Themes and Meanings

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Orpheus dramatizes the quest of the poet-seer. As a visionary, Orpheus strives to perceive the nature and dynamics of the reality that becomes the substance of his verse. In penetrating life’s mysteries, he encounters the tensions of the human situation, which drive him unrelentingly toward death. Poetic creativity results from the psychological conflict and earthly disorder. At the conclusion of the tragedy, Orpheus apprehends the presence of God, which he identifies with the divinity of poetry. This harmonic vision, though, is illusionary and uneasy, for by contemplating the divine, he inadvertently relinquishes his role as a poet who, through pain and annihilation, discloses the essence of man’s condition.

The conflicts defining Orpheus’ situation evolve from the misunderstandings that result from human imperfection and the workings of earthly reality. Bickering between husband and wife indicates the tension between male and female principles. Instead of appreciating their love, both shape their situations to personal desires and visions: Orpheus is possessed by artistic ambitions, and Eurydice feels slighted as his wife. Orpheus’ source of creativity is the Horse’s tappings, which, translated from words into actions, foretell the poet’s suffering and death. The sentence emanating from the Horse and forming Orpheus’ verse incurs the anger of Aglaonice, thereby intensifying the uneasiness between man and woman. Poetry becomes prophecy as Orpheus perceives the fulfillment of the Horse’s words (“Eurydice will return from Hades”). The earthly reunion of husband and wife is only temporary. The association of the sun with Orpheus and the moon with Eurydice points out the eternal presence of opposing cosmic forces. In transmitting the message, the Horse enables Orpheus to experience tranquillity; Orpheus’ verse, however, becomes insulting (“MERDE”) to the Bacchantes.

In undergoing a violent death, Orpheus perceives a harmony that reflects both poetry and God. This vision, though, disguises the underlying sufferings of human existence, which form the substance of cosmic truth and poetic creation. Orpheus’ reconciliation of opposites underscores the tensions between illusion and reality. Orpheus as poet-seer and Eurydice as faithful wife submit to their destinies and experience a release of tensions. In realizing this peace, however, they demonstrate the fragility and destructibility of humankind, and they must now endure the finality of nonexistence. Orpheus visualizes a harmony associated with poetry, but Jean Cocteau tells, through Orpheus’ severed head, the tale of human suffering that is the reality of divine truth.

Orpheus is a tragic hero. In seeking truth, he becomes a victim of self-delusion. Any reconciliation is more apparent than real. The Commissioner vainly seeks an explanation of the mystery in the reality of things, and Cocteau the poet appears as spokesman for the truth of inner human suffering. The self-deception that permits escape from unrelenting fate dramatizes the continued presence of misunderstanding and obscures the pain of the human condition. Cocteau’s Orpheus demonstrates the duality of existence: Like Dante the poet-seer, he perceives the ineffable; like John the Baptist, who suffered decapitation, he is a martyr attesting the truth of human existence.

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