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  • Jean Cocteau's Around-the-World Performance
  • Kevin Riordan (bio)

Decidedly one needs to make a journey around the world to realize such things be.

—Jean Cocteau, Round the World Again in 80 Days

In her 2013 history of circumnavigation, Joyce Chaplin argues that anyone who circles the world thinks of "herself on a planetary scale, as an actor on a stage the size of the world…. No other form of travel, and, really, hardly any other human experience, is truly planet-encompassing."1 The many journeys compiled in Chaplin's book are a compendium of these planetary self-imaginings, and within this tradition Jean Cocteau's 1936 trip is likely the most self-consciously modernist and theatrical. In the midst of what his biographer would call his "lesser decade," Cocteau would mount his most ambitious theatrical production to date, on what Chaplin calls the "stage the size of the world."2 For his inspiration, Cocteau worked from a childhood memory of seeing Adolphe d'Ennery and Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days at the Théâtre du Châtelet. His principal adaptation to that popular play—which was still running, some sixty years after opening—was to make it site-specific, all the way around.

In the last decade of modernist studies there has been consistent discussion of the field's expansions, with the trends most efficiently summarized in Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz's "The New Modernist Studies."3 Mao and Walkowitz characterize the field's growth in three directions: spatial, temporal, and vertical. The first two more straightforwardly describe geographical and historical dimensions, while the vertical concerns the inclusion of objects beyond the traditionally highbrow or "high [End Page 633] modern." Cocteau's around-the-world project playfully seems to engage with, confuse, and disregard all three of Mao and Walkowitz's axes: his performance circles the entire world, while missing most of it; for modernism's conventional time frames, it reenacts a too-early play (1874) too late (1936); and it mixes Cocteau's high modernist credentials with the stuff of popular newspapers, brothels, and amusement parks. Cocteau's work has always had a way of "flitt[ing] in and out" of the categories deployed to describe it, and in this respect it illuminates a broader pattern in the field, namely: that modernist objects—rather appropriately—complicate and comment on the very models in which we try to set them.4

For Mao and Walkowitz, modernism's geographical expansion is the most prominent trend, and this work has taken on many other names and prefixes, including "world," "global," "translocal," "geo-," and "planetary." Many of these critical projects attempt to account for a modernism on a "stage the size of the world," but in each case Cocteau's tour du monde tellingly flits in and out of the modeling. His around-the-world performance resists classification, and in so doing it offers its own untimely, metacritical comment on how a modernist engages the globe, the world, or the planet.5 Cocteau's production of this modern theatrum mundi is distinguished by its self-conscious theatricality and by its focus on the experience of a single, fallible actor, that is, by Cocteau's own critical positioning. While accounts of modernist worlds often veer towards generalization and systems-level analysis—however dynamic and nuanced—Cocteau's tour du monde provides a version of the planetary as it is understood, experienced, and negotiated through the body. In doing so, Cocteau does not produce the world as an object of knowledge, but rather engages with, in, and through it, to produce an erratic and untimely archive of sensation.

Cocteau's planetary staging of modernism—embodied and idiosyncratic—provides one way of disrupting the inevitably broader strokes of disciplinary generalization. With its attention to sensation and to the corporeal, Cocteau's performance provides an at-once awkward and illuminating case study for what happens when we read and write in and about the world. With its mobile and embodied positionality, Cocteau's around-the-world tour uniquely reveals the experiential side effects of worlding, asking what it means to think and feel modernism as it moves, rather than studying...


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