Jean Cocteau Cocteau, Jean (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.”

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

La Lampe d'Aladin (poetry) 1909

Le Prince frivole (poetry) 1910

La Danse de Sophocle (poetry) 1912

Le Dieu Bleu (ballet) 1912

Parade (ballet) 1917

Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (poetry) 1919

Le Potomak (novel) 1919

Discours du grand sommeil (poetry) 1920

Le Boeuf sur le toit (play) 1920

Poésies, 1917-1920 (poetry) 1920

Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel [The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party] (play) 1921

Paul et Virginie (play) 1921

Antigone [adapted from the drama by Sophocles] (play) 1922

Vocabulaire (poetry) 1922

Plain-chant (poetry) 1923

Thomas l'imposteur [Thomas the Imposter] (novel) 1923

Poésie 1916-1923 (poetry) 1924

Roméo et Juliette [based on the play by William Shakespeare] (play) 1925

L'Ange Heurtebise (poetry) 1926

Orphée [Orpheus] (play) 1926

Oedipe-Roi (play) 1927

Opéra: oeuvres poetiques 1925-1927 (poetry) 1927

Le Liver blanc [The White Paper] (novel) 1928

Les Enfants terribles [Enfants Terribles (novel) 1929; also published as Children of the Game and Holy Terrors

Le Sang d'un poète [The Blood of a Poet] (screenplay) 1930

La Voix humaine [The Human Voice] (play) 1930

Opium (autobiography) 1932

La Machine infernale [The Infernal Machine] (play) 1934

Les chevaliers de la table ronde [The Knights of the Round Table] (play) 1937

Les Parents terribles [Intimate Relations] (play) 1938

La Fin du Potomak (novel) 1940

Les Monstres sacrés [The Holy Terrors] (play) 1940

Les Poèmes allemands (poetry) 1944

La Belle et la bête [Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film] (screenplay) 1945

Léone [Leoun] (poetry) 1945

L'aigle deux têtes [The Eagle Has Two Heads] (drama) 1946

La Crucifixion (poetry) 1946

Les Parents terribles (screenplay) 1948

Orphée (screenplay) 1950

Bacchus (play) 1951

Entretiens autour de la cinématographie [On Film] (essays) 1951

Dentelle d'éternité (poetry) 1953

Poèmes 1916-1955 (poetry) 1956

Le testament d'Orphée [The Testament of Orpheus] (screenplay) 1959

Le Requiem (poetry) 1961

Faire-Part (poem) 1968

Professional Secrets: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1970

Le Portrait surnaturel de Dorian Gray (play) 1978

Le Passé défini [Past Tense, Volume 1, Diaries] (diaries) 1983

Allen Thiher (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thiher, Allen. “Le Sang d'un Poète: Film as Orphism.” In The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema, pp. 49-62. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Thiher examines Cocteau's poetics in his film Le Sang d'un Poète as a point of departure from modernism to postmodernism in cinematic history because of Cocteau's interpretation of the myth of Orpheus.]

When the Viscount Charles de Noailles financed the production of Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or and of Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète, it is unlikely that he knew he was subsidizing those two opposing modes of sensibility that have tended to dominate France in the twentieth century, total revolt and tragic acceptance. Indeed, there appears to be something contradictory in his putting up money, on the one hand, for a surrealist work that provoked riots on its first showing, and on the other hand, for a film that was, as Cocteau later put it, an “attack on the all-powerful surrealistic politics of the era.”1 In retrospect, however, both films are seminal works of the modernist imagination. In terms of what we might call surface ideology, the films are quite opposed. Yet both films share the same modernist aesthetic premises in that both aim at forms of revelation. The surrealists called the goal of their art the revelation of the merveilleux, whereas Cocteau saw the end of his poetic practice to be dévoilement or “unveiling”:

Toute ma poésie est là: Je décalque
L'invisible (invisible à vous).(2)
[All my poetry is there: I trace out
The invisible (what's invisible to you).]

It is little wonder that the public tends to confuse Cocteau with the surrealists, since their merveilleux and his dévoilement often offer the same kind of irrational imagery. Yet, in a broader scope, it is useful to see that both Cocteau and the surrealists had goals that were not unlike Joyce's search for epiphany or Proust's disclosure of privileged moments. All these modernist artists saw their art as a form of ecstatic knowledge. Buñuel's iconoclastic revelation may well be in the service of desire and may seek to lay bare the repressed, while Cocteau's unveiling aims at making visible our eternal tragic destiny. But both artists seek revelations that are removed from the rational categories of time and causality; this seeking is the essential modernist quest.

Though Cocteau and the surrealists were often opposed to each other—Cocteau's work sometimes provoked violent reactions from the surrealists—one must note that Cocteau greatly admired Buñuel's first film, Un Chien andalou. In his diary, Opium, Cocteau makes it clear that he considered Dali and Buñuel's parodistic film to be one of the few great works that cinema had produced by 1929. His enthusiastic comments show, moreover, that he interpreted it in terms of the modernist canon:

Advance and fall, bicycle, horse for a bullfight, rotten donkeys, priests, Spanish dwarfs! Every time blood flows in families, in the street, it's hidden, it's covered up with linens, people arrive, they form a circle that keeps one from seeing. There is also the blood of the soul's body. It makes one drunk with atrocious wounds, it flows from the corner of the mouth, and neither families nor policemen nor curious bystanders think about hiding it.3

Cocteau interprets the film, on the one hand, as a form of disclosure, of unveiling that reveals the invisible. On the other hand, he sees the open flow of blood in what we can call Orphic terms. In fact, the open intoxication with blood is plain in the Orphic ritual at the end of Le Sang d'un Poète. Cocteau's way of seeing the violence of eros in Buñuel's work foreshadows his own filmic poet and his death.

In their Orphism, Cocteau and the surrealists are again quite comparable, for as modernists they derived much of their poetic practice from the same sources. They both accepted, with some modification, Mallarmé's Orphism as well as Rimbaud's view of poetry as an ecstatic exploration of the unconscious. In Cocteau's case, Mallarmé's Orphism furnished a justification of poetry as a hieratic activity in which the poet consecrates himself as a guardian of the mysteries or revelation that poetry can offer to the initiated. As William Spanos has stated, the “strategy of Symbolist modernism was one of religio-aesthetic withdrawal from existential time into the eternal simultaneity of essential art.”4 The poet, then, in Mallarmé's and Cocteau's views, subordinates himself to language that in its highest form becomes an iconic monument unto itself, at the same time that it is a funerary medallion granting the poet his vocation and his destiny. Cocteau readily accepted the ideas that a poet's destiny is his death and that through his death he is consecrated by his work.

The notion of the poet's subordinating himself to his destiny, to his work and to death, is closely tied to Cocteau's view of Rimbaud—the true angel, as Cocteau once called him in a discussion of angelism. Cocteau took from Rimbaud, much as the surrealists did, the idea that poetry is a practice involving the submission of the conscious mind to those undiscovered, largely unconscious forces that constitute what Rimbaud calls the “true life.” “I is another” (“Je est un autre”) is Rimbaud's most condensed cry of his refusal of the limits of the conscious self. The locus of revelation must lie beyond the limits of the rational mind. Central to this view of poetry as a quest for revelation that lies beyond consciousness and rational discourse is the metaphor of the descent or diving. Like Rimbaud's drunken boat, the poet must plunge into the sea in order to bring back those marvels that lie beneath the surface. The sea and its depths are another metaphor, of course, for the poet's self and the locus of revelation, for the poet is both the explorer and the region to be explored. It is this metaphor that lies behind Cocteau's comment that Le Sang d'un Poète is a descent. As we shall see, it also points beyond the modernist search for revelation to offer an insight into Cocteau's view that poetry is always an act that designates its own genesis and creation.

The poet's descent into night, to offer a romantic metaphor that also lies behind the modernist search for revelation, is thus an exploration of the irrational that finds its justification through the disclosure of a superior realm of being. This unveiling of a region of being having ontological priority over those regions that realistic art represents is the essential modernist task, a task undertaken by both Cocteau and the surrealists. But beyond this, it should be stressed, Cocteau and the surrealists had little in common. Cocteau could never accept the cry for liberation that animated surrealism. In fact, his entire work is a meditation on the nature of destiny, particularly on the destiny of the poet or the mortal whom the often unconscious forces of destiny elect so that destiny can be revealed. Cocteau is, like his contemporaries Giraudoux and Montherlant, an inheritor of the tragic tradition, and it is not the least of his feats to have combined a tragic vision reflecting Sophocles and Racine with an Orphic sense of poetry such as Mallarmé expressed in his “Tombeau d'Edgar Poe”:

Tel qu'en Lui-même enfin l'éternité le change,
Le poète suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siècle épouvanté de n'avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voix étrange!
[Such as into Himself at last eternity changes
him, the Poet stirs with a naked sword
his century dismayed to have ignored
that death still triumphed in this voice so strange!]

The poet, the tragic scapegoat that destiny picks for its enigmatic purposes, is he who surprises, startles, and even terrifies by revealing that he triumphs over death precisely because destiny has selected him and set him apart.

These preliminary remarks allow us, then, to situate Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète in terms of its aesthetic axioms and, in addition, permits us to see that in some respects Cocteau has in this film gone beyond the modernist assumptions that lie behind his poetic practice. Our first impression on viewing the film, however, is that it is essentially modernist in its attempt to negate what we have called the artist's fall into time. The shot of the collapsing industrial smokestack that opens and closes the film represents the passage of time, which means, of course, that the entire film unfolds in a locus that is outside of time and our mundane realm of causal determinism. This manner of placing a work outside a framework or normal temporal-spatial reference is not unique to Le Sang d'un Poète. In both the play and, later, in the film Orphée, Cocteau uses the repeated arrival of a mailman to suggest by the recurrence that the work's perceived duration has taken place outside of the normal temporal-spatial coordinates of everyday reality. This desire to transform mimesis into a nontemporal, iconic form of simultaneous revelation is also found in his play La Machine infernale. In this modernist version of Oedipus, the first and second acts take place at the same time: Laius' ghost appears on the ramparts while fate grants Oedipus the illusion of freedom. This simultaneity suggests that, from the gods' point of view, temporal succession is meaningless, for the beginning and the end of the action are contained simultaneously in the very notion of tragic destiny. Cocteau's desire to present a vision of inexorable destiny thus coincides with the modernist ambition to attain a static, epiphanic vision. Destiny and mimetic stasis are two aspects of the same representation.

The theme of the poet's election by the forces of destiny is evident from the beginning of Le Sang d'un Poète. The film's first episode is entitled “The Wounded Hand, or the Scars of the Poet,” and by scars one might well understand the stigmata that are destiny's mark on those it picks to fulfill the poet's mission, to mediate between men and destiny by revealing destiny's presence. The first representational space we see is the poet's room, which might be taken as the inner space of the poem itself. In this sense, then, the locus of mimesis is the film itself, and the work can be seen as a form of self-representation of the poet's creation. The poet is, however, dressed in a Louis XV wig, and the author's voice informs us that the young man we see is there at the same time that “the cannons of Fontenoy thundered in the distance.” Since the poet rids himself of the wig and appears shortly afterwards with his hair sleekly combed back in a very contemporary way, the initial effect of the film's pseudohistorical preciseness is a form of dislocation. One of Cocteau's strategies of revelation, however, is the way he often whimsically literalizes his themes. If the poet can enter a realm that is outside of normal temporal determinants, then he can quite literally be at all places at all times. As we see in Le Testament d'Orphée, he must also come back into normal time. The exploration of eternity can entail farcical mistakes, for in this later film Cocteau enters time at the wrong moments, first appearing to the professor too soon, when the professor is still a child, and then too late, when the professor is about to die, before Cocteau finally finds the professor at a mature age and can be sent back to “his century.” By representing literally Mallarmé's description of the poet as a meteorite that appears by chance in his century, Cocteau turns the premises of Orphic modernism into a source of comic revelation. One might think of similar effects that could have been had, should Yeats have found himself really carried back to Byzantium.

The central theme of this first episode is not atemporality, however, but the poet's wound. When the mouth of a figure that the poet is drawing becomes alive, the poet rubs it, and the mouth implants itself, woundlike, in the poet's hand. A friend who knocks at the poet's door sees this aberration and runs away in fright. The friend is undoubtedly representative of the public in general, who attempt to enter into the inner space of revelation, but, when confronted with the poet's often monstrous destiny, retreat in confusion and astonishment. The poet's cultivation of his wound also recalls Rimbaud's description of the poet's task as being akin to planting warts on one's face. The poet seeking revelation must not hesitate to undergo the most horrible experiences. Also, we again find Rimbaud's idea that the locus for the quest is the poet himself. Cocteau often expressed this notion, saying that he was possessed by angels, by inner forces that commanded him to give them expression. In this sense the poet is a mere vehicle for impulses that spring from within him. If Cocteau's film Orphée is a critique of the poet who accepts impulses that are not his own, Le Sang d'un Poète sets forth the struggle of the poet who must cope with his own body, his own inner space, and explore the wounds that destiny forces upon him. Once the wound is planted within the flesh, he must nurture it, give it air, and finally accept it in an ambiguous gesture of autoeroticism, as a lover accepts a caress.

The image of autoeroticism or narcissism is another image by which the work designates its own genesis. The poet's exploration of himself is clearly designated as erotic when he presses the mouth against his own and then, enraptured by this discovery of himself existing as another, falls into a chair and caresses his nude chest with the living mouth. The poet is transfigured by the discovery that he can be the object of his own desire. His eyes are transformed, and his face takes on the look of a theatrical mask. By taking himself as an object of desire, he has in effect transformed himself into a work of art. The poet's autoeroticism is, too, another image of the film's mimetic project, for the film springs from an androgynous self-fertilization, in which the film gives birth to itself as the object of its own representation.

This discovery of eros seems to lead almost automatically to the film's second episode, for, having accepted his androgynous nature, the poet can explore his inner world and confront the demands of his destiny. He can go through the mirror, plunge into himself, and enter the underworld from which erotic drives emanate. The forces that possess the poet must be found in what Cocteau calls the poet's night. Though these forces are erotic in nature, Cocteau refused to identify this night with the Freudian unconscious. Avoiding the problem of repression, he preferred to designate the poet's night metaphorically as a treasure grotto from which art takes its riches.5 This notion of a treasure grotto allows us to see that the second episode takes place in that space of revelation where the poet comes into contact with his own vision.

The second episode begins after the passage of night, for the poet...

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Lindley Hanlon (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hanlon, Lindley. “Cocteau, Cauchemar, Cinema.” In The Anxious Subject: Nightmares and Daymares in Literature and Film, edited and introduced by Moshe Lazar, pp. 107-20. Lancaster: Undena Publications, 1983.

[In the following essay, Hanlon examines the influence of nightmares, somnambulism, and an obsession with death on Cocteau's films.]

Extending the analogy between the individual and the epoch, one can say that a literary trend is to its time what a dream is to man: an activity propelled by an unconscious design, which rebels against limits imposed by the conscience only in order to enlarge the scope of the conscience and the literature...

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David Galef (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Galef, David. “A Sense of Magic Reality and Illusion in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.Literature Film Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1984): 96-106.

[In the following essay, Galef discusses the ways in which Cocteau's use of his camera lend magical elements to Beauty and the Beast.]

The medium of cinema, allied with the technology of the camera, contains a curious paradox in what it projects. As a camera recording objectively, it has the impact of reality; as film, it has a certain dreamlike quality and can be the agent of innumerable illusions. A talented director can make use of this marriage of reality and illusion, especially if the theme is fanciful in...

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Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cismaru, Alfred. “Cocteau Revisited.”Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 40, nos. 1-2 (1986): 69-74.

[In the following essay, Cismaru provides an overview of major themes in Cocteau's work and life.]

“Lunch at Véfour with Greta Garbo. Paul-Louis brings her to my house and we all go together. What a strange thing: it seems that no one at the restaurant recognizes her. The owner and chef of Véfour, Olivier, will tell me tomorrow that someone had asked if Garbo was Madeleine Solange. And when he answered, ‘My God, no, that is Greta Garbo,’ the interlocutor had remarked: ‘I was sure she was a movie actress.’ Lost is...

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Susan B. Grayson (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grayson, Susan B. “The Other as Self in Cocteau's Les Enfants terribles.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 12 (1986): 43-50.

[In the following essay, Grayson argues that the children in Les Enfants terribles represent a pre-Oedipal refusal to acknowledge the separation of self from other.]

Traditional interpretations of Les Enfants terribles, Cocteau's intriguing and personal work, note the Children's compelling beauty, the unreal spectacle of their living arrangements, and the sexual flavor of their uncompromising adolescence. A Lacanian reading, however, reveals Les Enfants as a different tale. The Children's twinship...

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Arthur King Peters (essay date fall 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peters, Arthur King. “Jean Cocteau and His World.” Laurels 58, no. 2 (fall 1987): 87-102.

[In the following essay, which was printed as an excerpt from the book Jean Cocteau and His World, Peters recounts major events in Cocteau's life and work.]


At his birth, Clément Eugène Jean Maurice Cocteau uttered “a pretty cry, with a strong and resonant voice”, according to his proud grandmother Lecomte. The time: early on the morning of July 5th, 1889. The place: Maisons-Laffitte (Seine-et-Oise). This fashionable suburb of Paris was the summering place of Eugène and Emilie (née Renaud) Lecomte, the parents of...

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Laura Doyle Gates (essay date November 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, Laura Doyle. “Jean Cocteau and ‘la poésie du théâtre.’” Romance Quarterly 35, no. 4 (November 1988): 435-41.

[In the following essay, Gates discusses Cocteau's dislike of narrative poetry in drama, noting that he preferred instead to use all the characteristics of theatrical production as poetic elements in his dramatic works.]

In his earliest dramatic works, Jean Cocteau concerned himself almost exclusively with plastic and architectural aspects of the theatre as opposed to literary or psychological ones. The importance of the mise-en-scène cannot be overestimated for Parade, Le Boeuf sur le toit, and Les Mariés de...

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Paul J. Archambault (essay date spring 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Archambault, Paul J. “The Jean Cocteau Collection: How ‘Astonishing’?” Syracuse University Library Associates Courier 23, no. 1 (spring 1988): 33-48.

[In the following essay, Archambault examines the Cocteau collection at the Syracuse University Library, concluding that Cocteau “perhaps put talent into his work and genius into his life.”]

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) is reputed to have been the most ‘astonishing’ of French twentieth-century artists. In one of his many autobiographical works, La Difficulté d'être, he tells how, one day in 1909, he was walking on the Place de la Concorde with Sergei Diaghilev, who had captivated Paris the...

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Renee Winegarten (essay date summer 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Winegarten, Renee. “In Pursuit of Cocteau.” American Scholar 58, no. 3 (summer 1989): 436-43.

[In the following essay, Winegarten reexamines Cocteau's achievements in light of the publication of his diaries and letters.]

In general a purely poetical subject is as superior to a political one as the pure everlasting truth of nature is to party spirit.

—Goethe, May 4, 1827, quoted in Eckermann, Conversations

What to do about Jean Cocteau? What to do about the critical dilemma of the respective claims of art and politics posed by his life and his work? These questions are renewed...

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Rebecca M. Pauly (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pauly, Rebecca M. “Beauty and the Beast: From Fable to Film.” Literature Film Quarterly 17, no. 2 (1989): 84-90.

[In the following essay, Pauly offers a comparison of Cocteau's film version of Beauty and the Beast with the original fairy tale ostensibly written by the Frenchwoman Jeanne-Marie le Prince de Beaumont.]

The role of the artist is thus to create an organism having a life of its own drawn from life, and not destined to surprise, to please or displease, but to arouse secret feelings in reaction to certain signs which represent beauty for some, ugliness and deformity for others.


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Mark Franko (essay date May 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Franko, Mark. “Where He Danced: Cocteau's Barbette and Ohno's Water Lilies.” PMLA 107, no. 3 (May 1992): 594-607.

[In the following essay, Franko discusses the presentation of gay identity and gender roles in Cocteau's “Une leçon de théâtre: Le numéro Barbette” and the Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno's performance of the piece Suiren.]

In the current period of AIDS activism, the primary critical operation of gay studies has been the cultural analysis of homophobia.1 Focusing on the poetics of disempowerment, this analysis recalls earlier feminist discourse. Like women, gay men are also victimized by the projections of a “male gaze,” but the...

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Annette Shandler Levitt (essay date October 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levitt, Annette Shandler. “Jean Cocteau's Theatre: Idea and Enactment.” Theatre Journal 45, no. 3 (October 1993): 363-72.

[In the following essay, Levitt discusses Cocteau's theory of avant-garde theatre as it is put forth in his preface to The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower.]

Written in 1922, one year after the play was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs Élysees, Jean Cocteau's Preface to Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower) offers in an informal, non-dramatic mode his manifesto of the theatre. It “was to be one of his most important pronouncements on the theatre,” according to Margaret...

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Jennifer Hatte (essay date April 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hatte, Jennifer. “Jean Cocteau's Snow.” Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 328-40.

[In the following essay, Hatte examines the significance of the appearance of snow in Les Enfants terribles and its meaning to the “mythology” of Cocteau's other works.]

Snow appears frequently in Cocteau's work, but its most famous occurrence is in the bataille des boules de neige of the novel Les Enfants terribles (1929),1 and the film Le Sang d'un poète (1930), written and directed by Cocteau. As is the case with all frequently recurring Coctelian motifs, his snow is not merely snow, but an aspect of the personal...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bach, Raymond. “Cocteau and Vichy: Family Disconnections.” L'Esprit Créateur 33, no. 1 (spring 1993): 29-37.

Argues that the unfavorable critical reaction to Cocteau's play Les parents terribles, produced in 1938 after the German occupation of France and the establishment of the fascist Vichy government, indicated that this work “represented a kind of danger to Vichy and its supporters.”

Hains, Maryellen. “Beauty and the Beast: 20th Century Romance?” Merveilles and Contes 3, no. 1 (May 1989): 75-83.

Discusses Cocteau's film Beauty and the Beast among various other retellings of...

(The entire section is 286 words.)