Jean Cocteau Essay - Cocteau, Jean (Drama Criticism)

Cocteau, Jean (Drama Criticism)


Jean Cocteau 1889-1963

(Born Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau) French playwright, poet, novelist, filmmaker, scriptwriter, critic, essayist, librettist, and autobiographer. See also Jean Cocteau Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 8, 15, 16.

Among the most versatile, innovative, and prolific literary figures of the twentieth century, Cocteau is best known for his dramas and films in which he utilized myth and tragedy in modern contexts to shock and surprise his audiences. Identifying himself as a poet and referring to virtually all of his works as poetry, Cocteau rejected naturalism in favor of lyrical fantasy, through which he sought to create a “poetry of the theatre” consisting not of words but of such stage devices as ballet, music, and pantomime. The fantastic, or le merveilleux, is made manifest in Cocteau's plays through inanimate objects and symbolic characters, which embellish one's understanding of “reality” by making the impossible possible.

Biographical Information

In 1889 Cocteau was born into a wealthy Parisian family. Although he briefly attended the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, he detested school and left to pursue a writing career. His early poetry and novels attracted the attention of critics and intellectuals. Toward the end of World War I, Cocteau became associated with the avant-garde movement at Montparnasse, which included such poets as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. Despite his involvement with these central artistic figures, Cocteau never allied himself with any school or movement. The death of his mentor and lover, Raymond Radiguet, in 1923 devastated Cocteau; grief-stricken, he turned to opium, an addiction that plagued him all of his life and was the subject of many of his writings. While hospitalized for opium poisoning in 1929, Cocteau met the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain's influence prompted Cocteau to turn briefly to religion. In the 1940s Cocteau became involved in filmmaking, adapting several of his plays to film. He was elected to the prestigious Académie Française in 1956. He died on October 11, 1963 in Milly-la-Foret, Essone, France.

Major Works

Cocteau's early ballets, Parade (1917) and Le Dieu bleu (1912), were inspired by Serge de Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes and featured music by Eric Satie and set designs and costumes by Pablo Picasso. Parade depicts a festival and its bizarre promoters, who attempt to entice an onstage audience to enter a mysterious tent; the ballet ends without the spectators having entered the tent, implying that Cocteau's interest is not in the event itself but in the visual occurrences that surround it. Although a complete failure at its first production, Parade is generally regarded as one of the twentieth century's most innovative ballets. Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (1912; The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party), an irreverent satire of bourgeois values, centers on a banal wedding party at the base of the Eiffel Tower. In Antigone (1922), Cocteau adapted Sophocles's tragedy to what he called “the rhythm of our times,” thus initiating a lifelong preoccupation with contemporizing Greek mythologies. Orphée (1926; Orpheus) is among Cocteau's most innovative adaptations, focusing on the poet as interpreter of the supernatural and the poet's relationship to the source of inspiration. In this drama, objects, animals, and characters become symbols of ritual and acquire startling new associations. Cocteau also attempted several adaptations of the Oedipal myth during his career. The first, Oedipus-Rex (1926), is an opera-oratorio on which he collaborated with composer Igor Stravinsky. Oedipe Roi (1928), a free adaptation that Cocteau revised in 1962 as an attempt at “total theatre,” combines virtually all the performing arts to evoke lyric tragedy. Cocteau's best-regarded reworking of the Oedipal myth is La machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine), a drama exploring the relationship between free will and determinism that makes use of modern vernacular and musical forms.

Of his original dramas, La voix humaine (1930; The Human Voice) is probably Cocteau's most often-performed work. Written as a “monodrama,” a one-act lay for a single character, the drama consists entirely of a woman's one-sided conversation with a boyfriend who has abandoned her. Les parents terribles (1938; Intimate Relations), a drama about family conflict, jealousy, and manipulation, reveals the influence of Greek tragedy but derives its form from Parisian boulevard theater. Cocteau's plays of the 1940s are generally considered less successful than his earlier works. L'aigle à deux têtes (1946; The Eagle Has Two Heads), his best-known work of this period, is a melodrama in which a young poet, allegorically representing the angel of death, falls in love with a puppet empress and with tragic results attempts to help her regain her power.

Critical Reception

Evaluations of Cocteau's career often touch on the variety of his work and his prolific creative output. Critics have offered mixed assessments of his oeuvre: some reviewers assert that his efforts were inconsistent and that he was too preoccupied with producing avant-garde works; others maintain that his failures outnumber his successes. Moreover, Cocteau's detractors often questioned his importance as an original and innovative artist. Critics note that alienation is a defining thematic concern in Cocteau's work; other subjects for critical commentary have been his focus on the origin of artistic creation and inspiration, the limitations of free will, and the relationships between such opposing forces as adolescence and adulthood, illusion and reality, and order and disorder. Despite the lack of critical consensus on his work, critics generally agree that Cocteau made a valuable contribution to twentieth-century theatre, particularly with his adaptations of ancient Greek dramas.

Principal Works

Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray [The Portrait of Dorian Gray] 1909

Le Patience de Pénélope 1910

Le Boeuf sur le toit 1920

Le Gendarme incompris 1921

Paul et Virginie 1921

Antigone 1922

Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel [The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party] 1924

Roméo et Juliette 1924

Oedipus-Rex 1926

Orphée [Orpheus: A Tragedy in One Act] 1926

Oedipe Roi 1928

La voix humaine [The Human Voice] 1930

La machine infernale [The Infernal Machine] 1934

Les Chevaliers de la table ronde 1937

L'Impromtu d'Alice 1937

L'Impromptu des Bouffes-Parisiens 1938

Les parents terribles [Intimate Relations] 1938

Les Monstres sacrés 1940

La machine à écrire [The Typewriter] 1941

Renaud et Armide 1943

L'aigle à deux têtes [The Eagle Has Two Heads] 1946

Un Tramway nommé Déresir 1949

Bacchus 1951

L'Impromptu du Palais-Royal 1962

Le sang d'un poete [Blood of a Poet] 1930

Le belle et la bête 1945

La voix humaine 1947

L'aigle á deux têtes 1947

Orphée 1951

Le testament d'Orphée 1959

Le Dieu bleu (ballet ) 1912

Parade (ballet) 1917

Le grand écart [The Grand Ecart] (novel) 1923

Thomas l'imposteur [Tomas the Impostor] (novel) 1923

Opera: Oeuvres poetiques, 1925-1927 (poetry) 1927

Les enfants terribles [The Children of the Game] (novel) 1929

Opium: Journal d'une desintoxication [Opium: The diary of an Addict] (nonfiction) 1930

The Journals of Jean Cocteau (nonfiction) 1956

Criticism: General Commentary

Carol A. Cujec (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Cujec, Carol A. “Modernizing Antiquity: Jean Cocteau's Early Greek Adaptations.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 17, no. 1 (fall 1996): 45-56.

[In the following essay, Cujec asserts that Cocteau's early classical adaptations—Antigone, Oedipus-Rex, Oedipe-Roi—are “bold avant-garde experiments reflecting the radical revision of the theater by modernist innovators of the era.”]

Following his initial productions of avant-garde ballet, Jean Cocteau sought to confirm his capabilities as a serious dramatist by turning to classical subject matter. Cocteau's interest in the classics was encouraged by his companion Raymond Radiguet who...

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Cornelia A. Tsakiridou (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Tsakiridou, Cornelia A. “Greece in Cocteau; Cocteau in Greece.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 26, no. 1 (2000): 21-37.

[In the following essay, Tsakiridou explores the defining characteristics of Cocteau's plays, in particular his interest in Greek mythology and culture.]

It is the irony of the twentieth century in the West to have been determined pervasively in art and politics by certain myths and mythologies and to have destroyed and deconstructed others. The experiments with which artists like Jean Cocteau (1898-1963) assaulted artistic conventions and social norms are now a commonplace of art practice and discourse, with a historiography that seems...

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Criticism: Le Portrait Surnaturel De Dorian Gray (The Portrait Of Dorian Gray)

SOURCE: Christensen, Peter G. “Three Concealments: Jean Cocteau's Adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Romance Notes 27, no. 1 (autumn 1986): 27-35.

[In the following essay, Christensen evaluates the significance of Cocteau's Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray and discusses the issue of homosexuality in the play.]

In the twenty-two years since Jean Cocteau's death, interest in his work has risen and then waned. The peak period was 1968-1971, which saw the appearance of three biographies—those of Elizabeth Sprigge and Jean-Jacques Kihm, Frederick Brown, and Francis Steegmuller. Since then much previously unavailable work, both private and...

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Criticism: Les MariéS De La Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party)

SOURCE: Levitt, Annette Shandler. “Breasts, Couples, Children and Other Clichés: Visual/Verbal Imagery in Surrealist Drama.” Word & Image 4, no. 1 (January-March 1988): 292-96.

[In the following essay, Levitt examines the relationship between art and reality in Cocteau's Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel.]

In the first moments of Les Mystères de l'amour (1924), his only play labelled “drame surréaliste,” Roger Vitrac uses visual imagery to initiate a radical shift from conventional staging. The play opens with a Prologue in which the protagonist is seen “tracing sinuous lines in the mud with a stick.” He is, he tells a policeman,...

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Criticism: OrphéE (Orpheus)

SOURCE: Long, Chester Clayton. “Cocteau's Orphée: From Myth to Drama and Film.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 51, no. 3 (October 1965): 311-25.

[In the following essay, Long contrasts the mythical, dramatic, and cinematic versions of Orphée, emphasizing Cocteau's versions of the Greek myth.]


No one should any longer question the “distortion” of myth in a poet's work, especially if the poet is writing for the theatre. The free adaptation of whichever of the many versions of a particular myth a poet happens to have at hand during composition is a long and venerable tradition. The Greeks, and specifically Aristotle,...

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Criticism: La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice)

SOURCE: Willem, Linda M. “Almodóvar on the Verge of Cocteau's La Voix humaine.Literature/Film Quarterly 26, no. 2 (1998): 142-47.

[In the following essay, Willem judges the influence of Cocteau's La Voix humaine on Pedro Almodóvar's film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.]

Jean Cocteau's one-act play, La Voix humaine [The Human Voice], consists entirely of a monologue by a woman engaged in a final phone conversation with her lover. Alone in her room, she desperately clings to the telephone as her only link to the man who has left her for someone else. Although this agonizing portrait of abandonment and despair bears little...

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Criticism: La Machine Infernale (The Infernal Machine)

John Carter (review date 13 September 1940)

SOURCE: Carter, John. “The Theatre.” Spectator 165 (13 September 1940): p. 267.

[In the following review, Carter critiques a production of The Infernal Machine performed at the Arts Theatre Club.]

The name of Mr. Oliver Messel is printed as large as the author's. And however deplorable this may seem in principle, it must be confessed that the most satisfying memory of this performance is the décor. Mr. Messel shares with Berard the wonderful sense of colour and the modish neo-classicism which made Seventh Symphony and Symphonie Fantastique such a pleasure to the eye. Indeed, Oedipus's scene with the Spinx might have taken place only a few...

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Derek F. Connon (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: Connon, Derek F. “Folded Eternity: Time and the Mythic Dimension in Cocteau's La machine infernale.” Forum 29, no. 1 (January 1993): 31-45.

[In the following essay, Connon addresses the critical reaction to Cocteau's La machine infernale and considers the treatment of time in his play.]

André Gide, wryly responding to the proliferation of works by Cocteau on the same theme as his Œdipe, proclaimed an ædipémie.1 The first performance of Œdipe-Roi in 1937, closely following that of La Machine infernale in 1934, meant that Cocteau had produced two plays on this subject since Gide's creation of his own...

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Criticism: L'Impromptu Du Palais-Royal

SOURCE: Crowson, Lydia. “Cocteau and ‘Le Numéro Barbette’”. Modern Drama 19, no. 1 (March 1976): 79-87.

[In the following essay, Crowson investigates the relationship between his essay “Le Numéro Barbette” and L'Impromptu du Palais Royal.]

One of the accusations most frequently leveled against Jean Cocteau is that there is no continuity in his work, that he created merely for the sake of effect without having any real goal in mind. Yet, if the evidence is fairly examined, it becomes clear that this is not the case, at least in his conception of stage performance. One of his earliest esthetic formulations is an article entitled “Le Numéro...

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Further Reading


Anderson, Alexandra, and Carol Saltus, eds. Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1984, 239 p.

Contains essays on Cocteau's works in various genres and discusses his role in intellectual circles in twentieth-century France.

Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz. Jean Cocteau. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970, 179 p.

Study of Cocteau's life and works.

Oxenhandler, Neal. Scandal and Parade: The Theater of Jean Cocteau. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957, 284 p.

Important early study of Cocteau's dramas.


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