power, so, too, does he believe that women are instruments of propagation and nothing more. Concerning Haemon’s deep love for Antigone, his intended wife, Creon says that “he will find another womb.” These elements are in Sophocles’ play, but Cocteau has selected them out from other elements, brought them to the fore, and underscored them in a way that renders them modern.

Cocteau’s Antigone was the first in a series of Greek dramas adapted by twentieth century French writers to shed light on the modern...

(The entire section is 2869 words.)