Jean Cocteau 1889–-1963
(Full name Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau) French playwright, filmmaker, scriptwriter, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, librettist, and autobiographer.
Among the most versatile and prolific artistic figures of the twentieth century, Cocteau is best remembered for his dramas and films in which he utilized myth and legend 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 theater” consisting not of words but of the integration of ballet, music, and pantomime. The fantastic, or “le merveilleux,” pervades both Cocteau's dramas and films in the form of symbolic objects and characters whose actions and transformation alter the viewer's understanding of reality by making the impossible a visually manifested experience.
Cocteau was born into a wealthy Parisian family and at an early age gained an appreciation for the performing arts. His father committed suicide when Cocteau was ten years old, and subsequently his mother became the dominant influence in his life. Biographers observe that the prominence of strong female characters in Cocteau's works may be traced to his mother. As a young student at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, Cocteau demonstrated a hatred for school and was eventually expelled. Afterward he began to pursue a literary career, publishing his first book, La Lampe d'Aladin, a volume of poetry, in 1909. While he continued to publish collections of poems throughout his life, Cocteau soon began to display his talents in other literary and artistic forms. During World War I he wrote his first novel, Le Potomak (1919), an unconventional work that was seemingly a random agglomeration of writings and drawings unified only by a sense of spiritual quest as it relates to the poet, the nature of poetry, and the poet's place in the world. Toward the war's end, Cocteau became associated with various avant-garde movements of the time, including cubism and futurism. He also began writing ballets, and among his early works in this form was the celebrated Parade (1917), which was inspired by Serge de Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes. This work featured music by French composer Erik Satie and set designs by Pablo Picasso. Nevertheless, despite his involvement with the central artistic figures and trends of post-World War I France, Cocteau never allied himself with any school or movement. During the 1920s he began to write adaptations of Greek dramas and produce original dramatic works, further exhibiting the diversity that would come to characterize his creative output. Throughout his career, Cocteau repeatedly proved himself to be one of the most innovative figures on the French cultural scene, distinguishing himself particularly as a dramatist and filmmaker, as well as engaging in a number of artistic ventures ranging from the decoration of public buildings to ceramics and the composition of music. Cocteau died in 1963.
Like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, Cocteau subscribed to the romantic notion of the poète maudit—the poet blessed with artistic powers of creation yet cursed to remain a misunderstood social outcast. Alienation from ordinary life and a corresponding affinity to realms of myth and fantasy are prevailing motifs that emerge in the dramas and films for which he is best known. La Voix humaine (1930; The Human Voice), which is probably Cocteau's most often performed work, is a one-act play for a single character, consisting entirely of a woman's one-sided conversation with a boyfriend who has abandoned her. Les chevaliers de la table ronde (1937; The Knights of the Round Table) is an adaptation of the Arthurian legend in which King Arthur and the sorcerer Merlin are pitted against each other. In Cocteau's first film, Le Sang d'un poète (1930; The Blood of a Poet), he offered a fantastic rendering of the intimate relationship between the poet and the world of dreams. La Belle et la bête (1945; Beauty and the Beast) exemplifies Cocteau's ambition of integrating other visual arts within the two-dimensional frame of a film and is considered among his most enduring cinematic works. Orphée (1950) and Le testament d'Orphée (1959; The Testament of Orpheus) employ classical legend and such visual effects as vanishing mirrors, vertical frames, and double images. Often criticized as difficult and obscure, Cocteau's films are generally regarded as the works of a highly original talent striving to realize his vision of cinema as “not a dream that is told but one we all dream together.”
Commentators on Cocteau's artistic career invariably emphasize the range and variety of his works. Tom Bishop has observed that “Cocteau's output is staggering in quantity and diversity, encompassing novels, plays, poems, films, essays, autobiographical writings, journalism, painting, and a voluminous correspondence. Much of this oeuvre is minor and some is frankly bad, but enough of it is outstanding, either intrinsically or as pure invention. … His failures do not diminish his major accomplishments.” By contrast, W. H. Auden has written that Cocteau was merely an artist who “works in a number of media and whose productions in any one of them are so varied that it is very difficult to perceive any unity of pattern or development. … Both the public and critics feel aggrieved.” While debate may persist concerning the value of Cocteau's artistic achievement, he nonetheless remains among the most renowned artistic figures of his time.