The Play

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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 accuses his wife of theatrics. His accusation is transformed, however, into his acceptance of the reality of her death. Heurtebise awakens him from self-delusion: Orpheus forgets the Horse and recognizes Eurydice’s importance. In placing aside his poetic ambitions, he is willing to endure Death and to snatch his wife from the Underworld. Heurtebise instructs him to wear the rubber gloves left by Death and to descend through the mirrors through which Death comes and goes. Orpheus follows Heurtebise’s instructions and, wearing the red gloves, stretches his arms, passes through the mirror, calls for Eurydice, and disappears into the lower world.

Scene 8 is a diptych, separated by a brief interval. A postman arrives with a letter, and Heurtebise informs him that both Orpheus and Eurydice have left. An identical dialogue is enacted in the second half of the scene.

In the following scene, Orpheus and Eurydice return from the Dead through the mirror. Although Orpheus acknowledges the reality of the Horse’s prophecy— “Madame Eurydice will return from Hades”—he wishes now to respect his wife above all else and to refrain from speaking about the Horse. By alluding to Heurtebise’s role in enabling Orpheus to descend to Hades, however, Eurydice irritates her husband. Yet both restrain their jealousies and petty attacks and conform to new rules: Orpheus must not look at Eurydice, for if...

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she is seen by him, she will disappear into Hades; Eurydice declares to Heurtebise the shame of her previous actions and resolves to become a more considerate wife.

In spite of their efforts to keep their promises, self-centeredness overtakes reason. Eurydice talks about their honeymoon; her allusion to the moon progresses into references to the Bacchantes, who use lunar principles in their worship. This veiled allusion to Aglaonice incites Orpheus to affirm his belief in solar influences. Insults ensue. In spite of Heurtebise’s warnings to remain calm, Orpheus loses control. Eurydice tries to restore his faculties; Heurtebise pleads for reason. Succumbing to passion and self-interest, Orpheus looks at Eurydice. Shock and terror petrify Eurydice; she dies.

Egoism continues to control Orpheus, who rationalizes his action. Refusing to acknowledge his guilt, he arrogantly contends that men must deal with women firmly and must maintain independence. Heurtebise reminds Orpheus of the truth: He lost his self-control. Self-importance sways Orpheus’ perceptions, and he begins to attack Heurtebise. The glazier recounts the reality of the situation: Eurydice was a model wife, and Orpheus, through a wanton and irreparable act, has lost her shamefully and tragically. At this point, Orpheus discovers a letter written backward; he deciphers it through the use of the mirror. Aglaonice has found offensive the acronym MERDE (not MERCI as previously interpreted); although it can be read in French as an acronym for “Madame Eurydice will return from Hades,” as a word it is a vulgar term for excrement. The Bacchantes demand vindication, and Orpheus is urged to flee. The sound of drums awakens him to reality. Stones fall into the room, breaking the window and mirror. Orpheus is decapitated, and his head rolls onto the stage.

In scene 10, Orpheus admits his irrationality and sinks into the mirror with Eurydice. In the following scene, the Commissioner of Police confirms Orpheus’ murder by the Bacchantes. Anxiety prevails. The Bacchantes prepare celebrations, but the priests of the Sun demand reprisals. Heurtebise plunges into the mirror. In scene 12, Orpheus’ head becomes Jean Cocteau’s; the Commissioner, attributing this to delusion, asserts that reality is reality.

In the final scene, the villa is transformed into Heaven. The protagonists assume new lives: Eurydice proclaims that she has killed the devil disguised as the Horse, and Orpheus identifies God as poetry. Harmony replaces disorder, as both sit down to a lunch served by Heurtebise.

Dramatic Devices

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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 deadens Eurydice and seals his own fate.

Similarly, paradoxical image express oppositions denoting destruction. A postman delivers a letter before the interval, and the same scene opens the second part. Having licked the envelope poisoned by Aglaonice, Eurydice dies and is resurrected in the first half. Her escape, however, is a trick in a scheme assuring her death and Orpheus’ destruction. The mirror, as the portal of death, reflects human existence, which time moves toward inexorable oblivion. Windowpanes unite external and internal realities but, shattered by stones, enact destruction and disturbance. The play’s puns seem innocuous but, through misinterpretation, inflict pain.

In creating a paradigm of mistrust and pain, Jean Cocteau juxtaposes images and actions into one vision. The Commissioner of Police resumes Orpheus’ futile search for truth in earthly phenomena and misses the agony of Cocteau’s message enunciated through Orpheus’ severed head. At the beginning of the play, Orpheus defines a poem as “a flower deep-rooted in death.” The immediacy of present reality disguises the prophecy to be revealed—that man, like the beauty of flowers, is destined to be destroyed. God emerges as poetry, but the tranquillity of paradise disguises the disturbance experienced in reality. Orpheus’ final ordered existence belies the shocking image of the pain endured by his head as it transmits the enigmas of truth. By piecing together the incongruous images, the spectator discerns that the misrepresentation of illusion becomes a representation of reality, and that dramatic form changes artistic expression into empathic perception.


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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.


Critical Essays