Indiscretions is the English translation of Les Parents Terribles, by the French playwright and poet Jean Cocteau, which was written and first performed in 1938. The play is available as Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions), translated into English by Jeremy Sams (1995). When it was first produced in Paris, the play scandalized audiences with its portrayal of diseased love infecting a bourgeois family in 1930s Paris, and it was subsequently banned from the publicly owned theater by the city authorities. It still retains its power to shock. In the play, Cocteau returns to the theme of incest, which he previously explored in the play La Machine Infernale, produced and published in 1934.
To show a young man’s attempts to escape the suffocating love of his mother, Indiscretions draws upon the ancient Greek story of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. While Cocteau’s play shares the tragic inevitability and melodrama of the Oedipus story, its elements of farce, sense of the absurd, and hilariously comic dialog cause the audience often to laugh at the most emotionally fraught moments.
Indiscretions opens on a scene of panic in Yvonne’s chaotic bedroom. Yvonne, a diabetic, looks close to death. Her husband George thinks she has taken an overdose of insulin. Yvonne’s sister Leo and George guess that Yvonne has been driven to desperation by the failure of Michael, the son of George and Yvonne, to return home the previous night. Yvonne explains that she forgot to eat or take sugar to balance her insulin dose as she was worried about Michael. Leo gives her sugar dissolved in water, and she recovers.
Yvonne and Leo discuss their family. Leo says that an uncle left his fortune to her because she is the only orderly member of the family among a group of “raggle-taggle gypsies.” She is happy to support them all, even George, whose fruitless research on an underwater machine gun she claims to admire.
Leo tells Yvonne that she suspects that Michael spent the night with a woman and suggests that he is glad to escape the mess of Yvonne’s “gypsy camp.” She adds that George, too, has sought refuge with another woman, and this is hardly surprising, as Yvonne gives all her love and attention to Michael. Yvonne cannot believe that Michael would have an affair because she still thinks of him as a child, but she shows no concern at the news that her husband is straying. Leo recalls that George was originally her fiancé, but she pushed him and Yvonne together as she believed they were better suited. Leo points out that Michael is not a child, despite Yvonne’s attempts to keep him dependent upon her, for example, by preventing him from taking a job.
Michael comes home to a grilling from Yvonne and George, who want to know where he has been. Michael decides to tell his mother on her own first, and the two snuggle up on her bed. He says that he has met a girl called Madeleine. She works as a bookbinder and has helped Michael financially. She is involved with an older man but has decided to break off the relationship to be with Michael. Yvonne, furious, accuses the girl of being a scheming older woman who is exploiting Michael. She makes a terrible scene and demands that he break off his romance.
Leo rushes in to calm Yvonne, who hits her. George summons Michael to his room, and they leave. Yvonne tells Leo that her suspicions were right: Michael has fallen in love with a woman, and he no longer loves his mother. Leo rebukes Yvonne for her selfishness. She advises Yvonne to keep control of her feelings. She says that she herself has had to do this, since she has always loved George. Leo has sacrificed her life to stay near George. Again, Yvonne is unconcerned about this revelation about her husband.
George enters, looking shocked. Left alone with Leo, George reveals that he has discovered that Michael’s girlfriend, Madeleine, is the same woman with whom he has been having an affair. What is more, he has lied to...
(The entire section is 2,240 words.)