Shape-shifting, Vampires, and the Oedipus Myth: Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine
Jean Cocteau used fantastic elements in many of his plays, such as The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, Orpheus, The Infernal Machine, The Knights of the Round Table, and Renaud and Armide, as well as in ballets and films like The Blood of a Poet, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, and The Testament of Orpheus. The examination of The Infernal Machine is illuminating not only because it explores one of the central myths of all time, the Oedipus myth, but also for its use of fantastic elements as an encoding strategy for the rewriting of the myth.
Cocteau's first attempt to rewrite Sophocles' Oedipus Rex can be dated as early as 1925. This adaptation closely followed the Greek source and was translated into Latin for Stravinsky's oratorio of the same name. Another version, Oédipe Roi, a "free" adaptation, was written in the late thirties and first performed in Paris in 1937. The Infernal Machine, written in 1932, was first performed in 1934. 1 The play has four acts, each introduced by an unseen narrator, the Voice. As Brian Attebery has shown, the voice or the unseen narrator is a device. But if this validation device prepares the reader/spectator to expect a work of fantasy--I am using here fantasy in its generic sense--this expectation is quickly dispersed. For Cocteau does not proceed to a crude actualization of Sophocles' play, nor does he aim to reproduce by mimesis what Katherine Hume defines as "consensus reality" and Nicholas Ruddick as "scientifically grounded consensus reality." The play is a representation of the ancient myth, with no attempt to reconstruct a mythical Greece and its bigger-than-life figures. Cocteau's often caricatured figures move on a minimalist set, use contemporary Parisian slang, and display weaknesses that are only too human. They gossip, lust, and conspire. Even the Sphinx is not what it used to be. The play does not conform to any of the traditional dramatic genres: the first act is a pastiche of Hamlet, Act I; the second resembles a voodoo séance; the third contains comic intermezzos and dream sequences; and the fourth approaches high tragedy. Aesthetically, the play is a well-structured collage, a comic pastiche that turns into