The Infernal Machine

by Jean Cocteau

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Themes and Meanings

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The Infernal Machine is not merely a modernization of a Greek myth but also a twentieth century exploitation of themes and meanings left unexplored in its principal source, Sophocles’ play Oidipous Tyrannos (pr. c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus), into which Jean Cocteau integrates an illumination of the playwright’s relationship with his creation. On one level, Cocteau exposes the political and social dilemmas latent in the myth, to provide a commentary upon the problems of threatened national security, economic crises, and simmering social tensions confronting France in the turbulent international and domestic climate of the 1930’s. In the play, ordinary people of low intellect, with their ordinary preoccupations, are powerless to influence events. Even when they could, they do not. The soldiers decide not to report Laius’s final warning, which, though incomplete, might have alerted Jocasta to the danger. They are more concerned with problems of status and bureaucracy than with questions of national importance. The mother who converses with the Sphinx is an ignorant gossip, but she strikes a chillingly realistic note when she alleges that the Theban government is corrupt and incompetent and that it welcomes the threat posed by the Sphinx because it diverts attention from the bankruptcy of domestic policies. The analogy to the series of weak French governments in the early 1930’s is inescapable, as is the sinister import of the mother’s conclusion that only a dictator could run the nation properly. Such a sentiment, not uncommon in France in that period, was anathema to Cocteau, who thus distances himself from it.

Those in power, for example Jocasta in act 1, are insensitive; there is implicit condemnation of governments’ lack of interest in short-term measures to improve conditions for ordinary people. Long-term policies, it seems, are irrelevant. One cannot predict the future, and those who interrogate oracles will be baffled by the experience, of which no good can come. The Sphinx thinks that she can thwart the gods’ wishes by sparing Oedipus, but her gesture is vain; instead, she speeds him toward his fate. Vain, also, are the attempts by Jocasta and Oedipus to alter their predestined fates. One should not delve into the past: Oedipus’s determination to attribute the blame for the plague and to discover the truth behind the message from Corinth only precipitates the final catastrophe. Cocteau knew his compatriots: Here indeed is a striking prefiguration of the sinister French readiness in the Philippe Pétain era to seek scapegoats, not so much for the defeat of 1940 as for the moral turpitude that was adjudged to have blighted the nation.

On the second level, Cocteau demonstrates a playwright’s absolute control of his creation. Once more, there is an analogy from the original myth, wherein the gods manipulate human beings according to their whim; similarly, the characters in a play are powerless to alter the predetermined roles they must fulfill. Cocteau delights in placing into the mouths of Jocasta and Oedipus unwitting hints of the discoveries they will make and the fate that awaits them. The title, The Infernal Machine, thus relates both to the mechanism that the gods have invented to annihilate a mortal and to the theatrical experience, invented by the playwright for an analogous purpose.

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