Marissa Skudlarek is forever young.
Jean Cocteau disowned his first two books of poetry. Fortunately for him, his lifetime artistic output was so vast that, even if he disowned two of his books, he was still left with a remarkable body of work. Cocteau was an artistic prodigy. His first books of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp and The Frivolous Prince, came out when he was barely twenty years old and made him the delight of Parisian literary circles. Other people were less charmed, and thanks to the title of his second book, they nicknamed Cocteau himself “the frivolous prince.” That’s not exactly a flattering name, nor one that you’d like to keep into adulthood, so I suppose I can see why Cocteau came to disown that book of poems.
At the same time, it always makes me uncomfortable when artists disown their early works. I guess I can understand disowning one of your books if it promotes ideas and beliefs that you no longer hold, especially if you now consider those ideas downright dangerous or wrong. But if you’re disowning something just because you think it’s poorly written or too juvenile or not up to your usual standards… that, to me, seems like a cruel rejection of your younger self. Despite its flaws, that work was part of your artistic development. Maybe you had to write that ludicrous, melodramatic story at the age of 15 in order to write a subtle, nuanced story at the age of 30. Our juvenilia can be embarrassing to read — artless and awkward, or else pretentious and striving too hard to impress. But that’s often because it reflects who we were at the time we wrote it. I strive to embrace my younger self, with her pretensions, her awkwardness, her bad taste in music. I might still laugh at some of the things I wrote when I was younger, but it’s an affectionate, indulgent laugh, not a mocking one.
Some people think that they look smarter when they disdain their younger selves but, in fact, this can make them do and say foolish things. Recently, in Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg published a screed denouncing Romeo and Juliet as “horribly depressing” and “full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love.” To be fair, Rosenberg doesn’t exactly misinterpret Romeo and Juliet: she understands very well that it is a play about heedless teenage infatuation, and she makes a good point that the play can fall apart when the actors playing Romeo and Juliet seem too adult. (She is not looking forward to the upcoming Broadway production starring 36-year-old Orlando Bloom as Romeo.) But rather than praising the play for how well it captures the grandiose “us against the world” feeling of teenage romance, she believes that it’s dangerous to promote this idea of love. Reading her piece, I hear a subtext of “I was so stupid when I was a teenager and had those intense, heedless crushes and relationships! Why would I ever want to go back to that time? I’m so much more mature now.” The thing is, I don’t think that Rosenberg’s dislike of Romeo and Juliet makes her look intelligent and mature. Instead, she seems full of self-loathing and bitterness, lacking compassion for her younger self.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because I just produced a staged reading of a play, The Rose of Youth, that I wrote five years ago. Perhaps there’s not a huge difference between a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old, yet my writing has improved in the past five years, and there are definitely sections of the play that feel characteristic of a younger, less skilled writer. I introduced the male romantic lead in the most boring possible way, for instance; and the play is full of moments that made me sigh and go, “Oh, Marissa, you were just trying so hard to impress your professors there, weren’t you?” (The play was my senior thesis at college.) However, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to revise the play; I left the script as I had left it five years ago, awkward moments and all. I had to put my theory into practice, and embrace my younger self. I acknowledged that I’d learned a lot from writing The Rose of Youth, and that it was exactly the play that I needed to write as a college senior. But I also realized that my artistic development has continued, and I’ve now moved to another level as a writer.
Yes, it’s possible to develop as an artist without feeling the need to disown your earlier work. Indeed, in another respect, that’s what Jean Cocteau did. Fascinated by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, he wrote his play Orphee in 1925 — but that didn’t end his engagement with this story. Twenty-five years later, he made a film called Orphee, which bears some similarities to the 1925 play — for instance, both depict Death as a beautiful and imperious woman — yet develops the story in a different direction. Orphee the film is now better known than Orphee the play, and perhaps it is a better, more mature work. (I, for one, find the film more emotionally affecting.) Yet Cocteau did not disown his earlier play. He let both works coexist with each other — a testament to his artistic development and his fruitful, ever-active imagination.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (the play) on April 15 at Theater Pub. For more, you can follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com.