A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
‘Watch now, spectator. Before you is a fully wound machine. Slowly its spring will unwind the entire span of a human life. It is one of the most perfect machines devised by the infernal gods for the mathematical annihilation of a mortal.’
Heightened security threats, weak governments, economic crises, social tensions, ordinary people feeling utterly powerless in the hands out of touch leaders engaged in internal power struggles and an all-pervading sense of a civilization running out of control …
If all of that sounds uncomfortably familiar, it’s because the wheel turns and – however much we may try to persuade ourselves that we learn and move on and never make the same mistakes again – we forget the lessons learned by previous generations. History does, indeed, repeat itself – over and over again.
When Jean Cocteau wrote his semi-playful and apparently superficial reimagining of the Oedipus story, between-the-wars France was in just such a state and it is no coincidence that we find exactly the same conditions in ancient Thebes, where the story of patricide and incest is played out.
La Machine Infernale is often referred to as a modernized version of Sophocles’ masterwork Oedipus Rex, but it’s more accurate to say that Cocteau used the same source material as Sophocles – the multi-faceted myth of the returning son who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother – and produced a very different play.
Sophocles’ Oedipus is a hero – a young man who braves and outwits the Sphinx – but one who suffers from the fatal flaw of hubris. The action takes place over the course of one fateful day – the day upon which Oedipus and Jocasta realize the terrible truth about their relationship.
Cocteau’s Oedipus, on the other hand, is naif, arrogant, cowardly and – frankly – more than a bit thick. The action of La Machine Infernale stretches across 17 years, although we only join it at the very beginning and the very end.
Cocksure and convinced of his own magnificence, the young Oedipus only vanquishes the Sphinx because she lets him. In the form of a young woman (the better to lure the young men) she falls in love with Oedipus as soon as she lays eyes on him, and actually tells him the answer to the riddle before she asks it – but not before she has easily reduced him to a state of abject, gibbering terror.
Once he realizes he isn’t going to die, he answers the riddle as if he’s come up with the answer all by himself, then hightails it for Thebes to claim his reward (the hand of Jocasta in marriage) without so much as a ‘thank you very much’. In fact, he’s even so ungallant as to return and demand the Sphinx’s corpse when he remembers that he’ll need proof that the deed has been done. Needless to say, when he later tells the story of his victory over the Sphinx, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the truth.
Meanwhile, in Thebes, Jocasta – widow of Laius – is portrayed as a vain, frightened and self-centred woman with an eye for younger men and a terror of growing old. Utterly out of touch with and indifferent to the people she rules, she is tormented by memories of the child whose life she believes she ended, and is both a tragic and comical figure – all surface and no substance. Sophocles assuredly did NOT have her shamelessly feeling up a strapping young soldier …
Surrounded by portents, neither she nor Oedipus can see what’s right under their noses. Only Tiresias, the blind high priest, understands that they are on course for self-destruction and that nothing they – or he or indeed anyone else – can do will change the outcome. Their fate has been foretold. The infernal machine is in motion and cannot be stopped or diverted.
Throughout the play, blindness – both physical and metaphorical – is a recurring image: the blind can see and the sighted cannot. It’s only when he has blinded himself with the pin from the dead Jocasta’s brooch that Oedipus finally understands, finally sees how he and his mother have been manipulated like puppets for the amusement of the gods.
Cocteau was an extraordinarily multi-talented man: not only an artist, film director, designer, playwright and poet, but also a consummate showman. La Machine Infernale demonstrates, probably better than any of his other work, both his versatility and his lightness of touch – but that is not to say that there is no substance to it. Just below the shiny ‘Look at me, aren’t I clever?!’ surface there’s a not-very-covert political commentary which he made no attempt to hide: those in power are corrupt and blinded by their ambitions and the people they rule are either too apathetic or too engaged in their own petty power squabbles to try and do anything about it. If all is going well, the people are happy; if it isn’t, they’re baying for blood.
There is no deep message here, as such – just shrewd observations dressed up as a piece of dazzling, blood-soaked theatre; but it’s still unnerving to realize – as Oedipus and Antigone stumble away into the care of ‘the people, the poets and the unspoiled souls’ – that the same warning bells Cocteau was sounding nearly 90 years ago can still be heard so clearly today.
La Machine Infernale/The Infernal Machine is extensively available, both in the original French and in translation in multiple formats. There is an excellent, if slightly stilted in places, audio version on YouTube, starring Margaret Leighton as Jocasta, Jeremy Brett as Oedipus and Patrick Magee as The Voice: Part One & Part Two.