Jean Cocteau

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Cocteau, Jean 1889–1963

Cocteau was a French poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, and film-maker. His concern with myth and mythological themes is expressed in such works as his drama Orphée. One of his most arresting works is the haunting novel Les Enfants Terribles, a horrifying view of French bourgeois life. Les Enfants Terribles, Orphée, and some of his other works were made into films under Cocteau's direction. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Paul West

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The caducity of Jean Cocteau's Le Grand Écart (1923) and Thomas l'imposteur (1925) constantly suggests that he has nothing to say; however, in Les Enfants terribles (1929) the rigmaroles and fantasies of adolescence are fondly sketched without being explored in the manner of, say, Henry Green or L. P. Hartley. Of Les Enfants Cocteau says in Opium; 'it was written during an obsession with "Make Believe" (Show Boat); those who like the book should buy the record and play it while re-reading'. We are reminded that Cocteau … is the capital amuseur, a child of the Jazz Age. Fantasy and somnambulism come naturally to him as the spiritual equivalents of Morand's heady steeplechases from capital to capital (always in weird company) or of Giraudoux's couture-minded female Crusoe. Such were the escapes from post-war frustration. They also provided their authors with the germ of more substantial works: Cocteau's drama, Les Parents terribles (1938)…. (p. 184)

Paul West, in his The Modern Novel, Vol. I (copyright © 1963 by Paul West), Hutchinson University Library, 1963, 215 p.

Leon S. Roudiez

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As all readers of Cocteau's [Les Enfants terribles] will remember, the story is caught between two very similar events. They are so similar, in fact, as to make the final one seem like a repetition of the first. Early in Les Enfants terribles Paul falls victim to what the narrator calls a "dark blow" (un coup sombre …). He has been struck by a snowball aimed at him by Dargelos, whose cheeks are flushed with fire (les joues en feu). Gérard saves Paul, so to speak, by taking him home to Elizabeth and the famous "room"; in other words, Gérard has led him to a metaphorical death where he will remain, sheltered from reality. Toward the end of the book Dargelos sends Paul a dark ball (boule sombre …), presumably a poison or a drug (corresponding to the neige of the earlier ball); its inside is reddish in color (echoing that of Dargelos' cheeks), and it is delivered by Gérard. The latter thus "saves" Paul a second time, in a degraded fashion, as he unwittingly pushes him in the direction of actual death. Inserted into the middle of the narrative, like a mise en abyme, the event is symbolically restated as Agathe "strikes" Paul with a snapshot of Dargelos. In effect, both Dargelos and Agathe are symbols of a reality that fascinates Paul, in the full meaning of the verb, but with which he is powerless to cope. The ending of the narrative confirms the beginning as metaphor becomes fact: since one cannot change reality, he tries to escape through the poetry of death—but poetry does not afford sufficient protection, and the only true escape is death itself.

The white snowball contrasts with the ball of poison just as the room of Paul and Elizabeth does with reality; it is only fitting that the snowball leads the reader into the room. The narrative appears to gravitate about those two poles of black and white (or darkness and light), eventually sinking toward the former; as it does, red emerges as a possible solution to the implied conflict, and...

(This entire section contains 1478 words.)

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it constitutes a correlative to the room itself. There can be no solution in Cocteau's narrative, however, for if red is at the beginning associated with passion (le feu de Dargelos …) it is later sublimated in the theatrical rituals of the room (when a red cloth is used to cover the lamp) and finally enrobed in black and bound with death (the inside of the ball of poison). Never, of course, does it come anywhere close to suggesting revolutionary change. A couple of pages before the end, brightness, red, and darkness appear in characteristic interplay within one sentence: "The harsh light of the lamp took the place of dusk, except in the direction of Elizabeth upon whom shone the crimson of the red cloth strip; she remained there, protected, spinning a void, hauling Paul towards the darkness from which she watched him, as he lay in full light."… Life or reality is too harsh to bear and Elizabeth attempts to draw Paul into the safety of poetry; but red and darkness have in that sentence become practically synonymous, with the latter about to engulf the room and its two protagonists.

In order to enter the room a person needs to sever his connections with the world, a circumstance that stresses the analogy between the room and death. (pp. 160-61)

In most cultures, death is a highly ritualized event. Thus, and although such rituals were most probably conceived as poetic shelter against life, it comes as no surprise to find strong ritualistic features attached to the room. Again, statement, which suggests poetry, is at odds with meaning, which points toward death. The word rite actually makes its initial appearance when activities of the school children in the cité are described; at the same time, there are references to the "dark instincts of childhood" and to "animal instincts."… The rites are obscures and are likened to those of a primitive religion. The pattern of the narrative, which was set in the first line of the text, is thus confirmed. Caught within a bourgeois, romantic ideology, it can only go back, not forward. Blinded by the wrongs of the present it can only move in a circle and oppose to them a Golden Age of the past. In this instance it is a myth of primitive society that is embodied in childhood, the childhood of individual man corresponding to an early stage of society. With the word obscure, however, the seed of destruction is inserted into the rituals that attempt to revive a lost paradise—and the rituals in the narrative must end in death. In the room itself, they begin by losing touch with reality. Cocteau's exalted childhood is "a serious, heroic, mysterious reality" … that is assimilated to an "enchantment" (féerie) practically within the same breath as its reality is stated. In that enchanted realm it is impossible either to conceive of death or to comprehend life to the fullest….

During the brief taxi ride the brightness of street lights, the whiteness of the snow, memories of Dargelos' "fire" and of Paul's blood, and the red glow of a fire truck combine to negate the evening darkness and act as an introduction to the room; words such as noir, nuit, or sombre, all of which one might have expected under the circumstances, are absent from the text. The firemen suggest at the same time the rescue mission they are engaged in and the conflagration or possible tragedy they are driving to; they constitute a correlative to the narrative, which attempts a rescue and ends up in death. Red fails to reconcile white and black, possibly because within the ideology of Les Enfants terribles the dialectic process cannot function; only black is real—which is to say that reality is unacceptable. White, through the slang meaning [in both French and English] of "snow," is degraded into a drug, that is, a form of escape in which reality can be ignored. Red becomes theatrical—something of a game, a shift made possible by the ambiguity of the French word jeu—as the fire horn accompanies it with a "human, inhuman" sound and the firemen are transfigured into allegorical representations—"men with golden helmets, set up like allegories."… Gérard, thinking back to that preliminary leg of a journey that will take Paul and Elizabeth out of this world, characterizes it with the word fabuleuse…. In other words, it is a journey leading into a fairy world of the past. (p. 162)

Cocteau no doubt realized that he had told the story of two mythomaniacs [Paul and Elizabeth] whose "life" was a lie. In Opéra he also made his famous statement, "I am a lie that always tells the truth." That, however, is not very convincing, for the "truth" of Les Enfants terribles is an affirmation of despair. On the one hand, the text extols the impossible values of a lost paradise of childhood; on the other hand, it condemns the contemporary world on account of its ugliness and evil. But Elizabeth and Paul demonstrate that the lost paradise is a myth. Those who survive, in the text, Dargelos, Gérard, and Agathe have, especially the first two, made their peace with the world and joined the "system."… The choice between total rejection, which can only be achieved in death, and total compromise, which means corruption of the individual, represents the truth that the text proclaims. Love, too, can be attained only in death, which here is clearly a sexual act…. On another level, poetry effects the same kind of rejection of reality—that is, the escapist poetry of a number of romantic writers, of the poètes maudits. Nearly everyone, including Cocteau himself, speaks of poetry when discussing this novel; it belongs, like the others, to his poésie de roman. One is encouraged to read it as a poem of fate, of which Dargelos would be the personification and Agathe its agent, as suggested by the "fatal" friendship already referred to. One would accept that only if "fate" were to be used as a synonym for ideology. For such an assimilation, however, the word "karma" would be far more apposite. The narrative of Les Enfants terribles is caught blindly spinning in the closed circle of its bourgeois ideology. Cocteau claimed to have been surprised by its success, but he need not have been. In this book, he depicted the only truth most of his readers knew, that of their own doom, and they wallowed in it. (pp. 165-66)

Leon S. Roudiez, "Cocteau's 'Les Enfants terribles' as a Blind Text," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1972 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. V, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 159-66.

Wallace Fowlie

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The two principal schools of French style have often been ascribed to the Latin rhetorical style, as illustrated in the sermons of Bossuet and the rich periodic prose of Chateaubriand, and to the Greek tradition, in which the sentence is brief and concise, as in Voltaire and Stendhal. In his Académie speech of welcome, André Maurois placed Cocteau in this second lineage. The Cocteau sentence is swift and seemingly lucid, but the content is mysterious and enigmatical. Cocteau's style became a manner of expressing complicated matters with discerning simplicity….

The poems of Vocabulaire (1922) contained the key words of Cocteau's poetic experience, symbols and characters projected out of his imagination that were to form in time his mythology—episodes, myths, and characters charged with the duty of narrating the poet's drama. Kidnapers, sailors, angels and cyclists appear and disappear as if searching for their poet. (p. 245)

Les Enfants Terribles was written in the three weeks Cocteau spent in the clinic at Saint-Cloud, and published in 1929. During the past thirty years this book has become a classic, both as a novel belonging to the central tradition of the short French novel and as a document of historical-psychological significance in the study it offers of the type of adolescent referred to in the title. The intertwined destinies of brother and sister, Paul and Elisabeth, with the dark forbidding figure of Dargelos behind them, provides an unusual picture of adolescence in its actions and speech and games.

The theme of Cocteau's first film, Le Sang d'un poète (1932), was an idea close to the romantics a century earlier, in which the poet writes with his own blood. He had always looked upon the "poetic" as antipoetic and had avoided using the fantastic (le merveilleux) in the traditional sense, but had found it, as in Sang d'un poète, in the ordinary objects of everyday life. All the episodes of the film—the scene in the artist's studio, the hotel scene, the snowball scene—compose the life and trials of the poet. Much later, in the film Orphée, of 1950, Cocteau developed this lesson of the poet and borrowed from Le Sang d'un poéte and from his play Orphée. These films are two esoteric poems for the screen. The first one set a style that has been widely imitated, and the second represented the achievement of that style.

In La Machine Infernale (1934), a play on the Oedipus theme, Cocteau focuses on the machinations and ingeniousness of the gods in destroying man. He is closer in this play to the Greek prototype of tragedy than to Corneille and Racine. From his earliest Parade and Mariés, through his adaptations of Sophocles, to the major dramatic works of Orphée, La Machine Infernale, Les Parents Terribles (1938) and Bacchus (1951), Cocteau presented experimentations on the stage with the enthusiasm of a dramatist enamoured of the theater and of the idea of a spectacle.

Not least among his many roles is that of impresario and interpreter. Such moderns as Satie, Braque, Picasso and Stravinsky owe some of their glory to Cocteau. The group of Lex Six—Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud, Taillefer, Auric and Durey—owes him its name and the early support it received in Paris. He passed quite easily from an histrionic and tumultuous fame in the 20s to a more judicious central position in the 30s. Between the death of Apollinaire in 1918 and his own death in 1963, Cocteau occupied an active position in all the domains of French art. (pp. 245-46)

Wallace Fowlie, "Jean Cocteau 1889–1963," in his French Literature: Its History and Its Meaning (copyright © 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 244-46.

Frank W. D. Ries

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Except for Parade little has been written about Cocteau's ballets or, for that matter, his concept of dance in the theatre.

Cocteau's first work, Le Dieu Bleu, was written in collaboration with Federigo de Madrazo. This first ballet of Cocteau's is passed over by most of Cocteau's biographers and given only a fleeting reference by Cocteau himself. One can understand why this ballet is rarely discussed, as it is a work not really within Cocteau's true metier. It was a ballet composed in the exotic and oriental style that characterized the first period of the Ballets Russes and the only reason Cocteau had a hand in it was due to his desire to create something for Nijinsky. Cocteau admitted that he preferred the "now," the immediate, the absurd of everyday life and such oriental fantasies did not fit within his aesthetic view.

Some of Cocteau's later works for the ballet have also been unjustly neglected and for less obvious reasons than those associated with Le Dieu Bleu. One, in particular, is Le Train Bleu. This ballet falls into the post-war period of the Ballets Russes when Diaghilev began to experiment with works of a more "modernistic" concept. This later style is sometimes dated with the premiere of another Cocteau piece, Parade, in 1917. Immediately preceding Train Bleu Cocteau had worked on Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel in 1923 and Les Biches in 1924. While Les Mariés is at least mentioned in most sources, probably due to its more "play-text" quality, Train Bleu is either forgotten or given only a cursory glance by most of Cocteau's biographers. (p. 52)

Cocteau's involvement with [the production of] Train Bleu, almost to the point of interference, was greater than Cocteau had ever dared before or tried thereafter. With Dieu Bleu he had been working in an oriental fantasy realm alien to him; with Parade he had been overpowered by the combined strength of Satie and Picasso; with Les Fâcheux and Les Biches the realization of his original ideas was taken out of Cocteau's hands and given to others. In this later period he had left the Ballets Russes to experiment away from the influence of Diaghilev and now that he had returned he was harder, grimmer, more determined, and Diaghilev found it difficult to stand in his way. (p. 54)

Cocteau decided to call the ballet an opérette dansée and Darius Milhaud, one of the French "six," was commissioned to write the score. According to Milhaud it was Cocteau who dictated the style of the music. There were to be no direct, recognizable melodies, but the inspiration had to come from the popular songs of the period, such as those heard in the French music halls. It was to be an "operetta without words." (p. 55)

[The] theme that continually runs through most of Cocteau's ballets [is] the vulgar, the everyday, the commonplace, seen through the eyes of an artist….

The theme of youthful vigor once again enters the picture of a Cocteau conception. From what we know of Cocteau's life and his own comments he was continually trying to surround himself with the young—to stay young himself. Through the ballet he could create for youth and youth alone, since classical dance demanded artists who were young. In his theatre and film work old age of some form entered the picture since Cocteau based all his scenarios and plays on sources such as Greek playwrights (Orpheus) or a fairytale writer such as Mme. Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and the Beast). It seems to be only for the dance that Cocteau reserved his truly original stage vision. The Ballets Russes with its continuing influx of fresh, young blood stimulated Cocteau in the pursuits of these concepts of eternal youth. It may be for this reason that Cocteau would continue to create for the dance because through the dance he could escape age. He said: "As far as I am concerned, dancing is the language in which I would prefer to express myself, and my favorite theatrical formula."

It is no accident that the sporting theme enters this ballet as it had in his previous work, Les Biches. To Cocteau the artificiality of sports fit well into the artificiality of the dance: he himself termed dance "le grand gesticulation" and the dancers, for him, were the intellectual workings of his mind come to life. Train Bleu was to be a succession of picture postcards of various games played on the beach. (p. 58)

[Cocteau] loved taking the vulgar and making it snobbish; "a certain tradition which, in spite of being low, is nevertheless very elite." It is this which Train Bleu has left us as a ballet as well as a testimony to the theories of a great French poet. Further research may or may not prove its influence on subsequent theatre work, but certainly it is a pity that this ballet is neglected by so many scholars when discussing the works of Jean Cocteau. (p. 66)

Frank W. D. Ries, "Acrobats, Burlesque and Cocteau: The Creation of 'Le Train Bleu'," in Dance Scope, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall-Winter 1976–77, pp. 52-67.


Cocteau, Jean (Vol. 1)


Cocteau, Jean (Vol. 16)