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.)
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.∗
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 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...
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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,...
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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...
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