The Plays of Cocteau Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Cocteau

Critical Evaluation

Cocteau, as poet, dramatist, essayist, and novelist, was a controversial figure in the avante-garde activities of French art; he also produced ballets, motion pictures, and drawings. Another facet of his multiple personality was the lengthy discussion, after his return to Catholicism, with Jacques Maritain, the great Thomist philosopher. Thus, there was no aspect of the modern intellectual world that he did not touch.

Beginning his career as a dramatist with the Surrealist movement of the 1920’s, Cocteau always practiced what has been called “the esthetics of astonishment”; that is to say, the purpose of each play was essentially not dramatic, as that word is generally understood. Its purpose was rather to surprise, to astonish the audience into seeing familiar situations in a new light or from an unexpected angle. In spite of what may at first appear to be merely a bag of clever tricks, Cocteau did have a real theory of the function of poetry. It was his purpose to show his readers things that they see every day, but to present them from an angle and at a speed giving the impression that they are viewing the familiar for the first time. Such a theory has both its good and its bad side: it can lead, as it often does, to a genuinely fresh kind of writing; but it can also be merely an excuse for a type of work that is only perversely eccentric. THE EIFFEL TOWER WEDDING PARTY, for example, seems to fall into this second category. The drama, if it can be called such, really accomplishes nothing; it is essentially a piece of clever foolishness, another round in the seemingly endless French game of shocking the bourgeoisie. Such a game doubtless gives satisfaction to the players, but it is hardly likely to produce great art.

This same kind of perverse humor flits through even those plays which may be regarded as more serious. Cocteau was preoccupied, as many modern dramatists have been, with the great stories from Greek mythology. Just as Eliot, in THE FAMILY REUNION, used the ORESTEIA in a modern setting, so Cocteau seemed haunted by the story of Oedipus and in THE INFERNAL MACHINE retold that legend in contemporary terms. The story, as Cocteau interpreted it, is a tightly wound machine, created by the gods for the destruction of a mortal. As the machine slowly unwinds, Oedipus is destroyed as surely as in the tragedy of Sophocles. Yet he is a very different Oedipus. Though his tragic end is physically the same as that of the Greek hero, he is not a great figure who “read the riddle-word of Death, and mightiest stood of mortal men.” He is, instead, only a brash youth, conceited rather than proud, who candidly tells Tiresias that he has been seeking a love that is close to the maternal. At the end of the play, when he has blinded himself, the seer says of him that he has not lost his pride: once he wanted to be the happiest of men; now he wishes to be the unhappiest. Thus a neat twist is given to the story; yet for all that, Cocteau’s king remains merely a conceited adolescent. And the dramatist has another trick up his sleeve: the ghost of Jocasta appears, visible only to the blinded Oedipus, to tell him that his wife is dead and that only his mother survives and has come to help him. The problem of the wife-mother relationship has been resolved, and Oedipus has, we might say, returned to the womb.

THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE is another example of this clever manipulation of traditional material. Here we have an elaborate mixture of all the elements dealt with by Jessie Weston in FROM RITUAL TO ROMANCE. Again we have the impression of a conjurer taking rabbits out of a hat. Cocteau presents Merlin to us as a baneful magician who has cast a blight over Arthur’s kingdom so that no flowers bloom and no birds sing. He is accompanied by a minor demon named...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)