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Editors: Jennifer Greve and Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2007
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 24. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 24
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Indiscretions is the English translation of Les Parents Terribles, by the French playwright and poet Jean Cocteau, which was written and first performed in 1938. The play is available as Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions), translated into English by Jeremy Sams (1995). When it was first produced in Paris, the play scandalized audiences with its portrayal of diseased love infecting a bourgeois family in 1930s Paris, and it was subsequently banned from the publicly owned theater by the city authorities. It still retains its power to shock. In the play, Cocteau returns to the theme of incest, which he previously explored in the play La Machine Infernale, produced and published in 1934.

To show a young man's attempts to escape the suffocating love of his mother, Indiscretions draws upon the ancient Greek story of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. While Cocteau's play shares the tragic inevitability and melodrama of the Oedipus story, its elements of farce, sense of the absurd, and hilariously comic dialog cause the audience often to laugh at the most emotionally fraught moments.


The French poet, playwright, novelist, artist, and film maker Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was born to a wealthy family on July 5, 1889, in the small town of Maisons-Lafitte near Paris,

Jean Cocteau Jean Cocteau Everett Collection

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France. His father committed suicide when Cocteau was ten years old. Cocteau was attracted to the theater at an early age. He loved to see his mother dressed for the theater, created toy theaters, and staged productions with his siblings. He briefly attended school, but was expelled.

By 1916, Cocteau was associating with an avant-garde group in Paris which included the painters Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso; the writers Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Guillaume Apollinaire; and the Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write a scenario for a ballet, and the result was the ballet Parade (1917). The music was composed by Erik Satie, and the sets and costumes were by Picasso. The first performance caused a scandal because of its modernist nature. The audience rioted, and Cocteau commented that had it not been for the presence of Apollinaire, who was dressed in his military uniform and had a war wound, the authors of the ballet would have been attacked.

Though Cocteau was exempted from military service in World War I, he went to the front as a volunteer and drove ambulances. His reputation for frivolity was not helped by the fact that he had an outfit designed by a couturier for him to wear there, but the war made a deep impression on him. He wrote about his experiences in his novel Thomas l'Imposteur (Thomas the Imposter, 1923). A friendship he formed during the war with the aviator Roland Garros inspired Cocteau's first acclaimed book of poems, Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (Cape of Good Hope, 1919).

Cocteau openly said he was a homosexual, though he also had relationships with women. In 1918, he formed a close relationship with the fifteen-year-old writer, Raymond Radiguet. When Radiguet died from typhoid in 1923, a traumatized Cocteau took refuge in opium, to which he remained addicted for most of his life.

Cocteau rejected naturalism and saw almost all his work as poetry. In the preface to his play, Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party, produced 1921), a satire on bourgeois values, he announced that he was trying to create a poetry of the theater, where meaning was not in the text but the action of the play. None of the actors speaks; they dance and mime their roles. However, in subsequent plays, Cocteau turned to traditional text-based forms. In Antigone (produced 1922), Cocteau updated Sophocles's tragedy, initiating a lifelong preoccupation with contemporizing Greek myths. Orphée (Orpheus, produced 1926), based on the ancient Greek story of Orpheus, is among Cocteau's most admired works. It explores the role of the poet and his relationship to inspiration.

Cocteau also wrote several adaptations of the Oedipus myth. Oedipus-Rex (Oedipus the King, produced 1927) is an opera-oratorio on which he collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky. The play Oedipe-Roi (produced 1937) combines many performing arts to evoke tragedy. Cocteau's most respected reworking of the Oedipus story is the play La Machine Infernale (The Infernal Machine, produced 1934).

In 1930, Cocteau's first film, Le Sang d'un Poéte (Blood of a Poet) was released. It created another scandal because of its surrealistic strangeness.

After the composition of La Machine Infernale, Cocteau's financial difficulties led him to produce work that was less original and more commercial. Doing so damaged his reputation with critics, but his fame continued to grow. Two plays were especially successful: Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde (The Knights of the Round Table, produced 1937) and Les Parents Terribles (produced 1938; translated as Intimate Relations, 1961, and as Indiscretions, 1995). Both plays starred the actor Jean Marais, who became Cocteau's lover and muse. Page 175  |  Top of Article Published as Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions) (1998), this play is available from Nick Hern Books.

In the 1940s, Cocteau moved away from classical sources toward contemporary issues. His play La Machine à Écrire (The Typewriter, produced 1941) became the second of his plays (Les Parents Terribles being the first) to be shut down by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government. The reason was not the content of the play but the fact that the playwright was a homosexual and a drug addict.

By the late 1940s, Cocteau had shifted his attention to cinema. After La Belle et la Bête (The Beauty and the Beast, 1946), Cocteau produced a film version of Les Parents Terribles (1948). In 1950, he produced arguably his greatest film, Orphée, which won prizes at the 1950 Venice Film Festival and the 1951 Cannes Film Festival.

Cocteau never aligned himself with any artistic movement, though he was influenced by dadaism and surrealism. Both movements set out to shock and bewilder observers and to challenge bourgeois values, including rationality.

Cocteau was elected to the Académie Française in 1956. He died of a heart attack on October 11, 1963, in Milly-la-Foret, Essone, France, after hearing about the death of his friend, the singer Édith Piaf.


Act 1

Indiscretions opens on a scene of panic in Yvonne's chaotic bedroom. Yvonne, a diabetic, looks close to death. Her husband George thinks she has taken an overdose of insulin. Yvonne's sister Leo and George guess that Yvonne has been driven to desperation by the failure of Michael, the son of George and Yvonne, to return home the previous night. Yvonne explains that she forgot to eat or take sugar to balance her insulin dose as she was worried about Michael. Leo gives her sugar dissolved in water, and she recovers.

Yvonne and Leo discuss their family. Leo says that an uncle left his fortune to her because she is the only orderly member of the family among a group of "raggle-taggle gypsies." She is happy to support them all, even George, whose fruitless research on an underwater machine gun she claims to admire.

Leo tells Yvonne that she suspects that Michael spent the night with a woman and suggests that he is glad to escape the mess of Yvonne's "gypsy camp." She adds that George, too, has sought refuge with another woman, and this is hardly surprising, as Yvonne gives all her love and attention to Michael. Yvonne cannot believe that Michael would have an affair because she still thinks of him as a child, but she shows no concern at the news that her husband is straying. Leo recalls that George was originally her fiancé, but she pushed him and Yvonne together as she believed they were better suited. Leo points out that Michael is not a child, despite Yvonne's attempts to keep him dependent upon her, for example, by preventing him from taking a job.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Indiscretions, under its original title Les Parents Terribles, was adapted as a French-language film in 1948. Jean Cocteau wrote the script and directed. The film stars Jean Marais as Michael, Yvonne de Bray as Yvonne, Gabrielle Dorziat as Leo, Marcel André as Georges, and Josette Day as Madeleine.
  • A second French-language television adaptation was released in 2003. This version was directed by Josée Dayan and stars Jeanne Moreau as Leo, Nicole Garcia as Yvonne, François Berléand as Georges, Cyrille Thouvenin as Michael, and Ariadna Gil as Madeleine.
  • As of 2006, the 1948 version (with English subtitles) was available from The 2003 version, in French, was available from

Michael comes home to a grilling from Yvonne and George, who want to know where he has been. Michael decides to tell his mother on her own first, and the two snuggle up on her bed. He says that he has met a girl called Madeleine. She works as a bookbinder and has helped Michael financially. She is involved with an older man but has decided to break off the relationship to be with Michael. Yvonne, furious, accuses the girl of Page 176  |  Top of Article being a scheming older woman who is exploiting Michael. She makes a terrible scene and demands that he break off his romance.

Leo rushes in to calm Yvonne, who hits her. George summons Michael to his room, and they leave. Yvonne tells Leo that her suspicions were right: Michael has fallen in love with a woman, and he no longer loves his mother. Leo rebukes Yvonne for her selfishness. She advises Yvonne to keep control of her feelings. She says that she herself has had to do this, since she has always loved George. Leo has sacrificed her life to stay near George. Again, Yvonne is unconcerned about this revelation about her husband.

George enters, looking shocked. Left alone with Leo, George reveals that he has discovered that Michael's girlfriend, Madeleine, is the same woman with whom he has been having an affair. What is more, he has lied to Madeleine, using a false name and claiming that he is a widower who has lost a daughter who looks like her. Recently, Madeleine had claimed that her strict married sister had come to live with her, so she could no longer see George at her flat. George had borrowed money from Leo to rent a flat so that he could continue to see Madeleine. George realizes that the story about the sister was an excuse not to see him. Madeleine had arranged to meet George that evening; he realizes that this was to break with him so that she could pursue her relationship with Michael.

George feels hurt. Leo, feeling sorry for him, suggests that they all go to visit Madeleine, as Michael wishes. There, George must take revenge on her by threatening Madeleine that if she refuses to break it off with Michael, he will reveal all about her affair with him (George). George agrees that he will arrange to see Madeleine in private at the beginning of the visit and issue his threat. George and Leo rejoin Yvonne, who reluctantly agrees to accompany them to Madeleine's. Michael, unaware of Leo and George's plan, is delighted that they will meet his girlfriend.

Act 2

Act 2 opens in Madeleine's tidy flat. Madeleine is nervous about meeting Michael's family. Michael reassures her but wishes that she had first managed to break off her relationship with the older man (actually George). She says that she was about to, but the man called and postponed the meeting. She admits that she still loves this man, but not as she loves Michael.

Leo arrives at Madeleine's flat and admires its tidiness. She has come in advance of George and Yvonne to warn Madeleine and Michael that George wants to see Madeleine on her own first. Yvonne and George arrive. Madeleine is shocked to recognize George as her older lover, but says nothing. George asks Yvonne, Leo, and Michael to leave so that he can speak to Madeleine alone.

Left alone with Madeleine, George reflects bitterly that this coincidence is like something out of the books that Madeleine binds, except that the books are mostly tragedies, and this is a comedy. He accuses Madeleine of lying to him, but she replies that he also lied to her about his situation, claiming he was a widower. She says that she lied to protect him, because she cares about his feelings. She adds that she only realized what real love was when she met Michael. She expects George to stand aside for the sake of Michael's happiness, but George says he has no intention of doing so. George orders her to break off her relationship with Michael, using a made-up story of a third man (not George) with whom she is having an affair. If she refuses, George will tell Michael about Madeleine's affair with George. Madeleine is shocked that George would try to stand in the way of her and Michael. She believes that Yvonne and George have only taught Michael how to be idle; she means to change him and put him to work. George claims that he only has his son's future happiness at heart. Madeleine cannot bear the thought of Michael knowing the truth about her and George, so she reluctantly agrees to do as George wants.

George tells Yvonne, Leo, and Michael that Madeleine has confessed that she is involved with another man and cannot marry Michael. Michael at first does not believe him, but when Madeleine does not deny the story, he tells his mother that she was right about her. Yvonne is relieved that she has her son back in her clutches. Madeleine tells Michael to leave and collapses on the stairs. George leaves.

Leo sends Michael home with Yvonne and stays to look after Madeleine. Leo tells Madeleine that she has guessed that the third man is an invention and that George forced her to lie. Leo admits that before she met Madeleine, she had little confidence in George or Michael's choice in women. But now that she has met her, she likes her. She suggests that she and Madeleine join forces to fight Yvonne and George. Madeleine is not confident, but she agrees to try. Leo tells her to come to visit them at five o'clock the next day, when she will clean up the "mess" that George has made.

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Act 3

At Yvonne and George's house, George and Leo discuss Michael and Yvonne's responses to the catastrophe. Michael is distraught and Yvonne is triumphant, as she thinks she has won Michael back. George has told Yvonne about his affair with Madeleine, but she was not interested, caring only about any effects on Michael if he should find out. Leo tells George that what he did to Madeleine was unforgivable. George reminds Leo that it was her plot, and he merely did what she told him. Leo orders him never to repeat that to anyone. She adds that she was wrong about Madeleine and wrong to do what she did, but now she is going to put everything right. George is unwilling, but Leo tells him that he must make a sacrifice, as she did. She tells him that she has always loved him, but sacrificed herself to ensure his happiness. She now knows that it was the wrong decision. George warns Leo that Yvonne will never agree to Leo's new plan to reconcile the lovers, now that she has Michael back.

Leo explains her plan to George: they will tell Yvonne and Michael that Madeleine did not feel worthy of him and that she invented the third man to set Michael free. She says that their family is "a wreck" but that she is determined to salvage something before it is too late. George, ashamed, agrees that she is right.

Yvonne reports that Michael is in such despair that she is almost ready to give Madeleine to him, but she cannot do this because the girl is morally loose. George tells Yvonne that Madeleine is innocent and that the third man does not exist. He confesses that he forced Madeleine to lie and that he was motivated by revenge. Yvonne rebukes George for endangering Michael. George says that they have all nearly killed Michael and Madeleine out of selfishness, but it is not too late to save them. Yvonne cannot bear the thought of allowing the marriage to go ahead, saying that Madeleine is not in their class. George reminds Yvonne that there is nothing admirable about their family, whereas Madeleine offers Michael "real possibilities and fresh air and open space." Yvonne is unwilling to agree to Leo and George's plan. Leo and George tell her that Madeleine is coming to visit soon and that she, Yvonne, must tell Michael the truth. Yvonne is plunged into fear and confusion.

Michael enters, apologizes to Yvonne for sending her away, and tells George that he plans to accept the job he offered him in Morocco. Yvonne, faced with the terrible prospect of losing Michael, is now eager to tell him to truth so that he has no reason to leave Europe and her. George announces that Madeleine is innocent and that she invented the story of the third man to set Michael free because she thought she was not worthy of their class. Michael says they must find Madeleine, and Leo reveals that she has been concealing the girl in her room. Michael faints.

Madeleine enters and is joyfully reconciled with Michael, who has recovered from his faint. George and Leo notice that Yvonne has vanished. Yvonne shouts from the bathroom that she is just doing her insulin injections. She stumbles in and collapses on the bed. As Michael is about to take Madeleine to see his room, Yvonne calls out in terror. Leo says that she has poisoned herself. Yvonne explains that she had seen Michael and Madeleine, and George and Leo, all together. She felt she was an encumbrance and wanted to die. But now, she regrets her action. She wants to live and see Michael happy. She even feels that she will grow to love Madeleine. Madeleine tries to leave, but Leo says that Michael will need her, just as George will need her (Leo). Yvonne overhears Leo and curses them all, saying that she will poison them just as she poisoned herself.

As Yvonne is dying, she threatens to tell Michael that George was Madeleine's lover. George tries to silence her by kissing her on the lips, and Leo ushers Michael and Madeleine out on the pretense that she needs them to telephone the doctor again. Yvonne veers between wanting revenge by telling Madeleine the whole truth and wanting to live and see the couple happy. Then she dies. When George tells Michael to pay attention to his mother, Michael stamps his foot like a child and denies that she is his mother; she is, he says, his best friend. Madeleine, horrified, exclaims that Michael is mad. Michael breaks down by the bed, and Madeleine comforts him. The doorbell rings. It is the cleaner. Leo tells her that there is nothing for her to do, as everything is in order.



George is the patriarch of the family, the husband of Yvonne, and the father of Michael. He is an ineffectual and immature man—Leo calls him "an overgrown schoolboy"—who reads comics and spends much of his time in his study working on a useless invention, an underwater machine gun. Ignored by his wife, he is, figuratively speaking, the archetypal Page 178  |  Top of Article castrated male. Perhaps in an attempt to rediscover a sense of manhood, George has an affair with Madeleine before she becomes involved with Michael. His tragedy is that he loses both of the women in his life, Yvonne and Madeleine, to Michael. George's tendency toward petty-mindedness is shown in his readiness to break up his son's relationship with Madeleine by forcing her to invent an imaginary lover. He does this out of a desire for revenge against Madeleine and jealousy of Michael. However, under pressure from his sister-in-law Leo, he redeems himself by admitting that he did wrong and declaring Madeleine innocent, thereby enabling the young lovers to be together. These actions make clear that he has an element of honesty and generosity that Yvonne lacks.


Leo is Yvonne's cool and calculating sister, who lives with her and George. She was previously George's fiancée before she pushed him and Yvonne together, as she thought her feelings for him were too cerebral to make him happy. She is, however, still in love with him. Leo is sensible, practical, and devoted to order. She was left the family fortune by a rich uncle and uses it to support George's family. She spends much of her time cleaning up after the messy Yvonne, George, and Michael, and rescuing Yvonne from various crises. Leo's motivation is not at first pure, in that she is driven by her illicit love for George. To make his life easier, she concocts a plan, which George carries out under her orders, to destroy the romance between Michael and Madeleine. However, when she meets Madeleine, she recognizes a kindred spirit of orderliness and realizes that the love between Madeleine and Michael must be supported. She admits that she was wrong to try to divide them and goes on to put right all the wrongs that have been done to the young couple by George (albeit under her direction) and Yvonne. In this respect, she becomes the family's figurative as well as literal cleaner. Her actions show that there is one thing that is more important to her than her love for George, and that is love itself.

Throughout the play, Leo acts as a foil to the other characters, in that she is the sane, grown-up one with whom the audience can identify. She is a wise and sardonic commentator on the actions and motivations of the other characters.


Madeleine is a beautiful young woman with whom Michael falls in love. She is three years older than Michael and is much more practical than he is, earning her own living as a bookbinder and living in her own very tidy flat. Unknown to Michael, she is also his father's mistress. Madeleine hates disorder and lies, and she contrasts with Michael's chaotic family. In the spirit of honesty, she tells Michael the truth about her older lover from the start, but he does not recognize his father in her description because George has lied to Madeleine about his name and situation. It is Madeleine's tragedy that though she has a pure motivation, she is forced to lie by George, who makes her invent a third lover in order to break off her relationship with Michael. Madeleine is saved by Leo, who, out of respect for her orderliness, becomes her ally. Through Leo's intervention, Madeleine is in the end joyfully reconciled with Michael. Signs that their future is bright include Madeleine's remark to George that she intends to put Michael to work, which meshes well with Michael's determination to break away from his mother and take up a job, even at a point when he thinks he has lost Madeleine.


Michael is the twenty-two-year-old son George and Yvonne. He is dominated by his mother and suffocated by her all-consuming passion for him. Yvonne treats him as a child whom she can mold to her will, but at the same time, as her lover. She has never let him get a job because she wants to keep him dependent on her, and this has made him impractical, idle, and immature. Madeleine refers to him as "a child." Nevertheless, Michael is relatively untainted by his mother's dark obsession. He is an innocent character whose motivation is pure: he wants to break away from his mother and marry Madeleine, whom he loves, and he pursues this goal honestly. He welcomes Madeleine's ethos of orderliness and hard work, which suggests that he will cast aside his mother's influence and become an adult.


Yvonne is the darkest character in the play and the center of its disorder and uncleanness, both on the physical and psychological levels. She is primarily responsible for the "gypsy camp" quality of the family's existence. She is as emotionally dependent upon her savage and all-consuming passion for her son as she is physically dependent on her insulin (she is a diabetic). She lives in a darkened, gloomy, messy atmosphere, seldom rising from her bed. She ignores her husband and is unconcerned about Leo's revelations that he is having an affair and that Leo is in love with him: all she cares about is Michael.

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Yvonne opposes the romance between Michael and Madeleine from the start because it threatens her ownership of him. Selfishly, she threatens suicide and verbally attacks Madeleine, whom she views as a rival. She is the most dishonest of all the characters, never intentionally admitting her true motives. This is shown in the absurd reasons she gives for disapproving of Madeleine as a match for Michael: throughout the play, she claims that Madeleine is a scheming old woman, but after she meets her, she changes her story, saying "she's too young … compared to me." Unwittingly, she has revealed her true conviction: that only she can be the lover of her son.

Yvonne's inability to face the truth about herself makes her irredeemable, in that the only way that the right order can be restored and the young couple marry is for Yvonne to die. Her near-suicide at the beginning of the play foreshadows her actual suicide at the end. What would be a tragic event in one of the ancient Greek plays to which Cocteau was referring in his borrowing of the Oedipus story, however, is undermined by absurd farce. Yvonne keeps changing her mind about whether she wants to die or live to see the young couple be happy, and Leo and George frantically try to silence her in any way they can as she tries to tell Michael that Madeleine was George's mistress. It seems emblematic of Yvonne's disorderly nature that her death is the final mess that her long-suffering family is forced to clean up.


Perverted Love

Indiscretions explores the chaos and confusion of destructive family relationships in 1930s Paris. In his introduction to Jeremy Sams's translation of the play, Simon Callow quotes Cocteau as writing in the program of the original production: "Here … is the Rolls-Royce of families, uncomfortable and ruinous." In the play, Leo comments:

this family is a wreck, a hopeless, hypocritical, middleclass mess, hanging on desperately to its false values as it rolls inexorably to its inevitable doom, like some dreadful juggernaut, crushing everything in its path—hopes, dreams, possibilities, everything."

The relationship between Yvonne and Michael is based on a lie, a refusal to see the reality of the situation, as the two do not acknowledge each other as mother and son. Michael hardly ever calls Yvonne mother, but uses a pet name, Sophie. Yvonne, for her part, does not treat Michael as a son, but as a lover. She has ejected her husband George from his rightful role and is unconcerned about revelations of his infidelity except insofar as it could affect Michael. The sexual element of the relationship between Yvonne and Michael is never made explicit. It cannot be said with certainty that physical incest occurs, though it is suggested: she cuddles up with Michael on her bed and touches up her makeup when she hears him coming home. The abuse that Yvonne perpetrates on Michael is emotional. She creates a terrible scene when Michael tells her of his love for Madeleine and sets herself up as a rival to Madeleine, implying that Michael has to choose between them. In a revealing turnabout, Yvonne claims during the first two acts that Madeleine is unsuitable for Michael because she is a scheming old woman, but in act 3, scene 2, as honesty begins to permeate the family, she changes her story to "she's too young … compared to me." In fact, Madeleine is just three years older than Michael, whereas Yvonne is over twice his age. In Yvonne's unnatural, ingrown world, only the mother is a fit lover for the son.

The diseased nature of this relationship infects others in the family. The sidelined husband George has an affair, which happens to be with Madeleine, which in turn makes George and Michael into rivals and leads to a determination on George's part to end Michael's romance with Madeleine. Michael is less tainted by this unhealthy love than Yvonne. He is protected by his natural innocence, which prompts him to want to break away from his mother to live with the orderly, honest, and psychologically healthy Madeleine. In all of these twists on family relationships and sexuality, Cocteau explores the oedipal connections between parent and child and how these are threatened as the adult child turns outward to the world to find an appropriate sexual partner.

Order and Disorder

Throughout the play, the external disorder and order associated with the characters reflects their psychological state and their effect on other people. Yvonne is the center and source of disorderliness, living in a darkened room amid piles of dirty linen and other mess. Leo, in contrast, is "obsessive about order" and is constantly cleaning up the mess made by Yvonne, of both the literal and figurative sorts. Madeleine is also a force for order, as is obvious from her tidy flat. Michael, though superficially tainted by Yvonne's disorderly ways, has a fundamental "cleanness," to which Madeleine is attracted. She means to clean him up even further by Page 180  |  Top of Article encouraging him to work and make something of himself. George stands between disorder and order, in that he becomes drawn into Yvonne's disorder when she is determined to split up the young lovers, but finally he is persuaded by Leo to become her ally in the restoration of order and the union of the lovers.

Purity of Motive

In her book French Drama of the Inter-War Years, Dorothy Knowles quotes Cocteau's comments on Indiscretions: "Two of the roles create the balance of the order and of the disorder which motivate the play. The young man whose disorder is pure, and his aunt whose order is not pure." Cocteau means that though superficially Michael has acquired some of his mother's disorderly living habits, he is at his center innocent. His motive, to marry Madeleine, remains clear, and he is honest about it.

In contrast, while Leo is the personification of order, her motivation is not pure because she has long been secretly in love with George. Her plot to separate the lovers stems from a hidden desire to make George's life easier and her lack of faith that George or Michael would make a good partner. While she redeems herself in her rapid realization that Michael's union with Madeleine must go forward, the question of whether Leo could have prevented Yvonne's suicide remains unanswered. An even darker question is hidden beneath Leo's calm exterior: is her determination to reconcile the lovers at all motivated by the knowledge that doing so will destroy Yvonne, enabling Leo to unite with George? When George asks Leo whether she loves Yvonne, she only replies, "Don't dig too deep in anyone's heart." She warns Madeleine, too: "Don't try and understand me. Don't look too deep; God alone knows what lurks in the rag and bone shop of the heart." It is clear that Leo believes that her motivations are not fit to be examined. Nevertheless, she is instrumental in restoring the right order of things, thus becoming a positive force that transcends the twists and turns of her personal motivation.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Choose an ancient story, myth, or legend from any culture and create a short story, mini-play, poem, film, or dance that updates it to the present time. Whichever art form or mixture of art forms you choose, this assignment should culminate in your reciting aloud or performing your work in front of a group. Make some written notes for your audience about which aspects of your source story were easy to carry over into the modern age, which were more difficult, and why.
  • Create an original work of art for performance that uses two or more different art forms. Possible forms include poetry, narrative, drama, painting, costume design, dance, film, and mime.
  • Research the work of an artist or writer who lived and worked in Paris at any time between 1900 and 1945. Trace the development of his or her work during a time period of your choice, identifying any influences from certain artistic movements or other artists or intellectuals.
  • Write a short story, poem, or play about a destructive relationship.
  • Research an aspect of incest and write a report on your findings.
  • Watch one of Cocteau's films and write a review of it. Give reasons for your responses, whether positive or negative, or a mixture of both.



Indiscretions is rich in symbols that serve to draw attention to the family dynamics. Images of outward disorder at Yvonne's house, such as the blocked bath and piles of dirty linen, symbolize her emotional stagnation and chaos, as well as the disordered and Page 181  |  Top of Article unnatural relationships that she generates. Leo calls the house "a gypsy camp," a metaphor that to Cocteau's audience would suggest messiness and a lack of responsibility, as well as pointing to the tendency of this family to live outside the general social norms. Leo cleans up Yvonne and George's mess, both literally and figuratively (when she reconciles the lovers he has separated). Madeleine's tidy and well-functioning apartment, in contrast, shows her healthy and honest approach to life.

Cocteau uses sound, too. Stage directions indicate doors are slammed, symbolizing the indirect and nonverbal expression of anger within this family. The effect on the audience may be jarring, just as the interactions between the family members are emotionally jarring.

Darkness and light are used symbolically to indicate the degree of psychological health or sickness of the characters and the degree of truth that they can tolerate. Yvonne lives in a claustrophobic atmosphere of darkness, suggesting a womb-like or sinister state in which she tries to envelop Michael. The fact that George seeks a lighter and healthier atmosphere is symbolized by his attempt to turn on the lights in act 1, scene 3, though he is prevented by Yvonne, who says, "I like the darkness." This shows that Yvonne has no interest in changing or in facing the truth. It is no surprise that George flees to the "real possibilities and fresh air and open space" offered by Madeleine. When Madeleine is about to arrive at Yvonne's house, a stage direction mentions that it is getting lighter, a reference to Madeleine's positive influence on the family. After George's lies about Madeleine having another lover take hold of Michael, he lies face down in the dark, symbolizing that he is (temporarily at least) back in Yvonne's grasp. When he finally emerges from his room, it is no accident that he has decided to take a job in the sunny country of Morocco, a sign that he is not prepared to retreat into the darkness of his mother's womb once again but has chosen the light. This is also a sign that he truly deserves Madeleine, a creature of the light.

The underwater machine gun that George works on alone in his study is an obvious and comic phallic symbol. The fact that it is a useless invention that will never leave the drawing board symbolizes his castration by his wife, whose object of passion is her son not her husband.

Yvonne's diabetic dependency upon insulin, and her inability to manage even this vital aspect of her life efficiently, is a symbolic reference to her dependency upon Michael and the emotional disorder that this causes. Her relationship with Michael is as much an illness as her diabetes.

Boulevard Theater

In the program of the original production of the play, as Simon Callow quotes in his introduction to Jeremy Sams's translation of Indiscretions, Cocteau wrote, "with this play, I'm resuming the tradition of boulevard theatre." The boulevard theater movement sprang from the popular plays that were performed in the theaters of the Boulevard du Temple, a street in Paris, from the last half of the eighteenth century. The boulevard theater became known for crime stories and melodramas, as well as farces and comedies based on the conventions of infidelities and mistaken identity, and the location of these theaters provided the name to an entire subgenre of drama. Cocteau consciously used boulevard traditions in Indiscretions. The melodrama is seen in Yvonne's excessive responses to Michael and her suicide. The boulevard comedic conventions are exactly reflected in Cocteau's plot. George's discovery that his mistress is also his son's fiancée is the obvious example. George himself comments to Leo, "My God, you could put it in the silliest Boulevard farce and it would be dismissed as being a little far-fetched." But where Cocteau's play differs from conventional farce is that George's discovery is marked as much by pathos and tragedy as by humor. George says, "It'll break my heart." Similarly, Cocteau subverts the expected tragedy of Yvonne's suicide with the farcical element of having George and Leo use desperate tricks to try to stop the dying Yvonne from revealing the truth about George and Madeleine to Michael.

Cocteau's major innovation in this play was to combine a boulevard dramatic style with the tragic inevitability of the ancient Greek Oedipus story. The combination enables him to draw attention to the tragedy within the absurd and the absurd within tragedy.


In this play, Cocteau makes use of a dramatic technique known as Verfremdungseffekt (translated as distancing effect or alienation effect). The technique formed an important part of epic theater, a theory about theater that was pioneered by the influential German playwright and poet Bertold Brecht (1898-1956). Brecht was a communist. He believed that a play should not cause spectators to identify with the characters and action on stage or to undergo an emotional catharsis (purging). Instead, a play should encourage spectators to retain Page 182  |  Top of Article a critical distance that enables them objectively to identify social problems highlighted in the play, reflect on them, and then take action to change the world for the better. He tried to achieve this aim through various methods, including having the actors hold up explanatory signs to the audience or address the audience directly. The effect was to remind the audience that the play is a construct and can be changed, just as society can be changed.

One Brechtian distancing method taken up by Cocteau in Indiscretions is a reminder to spectators that they are watching a play. In act 2, scene 3, after Leo has recited a melodramatic passage from one of Madeleine's books in order to test whether people upstairs can hear people downstairs, Michael tells Leo that she could have been an actress. The audience will pick up on the irony that the woman playing Leo is indeed an actress. There is an additional, deeper message that Leo is lying about her reasons for checking the sound-proofing in the flat: she does not want George's attempts to persuade Madeleine to lie to be overheard. Thus, the character Leo is also an actress. While Cocteau is not primarily trying, in the political sense, to encourage the audience to criticize social ills, the effect of the distancing technique in this case is to encourage the audience to stand apart from Leo and to remember that at this point, her motivation is not pure. Like an actress in a play, she is trying to create an effect. In this way, Cocteau deconstructs the illusion of reality which the stage presents.

Dramatic Irony

Cocteau uses irony to draw attention to the gap between normal family relationships and the twisted relationships in this play. For example, In act 2, scene 1, Madeleine tells Michael about her older lover: "I was as fond of George as I would be of your father, as I will be of your father when I meet him." Neither she nor Michael knows that her lover, in fact, is Michael's father, but the audience knows. This technique, where the audience knows something of which the character is unaware and which would transform his or her attitude if he or she did know, is known as dramatic irony. There is another example of dramatic irony in the same scene. Michael tells Madeleine about his mother, "Sophie's told me so often that she's my best friend, I could hardly hide anything from her, could I?" Michael's innocence is both amusing and touching, as the audience is aware that Yvonne is acting as his bitterest enemy. Dramatic irony permeates Sophocles's play, Oedipus Rex, and the technique here is a fitting parallel.


The Parisian Artistic Community between the World Wars

In the period from 1918 to 1939, between World War I and World War II, Paris was famous for its cultural and artistic communities. The city became a vibrant meeting place for artists from other European countries and the United States, including exiled Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, Spanish painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, and various writers, such as the Irish James Joyce and the Americans Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cocteau was at the center of this group of artists and formed many fruitful collaborations. For example, with Picasso, the Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev, and the French composer Erik Satie, Cocteau produced the revolutionary new ballet Parade (1917).

Many aspects of this artistic community were characterized as bohemian, a term derived from the French word for gypsy. The term comes from the association of gypsies with Bohemia, which during these years was the westernmost province of Czechoslovakia, later redrawn as the Czech Republic. From the mid-nineteenth century, the term was used for certain artists, intellectuals, and writers who rejected social conventions and chose non-traditional lifestyles. Bohemian communities formed in places where people could live cheaply, such as the Montmartre in Paris. This village within the city of Paris is on its highest hill and was a gathering place for painters and other artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Bohemians gained a reputation for unorthodox marital relations, lack of cleanliness, and a tendency toward drug use, as well as literary and artistic creativity and innovation. The term carries a suggestion of privileged knowledge or extraordinary artistic ability.

In Indiscretions, Cocteau satirizes pretensions to bohemianism in the character of Yvonne and her family. Yvonne, as Leo points out in act 1, scene 2, has all the less admirable aspects of bohemianism— the messiness and confused family relationships— yet none of the artistic distinction. Leo calls the family "The middle class gypsies. 'Cos, let's face it, we're not artists, we're not bohemians, not remotely." She points out that at the first sign of independence on Michael's part, the bohemian façade Page 183  |  Top of Article falls away, exposing Yvonne's narrow bourgeois (property-owning middle-class) values and petty snobbery.

The Oedipus Story and the Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex is a theory developed by the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud believed that young boys go through a developmental stage in which they unconsciously wish for the exclusive love of their mother. Since they see their father as a rival for their mother's love, they feel jealous of him and unconsciously wish for his death. Freud named this pattern of behavior the Oedipus complex after the ancient Greek story of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.

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  • 1930s: Paris is the hub of a vibrant artistic and intellectual community, many members of which are expatriates from other countries, including the United States and Russia. Cocteau is at the center of this community, interacting with writers, painters, composers, and ballet choreographers, with whom he sometimes collaborates.

    Today: Increased global mobility and technologies, such as the Internet and television, enable artists from many different cultures to interact and exchange ideas without gathering necessarily in one location.

  • 1930s: Performed in the original French, Les Parents Terribles shocks Paris audiences with its portrayal of an incestuous family relationship and is banned, in part because it is perceived as immoral.

    Today: While artistic works dealing with previously taboo subjects such as incest and child abuse are relatively common and widely accepted, some works of art continue to be censored. Reasons given are more often a fear of giving offense to certain religious or ethnic groups than immorality. Works that are thought to encourage pedophilia because of the way they present children are still vulnerable to censorship.

  • 1930s: Sexual and covert or non-sexual incest are taboo. On the rare occasions when victims speak out, they are frequently ignored or vilified; often they are not believed. Incest is not considered acceptable subject matter for artists and writers, though this taboo is broken within the safer genre of pagan myth, by the German composer Richard Wagner in his opera The Ring Cycle. In most industrialized countries, incest is forbidden by law, though a surprising number of incest laws only cover sexual penetration of a minor. Covert incest is impossible to restrict by legislation.

    Today: Incest is taboo, though it does form the subject matter of various works of art. Twentieth-century novels which feature incest include Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) and J. R. R. Tolkein's Silmarillion (1977). Many support groups exist to help victims and perpetrators of incest, though they frequently have to overcome the wall of silence that surrounds the practice.

  • 1930s: Freud popularizes his concept of the Oedipus complex, claiming that it is universal and applies to girls (in whom it is called the Electra complex) as well as boys.

    Today: Many modern psychologists question the universal application of the Oedipus complex. Some contend that the sex drive is not as important a factor in childhood development as Freud believed.

The Oedipus story held a great fascination for Cocteau, who revisited it in various works. The story gave him the opportunity to explore one of his favorite themes, the devouring female who suffocates a man with her love and impedes his maturation or artistic development. Another attraction of the story for Cocteau is that it portrays man as fate's plaything, helpless in the face of destiny and doomed to suffering. This sense of tragic inevitability Page 184  |  Top of Article is never far from the surface in Cocteau's works. In Indiscretions, Yvonne's fate is marked out from the play's first scene—featuring her failed suicide attempt.

Decadence and the Rise of Communism

The French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, or PCF) was founded in 1920 and attracted many intellectuals and artists in the 1920s and 1930s. The growth of communism and socialism in Europe drew strength from the Wall Street stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent economic depression. It was thought that economic liberalism had failed, and alternatives were sought.

It should be noted that Cocteau was not a communist. He believed that poets, among whom he numbered himself, existed in a realm apart from politics, and he criticized other artists, including André Breton, the leader of the surrealist movement, for allying themselves with communism. However, the growing disapproval of the bourgeois class, which was perceived as self-absorbed and non-productive, was part of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, and was picked up by political and artistic thinkers alike. This was partly an effect of World War I (1914-1918), in which whole sections of society who had never done manual labor were mobilized into the workforce, laborers were seen as heroes who helped win the war, and the value to society of inherited wealth and nobility was increasingly questioned. In Indiscretions, Cocteau satirizes pretensions to nobility in Yvonne's hypocritical contempt of Madeleine for not having a maid, when Yvonne herself does not have one, and in her references to the supposed inferiority of Madeleine's family, when Yvonne's only claim to family distinction is a grandfather who counted the semi-colons in the work of a great writer.

The disorder, idleness, and chaos that characterize Yvonne's family would have been seen by the many communists among Cocteau's artistic Parisian contemporaries as symptoms of the decline into decadence of the bourgeoisie. In his review of Indiscretions for the New York Times, Vincent Canby notes that "the play is … a spookily revealing artifact from a society grown soft and corrupt." He points out that when the play was written, the Nazis were occupying France, and "Frenchmen willingly assisted the Germans in rounding up other Frenchmen and sending them off to the camps." The character of Madeleine represents the capacity for honest hard work that was viewed as the mainstay of a well-functioning society by the communist and socialist movements.


Indiscretions, under its original title Les Parents Terribles, was first produced in 1938 at the Théatre des Ambassadeurs, which was owned by the Municipal Council of Paris. Though the play was popular with the public, it was accused of immorality due to its portrayal of an incestuous family relationship and was banned by the Municipal Council from the city-owned theater. It reopened the following year at the Théatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, where it continued to play to packed houses. By the time the play was revived in 1941, the Nazis had occupied Paris, and France's Vichy government was collaborating with them. Attacks on the play's supposed immorality escalated, and members of France's fascist party, the Parti Populaire Francais, threw tear gas at the actors. The Germans closed the play.

Critic Raymond Bach, in his "Cocteau and Vichy: Family Disconnections" (1993), argues that the play's portrayal of disorderly and diseased family relationships threatened the model of the ideal family propagandized by the Vichy government. In particular, the play was at odds with the public image of the head of state, Marshal Pétain, who was portrayed as a hero and father of the nation.

Critics tend to be divided on Cocteau's work in general, and their views on Indiscretions are no exception, despite its popularity with the theater-going public. Some critics have attacked the rhetoric and melodrama of the piece, and the caricatured quality of the characters, while others object to its reliance on what they consider to be a discredited theory, Freud's Oedipus complex. Supporters of the work point to the innovative concept of updating an ancient Greek tragedy to shock and surprise modern audiences. The perceptiveness with which the dynamics of the "terrible parents" are drawn, the tightness of construction, and the ebullient wit and humor of the play have also been praised.

Jeremy Sams's translation of the play was first performed at London's National Theater in 1994. The production, directed by Sean Mathias, was so successful that it was moved to the Barrymore Theater on Broadway the following year. The role of Michael made an overnight star of the actor Jude Law, who made headlines with his leisurely nude

Les Parents Terrible (Indiscretions) Gabrielle Dorziat and Jean Marais in a 1948 production of Les Parents Terrible (Indiscretions) Sirius/The Kobal Collection

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entrance. The production ended in a spectacular effect whereby the entire set fell into rubble, reflecting the collapse of the family under the onslaught of truth. The production was enthusiastically received and earned Tony nominations for the director, designer, and most of the actors.

Eileen Blumenthal, reviewing the production for American Theater, notes the juxtaposition of tragedy and farce in the play, though she sells Cocteau short when she writes, "The triumph of Sean Mathias's direction is that he realizes—even more, it would seem, than Cocteau himself did— how fundamentally this tragedy is a farce." Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby calls the play Cocteau's "remarkable, brilliantly bent boulevard comedy," and a "lethal if often hilarious farce about the darkest neuroses of familiar comic characters." He also hails Mathias's production's "breathtaking panache." Referring to the fact that Cocteau wrote the play in just eight opium-fuelled days, Canby notes that it has "the eerie seamlessness, the tight construction and the density of a work composed in one spontaneous rush of the imagination."

Page 186  |  Top of Article

Mathias's production, according to Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle, "played for over-the-top outrageousness," which, however, "tended to mute some of the play's darker themes." In her 2001 production at the Marin Theater in Mill Valley, California, director Amy Glazer downplayed the more farcical elements in favor of clarity. This, Hurwitt remarks, highlighted the shallowness of the characters and produced a plodding effect in places. He comments that "Glazer's version could use more of the same febrile energy" as the production done by Mathias. On the other hand, Glazer's production succeeded in retaining the play's "fever of sharp spikes of comedy and tragedy" and "delivers a darker, more disturbing impact in the end" than Mathias's production.


Claire Robinson

Robinson has a Master of Arts in English. She is a writer and editor and a former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Robinson examines the journey from disorder to order in Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions.

Indiscretions explores the chaos engendered in a bourgeois family by a mother's obsessive love for her son. The mother, Yvonne, is determined to keep her son, Michael, for herself and so seeks to destroy his burgeoning romance with the young Madeleine. The destructive nature of the love that Yvonne feels for her son is summed up by her husband George when he says, "She'd rather hold his corpse than see her son in someone else's arms." This is a love that is more allied with death than with life.

Yvonne's internal disorder is reflected in the external disorder she creates, both on the literal and emotional levels. As far as the literal level is concerned, she lives in a darkened room amid piles of dirty linen, lounging on her messy bed and creating dramas of various kinds. On the emotional level, Yvonne manufactures life-or-death crises out of what should be the everyday business of life. She is diabetic and depends upon timely doses of insulin and sugar for survival but cannot manage even this vital aspect of her life. The play opens with her narrow escape from death after forgetting to take sugar to balance her insulin; this fit of distraction stems from Michael's failure to come home the previous night. Yvonne repeatedly has to be rescued from her manufactured crises, and in a normal family, this task would fall to her husband, George. But Yvonne has shut George out of her life; she lavishes all her passion and attention on her son. George is emotionally and physically absent, sequestered in his study. Therefore, Yvonne is rescued, time and again, by her sensible sister Leo.

From the point of view of dramatic convention, too, Yvonne is the enemy of order. The natural order of comedies, which Indiscretions follows, demands that the young fertile couple marry and have children. The role of older people is to support them in this process, not to oppose them. But Yvonne disrupts this natural order. She tries to prevent the marriage between Michael and Madeleine. What is more, her neglect of George drives him to seek affection from a mistress, who happens to be Madeleine, a woman who is young enough to be his daughter and who intends to marry George's son. George, his feelings hurt by Madeleine's desertion, joins his wife in opposing the marriage. In the context of drama, these confused relationships are perversions of the natural order and must be put right before order can be restored. All of them have their origin in Yvonne's diseased and disorderly passion. When George tells Yvonne that it is the natural order of things that children grow up and take the place of older people like them, Yvonne replies, "I wouldn't know—order's not my forte."

The great force of order in the play is Leo. Her character is diametrically opposite to Yvonne's. She is "obsessive about order" and spends much of her life cleaning up Yvonne's mess on both external and internal levels. It is Leo who rescues Yvonne from her initial overdose of insulin, and Leo who, from the start, tries to persuade Yvonne not to oppose the marriage of Michael and Madeleine. Her passion for order is only overshadowed, temporarily, by her long-hidden love for George. When George discovers that his son's girlfriend is also his own mistress, he feels hurt and vengeful and wants to separate the young lovers. Faced with the prospect of losing both of the women in his life to his son, George begins to express something of his wife's destructive and suffocatingly possessive passions. Leo too is drawn into George's desire for vengeance, for a brief moment, because she feels sorry for him. But once she meets Madeleine, she is struck by the tidiness and order of her flat and her life and recognizes a kindred spirit of order. (In this play, the stage sets elucidate character and tell a story.) Leo's loyalty to order proves stronger than her loyalty to George. She forms a new alliance with Madeleine— "let's call it order versus disorder"—and hatches Page 187  |  Top of Article another plot to reconcile the lovers. Leo draws attention to the symbolic link between external and internal disorder when she insists that she is helping Madeleine primarily because "the mess made here today, by George, offends me. A horrid heap of dirty linen."

Madeleine's role as a force for order is underlined by the symbolism of the audience's first sight of her. Michael has a bath at her flat as the bath at his home is blocked up—a symbolic reference to the unhealthy stagnating emotions generated by Yvonne's influence. Madeleine's bath, naturally, is never blocked. Furthermore, her cleansing influence will save Michael from following his mother into decadence and regression. When she tells Michael that she loves his cleanness and that he is not really dirty but "grubby, like kids are grubby," symbolically, she is saying that he has picked up his mother's disorderly ways but that he is pure and innocent at heart and, therefore, redeemable.

The theme of order and disorder is reflected in the carefully planned structure of the play. In her book The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau, Lydia Crowson points out that the play is constructed on three triangular relationships. While in the visual arts, triangular forms may create harmony, they generally do the opposite in human relationships, as Indiscretions graphically proves. The first triangle consists of George, his wife Yvonne, and Leo, who has always loved George. This triangle generates the action of the play, since Yvonne has separated herself from George, enabling George and Leo to become allies. Leo's devotion to George makes her plot with him to separate Madeleine from Michael, but subsequently she changes her allegiance to the young lovers, whom she unites. The second triangle is the tragic Oedipal one of George, Yvonne, and their son, Michael. Yvonne's suffocating love for Michael excludes everyone else, even her husband. The third triangle, involving George, Michael, and Madeleine, builds on the other two and precipitates a crisis in the family. George takes a mistress, Madeleine, who, unknown to him, is also his son's girlfriend. This triangle involves the sexual mix-ups typical of farce. It also has Oedipal echoes, because George is soon to be the father-in-law of his mistress, Madeleine, and also, though Michael does not marry his mother, he marries someone who occupies his mother's place in his father's life.

For order to be restored, these unruly triangles must be destroyed and a rightful order of couples established—a young couple and an older couple. This is in line with the comedic tradition in which older people must stand aside and allow a young couple in love to marry.

Adults behaving like children is part of the theme of disorder that runs through the play. It is against the natural order of things and, in Leo's terminology, a mess that has to be cleaned up. As may be expected, it is another perversion of the natural order in which Yvonne and her family excel. Early in the play, Leo tells Yvonne:

There are two distinct tribes in this world, children, and grown-ups. I, alas, fall into the latter category … you … George … and Michael … you belong to the former. Children who will always be children, and as children do, commit the most appalling crimes, apparently thoughtlessly.

Leo is a grown-up because she does not get involved in the childish antics of the rest of her family. She stands apart, cleaning up their messes and advising them on the right thing to do.

Yvonne is childish in that she is too bound up in her own obsessive world to consider others, leading to irresponsible behavior. Leo tells her, "you do damage without even noticing." George, faced with Yvonne's inability to treat him like a man, behaves like a small boy, playing with useless inventions and reading comic books and science fiction. When he tells Madeleine that he has no intention of allowing her to marry Michael, Madeleine tells him that he is "a child": "Someone's broken your nice toy, so you want to break theirs." Madeleine also recognizes that Michael is a child, but he is partially excused by his youth. Moreover, he is eager to change, and she intends to encourage him to grow up and shake off his immature irresponsibility, just as he washes off his grubbiness in her bath.

Through Leo's intervention in pushing forward the marriage, all but one of the childish characters Page 188  |  Top of Article grow up. Michael is able to take his place beside the already adult Madeleine (though, with an ambivalence typical of Cocteau, in her desire to change Michael, she is also acting like a parent to Michael's child—albeit a far more benign and healthy parent than Yvonne). Only Yvonne, unable to mature, continues her childish selfishness in the ultimate destructive act, suicide. This act, prompted by Leo's plot to enable the reconciliation of the lovers, frees George, or so the audience can speculate, to enter an equal relationship with Leo.

The process of restoring order depends upon the revelation of certain truths. These include Michael's announcement that he is in love with Madeleine; George's discovery that she is also his own mistress; and Michael's discovery, brought to light by Leo, that the story about Madeleine's having another lover is false. George and Leo both change during this process, adapting their attitudes and motivations as they acknowledge the rightful order of things (Michael's union with Madeleine) and the injustice of their obstructing it. But Yvonne is not sufficiently self-aware or mature to adapt to the new climate of truth, so order can only be restored by her death. It is significant that after she dies, the cleaner rings the doorbell but is sent away by Leo: "I told her that there was nothing for her to do … that everything was in order."

Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on Indiscretions, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Eileen Blumenthal

In the following review, Blumenthal identifies the mythical, fantastical and neurotic in the sexual relations in Cocteau's play Indiscretions. She also notes that the play is less about the male adolescent view of the world and more about "a homosexual male vision of heterosexual coming of age."

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  • Cocteau revisited the Oedipus story and the theme of incest in several works. The greatest among these is widely considered to be his play La Machine Infernale, first produced and published in 1934
  • The source for Cocteau's Oedipus works is the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex, written in 428 B.C.E. by the tragedian Sophocles. It is well worth reading for its compelling story, emotional power, and extraordinary influence on writers and thinkers up to the present day. The 2006 Cambridge University Press Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, edited by R. D. Dawes, gives readers lots of support in its excellent introduction and analyses of the play's language.
  • Thomas Mann's novel The Holy Sinner (1951) is a story based on the medieval legend of St. Gregory. It highlights the spiritual consequences of incest and describes redemption through forgiveness.
  • The novel The God of Small Things (1997), by Indian author Arundhati Roy, features a set of twins who have a cathartic sexual experience. The novel shows how the small things in life build into bigger things that govern the fate of individuals.
  • Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners—Understanding Covert Incest (1991), by clinical psychologist Kenneth Adams, explores the problem of covert parent-child emotional incest, as opposed to overt sexual incest. Adams argues that covert incest, while seldom identified, is deeply harmful to children, as it denies them proper parenting, betrays their innocence, and places unfair demands on them to deal with their parents' needs.

"Unbelievable!" the characters in Les Parents Terribles pronounce at each preposterous turn of events. And they're right. Yet, from a tangle of impossible coincidence and illogic, Jean Cocteau has spun a persuasive tale. Les Parents Terribles, in its Page 189  |  Top of Article current Broadway incarnation, Indiscretions, presents the world according to 22-year-old Michael— that is, the subjective, half-baked, narcissistic reality of a boy belatedly careening into adolescence. Like most adolescents, Michael suffers as his rightful happiness is stymied at every turn. Mom will kill herself before relinquishing exclusive title to his love. Dad will stop at nothing to usurp Michael's youth and vitality. In short, the very forces of the cosmos conspire against Michael. The stakes are life and death. And it's all his parents' fault.

Anyone who has been an adolescent can recognize the felt truth of Michael's agony. And anyone who has survived adolescence can see the ridiculousness in the bathos. The triumph of Sean Mathias's direction is that he realizes—even more, it would seem, than Cocteau himself did—how fundamentally this tragedy is a farce.

Jocasta, Phaedra and Medea

The "unbelievable" plot goes like this: Michael— handsome, passionate, adored by everyone—has fallen in love. This throws the stable pathology of his family into pandemonium. His incestuously doting mother, Yvonne, who subsists in a dimly lit, disorderly bedroom, instantly becomes a bourgeois Freudian cliché—Jocasta, Phaedra and Medea rolled into one. Meanwhile, George, the doofus inventor husband Yvonne has ignored since Michael's birth, realizes to his horror that his son's beloved is none other than his own secret paramour— that Michael is the castrating Zeus to his Kronos. Yvonne's sensible, competent sister Léonie, who has long carried a torch for George, concocts a rescue plot (which makes no sense): the family will visit Madeleine together, as Michael wishes them to, and George will blackmail the young woman to end her affair with Michael. Then, after the nasty scheme has worked, Léonie about-faces and (implausibly) convinces George to set things right. But in this funhouse-Freudian world, the mother scorned knows no such generosity. The distraught Yvonne promptly kills herself.

Like much of Cocteau's theatre—including Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus and The Infernal Machine (and his sundry other versions of Oedipus)— Indiscretions gives concrete form to myth, fantasy and neurosis. Speaking about his film version of the play, Cocteau once said, "Les Parents Terribles is not a realistic film, for I have never known a family that lives like that. It is the most imaginary painting you can conceive." But, he said, the play captured a certain claustrophobia, showing "the thunder-laden corridors which had haunted my childhood." It attempted "to approach not the truth which objectively doesn't exist, but a truth which is subjectively ours."

The broad, vaudevillian style of Sean Mathias's direction rises to meet the play's idiosyncratic reality. The actors play in bold strokes. Roger Rees's George is the eternal bumbler, unable to master his goggles and hoses, his own limbs or his ill-fitting role of pater familias; inept and creepy, this George embodies the meanness (in both senses) of one with no real role in life. Jude Law's Michael lurches, gushes, crumples and stirs back to life—precisely the right emotional repertory for a bursting sex-urge, a walking ejaculation. And Eileen Atkins's crisp, smart Léonie sets the emotional and physical messiness of the others in high relief, as she sculpts the airspace with a turn of her head or the contour of a phrase. Interestingly, while the three English actors can produce intense emotion with stylization, the two Americans—Kathleen Turner, as Yvonne, and Cynthia Nixon, as Madeleine—maintain the chiseled edges of their performance only when the character is not spewing heavy emotion. Americans, misled by Method acting's apotheosis of "inner truth," apparently permit feelings to squelch form.

A Gerbil-Ramp for Farce

The physical production also projects the skewed preciseness of a cartoon. Yvonne's lair is a cornucopia of disorder, spilling out its plentiful clutter of clothes, linens and household paraphernalia. An endless spiral staircase in Madeleine's apartment becomes a gerbil-ramp for farce. Costumes and props define characters—whether the silly gear of George's inventions, the ecru lace negligee and ragg socks of Yvonne's boudoir attire, or proper Léonie's telltale scarlet nail lacquer.

Mathias's farcical tone is, in fact, quite different from that set by Cocteau in his own treatment of the play—at least as preserved in his 1948 film version. There, melodrama prevails, breaking through into comedy only in flashes. Apparently, Cocteau was not quite ready to laugh at the sturm und drang of his haunted youth.

But both versions of Cocteau's play share another quirk: this "subjective reality" about a boy's heterosexual coming of age is remarkably unheteroerotic. Such sexual energy as exists in this work about boy-mom incest comes mainly from the older women. In the current Indescretions, Kathleen Turner's Yvonne projects a sloshy sexuality, and Eileen Atkins's Léonie clearly knows the nature of the impulses she represses. But any eroticism to Page 190  |  Top of Article be found in the clean-white-collar femininity of Madeleine—as written by Cocteau and played by Cynthia Nixon—is, let's say, a figment of Michael's subjective reality. Nor is there any sexual spark in Roger Rees's George to lend credibility either to his affair with Madeleine or to Léonie's ongoing attraction to him.

Stewed, Sticky Possessiveness

In fact, Michael's world is consistent with Cocteau's direction—and probably built into the play. In Cocteau's film—where the older generation looks 60-something rather than 40-something— the boy-and-adult relationships make emotional sense. Yvonne De Bray, as the mother, oozes a kind of stewed, sticky possessiveness that her son might well fear would entrap, or at least besmear, him. Léonie seems a proper school-marm whose carnal appeal, if any, is unreadable to a young man. And George has the aging asexuality one attributes to parents. But Josette Day's starched perfectness gives Madeleine about as much eroticism as Barbie. And Jean Marais's Michael is clearly enamored mainly of his own dazzling smile, not of Madeline or Yvonne. I doubt any woman would believe this man ever generated a heterosexual spark.

In life, of course, Marais was Cocteau's gorgeous 24-years-younger lover (who was, nonetheless, 10 years too old for the film role of Michael). And Cocteau's play, in all its incarnations, while purporting to expose the shocking, unspeakable "truth" of mother/son incest, actually captures a quite different "truth" not often called by its name: Les Parents Terribles is less a generic male adolescent vision of the world than a homosexual male vision of heterosexual coming of age. And that assuredly is, as Cocteau himself said, not "realistic" but "a truth which is subjectively" his.

Source: Eileen Blumenthal, "Sexual Relations," in American Theatre, Vol. 12, No. 6, July-August 1995, pp. 16-17.

Lydia Crowson

In the following essay, Crowson states that the characters in Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions) give themselves over to the play, reacting to their circumstances as the play governs their actions.

The mechanisms that direct Cocteau's later plays are much more complex than those of his first attempts at dramatic creation. Whereas La Voix humaine, for example, unfolded in a strictly linear fashion, Les Parents terribles, Renaud et Armide, and L'Aigle à deux têtes depend on a conflict of archetypes and motifs. The logic of Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde and Bacchus derives in part from the author's personal mythology but belong also to a larger, more accessible system. In the later plays, though characters remain mechanical dolls, they are not homogeneous and they are caught in intricate situations which force their "givens" toward crisis. Each work, therefore, groups and contrasts predefined forces that struggle toward resolution.

Les Parents terribles is constructed on three triangular relationships, each of which operates according to well-established theatrical conventions. The triangle which generates the play itself is that of Georges, his wife Yvonne, and his former fiancée Léo, who is also his sister-in-law and who lives with the couple. Having decided that, since she lives more abstractly than concretely, she could not give Georges the deep love he needed, Léo brought him and her sister together. Although she and Georges have never had an affair (as they would have done in a Boulevard play), Léo is still in love with him. Through the years she has done everything she can to protect him and to make his life easier. Therefore, even if her affection, because of her character, can never manifest itself physically, her emotions are nevertheless alive. Her only allegiance stronger than the one to Georges is the one she has for love itself, the idealized love she and he could never have.

The second triangle is the essentially tragic one composed of Georges, Yvonne, and their son Michel. Yvonne has a savage, possessive love for her child that excludes everyone else. On the other hand, it appears that Michel has a normal relationship with her. Like many little boys, he once expressed the desire to marry his mother, but then he naturally passed beyond this stage and fell in love with someone his own age. Just as there is no adultery between Léo and Georges, there is no incest between Michel and Yvonne, but in both cases strong emotions lie close to the surface.

The third triangle which, because of the other two, precipitates a crisis in the family is a deflected Oedipal relationship which, resulting from a quiproquo, takes the form of a vaudeville episode or, in Georges' words, a "a play by Labiche" (Crowson's translation, footnote 38). Ignored by his wife, who is interested only in her child, Georges takes a mistress, Madeleine, who is much younger than he. After spending a night away from home, Michel returns to announce that he intends to marry a young woman who happens to be, unknown to him, his father's mistress. Coupled with the second triangle, the third has an ambiguous quality—of an Oedipal Page 191  |  Top of Article tragedy and of a farce—which Cocteau developed simultaneously. For example, one confrontation between Georges and Madeleine summarizes the misunderstanding at the base of Oedipe-Roi:

MADELEINE: If you had told me your real name …

GEORGE: You would have met Michael anyway.

MADELEINE: I would have avoided him.

                      [Crowson's translation, footnote 39]

Moreover, Madeleine is three years older than her fiancée, she is much more mature than he, and she has a job and the responsibilities of an adult where he has none, because he is a child. In addition, she is his father's mistress. Not marrying his mother, Michel has nevertheless found someone who virtually occupies her position in his father's life. On the other hand, these circumstances are also in the tradition of Molière's Ecole des femmes, in which the older man in love with a younger woman is ridiculed and repulsed. It must be remembered that Cocteau highlighted the vaudeville, boulevard aspects of La Machine in fernale. As Taladoire has pointed out, Cocteau was able to balance the tragic and vaudeville aspects of Les Parents terribles by drawing upon the structural characteristics common to both genres of theater:

the miracle of this play is that it is a vaudeville piece and a tragedy at one and the same time…. The two are tightly linked by a double-edged fatality whose elements are coincidence and the sequence of events. A poet is capable of perceiving the meaning of these coincidences, which are not routine, when, like Cocteau, he is both humorist and playwright. Therefore, the vaudeville-like aspects of a subject can unfold at exactly the same time as the tragic ones.

                                [Crowson's translation, footnote 40]

However complicated these interlocking series of events may be, they are premises that entail an inevitable conclusion. As we have indicated, Yvonne's attachment to her son is not reciprocated in like manner. He loves her, but not as she loves him; he maintains a close but ordinary mother-child attachment. Similarly, his attraction to Madeleine is "natural," whereas the relation of his father to the girl, like that of Arnolphe and his ward Agnès, is not. It is the order of the world, at least on the stage, that sons leave their mothers to marry and that an older man loses in love to a younger one. Therefore, Michel and Madeleine will be united at the end of the play. The only momentary obstacle is Leonie, who, anxious to help George, plans a drama to separate them. However, her passion for order, for the ideal of love, is a priori stronger than her affections for her former fiancé (or she would have married him herself), and she corrects her mistake. Consequently, everything falls into place. Because of her impetuous, emotional nature, Yvonne commits suicide, although she really does not want to. She simply reacts without thinking, as usual, because she understand the inevitability of what is about to take place—Michel's marriage. Thus ends the tragic thread of the play.

What Cocteau meant when he said of Les Parents terribles that "The roles should be sacrificed to the play and should serve it rather than use it," (Crowson's translation, footnote 41) now becomes clear. At every stage of the action, at every decision they make, the characters are in fact reacting to their circumstances instead of creating new circumstances. They have no power over what is being accomplished: after the machine is set in motion, they are only the material it shapes. In turn, the effect it has on them is determined by what they are, by the preexistent mechanism of their own personalities. It is the unfolding of the various motifs which represent the forces at work in the universe that governs the action.

Source: Lydia Crowson, "The Nature of the Real," in The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau, Published for The University of New Hampshire by The University Press of New England, 1978, pp. 74-78.

Lydia Crowson

In the following essay, Crowson focuses on the moral codes formed by Cocteau's characters' own "desire or inclination" to see themselves free from societal laws, a trait common in children, and in Indiscretions all the characters are "children, regardless of age."

Perhaps no play of Cocteau has been as controversial as Les Parents terribles. The problem is one of definition, and the resulting confusion strengthens Cocteau's claims of the deforming tendencies of conventional morality. Man's narrow systems make him blind to everything except what he wants to see he said, and he predicted many outraged reactions to his work. In fact, he intended to shock the public. He described his play in the following terms:

To me, The Terrible Parents is purity itself. There is a closed atmosphere where evil does not enter, where the question of good and evil isn't even asked. This is what links the play to the novel The Terrible Children.

                                  [Crowson's translation, footnote 28]

As he explains, the work is not concerned with good or evil; rather, it depicts a family in which the moral code of each member is personal and dependent upon his own desires or inclinations. In a sense, then, it is a return to nature.

Page 192  |  Top of Article

The only character in Les Parents terribles who is not impulsive and pure is Léonie, the adult. She represents the existence of an order imposed arbitrarily on life. As a detached observer of the rest of her family, she plays a role that hides her emotions. Even her stylish clothing contrasts with the others' lack of concern for appearances.

Georges, Michel, and Yvonne are children. They live without pretense and expect the same of those around them. Like Cocteau's angéliques, they are selfish and disinterested at the same time. From the point of view of society, they are amoral. The distinction between the adults and the children of the play is made in the first act:

LEO: I am not mean. I have been observing you since yesterday, Yvonne, and I congratulate myself for having brought some order into the trailer. In this world, there are children and adults. Unfortunately, I'm one of the adults and you others belong to the race of children who never stop being children and who would commit crimes …

                          [Crowson's translation, footnote 29]

Leo is the only adult in a child's roulotte, which is Yvonne's pet term for the apartment and which evokes the freedom and independence of gypsies. Such people exist outside of society's laws because they refuse to be part of a larger, more regimented system. Therefore, Georges, Yvonne, and their son lead an unstructured life. Georges invents gadgets that never work, Yvonne rarely leaves her bed, and Michel drifts from interest to interest.

Although Michel's fiancée Madeleine represents order, she, unlike Léo, is true to herself and therefore pure. She and Léonie resemble each other superficially by their passion for neatness, which in the aunt is imposed upon her character without resulting from it. On a deep level, then, Madeleine, like Esther, like any of Cocteau's "angels," belongs to the children's realm, since she refuses to compromise her "line" at the same time that she admits her amorality:

MADELEINE: I hate lies. The smallest lie makes me sick. I accept the fact that someone might be quiet so that things work out with as few complications as possible. But real lying … a lie that is a simple luxury! I am not really being moral, because, in fact, I am quite amoral. I intuit that lies upset processes which transcend us and that they upset waves, that they get everything out of joint.

[                                Crowson's translation, footnote 30]

What threatens Yvonne's way of life is not so much an antagonistic society as a natural relationship challenging her position. The very animal nature of the mother is such that she cannot accommodate herself to anything but her own desires; she is compelled to follow her emotions even if they destroy her. When she sees the new family composed of Madeleine, Michel, Georges, and Léo, she feels that there is no longer a place for her, that she has lost all that mattered to her in the world, and she takes an overdose of insulin. Capable of analyzing her objectively, Léo understands that her sister could never live a compromised existence in which she would be prevented from being completely herself and in which she could not totally dominate the life of her son.

Like Les Enfants terribles, Les Parents terribles is one of Cocteau's most personal works. In both the novel and the play the characters are children, regardless of age. They live according to their own ethic in a game which, to them, is reality. They dwell in a dimly lit, primeval world outside the realm of societal laws: "There are houses and lives whose existence would stupify reasonable people" (Crowson's translation, footnote 31). Unlike the novel, however, where "The spirit of the room was watching" (Crowson's translation, footnote 32) and Elizabeth's husband is killed before he can contaminate the purity of the household, Yvonne's world is destroyed by the presence of an outsider: the mother has no means of preventing her child from becoming an adult. Instead of choosing conformity, as Esther does, she chooses death, for she is much more impetuous than the actress, much closer to nature's savagery and to that of the very young child. Unable to have her way, she becomes spiteful, but she has no chance to reverse her decision. This pureté farouche which tolerates no compromise is unique to Cocteau's theater, since it is almost impossible to present such a hermetic universe on the stage. Yet it does not approach the brutality of Les Enfants terribles, where mythological child-gods drive each other to an inevitable death, and where the world of play excludes everything outside itself.

Source: Lydia Crowson, "The Role of Myth," in The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau, published for The University of New Hampshire by The University Press of New England, 1978, pp. 143-46.

Jacques Guicharnaud and June Guicharnaud

In the following essay, the critics discuss Cocteau's use of tragedy and the victimization of the hero in his plays. They also comment on the playwright's theme of isolation.

Almost all of Cocteau's plays lead toward the same resolution. They are often directed toward a violent death, and the hero generally more like a Page 193  |  Top of Article victim of the drama than the tragic master of his fate. Victims of either magic spells or very special circumstances, Cocteau's heroes submit to action more than they direct it. In Les Parents terribles it is not Yvonne who is responsible for Madeleine's lie, but Georges and Léo; in Les Chevaliers many of the characters are replaced by a demon who takes on their appearances; and particularly in La Machine infernale such stress is put on the caprices of the gods and destiny that Oedipus' heroism disappears. Oedipus did not solve the Sphinx' riddle: she gave him the answer out of love; and although he puts out his eyes at the end, it is not so much his own act as it is in Sophocles' version. During Cocteau's play the weapons themselves (Jocasta's brooch and scarf), from the very beginning, are impatient to put out Oedipus' eyes and strangle Jocasta. Moreover in the third act there is a kind of rehearsal of Oedipus becoming blind when he looks into Tiresias' eyes and thinks he is blinded by pepper. In short, Cocteau emphasized Oedipus' mechanical victimization more than his tragic heroism.

Here Cocteau is eminently representative of modern drama, which draws as near to tragedy as possible, yet most often remains on this side of it. Tragic heroism for the Greeks consisted in going all the way through an ordeal, to the point of giving any final acceptance the value of a challenge and finding true grandeur in the catastrophe itself. Today this conception is replaced by a taste for victimization that is still colored by Romanticism.

Cocteau uses the basic elements of tragedy in his dramas: the misunderstanding, a source of tragic irony, and the play of supernatural forces or obscure powers. Yvonne is mistaken about the meaning of her love for Mik, just as Oedipus is mistaken about the oracle and the encounters in his life, while the interiorization of fate and its expression in psychological terms detract nothing from its transcendency. But either the characters, following in the path of fate, stop just on the edge of the revelation that might have elevated them (Yvonne, in Les Parents terribles, dies without having really got to know herself), or the development of the action remains outside the character, who is victimized and then liberated, without having had any determining effect on the drama (King Arthur, in Les Chevaliers, does no more than talk about the forces that "intoxicate" and then "disintoxicate" him), or, as is most frequently the case, the characters accelerate the final movement and precipitate their own deaths in gestures that are more evasive than fulfulling (Solange's suicide in La Machine à écrire, the anticipation of Hans, who kills himself, in Bacchus).

Although the precipitated denouements are far from classical tragedy, they have two great merits. First of all, their theatricalism is effective. The fore-shortening, the elements of spectacle, and the effects of surprise and shock do create an unquestionable climate of finality. The spectacle is carried away by an increasingly rapid whirlpool of scenic movements and at the end death is imposed, so to speak, on the spectator's nerves. Secondly they suggest a conception of freedom which is Cocteau's own. In the preface to Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, he wrote:

One of the photographer's lines could be used on the title page: Since these mysteries are beyond us, let's pretend to be their organizer. It is our line par excellence. The conceited man always finds refuge in responsibility. Thus, for example, he prolongs a war after the phenomenon that had been its deciding factor is over.

Freedom would then be shown in the acceleration or slowing down of the necessary developments, in their foreshortening or extension. Freedom is Cocteau's "pretense" and the others' "conceit." And Cocteau has no illusions about his own characters. When at the end of Bacchus Hans cries out, "Free …," his way of dying should be seen not as "tragic death par excellence, both fated and chosen," but as a pretense, a voluntary illusion. Hans' final freedom is in fact abstract. It consists only in anticipating an already determined event. Similarly, the Queen's command, "Say that I wanted it," in the third act of L'Aigle à deux têtes seems merely a verbal claim, for Stanislas' suicide—the very reason for her own—was not part of her plans.

What Cocteau's plays reveal, then, is not a traditional tragic vision but a particular conception of destiny very near to fatalism, wherein the best man can do is to live "as if" he were capable of Page 194  |  Top of Article controlling his fate. That "as if" can be found in all the eloquent affirmations, costumes, grand gestures, and, at the extreme limit, art itself. In La Machine à écrire many inhabitants of the city claim, at one point or another, to have written the anonymous letters. The play explains that in making the claim they hope to escape from the mediocrity in which they are imprisoned. They want to be recognized even in crime, and their desire is so powerful that they end by believing their own lies. Actually, their mythomania picks up the "pretense" and "conceit" of the preface to Les Mariés. Caught in a development of events that is beyond them and for which they are not responsible, they want to have themselves put in prison so that everything will happen as if the scandal was their own work. In short, the only escape from fare is in the lie, and the game of lying must be played to the very end—that is, until total illusion is achieved, until the mask of freedom is seen as the very flesh of man—for man's only recourse is to deceive himself and others.

Death by suicide, in Cocteau's works, is the highest form of human pretense. By precipitating death, it often appears as an escape. The character disappears before the last illuminations of his ordeal. He wants to testify before it is too late and thus makes himself the martyr of certain values (poetry, love, grandeur, humanity) at the very moment that these values may be shown as impossible. As soon as the character realizes that the world has tricked him, he answers with the definitive trickery of suicide. He neither triumphs nor makes his peace: he retires. The deep and despairing cry of Cocteau's works is in the agitation of man who is caught and either ignores the fact or succeeds only in reconstructing a higher ignorance in the form of illusion. But although gilded by language and adorned with all the devices of mind and imagination, the trap remains merciless. By means of theatrical devices Cocteau has invented a masked ball, and he is the first to proclaim its vanity.

Cocteau's heroes—pure, still not disillusioned, and preys to circumstance—are victims of chance, of a fatalitas often similar to that of melodrama. They believe that they benefit from it until, having gone too far in the game, they are seized with an unbearable mistrust which leads to a voluntary illusion. Cocteau's universe is one not of tragedy but of danger. The cosmos surrounding the characters is not that of a great moral order in the Greek manner, in conflict with man's affirmation of himself; it is a Coney Island contraption, a layout of pitfalls: in Les Chevaliers the characters are deceived by a demon who takes on the appearances of several of them, and the Grail that appears is a false Grail; in Les Parents terribles mother love hides incest; in La Machine infernale everything is a trap or a threat, from Jocasta's scarf to the young girl who is a mask of the Sphinx. Those who fall into the traps—and who are marked out for them—are the naïve and the pure in heart: poets, idealized adolescents, dewy-eyed revolutionaries—whence the melodramatic aspect of Cocteau's theatre.

Parallel to the hero of Byronic gloom or the fated Romantic, his hero can be recognized by a sign, a coincidence, or phrases with double meanings that he utters without quite knowing their significance. One might cry out Fatalitas! during La Machine infernale, in which ghosts and ambiguous dialogue transform the Tyrannos, caught by Sophocles at the height of his glory, into the hero of an adventure novel; or when during a storm in L'Aigle a young revolutionary, who just happens to be the dead King's double, takes refuge in the Queen's room; or during Les Parents terribles, when Mik, a good son and good lover, finds himself not only the object of incestuous love but his own father's rival. Characterized by adolescence—a state of both grace and malediction, and a combination of impulsive acts, ignorance, purity, disorder, and youth—Cocteau's heroes are to a certain extent "going forces" in the Romantic manner, and they are "going" in a treacherous universe filled with every danger. Actually, "Romantic" does somehow describe Cocteau's works. The variety of forms, the aesthetic debates surrounding the plays, and the justifying abstractions of the subject matter (poetry, youth, impure order, pure disorder) only partially disguise the underlying theme of isolation—an isolation of the individual destined for better and for worse.

Source: Jacques Guicharnaud and June Guicharnaud, "The Double Game," in Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet, Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 52-59.

Dorothy Knowles

In the following essay, Knowles comments on the "interplay of human affections" and tragedy in Indiscrections. She explains that the text was a "pretext," that Cocteau wanted the setting to drive his plays, and that "all concrete details" were "subordinated to the theme."

The series of modern plays of which the matter is the interplay of human affections, and which derive none of their interest from mere scenic effects, is continued by Les Parents terribles, first performed Page 195  |  Top of Article on November 14th, 1938, at the Ambassadeurs. Cocteau had been made temporary director of this theatre by the Municipal Council of Paris, but had to resign after an argument with the Council and the Ministry of Education over an ill-advised invitation sent to Paris schools by the star Alice Cocéa. The play was transferred to the Bouffes-Parisiens, where it had a successful run. It was revived at the Gymnase on October 23rd, 1941, but was banned by the Occupation authorities after German troops had thrown teargas bombs in the auditorium. It was revived again on February 8th, 1946, when it was clear that what had been an avant-garde play had become a very great Boulevard success. In the preface to La Machine à écrire Cocteau states that Les Parents terribles was a tragedy which touched the masses on the raw by its attack on the disorders of a decadent bourgeoisie. It was this attack which provoked the early violent opposition to the play. Such an attack actually ran counter to Cocteau's own theory that a playwright must not take sides, but must concentrate on achieving "style", though not "fine writing." It is a powerful play and Cocteau's best.

Cocteau made another interesting statement regarding this play in an interview reported in the OEuvre (October 11th, 1938). "I was the first playwright", he said, "to take an intense interest in settings and to proclaim that a text was only a pretext for creating settings and showing them off on a lavish scale. I put on Antigone, Roméo, Orphée, and La Machine infernale for the sake of the setting, for the pictorial framework, in short for everything which now seems to me to be irrelevant … I have written this play solely for the sake of the actors. Nothing shall occur to distract the spectator's attention from the acting, or from the text. There shall be nothing in the setting which is not absolutely necessary, not a chair which has not some special function. There will be no cigarettes, no telephone, no maids, no accessories to fill up any gap, or any silence…. The theatre must be more real than reality, more real than life. It is life intensified and concentrated." In a subsequent interview reported in the Figaro of November 8th, 1938, Cocteau said that when he wrote Les Parents terribles he was in a small hotel in Montargis, where he had no books except Britannicus and Le Misanthrope. The repeated reading of these plays inspired him with a desire to emulate the artistic economy of Racine and Molière. "It seems to me that I must make every single gesture a cog in the machine, as it were, and never admit any expression of feeling which is purely decorative for fear of unnecessary elaboration." This economy of concentration, according to Cocteau, removes the possibility of even momentary relaxation of the spectator's nerves. The actor is the instrument by which the playwright magnetizes his audience.

Cocteau was here putting forward the classical notion according to which all concrete details must be subordinated to the theme. The merely accessory is irrelevant. Emphasis is laid on the work of the author and of the actor, and there is no place for "business", such as the use of the telephone. For his characters Cocteau did not envisage any "monolithic" creations, such as Corneille's Horace or Rodrigue, but rather characters subject to dual or multiple enthusiasms and conflicting emotions, in a manner more typical of Racine. "Two of the rôles", Cocteau writes, "create the balance of the order and of the disorder which motivate the play. The young man whose disorder is pure, and his aunt whose order is not pure." Here, in a very different setting, Cocteau treats the theme already developed in Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde—namely, the establishment of a new order after truth has been brought to light. Here, too, appears the theme, later to be exemplified in Hans and the Cardinal in Bacchus, of the purity of the disorder of the impulsive mind and the impurity of the order of the calculating mind. For Michel, a spoilt child and a mother's boy, order is established only after his mother's death, which he unwittingly brings about in his desire to escape her jealous affection. This mother, a slovenly creature who spends the day amid piles of dirty linen, going to and fro in a dressing-gown covered with cigarette burns, between her unmade bed and an untidy dressing-room, is a powerful force of disorder, albeit pure. Her well-groomed but embittered sister Léo, the only really grown-up person in the play, brings truth to light and order—a new order—into the home at the price of her sister's suicide, which she does nothing to prevent. Whether her feelings for her sister's husband, her ex-fiancé, in any way affect her attitude it is hard to say; in any case, Léo herself does not know, nor does she care to know. The whole action, which moves forward inexorably to the mother's death, is set in motion by the son's failure to return home one night. In an admirable first act the characters face up to reality for the first time in twenty years, and say what they have on their minds. The father learns that he and his son have the same mistress, but the situation, current in Boulevard comedy, here has a poignancy not to be found on the Boulevard. The second act shows the attempt of the father, in his monstrous egoism, and of the mother, in her monstrous possessiveness, to prevent the Page 196  |  Top of Article son's engagement to the girl. The third act is given to the torment of the mother, who cannot accept to share her son with any other. Her passion, as absolute as any child's—there is not the slightest hint of any subconscious incest in her attitude—raises her to the level of a figure of tragedy. She is like one possessed. Beside her, Léo, statuesque, stands like destiny itself. There is no mistaking the Greek inspiration of the play despite the "Boulevard" elements, to which Cocteau himself drew attention by making the father compare himself to a character in a Labiche play. Little wonder that the critics of the first performance referred to the flat of the Atrides, spoke of beslippered Labdacides, and conjured up the shades of Clytemnestra, Electra, Jocasta, and Creon. Les Parents terribles is a tragedy, but in it the characters bellow out their passions without classical restraint, and when Michel learns that his father is his rival he throws himself upon a pile of dirty linen on the floor in a fit of jealous rage. In 1948, with the complete text as a scenario and almost the same cast as he had had in the stage production, Gabrielle Dorziat, Jean Marais, and Yvonne de Bray, who had inspired the play but whose part had been taken by Germaine Dermoz because of her illness, Cocteau undertook the difficult task of making a film from his play. In the film he limits himself to the two settings used in the play, but his camera picks out significant objects and gestures for their visual as well as for their psychological value, and the film is far from being "canned theatre" ; it is a fine example of the art of the cinema.

Source: Dorothy Knowles, "Studio Theatre: Cocteau and Company," in French Drama of the Inter-War Years, 1918-39, George G. Harrap, 1967, pp. 56-61.


Bach, Raymond, "Cocteau and Vichy: Family Disconnections," in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 29-37.

Blumenthal, Eileen, "Sexual Relations," in American Theater, Vol. 12, No. 6, July-August 1995, pp. 16-17.

Callow, Simon, "Introduction," in Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions), by Jean Cocteau, translated by Jeremy Sams, Royal National Theatre and Nick Hern Books, 1994, p. viii.

Canby, Vincent, "Indiscretions: Cocteau's Ferocious View of the Rolls-Royce of Families," in New York Times, April 28, 1995, .html?res=990CEEDE1139F93BA15757C0A963958260 (accessed October 25, 2006).

Cocteau, Jean, Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions), translated by Jeremy Sams, Nick Hern Books, 1994.

Hurwitt, Robert, "Marin Theatre's Parents Is a Little Too Discreet: Toned-down Version of Cocteau Tragic Farce," in San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 2001, p. E1.

Knowles, Dorothy, French Drama of the Inter-War Years, 1918-39, George C. Harrap, 1967, p. 59.>


Paini, Dominique, and others, Cocteau, Center Pompidou, 2004.

This book is a collection of fascinating essays on Cocteau's life and art. The authors, some of whom knew Cocteau personally, argue that he has been severely undervalued because of his overt homosexuality and his involvement in many art forms, including plays, poetry, novels, drawing, painting, scenery design, film, and ballet (leading some to brand him a dilettante).

Seigel, Jerrold, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

This book examines the part played by artists, writers, and intellectuals in the development of the bohemian counterculture in Paris. Featured figures include Cocteau, Émile Zola, Édouard Manet, and Arthur Rimbaud.

Steegmuller, Francis, Cocteau: A Biography, David R. Godine, 1992.

This popular and well-written biography makes clear why Cocteau is one of the most influential people in French art and literature. The book also gives a sense of Paris during Cocteau's lifetime.

Van Derbur, Marilyn, Triumph over Darkness: Understanding and Healing the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Beyond Words, 1991.

This book is a collection of writings and drawings that provide first-person accounts of incest, rape, and other forms of abuse. Seventy women share their experiences and describe how they overcame their trauma.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420800020