The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Before the curtain rises on The Infernal Machine, a Voice tells the audience how Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, left her baby son, his feet mutilated, on a mountainside to die, in order to counter the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The child was rescued and adopted by Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth, who treated him as their own. As a young man, Oedipus consulted an oracle and learned the same prophecy. Believing himself the son of Polybus and Merope, he fled that city in order to counter the oracle. One day, during a dispute at a crossroads, he killed a man; unknown to Oedipus, the man was Laius, King of Thebes, his father. Soon after, he heard of the Sphinx, which was killing the young men of Thebes, having first asked a riddle they could not solve. Queen Jocasta had offered her hand in marriage and the crown of Thebes to the conqueror of the Sphinx. Oedipus was victorious, married Jocasta—his mother—and became King of Thebes. The years passed. A plague struck, and the gods blamed an unnamed criminal. Having determined to find him, Oedipus discovered the truth about himself. Jocasta hanged herself with her red scarf, and Oedipus blinded himself with her gold brooch. Now, says the Voice, let the audience watch how a perfect machine constructed by the infernal gods encompasses the mathematical annihilation of a mortal.

Each act in The Infernal Machine has its own title. Act 1, “The Ghost,” takes place at night. The atmosphere is heavy and the sky riven with heat lightning. Two soldiers patrol the raised platform alongside the city wall, while the nearby sewers discharge a stench and the noisy rhythms of nightclubs are heard. Laius’s death is still recent. His ghost has tried to communicate with Jocasta. The soldiers discuss the apparition with their officer, who is more concerned about the way in which the matter was reported over his head than with the substance of the report. Jocasta arrives with Tiresias, the high priest. He treads on the end of her long scarf, and she comments that it is always trying to strangle her. She evinces an impatient insensitivity to the condition of her people, preferring to flirt with the young soldier (who reminds her of the son who would have been his age) than to take seriously the report of the ghost. She reflects that if her son were alive he would be handsome and brave (like the young soldier) and would conquer the Sphinx....

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Jean Cocteau in The Infernal Machine parades his genius for combining elements from different genres, by unifying the bawdy hilarity of bedroom farce and the solemnity of classical Greek tragedy. To this he adds burlesque (not only Oedipus’s mock-heroic triumph over the Sphinx, when the powerless youth is a craven coward and shows no generosity in victory, but also the affectionate parody of the ghost scenes in the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, pr. c. 1600-1601), drawing-room comedy (Jocasta’s flirtation with the soldier, Oedipus’s outrageous misapprehension of Tiresias’s motives), comedy of morals (the soldiers and their preoccupations, the garrulous mother), deft touches of characterization (the impatient Creon, straining to take the reins of power), and especially the striking irony of visual devices (the metaphor of the blood-red bedroom, the cradle, Jocasta’s maternal response to the sleeping Oedipus as she tiptoes about the room so as not to wake him, the scarf that so often nearly strangles her, the brooch). Another aspect is the bathing of the entire action in lurid violet light from mercury lamps, a device achieved in the first performance and often re-created in modern performances. In addition, the unseen Voice is to some extent a modern-day realization of the classical Greek chorus, summarizing, pointing out the moral, and above all emphasizing the theatrical locus of the action.

All of this, together...

(The entire section is 500 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Crosland, Margaret. “The Infernal Machine.” In Jean Cocteau. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1978.

Fifield, William. Jean Cocteau. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Cocteau. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Mauriès, Patrick. Jean Cocteau. Translated by Jane Brenton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Oxenhandler, Neal. “Liberty and The Infernal Machine.” In Scandal and Parade: The Theater of Jean Cocteau. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957.