Critical Context

Orpheus is one of several plays in which Jean Cocteau adapts ancient myth to modern situation. Earlier, in 1922, he produced Sophocles’ Antigone (441 b.c.e.; Antigone) and in 1925 he reworked Oidipous Tyrannos (c.429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus), which evolved into La Machine infernale (pr., pb. 1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936). Like Jean Giraudoux, Jean Anouilh, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Cocteau individualizes the universality of myth; Anouilh (Eurydice, pr., pb. 1942; Legend of Lovers, 1951) and Tennessee Williams (Orpheus Descending, pr. 1957) followed his lead in reexamining the Orphic legend. Cocteau’s tragedy, though, goes beyond a retelling of the story in modern decor. Nineteenth and twentieth century poetic interpretations by Novalis, Gerard de Nerval, Stephane Mallarme, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valery expanded mythic plot to include examinations of metaphysical reality and psychological consciousness. The story reappeared in Jacques Offenbach’s lighthearted operetta Orphee aux enfers (1859; Orpheus in the Underworld) and in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus (1947). Cocteau recognized the thematic and generic possibilities of the myth. In two cinematic versions, Orphee (1950; Orpheus, 1950) and Le Testament d’Orphee (1959; The Testament of Orpheus, 1959), he shaped his narrative to the theme of the human inability to comprehend reality.

The supernatural quality of Cocteau’s images suggests an interrelation of his dramaturgy with Surrealist speculation and expression of reality. The shocking images of a prophesying Horse, a talking decapitated head, and an unsolid mirror recall the disparate and unfamiliar imagery employed by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. Whereas Surrealists systematically explored life’s mysteries as perceived in dreams and visions, however, Cocteau discovers disorder in his immediate surroundings. In his works, familiar objects prove to possess magical powers that evoke suspicion and lead to the truths of hatred, violence, and pain. Words and images become signs of spectacle and surprise that disguise but eventually disclose the agony and absurdity of existence.