Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Jean Cocteau’s earlier plays Antigone (pr. 1922, pb. 1928; English translation, 1961) and Orphée (pr. 1926, pb. 1927; Orpheus, 1933) had been among the first of the impressive series of dramas on classical themes produced by a dozen writers, including also Jean Giraudoux, Jean Anouilh, and Jean-Paul Sartre, over three decades and more of French theater history. It was The Infernal Machine, however, that both consolidated the success of the form and showed how classical drama could be adapted to reflect aspects of contemporary life. Indeed, as is well known, in the following decade covert political comment embedded in certain neoclassical plays of the Occupation was able to pass unchallenged by the German censors. However, although by its confrontation of the supernatural with the everyday The Infernal Machine reminds its audience of the indissoluble link between the petty concerns of people as individuals and the wider spectrum of the politics of power, the meanings of this play are all on the surface, and this is where Cocteau intends them to be. There is no profound philosophy of life, no latent social or political message that cannot be readily apprehended by anyone familiar with the critical and historical context. There is, rather, an ironic but somewhat helpless commentary on events, the work of an elegant intellectual skeptic whose first priority was always to dazzle with his versatility.

Cocteau’s career also embraced poetry, novels, ballet (and collaborations with some of the great composers of his day), cinema, criticism, painting, and illustrating, and in all of these one is aware of the guiding hand of the consummate master of showmanship. Still, there is also a profundity, though not where one might first expect to find it. It lies in the commentary on the merits of live theater, so that even were there no other reason, The Infernal Machine must not be dismissed as superficial, merely sensational, or merely a modern reworking of an ancient theme. It is one of the handful of greatest examples of twentieth century French neo-Greek drama.