Jean Cocteau began his career during one of the most fertile periods in French cultural and artistic history: the 1920’s. His work was conspicuously avant-garde. Orpheus shares characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd, particularly its grim delight in the twisting of language. Attention is drawn to the fact that language is a construct—that is, a purely arbitrary system of signs and symbols. Meaning itself may therefore be unstable. The language of Orpheus is replete with puns and wordplay. Structurally, the course of the play is determined more by the ambiguities of language than by the twists and turns of conventional plotting. The protagonist’s fate, for example, depends on the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of a phrase. Nevertheless, Orpheus cannot truly be categorized as absurdist theater, as its resolution lacks the rigor of absurdism.
In fact, Cocteau remained aloof from any particular “school” of dramatic thought, despite the fact that his work at times appears Dadaist, Surrealist, or Futurist in style if not in substance. Cocteau was even denounced by the Surrealists, who judged him a “dabbler,” unable to appreciate fully the movement’s profound and radical intent. Indeed, the play’s mockery of Orpheus’s attempts to extract poetry from the tapping of a horse ridicules Surrealism’s attachment to automatic writing, a system in which people attempted to ascertain meaning from words written without conscious thought. While Cocteau, like the Surrealists and Dadaists, created art to shock the public, his use of surprise was determinedly conscious. Cocteau’s detailed production notes, which, unprecedentedly, he published, show the tight rein he kept on theatrical effects.
The myth of Orpheus provided a vehicle for Cocteau to explore themes relating to the creative imagination and the destiny of the artist, ideas that obsessed him throughout his career. Orpheus was the paradigmatic poet and musician; his songs charmed any creature who heard them. His gifts softened the hearts of the god of the underworld and his consort, to the point that they allowed Orpheus’s dead...
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