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.
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.
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.
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.