"Tell Jean Cocteau that I adore him, the only person for whom Myth opens its gates, and from which he returns bronzed as from the seaside," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Cocteau's work has inspired this same degree of admiration in many people, but until now the "mystery" he insists upon has defied critics of his novels, plays and poems. In this first book-length analysis in English of one of the most fascinating literary figures of our time, Neal Oxenhandler explores that mystery, appropriately using the theater as the focus of his study. All the major Cocteau plays, certain of the minor ones, and a selection of the films are covered in this book. Mr. Oxenhandler's narration of the action of the plays, which contributes to the critical themes he develops, is so skillful that the reader need not have read the plays themselves. First setting forth the cultural and historical background of Cocteau's work, Oxenhandler shows, for the first time, the relation of Cocteau to Expressionism. He goes on to take up the matter of Cocteau's style, prefiguring a theme which the rest of the book develops: Cocteau's use of ambiguity. In the main body of the book, the author breaks down Cocteau's mystery into various aspects. There is the theme of persecution--Cocteau's characters are running away from something. There is what the author calls "a kind of moral failure," which he analyzes in terms of the Sartrian theory of "engagement"; Cocteau's characters are unable to become involved in the world around them. The author's final evaluation of Cocteau rests on the theory of a literature of negation which expresses value by a denial of value and in which anguish of one form or another is a substitute for choice. He sees Cocteau as "one of the great creators of negative literature; and perhaps in his sense of honesty and the authenticity of his struggle he has given us the true tragedy of our age."--Adapted from book jacket.