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Cocteau and Vichy: Family Disconnections Raymond Bach I N A REVIEW OF THE FIRST PRODUCTION of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles in 1938, Paul Léautaud wrote that the first act was “ du pur Dumas fils,” and that the third was “ à ce point du mélo­ drame qu’on est gêné pour l’auteur qu’il soit tombé dans ce genre.” 1But, if this was indeed the case, if Cocteau had indeed let himself slide, rather ignominiously, into an embrace of the popular genres, how are we to explain the extraordinary hostility that Les Parents terribles provoked on the extreme right, most notably from Alain Laubreaux, the theater critic of Je Suis Partout ? And how are we to account for the fact that when the play was revived during the Occupation these attacks became so vocifer­ ous and so violent that the play was forced from the stage and banned by the Nazis? How is it, in other words, that a play described by some as nothing more than pure Dumas fils should cause such an outcry from the right? The play opened at the Ambassadeurs in November 1938 to the start of a very successful run. At one point, since the theater belonged to the city of Paris, Cocteau proposed to the Conseil Municipal that a free per­ formance be given to high school students. This offer, however, led quickly to accusations that the play, because of its “ immoral” subject matter, would corrupt Parisian youth. And so not only was the offer re­ jected, but the production itself was forced to move to another (private) theater, where it continued to play to packed houses.2 In October 1941 the play was revived at the Théâtre du Gymnase. This time the attacks began immediately and performances were interrupted by hecklers. The theater was temporarily closed by order of the French authorities, but was soon allowed to reopen. The attacks resumed with redoubled vio­ lence: members of the Parti Populaire Français threw tear gas at the actors and ran onto the stage shouting derogatory comments about both Cocteau and his work. In the end, the play was definitively closed by the Germans. Is this, we must ask again, the kind of reception one would expect for a melodrama? The play opens in the apartment of Georges and Yvonne (no last names are indicated), who live there together with their son, Michel (Mik), and Yvonne’s unmarried sister, Léonie. The rooms are Vo l. XXXIII, No. 1 29 L ’E s pr it C réa teu r dark and have a claustrophobic feel to them. Georges, an inventor of dubious merit, has been at work for years on an underwater gun. His wife, Yvonne, is a diabetic who spends most of her time in bed, and whose principal concern appears to be to control the life of her son. Léonie, the only practical member of the family, imposes a minimum of order on what Cocteau calls in his preface to the play a “ famille en désordre.” Georges was originally to have married Léonie, but, when he suddenly changed his mind and decided to marry Yvonne, Léonie thought it her duty to sacrifice her own happiness in order to take care of her child-like sister and brother-in-law. The curtain rises upon a family in turmoil, for Yvonne, who has for­ gotten to take some sugar after her insulin shot, is in the throes of a pain­ ful reaction. Léonie’s quick thinking saves her; but it soon becomes clear that the real drama lies elsewhere: Mik, for the first time in his life, has not returned home for the night. Léonie claims that he has a lover; but Yvonne, clinging to her belief that Mik is still nothing more than a child, refuses even to consider the possibility. Mik arrives a few minutes later and announces that he is indeed in love with a young woman, Madeleine, and that he wants to marry her. Yvonne makes a terrible scene and even threatens to call the police! Cocteau then introduces his first vaudeville element, for it turns out that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 29-37
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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