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Orpheus


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A: Jean Cocteau Pf: 1926, Paris Pb: 1927 Tr: 1933 G: Drama in 13 scenes; French prose S: A room in Thrace, and heaven, mythical past C: 6m, 2f, 1 horseEurydice is jealous of Orpheus' affection for his horse, which dictates poetry to Orpheus by tapping its hoof. Orpheus is submitting the latest poem to Thrace's annual poetry contest. Arguing over his neglect of Eurydice, Orpheus smashes a mirror. The glazier Heurtebise comes to fix it, and gives Eurydice poison to rid her of the horse. By mistake, Eurydice poisons herself, and Death, a beautiful young woman, comes to take her through the mirror to the underworld. Orpheus is distraught, but Heurtebise helps him through the mirror. Orpheus is allowed to bring back Eurydice on condition that he does not look at her. During a quarrel he looks at her, perhaps deliberately, and she is returned to the other side. Orpheus now learns that the horse has tricked him: his poem ‘Madame Eurydice reviendra des enfers’ contains the obscene acrostic ‘Merde’ (‘shit’), and he is declared a fraud. The Bacchantes are coming to tear him apart, but he gladly goes to meet death so that he can be reunited with Eurydice. His severed head is tossed on to the stage, and Eurydice comes to accompany his invisible body to the underworld. When the police arrive, Eurydice comes for Heurtebise too, and all questions have to be answered by the severed head. The final scene is in heaven, where Orpheus, Eurydice, and Heurtebise are living in harmony.

A: Jean Cocteau Pf: 1926, Paris Pb: 1927 Tr: 1933 G: Drama in 13 scenes; French prose S: A room in Thrace, and heaven, mythical past C: 6m, 2f, 1 horse

In the wake of Apollinaire's The Breasts of Tiresias (1917), it became voguish to reinterpret classical myth with anachronisms and a refreshingly iconoclastic wit (cf. Anouilh's Antigone and Sartre's The Flies). Cocteau's version of the Orpheus legend is full of theatrical surprises (Heurtebise suspended in mid-air, Death borrowing a watch from the audience, one scene repeated word for word, a talking head, etc.). Below the surrealist fun, Cocteau explores a strained relationship with the ambiguous presence of the friend Heurtebise.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Jean Cocteau (1889—1963) French dramatist, novelist, and film director


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