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Two Tombeaux to Oscar Wilde: Jean Cocteau’s Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and Raymond Laurent’s essay on Wildean aesthetics, A bilingual presentation of the texts edited and translated by Emily Eells

Richard Hibbitt
p. 265-268
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Two Tombeaux to Oscar Wilde: Jean Cocteau’s Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and Raymond Laurent’s essay on Wildean aesthetics, A bilingual presentation of the texts edited and translated by Emily Eells, High Wycombe, The Rivendale Press, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-904201-18-2

Texte intégral

1The cover image of Two Tombeaux To Oscar Wilde is a pen-and-ink drawing by Jean Cocteau of a young male figure looking into the full-length mirrored front of what appears to be a wardrobe. As in some seventeenth-century vanitas paintings, the discrepancy between the figure and its reflection plays with our perception: here the reflection looks directly out at the viewer, as if it has become a portrait, or a separate human being. This suggestion of splitting evokes The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the painting becomes an animate object reflecting its subject’s soul. It also serves as a fitting emblem for Two Tombeaux To Oscar Wilde, which contains early works by two young French writers exploring their ideas of aesthetics and identity through their engagement with Wilde. Cocteau wrote his stage adaptation of Dorian Gray in 1908 at the age of 18, in collaboration with his friend and lover Jacques Renaud, but it was first published posthumously in 1978 and has never been performed. The little-known poet and critic Raymond Laurent (1886-1908) wrote his essay on Wilde at a similarly precocious age before his untimely death at the age of 21; it too was first published posthumously, in the volume Etudes Anglaises (1910), which also contains chapters on Coleridge, Pater and the Pre-Raphaelites. In an informative and engaging introductory essay, Emily Eells argues that both works can be seen as tombeaux in the sense of homages to Wilde, personal responses to a writer who had exerted a profound influence on their authors. Cocteau and Laurent were too young to have known Wilde during his lifetime, but they belonged to the subsequent generation of gay artists for whom Wilde was synonymous not only with aestheticism and homosexuality, but with the conflation of the two; in Eells’s term, “with aestheticism as an occult expression of homoeroticism”, with its connotations of concealment, secrecy and esotericism.

2Cocteau’s stage adaptation is based on Le Portrait de Dorian Gray, the 1895 translation by Eugène Tardieu and Georges Maurevert (because her study of the manuscript has shown that Cocteau created the play’s structure and Renaud copied the dialogue from the French translation, Eells argues that we can consider Cocteau as the play’s author). By changing the title to Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and describing it as a “pièce fantastique”, Cocteau emphasises the supernatural qualities of the source text and reminds us of the debt it owes to Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin; although the picture is never seen on stage, Dorian’s, Basil’s, and finally Harry’s (Lord Henry’s) respective reactions reveal its effects to the audience. Wilde’s episodic plot is condensed into four acts in a way which recalls the original serialised version of the novel, divided by five wordless tableaux that provide a visual counterpoint to the dialogue and recreate the atmosphere evoked by third-person narrative. Besides the three protagonists there are just five characters (Sibyl and Jim Vane, Alan Campbell, and Dorian’s servants, Francis and James). Act I focuses on adapting the dialogue from Wilde’s opening two chapters, culminating in Dorian’s outburst of jealousy against the painting; the theatrical form accentuates the idea of the Faustian pact and recalls the opening scene between Faust and Mephistopheles, as Harry ruminates on the immoral exertion of influence. Act II contains the story of Sibyl Vane and traces the development of Dorian’s character, cleverly updating the action by introducing a telephone conversation during which Dorian claims to Harry that he has burnt the painting. The stage directions at the start of Act III refer to a gap of 18 years, during which all the characters have noticeably aged except for Dorian; this act depicts the murder of Basil off stage and ends with Dorian looking for Alan Campbell’s phone number in the directory. Act IV contains a theatrical tour de force as Cocteau conflates several chapters into a pivotal scene: when Dorian has coerced Campbell into disposing of the body (off stage), Jim Vane climbs through the window of the darkened Grosvenor Square house to confront him. Dorian saves himself by asking Vane to turn on the light switch, thereby producing the irrevocable proof that he cannot be the same man who abandoned Sibyl. The play then ends with two brief scenes, as Dorian’s failed attempt to destroy the bleeding painting is swiftly followed by the discovery of his body by Harry with the servants. Cocteau’s script, which brings out the inherent theatricality of the source text and skilfully adapts it to the stage, can be seen as both tribute and Proustian pastiche volontaire, literally writing out the influence of Wilde by transcribing his dialogue, while pointing towards future echoes in Cocteau’s plays and films. Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray is not merely a juvenile curiosity or period piece and it is to be hoped that Eells’s republication and first English translation of the text will lead to an eventual performance.

3Raymond Laurent’s essay on Wilde is hardly known. The one copy of Etudes anglaises in the BnF—given to Maurice Barrès by Laurent’s grieving mother—was uncut before Eells read it. Despite the author’s evident admiration for Wilde this is not a simple panegyric; it is carefully structured, drawing on an impressive knowledge and close reading of Wilde’s entire œuvre, and is by no means unequivocal in its critique. The essay is in four parts, beginning with an initial argument that the Pre-Raphaelitism led to a renewed interest in the “human”, “concrete” and “empirical” qualities of beauty and art. The second part emphasises how Wilde goes beyond Ruskin and Pater to combine aestheticism, vitality and individuality; here Laurent emphasises the influence of Arnold, now familiar to us from subsequent discussions of Wilde’s precursors. The ending of this section—“Nous glorifions l’homme, nous glorifions la vie!”—epitomizes the extent to which Laurent identifies with his subject. But the expectation of an adagio from the third part is quickly deceived; having established “life as the first duty of all”, Laurent swiftly picks up the rhetorical flourishes of an orator giving a party political broadcast: “Vivre c’est être avec tant d’intensité! c’est exercer une telle domination! c’est écouter battre tant de cœurs avec le nôtre, dans le nôtre!”

4Earlier in the essay Laurent applies Nietzsche’s view of the hero to Wilde’s reflection on works which “fashion the era as they please”, and from the passage above one might also surmise that the influence of Nietzsche’s style—specifically that of Thus Spake Zarathustra—is evident in Laurent’s own criticism. Moreover, an earlier Nietzschean idea also comes to mind, namely the argument proposed in The Birth of Tragedy that the world might be justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon, put into practice here by the disciples of aesthetic vitality. It comes slightly as a surprise—albeit not an unwelcome one—when Laurent’s essay changes tack thereafter to focus on a closer reading of Wilde’s texts, considering favourably Intentions, Dorian Gray and some of the shorter works before delivering an unexpectedly withering verdict on the society plays (“tear-jerking vaudeville”) and on Salomé (“inferior art if ever there was!”), and concluding (not unlike Gide) that Wilde lacked the necessary artistic temperament to be more than a “mediocre man of letters”. The fourth part switches the focus to Wilde the man, but immediately reaffirms the value of Dorian Gray, the essays and De Profundis, showing how Laurent is anxious not to give the crude impression that Wilde’s life was his only successful creation. Even if Wilde never produced the masterpiece he hoped for, his struggle with life stands as both his originality and his modernity: “it is a pleasure to hear a heart beating, even if it will be broken by the joy that it gives us!” In an essay full of interesting ideas, the reference to a “new pantheism” here combines aestheticism, vitality and the Greek heritage to leave a fitting homage to Wilde’s achievements.

5The decision to publish these two works together is not simply inspired by their contemporaneity and relative neglect. Eells explains that Laurent’s suicide in Venice at the age of 21, caused by unrequited love for an American, may even have been witnessed by Cocteau; Cocteau’s postcard to Renaud shortly afterwards alludes to the death, and he mourns Laurent explicitly in a poem dedicated to him. Eells’s hypothesis is that Laurent’s death might have led to Cocteau’s wishing to distance himself “from anything that had to do with Wilde and tragic homosexual loss”. It is a compelling argument, although Cocteau’s exhortations to Renaud at the same time to secure copyright for the play suggest that he was still hopeful for it to be recognised in some form. Whatever the case may be, the play was forgotten during Cocteau’s lifetime and it is a great pleasure to be able to read both Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and Laurent’s essay “Oscar Wilde” together here, accompanied by Eells’s excellent parallel English translations, which make the texts accessible to Anglophone and Francophone readers alike. Two Tombeaux To Oscar Wilde is an impressive piece of scholarship, drawing on meticulous research on Cocteau’s manuscript and unpublished correspondence (in the Lilly Library, Indiana). It is also a lovingly crafted “book beautiful” which is a credit to both author and publisher and deserves a wide audience. To return to the drawing on the cover, the mirror anticipates an iconic image from one of Cocteau’s films, the still from Orphée of Jean Marais’s face next to its reflection in water. This is the image used by The Smiths for the cover of their 1983 single “This Charming Man”, an artefact which can in turn be seen as a tombeau to Cocteau in the lineage of Anglo-French cultural exchange, and as part of a cross-Channel dialogue on (gay) art which stretches from Shakespeare to Balzac, Gautier, Wilde, Gide and beyond.

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Richard Hibbitt, « Two Tombeaux to Oscar Wilde: Jean Cocteau’s Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and Raymond Laurent’s essay on Wildean aesthetics, A bilingual presentation of the texts edited and translated by Emily Eells », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 265-268.

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Richard Hibbitt, « Two Tombeaux to Oscar Wilde: Jean Cocteau’s Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and Raymond Laurent’s essay on Wildean aesthetics, A bilingual presentation of the texts edited and translated by Emily Eells », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 2014, consulté le 20 septembre 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1440

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Richard Hibbitt

University of Leeds.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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