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Double Exposures: On the Reciprocity of Influence between Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 505-527 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0054

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Le vrai drame, c’est la distance et que les êtres ne se connaissent pas. S’ils se connaissaient, on éviterait de la tristesse et des crimes.

–Jean Cocteau, L’Aigle à deux têtes (1946)1

By labeling “the androgynous” as “a myth,” “an ideal,” and “the truest human being,” Tennessee Williams stated his interest in all things liminal.2 An ardent reviser and adapter of his own and other artists’ works,3 he therefore found a natural supporter and mutual influence in Jean Cocteau, the French paragon of hybrid artistry. Not content with attaining popular acclaim for his stage dramaturgies and feature films or critical prestige for his poetry and novelistic work, the latter expressed himself with equal enthusiasm through imaginatively idiosyncratic drawings, paintings, ceramics, mosaics, frescoes, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, advertising posters, and even postage stamps.4 After all, with the continuous exploration of the brittle boundaries between media, genres, and referential frameworks, both Williams and Cocteau showed a certain sensitivity to the principle of reciprocity that is not only rare in itself, but even more rarely leads to well-assimilated artistic creations. Indeed, due to its partly collaborative and emulative nature, the reciprocal process at the very least implies a sense of complicity that is simultaneously defined by its sheer boundlessness as, in the words of leading literary critic Harold Bloom, “there is no end to ‘influence’” as there are no limits to “the power of invention.”5 Endemically dialectical, the logic of influence is driven by a dynamic that for Bloom holds primarily positive connotations when considered from the angle of the inspiration it implies and the mutually sympathetic themes or moods on which it thrives.6 In a context characterized by such reciprocities, the need for an approach capable of capturing the mechanism’s intrinsic constructiveness therefore becomes palpable, especially when taking into account Cocteau’s and Williams’s shared reliance on rewrites, translations, and adaptations. These three variants of textual hybridity function by virtue of interplay between familiarity and innovation, and thus strike by their recoil from fixity without alienating their audiences in the process. It is accordingly all the more fitting that this analogy-based duality of convention and invention would find both aesthetic and thematic echoes in the meandering reciprocity of influence between Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau, in particular since the production of an analogical relation does not require anything but a context highlighting structural relations.7

The perspective offered by the theater, incidentally a prime expressive platform for both Williams and Cocteau, provides precisely such an environment. The notion of “performance,” after all, could be understood as a metaphor for analogizing itself, effectively staging a “double exposure” of product and process that stimulates analogical thought.8 The human body onstage, especially, has kept fascinating artists, audiences, and philosophers alike because of “its impermeability and intangibility” as an engine of such associative thinking9 —a characteristic that prompted the following statement from the towering acting theorist Jerzy Grotowski:

I have seen for a very long time now that a theatre with tangible, corporeal and physiological characteristics is an ideal medium for provocation, a pestering of oneself and the audience through the actor (the actor who actually challenges himself when he challenges the audience).

The theatre has to combat our stereotypical world vision, our conventional feelings, our preconceived notions as they are anchored in the body, in respiration, the inner reflexes, in short, in the entire human organism.

The theatre has to break these sorts of taboos.

Through this transgression the theatre will enable us to engage ourselves, “naked” and entirely agitated in something which cannot be easily defined.10

A similar reasoning prompted Jean Cocteau, impressed by the raw, visceral quality exuded by the young Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowlaski, to adapt Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire to a succès de scandale on the French stages in 1949,11 thus initiating a reciprocal relation of artistic attraction and resistance that arguably informs the various works under scrutiny in this article. Accordingly, with hybrid artistry as prime mover and reciprocity as connecting agent, the argument we propose aspires to demonstrate the mutual influence Cocteau and Williams exerted upon each other...

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