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Thoroughly Modern Oedipus

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Thoroughly Modern Oedipus

J'etais agacÐ"© par le machinisme d'avant-garde. J'avais voulu dÐ"©montrer que...n'importe quel chef-d'oeuvre ancien pouvait reprendre une incroyable jeunesse entre les mains d'un artiste.

-Jean Cocteau

Whenever Jean Cocteau chooses a legend from antiquity for a play, he interprets and rejuvenates it. La machine infernale is one of Cocteau's most original and important dramatic works. The Oedipus legend had always held enormous fascination for Cocteau, and his La machine infernale, while retaining a basic skeleton of the traditional Sophoclean story, is an updated modern version of the ancient myth. Sophocles' vision of the Oedipus story emphasizes the fate of a noble family. Oedipus, son of Laius, is induced to kill his father, whom he did not recognize; to guess the riddle of the Sphinx; and to marry his mother, whom he did not recognize. The revelation of his crimes moves him to blind himself and go into exile. On this subject matter Cocteau invents modern variations and allusions to our age.

Why reinvent a story that had been handled by many other authors and psychologists? Cocteau was dealing with used goods. Did the public really need yet another retelling of the incestuous and murdering Oedipus? How then does one explain the remarkable resurgence of interest in the ancient Greek mythology found in French theater during the early half of the 20th century? Above all, the themes dealt with in mythology are universal and permanent. Myths deal with the greatest, eternal problems. They deal with love, war, pain, sin, and courage. Myths also deal with human struggle against the irrationalities of life. The classical description of the struggle against fate, transposed to the modern stage, had a special appeal for this particular audience: the series of events transpiring during the 1920's and 1930's in Europe provided them with an all too immediate vision of the abstract classical concept of destiny (Page 330).

Cocteau was certainly not the first to present classical themes the public. Almost 600 French imitations, translations or adaptations of classical originals came from le rÐ"Єve hellenique between 1840 and 1900 (Grant 232). However, Cocteau was the first French dramatist to realize that these classical dramas no longer engaged the average spectator, presented as they often were as sacred objects of high culture in highbrow translations and staged according to misguided attempts at historical accuracy. Cocteau announced: "L'Oedipe de Sophocle...ne marche plus Ð" notre rythme. Il s'imposait de transformer un ennuyeux institut en un institut de beautÐ"©." In order to remedy this situation, Cocteau set out to modernize classical dramas and use them as vehicles to communicate personal themes (Cujec 46). He was perhaps the first to restore and make meaningful again to modern audiences the eternally valid actualities of Greek tragedy (Knapp 160).

Cocteau was well aware of the important ethical dimension of this great well-known tragedy of an essentially innocent hero who has been victimized by a fate he cannot control. It was a welcome change for an audience who had been flooded with the outrageous and non-morally uplifting pieces of the Dadaists of the time (Page 338).

The matters uppermost in Cocteau's plays are clearly not those which engaged Sophocles. In La machine infernale, Oedipus shares center stage with other characters, Jocasta most significantly, but also Tiresias and the Sphinx. (Oedipus isn't even on stage in Act 1.) The Cocteau play also introduces elements into the Oedipus story, which seem inappropriate to the stature of Sophocles' play. The vulgar vernacular language of La machine infernale and its self-centered characters give the play an inhuman air. Cocteau agreed that only by seeming to conform to the traditional might one achieve the anarchy sought by the modernists. Paradoxically, he hoped to prove that modernity and novelty could be found in even the most ancient of texts. Close inspection of the text and staging of La machine infernale reveals it to be bold avant-garde experiments reflecting the radical revision of the theater by modernist innovators of the era (Cujec 45).

In La machine infernale, Cocteau has taken the myth of Oedipus, not as Sophocles did, at the point when, after many years of married life, Oedipus is about to be hurled headlong into unbearable suffering, but when he reaches Thebes with hopes stretching wide before him. The undoing of Oedipus only occupies a small part of the play, with Cocteau devoting the rest of the action to events that interest him: the meeting with the Sphinx, life in the palace, the marriage and the bridal night.

Dealing with a story that was over 2000 years old, Cocteau brought several changes about to make it acceptable for his sophisticated 20th century audience to relate to the dusty characters. The long speech of the Sphinx was respected, and the novelties that Cocteau added were admired: the Sphinx as a young girl falling in love with Oedipus, the marriage night scene, the apparition of Jocasta at the end to guide Oedipus toward his destiny (Fowlie 69). How did Cocteau go about the modernization of the classical Oedipus myth? What attitudes and what theatrical forms does he find to bring the ancient tale alive for modern times?

Cocteau did not regard classical dramas as historical artifacts but as living works of art, which seek to communicate with the living spectator. The primary obstacle to communicting with a contemporary audience lay in the complex rhetoric of previous adaptations. Cocteau sought to revitalize the theater by freeing it from the tyranny of literary text. He strove to minimize the importance of the text by stripping it down to its bare essentials with very little rhetorical ornamentation. Hence, he eliminated what he considered to be unnecessary dialogue end employed frank, colloquial language as opposed to elevated, poetic language - a relatively new and surprising innovation for a production of a classical drama. Reducing the play to its essential elements, he felt, made the play more powerful for the modern spectator, and by simplifying the text, he shifted the emphasis away from textual lyricism (Cujec 46).

Cocteau put into practice his old belief: the theater should not be removed from or become a substitute for reality, but should be immersed in it. The modern scene, therefore, is reproduced with force and vigor. The soldiers in La machine infernale are contemporary figures who speak in present day slang, while jazz music blares from nightclubs, and talk of revolution and war continues throughout. (Knapp

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