Analysis of Jean Cocteau’s Plays

Early in his career, during and after World War I, Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963) wrote scenarios for ballets and adaptations of Greek myths. His plays of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s were highly original and brought him much attention. Cocteau gave the Oedipus legend a lasting form in his opera-oratorio Oedipus-Rex, and Antigone bears historical significance beyond its considerable intrinsic merits. In the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, under the influence of Jean Marais, Cocteau turned to contemporary problems, creating taut psychological dramas in the style of Boulevard drama; Intimate Relations is the most highly regarded of these middle works. Cocteau’s later plays reflect his interest in reaching back into the past for both subject and form. Renaud et Armide and L’Impromptu du Palais-Royal appeal, respectively, to Jean Racine and Molière for models. The Eagle Has Two Heads returns to the nineteenth century romantic melodrama for conventions and to the period’s history for plot elements. Bacchus combines historical drama and the Erasmian colloquy to create a mood-picture of the early Reformation. In these plays of his final years, Cocteau created works of transcendent stature. Of these, The Eagle Has Two Heads is the most beautifully crafted and most often performed.


Although it can be claimed that Cocteau’s plays fall into distinct groups, or periods, the essential unity of all of Cocteau’s plays must be noted. That he consistently chose a perverse or inverted vantage point, in order to astonish his audience with the unexpected, reflects the essential relation of his art to society. Cocteau added immensely to the arsenal of modern stage techniques; he had a keen ability to pick a subject to pieces and, in the process, demonstrate the absurdity of the whole. Always ready to draw out those elements that another playwright might have omitted, Cocteau, at his best, could also pare down to a minimum what was to be included.

In Bacchus, a dramatic masterpiece from Cocteau’s late period, the playwright has a character speak a line that might be taken as a summation of the standard view of critics that he had produced too many works: “You speak too much to say one memorable word.” Yet while it is true that Cocteau poured forth so many volumes of plays, as well as so many other works, brevity and conciseness are the hallmarks of the works just treated. Moreover, in these plays, Cocteau combines the quality of a subtle artist who elusively moves by indirection with that of the “astonisher” of the bourgeoisie—that of the social and political satirist completely without partisan dogma. Few twentieth century writers have succeeded in being scandalous to the extent of being persecuted, even beaten, and having their works banned, and yet without ever having taken a clear partisan position. In this trait Cocteau recalls an earlier French iconoclast: Voltaire succeeded in fighting the Church without being an atheist; Cocteau, in lambasting the establishment without being a Marxist.


Antigone clearly demonstrates this capacity, at once, to draw out and to pare down the elements of the original drama, so much so that Sophocles would have found Cocteau’s version, if not unrecognizable, at least, un-Sophoclean and un-Greek. The play was a significant contribution to the neoclassical movement in the arts of the 1920’s. Igor Stravinsky and Les Six were setting forth the aesthetic of the pared-down and the streamlined in music. Picasso, who did the scenery for Antigone, was making thin-lined sketches of classical subjects; indeed, it is commonly believed that he adopted this style under the direct inspiration of Cocteau’s own drawing style. Cocteau’s thin single line in ink, which captures the essentials of form and meaning, graphically embodies, not only the style of Cocteau’s neoclassical works, but also the aesthetic underlying all his works. In all the arts of this avant-garde neoclassicism, Greco-Roman subjects are used wherever possible; they are rendered, however, with a style and for a purpose that is modern. Sometimes a small touch in the dialogue of Antigone, more often, in the stage directions, makes it clear that the work is about modern France, indeed, about the modern experience.

Cocteau heavily underlines those elements in Creon the Tyrant that would be found in any twentieth century ruler. Like his modern counterparts, he lives in constant fear that the opposition is secretly plotting his downfall. Above all, Creon mistakenly believes that money is the wellspring of everyone’s deeds. He even accuses the obviously irreproachable seer Tiresias of taking foreign bribes. Money, which is but one element among many in the work by Sophocles, is heavily underscored by Cocteau in his delineation of Creon. The supreme irony of Creon’s tragedy is that his downfall results not from a group of paid subversives, motivated by worldly considerations of money and power; rather, he receives justice from someone who is inspired by moral sanctions.

Yet the agent of Creon’s undoing has a further irony—it is a young woman, Antigone. When Antigone tells her sister that they must jointly act according to higher ethical demands and bury their brother in spite of Creon’s law forbidding it, Ismene replies that she cannot, because women are helpless in the face of male power. Although Ismene proves unable to take action with her sister, she desires, in accordance with her conception of women, to partake of the martyr role that grows out of Antigone’s act.

Female submission in the face of male domination is the essence of Creon’s conception of political power in the largest sense. He says that disorder is his greatest fear and that nothing would strike at the primal basis of his order with more certainty than the revolt of the women. “City,” “family,” and even the army depend on keeping women in their place within the patriarchal structure, and consequently, nothing is more deadly than should it happen that “the anarchist is a woman.” Creon puts the matter even more brutally to his son Haemon, saying that the city is but a wife to its leader. In a patriarchal structuring of both family and city, both a wife and the people must be kept subordinate to the male in power. Cocteau’s choice of lines for Creon cuts even deeper: As he believes that money is the motivating force of those who resist power, so, too, does he believe that women are instruments of propagation and nothing more. Concerning Haemon’s deep love for Antigone, his intended wife, Creon says that “he will find another womb.” These elements are in Sophocles’ play, but Cocteau has selected them out from other elements, brought them to the fore, and underscored them in a way that renders them modern.

Cocteau’s Antigone was the first in a series of Greek dramas adapted by twentieth century French writers to shed light on the modern human situation—a series culminating in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (pr. 1944; English translation, 1946) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946). Cocteau constantly reminds the viewer through subtle touches in the mise en scène that he is viewing the present indirectly through the past. He instructs the actors to speak in very high-pitched voices as though they were reciting from a newspaper article. In another stage direction, he tells the actors playing the guards to stand on either side of Antigone and hold each end of a spear before her so that she will resemble a prisoner in a courtroom dock between two policemen.

Cocteau’s Antigone represents the eternal spirit of disorder that eats away at the social structure on all levels—a structure that Cocteau finds inevitably repressive of the best in the human spirit. The fact that Antigone is a woman gives an added impact to the symbol: She has the capacity to deconstruct not only the obvious political system at the top but also the institution of the family. Cocteau’s drama presents an outsider who gives her life to reveal the hypocrisy and rottenness of the social fabric. Antigone, although possibly influenced by the first wave of the feminist movement as it broke around Cocteau at the time he was writing the play, is not a tract for the stage as is George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs.Warren’s Profession (wr. 1893, pb. 1898), but it is still no less important socially or politically, and it is in some ways, perhaps, more profound.


Intimate Relations

In his second dramatic period, Cocteau set out to grapple with modern situations directly. Intimate Relations is the most highly valued and frequently performed of Cocteau’s dramas about contemporary life. This play is most remarkable for its objective, detached view of the family as a structure of emotional relations and the neuroses stemming from them. One might term it a sociopolitical work even though, on the one hand, it avoids the underlying support of middle-class morality of the Boulevard dramas and the overt left-wing preachments of the pièce a thèse, on the other.

Although it could be argued that the family relations of the characters in Intimate Relations are unusual, the truths revealed in the play still have general relevance. Cocteau has structured the characters and their relations in what might be described as a pentangle: A mother inordinately loves a son, who loves a young woman, who was the mistress of the son’s father, who, in his turn, is loved by the sister of his wife. Cocteau has made the family an unusual one for the purpose of making the dynamics of such a group all the more painfully apparent.

The two sisters, Yvonne, the wife, and Lèo, the unmarried sister, form the symbolic crux of the play. Lèo’s presence has a certain ambiguity. It is she who saves Yvonne’s life in act 1, but it is her series of attempts to salvage the family from shipwreck that leads to Yvonne being emotionally jettisoned from the family, resulting, then, in her suicide. At first, Lèo hatches a plot to separate the young couple (Madeleine and Michel); then, growing to like Madeleine, she hatches another plot to bring the young people back together again, thereby separating mother and son (Yvonne and Michel). Lèo’s will to rule is a double-edged sword that saves and kills. The stage directions for Intimate Relations make clear the polarity between Lèo, on the one hand, and Yvonne and Madeleine, on the other: Cocteau observes that Yvonne’s room represents chaos and Madeleine’s, cosmos.

It is one of the beautiful subtleties of Intimate Relations that Cocteau does not make it emphatically apparent that his sympathies are with the figure of disorder, Yvonne. It is only by viewing Intimate Relations in the context of Cocteau’s other plays that this attitude becomes clear. Antigone, the emblem of disorder, must die to bring tragic selfawareness to Creon, the emblem of order. Yvonne must also die a martyr’s death. Yet, in Intimate Relations, the martyrdom has little effect because, at the play’s end, a sinister order has been restored: Michel has found a new and more solid mother figure in Madeleine. This inevitability moves toward its tragic end in a real coup de théâtre.

The Eagle Has Two Heads

Equally exciting in dramatic structure is The Eagle Has Two Heads, which is perhaps the most theatrically viable of all the plays of Cocteau’s last period, during which he experimented with past forms and conventions. Indeed, considered formalistically, this play is both a literary and a theatrical tour de force. Cocteau has compared the three-act structuring of this drama to a fugue: The first act, he says, is devoted to the queen; the second act, to Stanislas. In the last act, the two themes jointly culminate in a double suicide. This literary structure, however, had less a musical than a theatrical inspiration: Marais requested from Cocteau a play in which he could remain mute in the first act, have moments of ecstatic vocalizing in the second, and mime a melodramatic death in the third act. Cocteau set out to write an actor’s play much like the singer’s opera of the bel canto style and, then, to combine this style with elements of the romantic dramas of Victor Hugo. The miracle is that Cocteau succeeded in creating a complexly formulated, but no less moving, drama.

In essence, the play is a carefully concerted interchange between the queen and Stanislas, the would-be assassin, then her lover, and, finally, her assassin in fact. The first act is pervaded by the queen’s monologues: The first of these is addressed to the imagined presence of her husband, an assassinated king; later, when Stanislas, the king’s Doppelgänger, appears, she addresses him—mute as he is with exhaustion and defiance. From his appearance up to the finale of the play, however, Stanislas, and not the queen, is the motive force of the action—the poet-playwright, as it were. Indeed, in a moment of authorial reflexivity, Cocteau has the queen say that Stanislas has been the “author” of the three-act structure, “the drama.” In act 1, he is the assassin who breaks into her stuffy existence like a romantic storm; in act 2, he inspires her to true queenship; finally, he poisons himself in order not to stand in the way of the queen’s new will to power. The queen then becomes the author of her own destiny, paradoxically, by rejecting temporal power and by driving the poet mad with anger so that he will carry through with her assassination. Within the realm of the drama, then, the tragic finale is the queen’s creation—in the end, she plays poet-playwright.

The play is also structured around symbols of contradiction and paradox. Ten years before the action of the play, the assassin of the king used a dagger concealed in a bouquet of flowers. In act 1, the queen saves the life of her own would-be assassin; but, in act 2, the assassin, paradoxically, brings her back to life, at least for a temporary respite, from the living death of her ten-year state of mourning for the king. The doubleheaded eagle of the title represents contradiction and tension; yet, as the queen says, if one of the heads is cut off, the eagle dies. By means of this emblem, Cocteau seems to be saying that contradiction is needed if the spirit of a ruler, of a poet, or of a lover is to soar beyond the mundane. As Stanislas, the poet and lover, tells the queen, he does not offer her banal “happiness,” but rather a joint alliance—“an eagle with two heads.” During a dangerous horseback ride she takes in the mountains, the queen comes to realize that without the tension of life and death, there can be no beauty, no poetry in living. Only by loving her would-be assassin does she become a ruling queen; only by ruling does she discover the tragic desperation of life; only by discovering this desperation does she prepare herself for death.

Few directors have ever shown the keen sense for the psychological aptness of mise en scène that Cocteau does in this play—particularly in act 1. This play draws heavily on the Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) archetype; the relationship between Stanislas, who looks like the dead king, and the queen corresponds to that between Hamlet and his mother. The queen even describes Stanislas’s sudden appearance through the open windows with poetic images used in William Shakespeare’s scenes involving the ghost of Hamlet’s father. To add point to the subtext, Cocteau has Stanislas, in his newly acquired capacity as court reader, recite the scene between Hamlet and his mother, the queen. It is no surprise, then, that the first act of the play is to be staged exactly like the traditional bedroom setting for Hamlet—complete even to the portrait of the king on the wall (an important touch in productions of Hamlet into the twentieth century, when it was replaced by a miniature in a locket). The stage directions call for the queen to make her first entrance from beyond the portrait, which pivots around; Cocteau thereby creates a concise metaphor for the ten years of the queen’s life of mourning before the time of the play.

The queen is a strange composite of Elizabeth of Austria, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and Queen Victoria. In creating the queen and her environment, Cocteau has admirably captured the sense of the hothouse atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe, the country waiting for a great war to cut through the oppressiveness of emperors, kings, and aristocrats. The queen, as much as Stanislas, is an anarchist. She is an amateur of storms: She speaks of lightning that will destroy her genealogical tree and of the storm that will scatter the leaves of the book of court etiquette; she calls on Stanislas to destroy—to be a storm. In the end, she (herself) must be the anarchistic agent of the queen’s (her own) assassination: Thereby, she becomes Cocteau’s most complete symbol of self-sacrifice in celebration of disorder.



Principal drama
Antigone, pr. 1922, pb. 1928 (libretto; English translation, 1961); Orphée, pr. 1926, pb. 1927 (Orpheus, 1933); Oedipus-Rex, pr. 1927, pb. 1928 (libretto; English translation, 1961); La Voix humaine, pr., pb. 1930 (The Human Voice, 1951); La Machine infernale, pr., pb. 1934 (The Infernal Machine, 1936); L’École des veuves, pr., pb. 1936; Les Chevaliers de la table ronde, pr., pb. 1937 (The Knights of the Round Table, 1955); Les Parents terribles, pr., pb. 1938 (Intimate Relations, 1952); Les Monstres sacrés, pr., pb. 1940 (The Holy Terrors, 1953); La Machine à écrire, pr., pb. 1941 (The Typewriter, 1948); Renaud et Armide, pr., pb. 1943; L’Aigle à deux têtes, pr., pb. 1946 (The Eagle Has Two Heads, 1946); Bacchus, pr. 1951, pb. 1952 (English translation, 1955); Théâtre complet, pb. 1957 (2 volumes); Five Plays, pb. 1961; L’Impromptu du Palais-Royal, pr., pb. 1962; The Infernal Machine and Other Plays, pb. 1964.

Other major works
Long fiction: Le Potomak, 1919; Le Grand Écart, 1923 (The Grand Écart, 1925); Thomas l’imposteur, 1923 (Thomas the Impostor, 1925); Le Livre blanc, 1928 (The White Paper, 1957); Les Enfants terribles, 1929 (Enfants Terribles, 1930; also known as Children of the Game); Le Fantôme de Marseille, 1933; La Fin du Potomak, 1939.
Poetry: La Lampe d’Aladin, 1909; Le Prince frivole, 1910; La Danse de Sophocle, 1912; Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, 1919; L’Ode à Picasso, 1919; Poésies, 1917-1920, 1920; Escales, 1920; Discours du grand sommeil, 1922; Vocabulaire, 1922; Plain-Chant, 1923; Poésie, 1916- 1923, 1924; Cri écrit, 1925; Prière mutilée, 1925; L’Ange Heurtebise, 1925; Opéra, 1927; Morceaux choisis, 1932; Mythologie, 1934; Allégories, 1941; Léone, 1945; Poèmes, 1945; La Crucifixion, 1946; Anthologie poétique, 1951; Le Chiffre sept, 1952; Appogiatures, 1953;Clair-obscur, 1954; Poèmes, 1916-1955, 1956; Gondole des morts, 1959; Cérémonial espagnol du phénix, 1961; Le Requiem, 1962.
Screenplays: Le Sang d’un poète, 1932 (The Blood of a Poet, 1949); Le Baron fantôme, 1943; L’Éternel retour, 1943 (The Eternal Return, 1948); La Belle et la bête, 1946 (Beauty and the Beast, 1947); L’Aigle à deux têtes, 1946; Ruy Blas, 1947; Les Parents terribles, 1948 (Intimate Relations, 1952); Les Enfants terribles, 1950; Orphée, 1950 (Orpheus, 1950); Le Testament d’Orphée, 1959 (The Testament of Orpheus, 1968); Thomas l’Imposteur, 1965.
Ballet scenarios: Le Dieu bleu, 1912 (with Frédéric de Madrazo); Parade, 1917 (music by Erik Satie, scenery by Pablo Picasso); Le Boeuf sur le toit, 1920 (music by Darius Milhaud, scenery by Raoul Dufy); Le Gendarme incompris, 1921 (with Raymond Radiguet; music by Francis Poulenc); Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel, 1921 (music by Les Six; The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1937); Les Biches, 1924 (music by Poulenc); Les Fâcheux, 1924 (music by George Auric); Le Jeune Homme et la mort, 1946 (music by Johann Sebastian Bach); Phèdre, 1950 (music by Auric).
Nonfiction: Le Coq et l’Arlequin, 1918 (Cock and Harlequin, 1921); Le Secret professionnel, 1922; Lettre à Jacques Maritain, 1926 (Art and Faith, 1948); Le Rappel à l’ordre, 1926 (A Call to Order, 1926); Opium: Journal d’une désintoxication, 1930 (Opium: Diary of a Cure, 1932); Essai de la critique indirecte, 1932 (The Lais Mystery: An Essay of Indirect Criticism, 1936); Portraits-souvenir, 1900-1914, 1935 (Paris Album, 1956); La Belle et la bête: Journal d’un film, 1946 (Beauty and the Beast: Journal of a Film, 1950); La Difficulté d’être, 1947 (The Difficulty of Being, 1966); The Journals of Jean Cocteau, 1956; Poésie critique, 1960.
Translation: Roméo et Juliette, 1926 (of William Shakespeare’s play).

Griffith, Alison Guest. Jean Cocteau and the Performing Arts. Irvine, Calif.: Severin Wunderman Museum, 1992.
Lowe, Romana. The Fictional Female: Sacrificial Rituals and Spectacles of Writing in Baudelaire, Zola, and Cocteau. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
Mauriès, Patrick. Jean Cocteau. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Saul, Julie, ed. Jean Cocteau: The Mirror and the Mask: A Photo-Biography. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1992.
Tsakiridou, Cornelia A. Reviewing “Orpheus”: Essays on the Cinema and Art of Jean Cocteau. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.


Jean Cocteau sculpting his own head in wire, ca 1926

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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