The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party and Orphee

Eclipse Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

In the preface to his 1921 performance piece Les maries de la Tour Eiffel, Jean Cocteau proclaims himself part of a generation of young artists inventing “a theatrical form [that] remains still an unexplored land, rich in possibilities…forms in which the fairy, the dance, acrobatics, pantomime, drama, satire, music, and the spoken word all combine to produce a novel genre…the plastic expression of poetry.” Every generation has its “unexplored land” to conquer; Cocteau wasn’t the first artist to feel he was inventing a new style of theater, and he certainly wasn’t the last. Written in 1922, his manifesto is still embraced by self-styled avant-gardists in theater and performance art today.

Cocteau’s enthusiastic response to the challenge issued by ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev–“Astonish me!”–continues to inspire groups like Bucktown’s youthful Eclipse Theatre Company, which is devoting its entire 1997-’98 season to the French playwright, starting with this double bill of early one-acts. This isn’t Cocteau the beloved fantasy filmmaker or the middle-aged, middle-class melodramatist displayed in Les parents terribles (presented by the Organic Touchstone Company last season under the title Indiscretions). This is Cocteau the surrealist imp, inspired by the rebelliousness and curiosity of youth to create these imaginative but immature works. If Oscar Groves, the Eclipse member making his directorial debut here, sometimes stumbles like a colt taking its first uncertain steps, that’s in keeping with the plays’ own imperfections, and the evening remains intriguing and often charming.

Like Cocteau’s 1950 film of the same name (which bears little relation to his play), Orphee is inspired by the myth of Orpheus, the ancient Greek poet who ventured into the underworld to rescue his dead wife Eurydice, only to lose her again when he violated the strange rule Hades imposed–that Eurydice could return to the land of the living only if Orpheus never looked back at her as he led her home. Cocteau’s first major dramatic work (following a series of collaborative dance-theater experiments) reshapes the legend using 1920s imagery; the play is almost tongue-in-cheek, yet it’s also strangely moving in its examination of a writer wrestling with the conflicting demands of art and love.

Cocteau’s Orphee–a thinly disguised, semisatirical self-portrait–is a poet whose early inspiration has deserted him as he’s won fame and financial rewards; Eurydice is a onetime free spirit now trapped in her bourgeois marriage to the frustrated writer. (She used to be a member of the bacchantes, the all-woman Dionysian cult that seems to be Cocteau’s surrogate for the aesthetic anarchists who mocked him as an avant-garde poseur.) Neglecting his wife, Orphee is entranced by a horse he’s brought home that transmits mysterious messages to him through the tapping of its hooves. When Orphee leaves the house, Eurydice enlists the aid of a glazier named Heurtebise in killing the horse–nothing less than the devil in disguise, as we later learn. Death–a glamorous woman in an evening gown and rubber gloves accompanied by two hospital orderlies–takes Eurydice as well as the horse, leaving Heurtebise to counsel Orphee. Only when his wife is gone does he realize her importance to him, and he bravely ventures into the underworld via the same route as Death–through a full-length mirror, a recurrent symbol of mortality in Cocteau’s work. (“Watch yourself all your life in a mirror, and you’ll see death at work like bees in a glass hive,” says Heurtebise.)

Eurydice returns to her former life–and soon she and Orphee are once again bickering, until the inevitable moment when their eyes meet and she is lost again. This time Orphee dies too–he’s torn apart by bacchantes, who leave behind only his head to talk to the police official who comes to investigate. The name the head gives: Jean Cocteau. “Now there’s a name to go to bed with,” the cop comments wryly; another translation uses the phrase “a name to walk the streets with,” a better pun on Cocteau’s propensity for flaunting himself as a celebrity as well as a gay icon.

Written in 1925 and first produced the following year–and performed here in Carl Wildman’s translation–Orphee remains a curious mix of whimsy and melancholy relating to Cocteau’s personal life. This meditation on love, art, and death was written a couple of years after Cocteau’s 20-year-old lover, the brilliant young novelist Raymond Radiguet, died of tuberculosis. It was in Radiguet’s memory that Cocteau wrote “L’Ange Heurtebise,” a homoerotic poem in which he introduced the guardian angel who plays such a significant role in Orphee; permeating his depiction of Orphee’s emotional crisis is his grief over the boy’s death and self-recrimination over their jealous quarrels. This crisis is resolved only when the poet leaves his body to join Eurydice and Heurtebise in a world of the spirit, while policemen and bacchantes remain on earth trying to sort out the consequences.

Groves’s staging features gentle, straightforward performances by Ken Puttbach as the neurotic Orphee; Lesley Bevan, who brings a lovely dancer’s grace to Eurydice; Anish Jethmalani as Heurtebise; and Eva Breneman, Gary Simmers, and Gillian Vigman as Death and her two assistants. Their work is nicely supported by Puttbach’s simple set, which uses a black-and-white drawing to depict Orphee and Eurydice’s sitting room. Cocteau loved make-believe miracles onstage, and this Orphee provides several. The mirror is silvery fabric with a slit in the middle; Heurtebise appears to float, balancing on one foot on an offstage chair; the diabolical horse is a wire-mesh head held by a puppeteer behind a black curtain; and Orphee’s talking head is a fencing mask into which Puttbach places his face. There’s no effort to make any of these illusions convincing, and no need to–they’re symbols in a poem, and any effort to disguise them would undercut their effect.

The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party (performed in Dudley Fitts’s translation) could have used more such visual playfulness. A follow-up to the 1917 ballet Parade (on which Cocteau collaborated with composer Erik Satie and designer Pablo Picasso–now a signature piece for the Joffrey), this whimsical work calls for plenty of off-kilter spectacle: two narrators dressed as gramophones who declaim the text through megaphones; an old-fashioned oversize camera, out of which pops not the proverbial “birdie” but a procession of strange people and animals; and a scenic view of Paris. Most important is the lacy ironwork of the Eiffel Tower itself, Cocteau’s symbol of the glorious Belle Epoque (Cocteau was born in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower was built), now decayed into dowdy bourgeois banality. (“It was the Queen of Paris,” laments one of the narrators. “Now it is a telegraph girl.”) Through these specific set pieces, Cocteau sought to convey the conflict of past and future, illusion and reality, outdated traditions and new perceptions. Every verbal and visual image onstage contributes to this concept, from the date of the wedding (Bastille Day, the national holiday) to such bizarre sights as a rifle-wielding hunter chasing after a huge ostrich (which really does become invisible when it hides its head) and a vainglorious general being eaten by a lion that the general refuses to believe is not a mirage.

Virtually none of this comes through in Eclipse’s production. Bevan, Breneman, Jethmalani, and Puttbach, all wearing plain black-and-white work clothes, pantomime the action described by Simmers and Vigman as the offstage narrators; their droll delivery makes the most of a text designed to complement a visual spectacle. The performers’ mime skills are solid but unexceptional–certainly they’re no substitute for costumes and set pieces. And what were intended as long dance passages become mere movement sketches, giving the performance a truncated feel.

Groves also does without the original score, composed by Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric, among others. In its place are rousing recordings by singer Edith Piaf, glorious anthems of love and pride that represent a much different era of Cocteau’s career (Piaf is 1940s, not ’20s). Still, the songs are so great one doesn’t really want to complain. Likewise, the flaws in Eclipse’s Eiffel Tower Wedding Party are offset by the fact that this rarely revived work is being done at all, and it works as a brief, pleasant prelude to the much more substantial and successful Orphee. One looks forward to seeing more of Cocteau’s canon at this adventurous little theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Effel Tower Wedding Party theater still.