The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Taking place on a sunny April day, Orpheus opens in a state of confusion and disorder. The Horse is tapping letters destined to become Orpheus’ verse; Orpheus anxiously awaits the final letters; Eurydice views the source of her husband’s inspiration as absurd. Orpheus misconstrues the Horse’s oracular sentence as an acronym meaning “thank you,” and his attention to the Horse incites Eurydice’s anger. Oblivious to Eurydice’s jealousy, Orpheus is preoccupied with the Horse’s composition, the banal sentence that will enable him to win the poetry competition and will assure his immortality: “Madame Eurydice will return from Hades.” Verbal insults escalate into physical violence. Orpheus, exasperated by his wife’s bickering, shatters a windowpane and invites her to call the glazier Heurtebise. Eurydice, according to Orpheus, has repeatedly smashed windows as a pretext to see Heurtebise; the repairman, he asserts, has become an object of his wife’s attention.

After embracing the Horse and relegating his wife to the status of a lackey, Orpheus leaves the house. In scene 3, Eurydice confesses to Heurtebise the strain they are under. She sees Aglaonice, leader of the Bacchantes, as the source of the conflict. Orpheus, she remembers, despises Aglaonice. As a former member of Aglaonice’s sect, which is opposed to men, Eurydice believes that her prior association with the priestess is inciting Orpheus’ jealousy and anger. Aglaonice is sympathetic to Eurydice’s situation and has prepared poisoned sugar for the Horse. Heurtebise has brought, along with the sugar, a poisoned envelope that will enable Eurydice to send a letter. Heurtebise stands on a chair to feed the Horse. Unexpectedly, Orpheus returns in the subsequent scene to fetch his birth certificate. He removes the chair, leaving the glazier hanging in midair. In scene 6, Eurydice asks for explanations of the bewildering phenomena of a talking horse and a suspended body. Heurtebise is equally puzzled. Eurydice finds her letter to Aglaonice and, inadvertently licking the envelope, dies.

Death, personified as a beautiful young woman in pink evening dress, enters through a mirror, accompanied by her assistants Azarael and Raphael. She finishes the task begun by Heurtebise. Her assistants provide rubber gloves, and Death administers the poisoned sugar to the Horse.

Heurtebise had left the villa to find Orpheus. In scene 7, both return, and Orpheus...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Images and techniques used in Orpheus heighten the conflict inherent in the incompatibility of opposites. Orpheus’ search for truth implies a movement toward an established reality. Initially, Eurydice wants to change positions, and Orpheus, waiting intensely for letters tapped by the Horse, pleads for quiet. Later, Orpheus writhes and Eurydice becomes inert. Dialogue and action underscore the tensions suggested by divergent physical stances. The squabbles between husband and wife crescendo to the struggles between man and woman, as the Bacchantes hurl stones to kill Orpheus. The changing manifestations of disorder, though, are fixed in the constant presence of reality. The violence implicit in ancient myth assumes a contemporary setting, and a lunch that opens the play and sets in motion an inexorable chain of events concludes the tragedy in destruction and uneasiness.

Illusions conveyed by actions, images, and words mask but reveal the reality of pain. In exemplifying male and female principles, Orpheus and Eurydice dramatize the conflicts between life and death. Orpheus engages in worldly activities, and movement characterizes his participation in life (for example, his exit and return in scenes 2 and 4; his artistic ambitions; his rescue of Eurydice). Eurydice directs attention to domestic affairs. As victimized wife, she becomes the means for Aglaonice’s vindication. Contradictions coalesce into piercing agony when, in turning, Orpheus...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1978. Crowson’s insights rest on her research of structuralism and analytical philosophy. The clarity of her writing belies an elusive thesis: On a certain level, Orpheus reflects Cocteau’s personal conflicts regarding sex and gender.

Fowlie, Wallace. Jean Cocteau: The History of a Poet’s Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Fowlie approaches Cocteau’s life and artistry with great seriousness. A distinctive element of this work is an epilogue describing a meeting between Fowlie and Cocteau shortly before the latter’s death.

Freeman, E. Introduction to Orphée/Jean Cocteau. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1976. Freeman’s introduction to both the play and the film, and his notes to the play, offer a wealth of background information as well as details about the production. The reader’s understanding of the work is broadened by Freeman’s investigation of its mythological matrix. A French/English dictionary may be needed, as Freeman does not translate French quotations for the reader.

Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz. Jean Cocteau. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Knapp acknowledges paradoxes that inform her understanding of Cocteau, paradoxes that she then attempts to analyze. Her analysis resembles Crowsen’s as it draws on psychological points of view to find the reality in the legend.

Oxenhandler, Neal. Scandal and Parade: The Theatre of Jean Cocteau. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. This first American study of Cocteau focuses on his work in the theater. Oxenhandler takes a philosophical approach to his subject. He finds Cocteau’s inability to “engage” in the world around him a kind of tragedy for the modern age.