Jean Cocteau Cocteau, Jean (Vol. 8) - Essay

Cocteau, Jean (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cocteau, Jean 1889–1963

Cocteau is a French poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and film-maker. His concern with myth and mythological themes is expressed in such works as his drama Orphée. One of his most arresting works is the haunting novel Les Enfants Terribles, a horrifying view of French bourgeois life. Les Enfants Terribles, Orphée, and other of his works were made into films under Cocteau's direction. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

With regard to Antigone [Cocteau] says: "I have tried to give a bird's eye view of Antigone, so great beauties disappear, others are brought out; perhaps my experiment is one way to bring to life the old masterpieces." Or again, about Roméo et Juliette: "I wanted to operate upon a drama of Shakespeare in order to discover the bones under the adornments; I have therefore chosen the most adorned, the most beribboned." There is no need to stress the lack of foundation of such assertions; they merely show Cocteau's inability to appreciate the poetry of Sophocles or that of Shakespeare. The final result is that his Antigone is a public square conversation-piece deprived of any atmosphere or pathos; as for his Roméo et Juliette, one must read it in order to realize how Cocteau, "in search of the bone", has reduced the most moving poetry to an ossuary…. What Cocteau clearly means [in the expression "poésie de thêátre"] is that the kind of poetry he is after is not poetry contained in words, but poetry created by all kinds of devices, some of them admittedly apt and purposefully used in the theatre. Later on, in the same preface, he says: "Thanks to Diaghilev and others, we witness in France the birth of a genre which is neither ballet nor opera, and it is in that direction that the future lies." At least, that was the future as Cocteau saw it. The production of his plays and other forms of entertainment, in the course of which he brought together famous painters, musicians, choreographers and dancers, shows the kind of synthesis he had in mind. His ideal—very Wagnerian indeed—was that a play ought to be written, staged, dressed and provided with musical accompaniment by one single man; but he added, "that perfect athlete does not exist". One must concede that as a film producer, with all modern scientific apparatus at his disposal, Cocteau has certainly done his best to achieve that ideal…. (pp. 103-04)

In my view, his "poetry of the theatre" is an aesthetic emotion of varying intensity, but it is not poetry. A certain atmosphere or a climate created by all sorts of devices, ranging from chiaroscuro lighting to fantastic supernatural shapes, may or may not create an emotional state conducive to poetry, but it is certainly not poetry. The whole thing is likely to remain in a kind of inchoate state in which feelings, shapes and thoughts are different from what they normally are; but unless these things coalesce into form or, to be precise, into words, there is no poetry. Cocteau himself seems to me to be the prototype of the writer who gets into such states of exhilaration in the course of which the human being hovers half-way between the real and the unreal, in a world where all sorts of unco-ordinated ideas and feelings float swiftly across the mind, yet lacking the vision which discriminates and fuses together these elements of chaos into the consistency and coherence of organic life. All men are filled with poetic possibilities, but the lightning force which fuses all these possibilities into existence and timelessness is very rare. Cocteau has at times felt that force, though it never lasted long enough to enable him to write a full poetic drama. More often than not he has taken the shadow for the substance, and he has failed to see that no amount of staging, acting or other devices can produce poetry, unless there is poetry in the words. Surprise, for instance upon which Cocteau relies so much, is, true enough, an element of poetry; a poem must be something new; the words, the images, the rhythm used must have that vitality which makes of each poem a new experience; but surprise is only a means to an end, and by itself it is no more poetry than a poetic theme is poetry. This phrase—"the poetry of the theatre"—which has achieved such fame, is a confusing phrase, which seems to me to be typical of many of Cocteau's unfounded claims. (pp. 104-05)

In La Machine infernale, Cocteau has taken the myth of Oedipus, not as Sophocles did, at the point when, after many years of married life, Oedipus is about to be hurled headlong into well-nigh unbearable suffering, but when he reaches Thebes with hopes stretching wide before him. Cocteau concentrates chiefly on the meeting with the sphynx, life in the palace, the marriage and the bridal night. The undoing of Oedipus only occupies approximately a tenth of the play; coming after some very amusing chitchat, it is divested of its emotional context, and is a kind of Parisian drawing-room comedy which makes us expect at any moment the ring of a telephone bell calling away Tiresias to his patients, or the horn of a motor-car waiting at the door to whisk away Oedipus, with Antigone at the wheel. (p. 106)

[We] have a sample of Cocteau's resourcefulness, in his display of all the well-known tricks of comedy … so that we find ourselves right in the middle of a typical comédie bourgeoise. What this has got to do with poetry, or, for that matter, with the myth of Oedipus, is a question which need not be asked, for poetry has certainly no place here—unless one might be tempted to find something poetical in the more than obvious use of the incident of the scarf and the brooch as omens of what is going to follow seventeen years later, or in the very transparent symbolism of the dream…. This play shows Cocteau's inventiveness and gifts as a producer and film-director, but if it were described as poetic drama, then anything could be poetic drama—the flying trapeze, the girl who jumps through the hoop, or the dancing horse: all are feats which have that important element of surprise advocated by Cocteau. (pp. 107-08)

Orphée is Cocteau's most successful handling of a myth, and his nearest approach to poetic drama. Although the play takes place in a modern setting and with all the stage skill that Cocteau can muster (and that skill is great indeed), the atmosphere of the ancient myth is on the whole preserved…. Cocteau also has humanized the myth, which therefore loses much of its tragic mystery and also takes on the romanticized colours of the death-wish and the belief that only in the absolute, in the beautiful world of death, can one reach complete happiness. So Death is a beautifully dressed woman, with fascinating eyes, who comes to anaesthetize pain and to bring bliss to men. Who could resist her? Very few indeed; and nobody can be surprised at Orpheus' peevishness towards his wife and his longing to return to such a beautiful mistress. The great journey through Hell, which is part of the original myth, the suffering endured in order to know what cannot be known in the shape of man, the divine song which can rouse stones and trees to dance and women to madness, all that is whittled away and replaced by a horsy muse, a poetry committee of jealous volatile women and a typically French police station. The technical skill of Cocteau is once more impressive; but the elementary wisdom of the horse which, as Jocasta remarked to Tiresias, requires faith to be believed, the symbolism of the reflected mirrors where one can read one's fate, the handling of the supernatural, doves, Death and her attendants, are neither very original nor poetic…. One cannot deny the effectiveness of all these assets deployed in Orphée, or its novelty and influence since it was first produced in 1925, yet we are bound to say once again that this play, although remarkable theatre, and although it is the nearest approach to it, does not come anywhere close enough to poetic drama as exemplified by the works of poets like T. S. Eliot or Claudel, to mention only contemporaries. In recent years Cocteau has turned Orphée into an excellent film; it is perhaps as a film-director that he can make full use of his versatility, his inventiveness and his technical skill. (pp. 109-10)

Joseph Chiari, in his The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism (© 1958 by Joseph Chiari), Rockliff, 1958 (and reprinted by Gordian Press, 1970).

Cocteau sensed that his creative talents were not of the first magnitude. Even at the height of his success he was insecure, often doubted his abilities, and pursued the friendship of the great with obsessive zeal. But he also recognized and encouraged budding genius in others, and frequently aligned his own work with current innovations. Jean Cocteau's output is staggering in quantity and diversity, encompassing novels, plays, poems, films, essays, autobiographical writings, journalism, painting, and a voluminous correspondence. Much of this oeuvre is minor and some is frankly bad, but enough of it is outstanding, either intrinsically or as pure invention….

While Cocteau left his strongest mark on the theater, it is by no means the limit of his importance. The Children of the Game is a haunting novel of youth, classic in form yet highly original in its portrayal of a brother and sister living in a bizarre world of their own. As a film-maker, too, Cocteau achieved distinction. His first venture in movies, at a time when he knew nothing about the medium, was that remarkable attempt to depict the functioning of the poetic imagination, Blood of a Poet (1930), a milestone in cinema history…. Subsequently he learned the métier and made a number of films, including the charming fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (1945) and the movie version of Orphée (1949).

Much of Jean Cocteau's work is weak, derivative, inconsequential. But his failures do not diminish his major accomplishments, and hardly justify some of the harsher criticism aimed at him. Doesn't an artist have the right to be judged by the best of his work? (p. 32)

Tom Bishop in Saturday Review (© 1970 by Saturday Review Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 19, 1970.

Poetry is a collection of sixty-three poems in which Cocteau introduces a whole new set of topics, themes, and motifs: the clown, the circus, the sailor, water, the dancer, the angel, the flag, the handkerchief, the elevator, travel, love, the horrors of war, and the athlete. Though some of these images and subjects appeared in Cocteau's earlier works, they are used in a different manner in Poetry. The athlete, for example, to whom Cocteau had always been attracted, now becomes a symbol for the poet. Impressed by the strength of the man who controls every aspect of his body, whose muscles are forever trim, whose strength increases with exercise, he feels that the poet, in a similar fashion, must also keep active, must take time out for training in order to reassess his worth. A simple style with fewer ellipses, devoid of accoutrements, more classical perhaps in design and demonstrating at the same time greater depth and force, mark Poetry with quite striking aspects.

In the poem "Spain" ("Espagne"), for example, Cocteau takes a series of popular images, those usually associated with this country, plays with them in such a way as to very nearly construct a vast canvas in words. A fan, gold, velvet, ebony, bulls, a corrida, a man singing to the accompaniment of a guitar—all these pictures appear in various sections of the poem, lending drama and color to it. What Picasso, Braque, Léger, Delaunay, de Chirico had done on canvas, Cocteau was now accomplishing in poetry, though he was not the first to try. This technique consisted of breaking up concrete objects as one conceives of them rationally, representing them in their variegated roles, and destroying the intellectual concepts of time and space, thereby achieving simultaneity and actuality. (pp. 50-1)

Death, a theme which grows in importance as Cocteau's work evolves, is not always looked upon as evil or as the harbinger of pain. It can be beneficent, when considered symbolically, as a withdrawal from life, as a sinking into self, resulting in a surge of new ideas, feelings, and sensations, "Which dies when it must in order to be more fully alive." It was this kind of death which enabled Cocteau to write his classically metered "Plain-Chant." Rejecting his former frenetic life, he burrowed within and reached new depths of cognition, with beauty of form and classical restraint. (p. 54)

In The Professional Secret [a critical essay], Cocteau … expands upon what he had merely touched upon in The Discourse of the Great Sleep and which will become an important principle in his art: angelism. The image of the angel in no way resembles the child's conception of this figure: a good and kind being who watches over man. Actually, Cocteau's angel is a projection of himself, a composite of opposites that pull and tug at each other, creating the tension that results in the work of art. (p. 55)

Cocteau in no way attempted to abolish reality as he saw it. Indeed, he refused to "attenuate" or "arrange" the "ridiculous" elements he encountered in life. On the contrary, he accentuated those very aspects, striving to portray a world which was "more truly real than the truth," as Ionesco would do years later. Cocteau insisted, rather, on a reality in depth. The two narrators in The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, were brought out into the open, their thoughts and attitudes were aired. Nothing remained hidden. "I illuminate everything. I underline everything," Cocteau wrote. Man's inner world with all of its hideous and beautiful aspects must be laid bare.

A play for Cocteau must form a cohesive whole. It must be simple and orderly, direct and to the point. Ideally, it should be created by one individual, "a universal athlete," as he called him, who would be capable of writing, directing, decorating, costuming, and even acting and dancing the production. Since such a goal is almost impossible to realize, Cocteau felt that this "universal athlete" should be replaced by a "friendly group" [: musicians, poets, and painters]. (p. 60)

Cocteau's style is replete with images, humor, exoticism, metaphors, and similes. The images he uses are important in that they reveal certain aspects of his protagonists' personalities. Images such as glass, windowpanes, and mirrors have certain common qualities: they reflect, are brittle and hard, transparent to a certain degree, and thin. And like these objects Cocteau's creatures are continually looking about, gazing at each other directly or indirectly (a reflection of themselves), as though trapped in a Hall of Mirrors, unstable; their ceaseless activity leads them into a state of total confusion, rendering them incapable of finding any meaning in their lives. (pp. 62-3)

In Thomas the Impostor the war is seen as a treacherous, selfishly motivated, ghastly joke. The confusion and disorganization brought on by war, for example, which is an outward manifestation of man's inner chaotic world, is described simply as "The war began in the greatest disorder. This disorder never ceased, from one end to the other." (p. 65)

Metaphors and similes add to the dynamism of the novel. The development of the war, for example, is likened to the ripening of a fruit which falls from a tree. The satiric overtones of such an image are many; the triviality of the falling apple can have devastating effects, for example, as witnessed by the biblical story. Certain images are humorous because of their extravagant and outlandish nature. Mme Bormes' [immoral] life is compared to the artistry of a piano virtuoso who "can draw all the effects possible which musicians draw from mediocre as well as beautiful compositions. Her duty was pleasure." There are images of an unpleasant nature which are presented in a flippant manner, and underline thereby the horror of various situations. A wounded soldier, for example, who could no longer be operated upon, is described in the following manner: "They had to let gangrene invade him as ivy does a statue." (pp. 67-8)

In this postwar novel, Cocteau dramatizes the incompatibility between the inwardly focused life of the poet whose reality lies in his imagination, and the rational and prosaic life of the man who lives in the workaday world. If Guillaume [the novel's main character], the charming, naïve poet is to survive at all in the world, he must be allowed to relate in his own way to the outside world which, in turn, must respond to him on his terms. (p. 68)

[Cocteau's] novels are veritable lessons in classical simplicity and clarity; his poetry is sensitive and studded with images, possessed of a plastic beauty rare in modern literature; his theatrical enterprises are examples in fervor, dynamism, and fantasy. (p. 69)

Opéra is the poetic transportation of the many nuances of feeling he experienced when bereft of his love [after the death of Raymond Radiguet]. Certain verses are detailed depictions of his opium fantasies, and these lend a haunting and almost frightening quality to the entire work. Other poems, relating the pain he felt in his most lucid moments, are replete with images drawn with the precision and surety of a Phidias or a Praxiteles. Cocteau's poetic credo, as revealed in Opéra, is still one of detachment, which he takes to be a prerequisite for creative art.

The poems devoted to Cocteau's opium fantasies ("By Himself" and "I fly in dream") are chiseled in incisive strokes. The feelings of lightness and giddiness are conveyed in harmonious tonalities, a blend of sharp consonants and free-flowing vowels, very nearly concretizing his drug-induced euphoria. During these periods he seemed to attain a kind of second sight that enabled him to discern the invisible from the visible, the inhuman from the human, and to express these visions in dramatic and poignant terms.

In "Mutilated Prayer" ("Prière mutilée") angels, glaciers, stars, and transfigurations of strange, haunting shapes all come into focus. In this poem the author seeks to do away with the realm of matter, in the platonic sense, which he finds so constricting and stultifying. He opts for the heavenly realm of the spirit, God's domain…. In "Mutilated Prayer," the poet confronts the mysterious cosmic forces, watches the angels as they climb the mountains, and within him, he feels a divine presence. He demands to be charmed, loved, and cared for by God, refusing voyages, theater, and all the artifices of life on earth. (pp. 73-4)

In other poems, Cocteau uses whole series of images (glass, quartz, ice) to express the shallowness and pain of existence. These hard and cutting images convey to the reader a real feeling of physical suffering. At other instances, like De Quincey and Baudelaire, Cocteau describes a series of visions which seem to have emerged directly and intact from his childhood: snow statues melting before the viewer's eyes, sleeping forms which reveal themselves to the dreamer, an array of strange relationships. (pp. 74-5)

"The Angel Heurtebise" ("L'Ange Heurtebise") is the most important and complex poem of the series. Cocteau again takes up the question of angelism, which he had defined in terms of an artistic formula in Professional Secret, that is, the poet must be self-sufficient; he must be emotionally and intellectually detached from the world. (p. 75)

In Opéra, Cocteau uses both Christian and pagan symbolism, drawing from each that which he needs. His finely chiseled verses with their assonances and repetitions, take on an almost three-dimensional aura; though the images are abstract, they become palpable, acting entities, are of and yet removed from the land of the living. Like the poet in "Angel Heurtebise," Cocteau navigates free between inner and outer reality, emerging intact, with keener sight and sensibilities which, in turn, permit him to penetrate more deeply into ever greater mysteries. (p. 76)

[The] Greek tale [of Orpheus] became a humorous, yet disturbing drama, centering not about a heavenly couple, but rather on an "infernal ménage." The play, replete with puns and witticisms, introduced viewers into a magical and mysterious world of cleverly manipulated symbolism and imagery. (p. 78)

Cocteau dramatizes three themes in Orpheus: the conflict between the Male and the Female principles in the universe, the source of poetic inspiration, and an explanation of Death. (p. 79)

Clearly, the Orpheus legend also serves to explain Cocteau's feelings concerning death. For the ancients, Death was an initiation which each person must experience before passing into another realm of existence … to rebirth. The Orpheus myth, a Hellenization of the Osiris cycle, taught the necessity of purifying the soul through expiation and religious consecration.

Cocteau retains certain of these ancient beliefs. For this reason, despite the humor and the irony in the play, there is always the element of mystery and a sense of the supernatural. Cocteau considers life a temporary state; a passage way toward another realm. (pp. 81-2)

Theatrically speaking, Orpheus is an exciting work. Objects become ritualistic symbols, virtual protagonists. Divested of their customary functions, these objects (doors, mirrors, gloves, glass) acquire new and startling meanings. Gloves are not merely used to keep hands warm or for reasons of fashion; they become mysterious entities…. Cocteau's mirror, like Alice's looking glass, becomes a door that leads to the other world—life's counterpart. It is a mysterious and magical instrument.

Endowed with new functions and powers, objects created a feeling of uneasiness among the spectators. "Even familiar objects," Cocteau wrote in his preface, "have something suspicious about them." (pp. 82-3)

Cocteau introduces another interesting technique to his drama: he purposefully breaks the audience-actor empathy. For example, after Orpheus has died and his head remains on stage, the audience is not only shocked but disconcerted when the head reveals his identity; it declares itself to be Jean Cocteau and gives his address. Strangely enough, the destruction of the theatrical illusion serves to reinforce it still further. The audience's identification goes beyond the play's characters, to the author himself; the spectators have become the dramatist's accomplices and are permitted to share in his secrets and his jokes. They are participating members of an arcane club. (p. 83)

[Les Enfants Terribles] is Cocteau's great work: a novel possessing the force, the tension, poetry, and religious flavor of an authentic Greek tragedy. The characters in this novel, however, are quite different from their ancient forebears. Cocteau's protagonists, unlike their ancestors, are endowed with modern marionette-like qualities, and they react to the strings jiggled by destiny in a brittle, seemingly unfeeling manner.

From the very outset of the novel, Cocteau plunges his readers into a double world, at once actual and mythical. The work, therefore, has a metaphysical quality with a strong sense of the ominous and the occult. Juxtaposed to this other worldly atmosphere, over which no one seems to have any control, is the everyday functional world in which the protagonists live. The intertwining of both of these worlds creates a work which is unique in French literature. (p. 88)

Children of the Game is an allegory which expresses, through its symbolism, the tragedy of human destiny. As in Greek drama, an outside event or force is needed to set the dramatic mechanism in motion, so in Cocteau's novel, the white snowball which [the bully] Dargelos hurls at [the fragile] Paul acts as the catalyst. This act symbolizes destiny, irrevocable and all-powerful. The throwing of the snowball also represents an intrusion from the outside into the inner world of the innocent dreamers. At the end of the novel, a similar event occurs: Fate (Dargelos) sends the poison to Paul.

Fate's role in the story, the symbolism of the events reported, and the enigmatic and "mysterious" nature of the protagonists, combine to give Children of the Game a religious quality. Like a liturgical drama it has its gods and goddesses, its hierarchy, rituals, incantations—all played out by five children: Dargelos, Elisabeth, Paul, Agathe, and Gérard. (p. 91)

One of the outstanding features of the Children of the Game is the manner in which Cocteau catches and describes with such accuracy the protagonists' innermost thoughts and sensations…. The frequent omissions of rational plot sequences, the starkly drawn portraits of the children, the flavor of mystery and excitement which comes with the introduction of the unknown …, and the march of Fate … lend an enduring haunting quality to the book. (p. 94)

The Life of a Poet (La Vie d'un poète) was a visual transposition of Cocteau's own unconscious. It contained those images that had always been meaningful to him: mirrors, mobile and talking statues, guardian angels, a chimney, cards, a hermaphrodite, and the like. These objects, startlingly photographed owing to Cocteau's rich imagination, immersed viewers in a totally new visual experience. (p. 95)

The Infernal Machine is Cocteau's most original and important dramatic work. (p. 96)

Cocteau, like the Surrealists in this respect, is forever interested in disclosing the mysterious and hidden realm of the unconscious world, discovering its motivations and revealing these in all of their brute force. (pp. 97-8)

The Oedipus legend had always held enormous fascination for Cocteau. First he had adapted Sophocles' Antigone (1922), then came a free translation of Oedipus Rex (1925), now an original four-act play The Infernal Machine (1932) on the same subject. (pp. 98-9)

Cocteau underlined the already intense conflict present in the Oedipus story by achieving time simultaneity, permitting the characters to live in a double world (past and present) at the same time. He succeeded in bringing about such a feat by scenic manipulation. "A scene within a scene" was constructed right on the proscenium. The characters, who lived in the contemporary world, performed on a brightly lit daislike structure placed in the center of the stage; the rest of the area, symbolizing the ancient mythological, inexorable aspect of existence, was clothed in darkness.

To deepen audience identification, Cocteau put into practice his old credo: the theater should not be removed from, or be a substitute for, reality, but should be immersed in it. The modern scene, therefore, is reproduced with force and vigor. The soldiers in The Infernal Machine are contemporary figures who speak in present-day slang, jazz music blares forth from night clubs, and talk of revolution and war continues throughout. This realism makes disturbingly actual the plight of the entire family—a whole society—which is at the mercy of an inescapable fate.

Though the sense of awe present in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles has been erased by Cocteau to a great extent, the supernatural elements still abound. Images and objects such as statues, columns, a scarf, and broaches take on the meaning and stature of human beings. They seem to actively act and talk on stage and so become vital to the drama itself, while dreams, miracles, ghosts, and a series of coincidences add terror to the already palpable presence of mysterious forces over which man has no control.

For Cocteau, man is fate's toy and is doomed to suffering. Whatever joys he experiences are merely traps set by the gods to make his eventual agony of defeat that much more acute: "For the gods to be royally entertained their victim has to fall from very high. The universe is a giant unmerciful machine bent upon the total annihilation of the human being." (pp. 99-100)

It can be said that Cocteau's dialogue was never—until [The Infernal Machine] so nervous, so direct and filled with such a sense of anguish. (p. 103)

The Infernal Machine is a work which will last not only because of its intrinsic verve and poetry and exciting theatrical qualities, but because it has transformed a profoundly stirring story into modern terms able to move the spectator through laughter … to tears … through shock … to anguish…. Furthermore, the introduction of objects used in the platonic sense as living essences and harbingers of events, and which are expertly interwoven in the drama, makes the play's impact that much more forceful and terrorizing. (pp. 103-04)

To try to evaluate Cocteau's contribution to the arts, one must divide his works into five principal categories: the theater, the novel, poetry, art criticism, and motion pictures.

In the theater, Cocteau rejected the popular well-made play characteristic of the naturalist school, with its flesh-and-blood characters and, its real-life props. This is not to say that he fled from realism into the arcane world of fantasy. On the contrary, Cocteau never tried to "arrange" reality nor to "attenuate" it; but rather to introduce a new vision of reality, by accentuating it…. Nothing could be more true-to-life, as Cocteau saw it, than the reality of Parade, The Do-Nothing Bar, or The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, where the impossible becomes possible.

Under Picasso's and Apollinaire's influence, Cocteau brought the arts into the theater: dance, music, painting, and poetry. He achieved a unity of the arts in Parade, with his symbolic argument, Picasso's décor and costumes, and Erik Satie's music. (p. 158)

Cocteau,… dehumanized his characters, rendering his theater non-psychological and as objective as possible. His creatures never existed on a personal level; they were types, functions, symbols, instincts, or inanimate objects…. In The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, there was a complete rejection of individualism. Two photographs representing the modern age became the chief protagonists. They deployed all their attributes to crush all personal characteristics. Even the bride and the groom (and the guests), as each uttered platitude upon platitude, came to represent not one wedding couple, but millions. (p. 159)

Aside from Cocteau's novels and his plays, he contributed greatly to the film industry. Here he was able to combine his literary and visual talents, those he could neither fulfill in his poetry or in his drawings. The Blood of a Poet has all the hallmarks of a masterpiece, uniqueness of vision, and impeccable execution. Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, The Eagle with Two Heads, and Intimate Relations are also unusual films, from both a photographic and literary point of view. Cocteau's use of closeups, the focused and restrained emotions, the extreme simplicity of gestures, the sparseness and objectivity of dialogue, and the deliberate and effective timing of sequences all contribute to memorable hours in the movie theater. (p. 163)

Bettina Liebowitz Knapp, in her Jean Cocteau (copyright 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1970.

One of the accusations most frequently leveled against Jean Cocteau is that there is no continuity in his work, that he created merely for the sake of effect without having any real goal in mind. Yet, if the evidence is fairly examined, it becomes clear that this is not the case, at least in his conception of stage performance. One of his earliest esthetic formulations is an article entitled "Le Numéro Barbette" which appeared in the July 1926 issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française, and his last play, L'Impromptu du Palais Royal, produced and published in 1962, is a theatrical presentation of his theories of theater. The latter is in fact a refinement, a sophisticated version of the former. However dissimilar Cocteau's plays may appear, they are linked by the same high ideal of the craft of theater: if their likenesses have been obscured, it is because they are united not by a theme or a message but rather by a conception of the art of the stage, of what theater as spectacle means. Cocteau was never interested in a play qua text; instead, he strove to create a certain art-object/spectator relationship based on illusion and enchantment. That this essential aim never changed in the course of his career becomes evident through a comparison of "Le Numéro Barbette" and L'Impromptu du Palais Royal.

"Barbette" (the stage name of Vander Clyde) was one of the most highly respected trapeze artists and female impersonators of the 1920s and 30s…. [The] subject matter of "Le Numéro Barbette" is ultimately theoretical and oriented around questions of perception and illusion. From the transvestite's performance emerges one of the basic structures of Cocteau's theater. (pp. 79-80)

The two aspects of Barbette's act that distinguish it from all others resembling it … are its premise of total illusion or deception and its impeccable craftsmanship. These are precisely the two subjects that form the core of Cocteau's article:

Don't forget that we are in the theater's magic light, in this 'malice-box' where truth is of no value, where what is natural is worthless, where short people become tall and tall ones short, where only card tricks and sleights of hand whose difficulty the public doesn't even suspect can manage to hold firm….

It is clear that for Cocteau entering an auditorium is tantamount to participating in a reality completely removed from that of everyday. Different rules apply and, most important, the nature of perception changes completely. If the theater has a "magic light" that distorts ordinary objects, then whatever is presented on the stage must first be altered: it must be transposed just as music is transposed from key to key. In most cases, actors realize such a transformation through their make-up or costumes. Yet, they usually retain elements of who they really are, whereas Barbette succeeded in altering who he was as completely as possible.

The basic assumption underlying Cocteau's conception of theater as presented in "Le Numéro Barbette," then, is his tenet that the art of the stage presupposes deception. Acting is a game whose success is measured by the degree to which the audience accepts the game as reality. While modifications of such a position are not uncommon in the history of the theater, Cocteau's stand is radical in that it contains such great emphasis on shifting from one type of reality to another…. For there to be theater … the simple convention of illusion that underlies most acting is not enough: there must be a double order of illusion, a double step from commonplace reality. (p. 81)

In a play on the word trompe-l'oeil, Cocteau summarizes Barbette's performance as "this machine of witchcraft, of emotions, of trompe-l'âme [the soul] and of trompe-les-sens [the senses]."… One of the key words in his description is evidently, the word "deceive": at every moment, the spectators find themselves surrounded by a web of untruth which they believe, which in the atmosphere of a theater they accept as reality. More interesting, however, and ultimately more important for an understanding of Cocteau's work as a whole is the word "machine," because it underscores the deliberateness and precision that characterize every facet of a production. From Death's mechanized ritual in Orphée to Oedipus' calculated destruction in La Machine infernale, machines and mechanical devices form one of the constants in Cocteau's theater. However random the action on stage may seem, it is nevertheless controlled by an unalterable order. Nothing Barbette does is left to chance: what appears to be carried out with ease or nonchalance has in fact been planned with attention to the smallest detail. Barbette's act is an example of machine-like perfection, it epitomizes a mechanism that is designed to trick and that is, hence, a metaphor for theater. Therefore, flawless craftmanship emerges as perhaps the primary criterion for judging a work of art. (p. 82)

While L'Impromptu du Palais Royal seems more complex because it is in the form of a play with dialogue, it is nevertheless—with the exception of a discussion on the nature of time—little more than a statement of the concepts that can be deduced from "Le Numéro Barbette." As its title indicates, it falls into the category of plays like Molière's Impromptu de Versailles and La Critique de L'École des femmes or Giraudoux's Impromptu de Paris in which the subject of the work is theater. Both Molière and Giraudoux wrote scripts in which the characters consisted of a troupe of actors supposedly at ease and speaking informally. Obviously, such a device is a convention but it is one that intrigued Cocteau because of its essential ambiguity: in an impromptu actors appear not to be acting. They are therefore playing the role of actors and, hence, the action merely seems to be unpracticed. Therefore, such a form was an ideal vehicle for the expression of ideas on illusion, tricks and machine-like perfection. (p. 83)

By unmasking dramatic conventions, Cocteau destroys the myth of spontaneity and allows his spectators to glimpse the secrets of dramatic art. However, he does so in such a charming, indirect fashion that the Impromptu is probably one of his greatest triumphs in sleight of hand. (p. 84)

However many years may separate Barbette's act from L'Impromptu du Palais Royal, the formal continuity between the two works is nevertheless unmistakable. To qualify as theater, a performance must surpass the old truism of "realistic representation." A stage is not "the real" as it is defined in daily life. It is another sort of reality that has as its very basis the concept of trickery—and not merely a shoddy make-believe, but a game so convincingly and skillfully formed as to be accepted. The world of the stage should charm the spectator, captivate him so that he falls under its spell. Representation is not sufficient: what is presented must be perceived without question as what it is supposed to be.

The "secret" behind achieving such a goal appears to be a well-constructed machine, in Cocteau's vocabulary. No detail is left to chance. Even in the Impromptu whose characters blatantly inform the spectator at every turn that he is being deceived, the cleverness of the dialogue creates an impression of improvisation. The structure of the replies is such that the two planes of game interact in quick ricochets which evoke carefree play. Paradoxically, making a series of actions look unplanned requires the utmost in preparation. Each component of the whole must be properly timed, properly arranged. Therefore, just as in the contrast between Nijinsky on and off stage, appearance and reality have little in common. Underlying every successful work for the stage, Cocteau would argue, whether on the level of choreography, performance, or text, is a guiding mechanism that denies the premise of chance in art. Therefore, perfection in craftsmanship must be the criterion for judging the quality of an artisan. (pp. 85-6)

It appears that the universe to Cocteau was nothing more than a trick mechanism which deceives humanity by hiding the truth. Therefore, the plot of La Machine infernale is a game of the gods that Oedipus and Jocasta do not understand until they have been destroyed by it. Barbette is a woman until the audience finally sees him as a man. The structural elements of Renaud et Armide, Les Parents terribles and L'Aigle à deux têtes resemble components that mechanically, inevitably produce a result that could have been predicted if the forces at work had been known. What is important is that the forces are never evident, that the characters in the play occupy the same position in regard to their world as the spectators do in regard to what is happening on the stage; in each case, so many factors are hidden that the observer can grasp the truth only partially. He is, hence, a victim of illusion. In this light, L'Impromptu du Palais Royal emerges indeed as an appropriate summary of Cocteau's work for the theater, because the production appears completely superficial and frivolous…. Each word, like each object, presents a sort of "warning," a kind of indicator that things are not what they seem. The complexity of the whole becomes evident only when the mask (in whatever form it may take) is removed: a masculine Barbette, the triumphant gods, and smiling actors all preclude the simple.

A definition of theater suitable for Cocteau must necessarily contain the idea of stage presentation, it must include much more than a text. Without performance, there are no games, no trick, no interlocking networks of reality and illusion which form the essence of theater. Reading the dialogue of L'Impromptu du Palais Royal or an outline of Barbette's act immediately gives the secret away, and secrecy is obviously one of the premises which guide Cocteau. Only in a performance of utmost skill can the sleight of hand succeed and the guiding mechanisms remain hidden. Continuity in Cocteau's theater … is to be found in structure rather than in content. Whatever the subject matter of the play may be, whether the tone is light or dark, the work is nevertheless constructed in the dualistic fashion that was prefigured by le numéro Barbette and that has become Cocteau's trademark. (pp. 86-7)

Lydia Crowson, "Cocteau and 'Le Numéro Barbette'," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1976, pp. 79-87.