Jean Cocteau Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201634-Cocteau.jpg Jean Cocteau Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: From the years before World War I until his death in 1963, Cocteau enriched the cultural life of France with his highly creative contributions to such diverse fields as literature, ballet, art, and cinema. His works express with great lucidity a pessimistic view of the world that continues to fascinate admirers of Cocteau’s films, novels, plays, and poems.

Early Life

Jean Cocteau was born on July 5, 1889, in Maisons-Laffitte, a small town outside Paris. His father, Georges, was a wealthy businessman and his mother, Eugénie, was very interested in art and music. His maternal grandfather was both an avid art collector and a respected cellist. Art and music played an integral part in Cocteau’s childhood and adolescence. After Georges Cocteau’s death in 1899, his widow Eugénie moved to Paris with her two sons, Jean and Paul, and her daughter Marthe. During his adolescence, Cocteau frequented Parisian literary salons and composed well-crafted but rather conventional poems. He was not yet an original artist.

During the years before World War I, Cocteau met the eminent Russian ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Their creative transformations of musical conventions inspired Cocteau to seek equally imaginative and disciplined ways to express his own poetic vision. Lasting friendships with such poets as Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, with painters including Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and with the composers Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Arthur Honegger encouraged Cocteau to develop profound relationships among these art forms. Cocteau produced drawings of excellent quality. He worked together with Picasso and Diaghilev on an experimental 1917 ballet entitled Parade, and he would later write the libretto for Stravinsky’s 1925 oratorio Oedipus Rex. His extended contacts with important poets, painters, and composers helped to transform Cocteau from an urbane salon poet into a creative writer.

Life’s Work

Although Cocteau did produce during the 1910’s highly imaginative books such as his 1919 volume of poetry Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (the Cape of Good Hope), which describes the world as seen from an airplane, there was no real unity or depth in his works from this decade. He was then an extremely eclectic writer who followed whichever literary movements were popular in Paris. In 1919, however, Cocteau met Raymond Radiguet. The four years that they spent together changed permanently Cocteau’s understanding of his role as a writer. Radiguet became Cocteau’s lover, but, more important for Cocteau, Radiguet became his intellectual mentor and the only real friend whom Cocteau ever had. He persuaded Cocteau to distrust all trendy and thus ephemeral literary movements. He wanted Cocteau to create a new French classicism that would stress aesthetic distance, clarity in style and thinking, and profound analyses of human emotions. Under Radiguet’s guidance, Cocteau began to compose truly significant works such as Thomas l’imposteur (1923; Thomas the Impostor, 1925), a powerful psychological novel about an adolescent’s personal suffering during World War I. Radiguet’s death in December, 1923, of typhoid fever drove Cocteau into an extreme depression from which he never fully recovered. His acquaintances feared that Cocteau would kill himself. Louis Laloy, then director of the Monte-Carlo Opera House, believed that opium would help Cocteau. Cocteau began taking opium, and his drug addiction clearly exacerbated his emotional problems. Several times Cocteau entered drug rehabilitation programs, but his efforts never fully succeeded, largely because Cocteau enjoyed the illusory pleasures of consuming opium.

Despite his drug addiction, Cocteau remained a very prolific writer. Perhaps recalling Radiguet’s passion for the classics, Cocteau now sought inspiration more and more frequently in classical literature. Cocteau adapted classical myths to modern sensibilities. In 1927, Cocteau completed a one-act play entitled Orphée (Orpheus, 1933). According to classical mythology, the poet Orpheus was a generous husband whose wife, Eurydice, truly loved him. Orpheus willingly risks his life in order to free Eurydice from Hades. Cocteau believed, however, that the great loss of life in World War I made it difficult for his contemporaries to identify with such an idealized representation of love. Cocteau depicts Orpheus as profoundly alienated from his insensitive and aggressive...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

It could be argued that Jean Maurice Eugène Clement Cocteau was born and bred to be an outsider. Reared by a family of stockbrokers, diplomats, and admirals, he was a product of the grande bourgeoisie française, neither entirely of the middle class nor entirely of the aristocracy. His parents, Georges and Eugénie Lecomte Cocteau, a couple who were no strangers to the arts, introduced Jean, his brother Paul, and his sister Marthe to music, theater, architecture, indeed, all the fine arts. Georges died when Jean was nine years old, and his mother, with whom he had a long and close relationship, had difficulty keeping the boy at the Petit Lycée Condorcet, where he was a poor student. Instead, Cocteau preferred to follow his own interests at home and to attend the theater regularly.

His birthplace, Maisons-Laffitte, allowed Cocteau easy access to Paris, where he involved himself in the various avant-garde movements that followed hard on one another in the early part of the twentieth century, finding comradeship in unconventional undertakings with fellow outsiders. His friends included such writers as Edmond Rostand, Catulle Mendès, Leon Daudet, Marcel Proust, and the Comtesse Anna de Noailles. By 1909, he had published his first book of poems, La Lampe d’Aladin.

Soon afterward, he met the director of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, a man who influenced Cocteau immensely, inspiring him to write a number of ballet scenarios. Diaghilev’s remonstrance to “Astonish me!” is claimed to have set Cocteau on his...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jean Cocteau’s background was solidly Parisian bourgeois. Georges and Eugénie Lecomte Cocteau, his parents, were a cultivated couple who introduced Jean, his brother Paul, and his sister Marthe to the fine arts. Near their suburban home, Cocteau would recall, the children played on the grounds of a “magical” castle designed by François Mansart. When living in the city with his grandparents, Cocteau would wander through rooms that contained classical busts, vases, a painting by Eugène Delacroix, and drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The celebrated violinist Pablo de Sarasate often visited Cocteau’s grandfather, who was a cellist, and they would play music together. What impressed the young Cocteau most, however, were his trips to the circus, the ice palace, and the theater, particularly the Comédie-Française. His memories of these trips, he would later come to realize, were even brighter than the real experiences. In his own productions years later, he would ask technicians to duplicate the lighting or brilliance of childhood theatrical events and be told it had been technically impossible to create such effects when he was a boy. Memory had heightened the splendor of the past, including the recollections of the castle and of his grandparents’ house; his own life began to assume mythological dimensions.

At the Petit Lycée Condorcet, Cocteau was a poor student, especially after his father killed himself in 1899 because of financial pressures. He did, however, meet the haunting Pierre Dargelos, who would become the dark “god” of Children of the Game. At the Grand Condorcet, Cocteau was frequently truant, exploiting his illnesses to stay home. Like many creative people, he was irritated by institutions, and he much preferred having his German governess sew doll clothes for a model theater to sitting behind a school desk. Réné Rocher, one of his best friends, often played with Cocteau’s miniature theaters and, in adulthood, became a director himself.

Cocteau traveled with his mother to Venice, then began study for his baccalauréat. He was more interested, however, in his first love affair—with Madeleine Carlier, ten years his senior—and his deepening involvement in theater. He became a protégé of Édouard de Max, who acted opposite Sarah Bernhardt. All of these diversions contributed to Cocteau’s failing the bachot.

De Max, however, thrust Cocteau into the public eye by organizing a reading of Cocteau’s poetry by de Max, Rocher, and other prominent actors and actresses, at the Théâtre Fémina, on April 4, 1908. Several important literary critics and many of the elite of Paris attended. Cocteau’s debut was a great success, and reviewers compared him to Pierre de Ronsard and Alfred de Musset. Subsequently, Cocteau met many literary notables, including Edmond Rostand, Marcel Proust, Charles-Pierre Péguy, Catulle Mendès, and Jules Lemaître. Comtesse Anna de Noailles particularly enchanted him, and he tried to write refined and sensual poetry like hers. He helped found the literary magazine Schéhérazade, dedicated to poetry and music, and moved into the Hôtel Biron, whose residents at the time included Auguste Rodin and his secretary, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Meeting the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes caused Cocteau to abandon his previous enthusiasms for a while. He begged Diaghilev to let him write ballets. Diaghilev...

(The entire section is 1416 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Jean Cocteau was a formidable artist in many genres and awesomely prolific. Among his seven novels, little read today, the most important is Les Enfants terribles (1929; Enfants Terribles, 1930, also known as Children of the Game, 1955). Among his many plays, some of the most notable are Orphée (pr. 1926; Orpheus, 1933), La Voix humaine (pr., pb. 1930; The Human Voice, 1951), La Machine infernale (pr., pb. 1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936), Les Parents terribles (pr., pb. 1938; Intimate Relations, 1952), and La Machine à écrire (pr., pb. 1941; The Typewriter, 1948). In the...

(The entire section is 4208 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean Maurice Eugène Clement Cocteau (kok-TOH) was born on July 5, 1889, in Maisons-Laffitte, on the outskirts of Paris, France, where he would spend most of his diverse, prolific, and well-publicized artistic career. A fragile child, he was introduced early to the arts by his family and their acquaintances. At the age of nine, his father, Georges, committed suicide, an event never mentioned in any of Cocteau’s works; Cocteau then began his intense preoccupation with the circus, the theater, and classical music. He attended primary school from the ages of eleven to fourteen, and his three failures at the baccalauréat clearly showed his lack of taste for the regimented French educational system, which he later called...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

At the age of forty-one, in his 1930 account of opium addiction, Jean Cocteau would write that even a poet cannot write his own biography. In the broadest sense, however, Cocteau’s life was an exercise in being as many different poets as possible. In media ranging from fresco to film to the novel, Cocteau attempted to bring together a perfection of classical form and a wildly innovative modernity. By placing the debris of World War I on the stage of Greek tragedy behind a veil of medieval mysticism, he created a revolution not only in art but also in society. As flamboyant in life as in art, his agility and intensity continue to impress and sometimes to offend.

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

An artist possessed of many extraordinary talents, Jean Cocteau (kawk-toh) astonished the world for more than five decades with the originality of his poems, novels, plays, films, paintings, drawings, and critical articles. Prolific, brilliant, and charming, Cocteau earned the admiration and friendship of intellectuals and artists from many fields: The painter Pablo Picasso, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the writer André Gide, and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel were counted among his friends. Born near Paris in 1889 into a wealthy bourgeois family, the young Cocteau enjoyed all the advantages of his situation. The theater enchanted him, as did music halls and the circus. He hated the Lycée Condorcet, which he attended from 1900 to...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Jean Cocteau Biography

(Drama for Students)

The French poet, playwright, novelist, artist, and film maker Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was born to a wealthy family on July 5,...

(The entire section is 826 words.)