Jean Cocteau Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201634-Cocteau.jpg Jean Cocteau Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Jean Cocteau took considerable delight in working on the borderlines separating various literary genres and those traditionally dividing literature from the other arts. As a result, his artistic output is both extraordinary and difficult to classify. Le Potomak (1919), his first important work, moves freely among verse, prose, dialogue, and drawing. His novel Les Enfants terribles (1929; Children of the Game, 1955), generally considered to be his masterpiece, is as much autobiography as fiction. He wrote magnificent poems, such as La Crucifixion (1946), but he also insisted that his novels, his criticism, in fact, all his works, are poetry. Many of his works for the stage can be called drama in only the broadest sense of the term: An example of such works is the scandalous ballet scenario Parade (1917), created in collaboration with Eric Satie and Pablo Picasso, and performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In 1921, Cocteau collaborated with six composers of the group known as “Les Six” (they included Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, and Francis Poulenc) and the Swedish Ballet Company in creating Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921; The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1937), this time contributing to the choreography as well as the dialogue. Cocteau also created a number of original and highly regarded films, beginning with La Sang d’un poète (1930; The Blood of a Poet, 1932), and including, among others, La Belle et la bête (1946; Beauty and the Beast, 1947) and Orphée (1950; Orpheus, 1950). Cocteau also wrote many witty, incisive nonfiction works, often autobiographical in nature; Opium: Journal d’une désintoxication (1930; Opium: Diary of a Cure, 1932) and La Belle et la bête: Journal d’un film (1946; Beauty and the Beast: Journal of a Film, 1950) are examples of his work in this area. Much of his work was experimental and often designed to shock, to break new ground and redefine the old.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Neal Oxenhandler eloquently sums up the current image of Jean Cocteau by entitling a study of the latter’s theater Scandal and Parade: Only time and cautious scholarship will be able to reveal the worth of the artist and his work buried beneath the “scandal and parade.” There can be little doubt that he was an important innovator on the stage. If one judges by what has frequently been the twentieth century artist’s basis for self-evaluation—that is, if one judges Cocteau as experimenter and innovator—then one can consider him a leader in the arts of his time. That he reveals in his dramas dark corners of the human condition, particularly that of the twentieth century, is an aspect of his work that is too little understood. Because Cocteau was not a partisan, as were George Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht, critics have too often overlooked the importance of his social and, in the broad sense, political worldview. Indeed, Cocteau shows throughout his best works the uncanny and incisive perception of an outsider.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Never limited by distinctions among genres, Jean Cocteau (kawk-TOH) was an important figure in many arts. After an early and not particularly interesting “dandyistic” phase in his poetry, including La Lampe d’Aladin (1909; Aladdin’s lamp), Le Prince frivole (1910; the frivolous prince), and La Danse de Sophocle (1912; the dance of Sophocles), he was influenced by Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, and he developed a classical rigor and purity mingled with linguistic and imaginative originality. Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance (1919; the Cape of Good Hope), for example, glorifies pilots and flying, emphasizing sensation. L’Ode à Picasso (1919; ode to Picasso) seeks the wellspring of creativity in the great artist. Vocabulaire (1922; vocabulary) exhibits further linguistic creativity, and Discours du grand sommeil (1922; discourse on the great sleep) explores the experience of World War I. Later works use the suggestions of mythology, classical simplicity, and the subconscious, particularly Plain-Chant (1923), L’Ange Heurtebise (1925), Mythologie (1934), Allégories(1941), La Crucifixion (1946), Clair-obscur (1954; chiaroscuro), Gondole des morts (1959), and Cérémonial espagnol du phénix (1961).

Cocteau was a witty playwright on similar themes in Orphée (pr. 1926; Orpheus, 1933), La Voix...

(The entire section is 499 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Twentieth century art in many areas is indebted to Jean Cocteau. His accomplishments span the artistic and literary activities of his times, the diversity unified by his vision of all art as facets of the purest form: poetry. Whether working in film, fiction, theater, drawing, or verse, he considered himself to be revealing the poet in him. Critics now generally agree that his finest achievements are in the novel and the cinema. One of the most crystalline stylists among French writers of the twentieth century, Cocteau employed brilliant imagery and extraordinary visual qualities that make his novels powerfully evocative despite their terse style. Some regard him as a dilettante interested only in stylishness and facile demonstrations of his gifts; his classical style, however, allows him to transcend the limitations of ordinary novelists and their message-oriented prose to explore the resonances of mythology and archetype in a modern context. His versatility, irony, and playfulness encouraged his contemporaries to dismiss him, and he received few honors other than his 1955 election to the Académie Française. His novels are quirky, experimental, often chaotic, but filled with intriguing imagery and wit. Children of the Game is almost universally agreed to be his masterpiece.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Investigate Jean Cocteau’s motives in reworking the material of Sophocles’ Antigone.

What does it mean to construct “a complete aesthetic universe”?

What advantages do you see in a writer disclaiming originality, as did Cocteau?

Defend or refute the proposition that Cocteau, a versatile writer, excelled primarily in his plays.

Restate Cocteau’s “double imperative” in your own words.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brown, Frederick. An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau. New York: Viking Press, 1968. Study of the life and work of Cocteau focuses on his artistic milieu and his collaborators and sources of inspiration, such as poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artist Pablo Picasso, novelist André Gide, and filmmaker Jean Marais. Includes illustrations and bibliography.

Crosland, Margaret. Jean Cocteau: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956. Charming biography written with the help and encouragement of Cocteau himself. The goal is to relate Cocteau’s work to his life and to relate the different aspects of his work to one another. Offers lively comments by fellow artists as well as discussion and interpretation of individual works by Cocteau. Includes excerpts from letters of Cocteau and numerous illustrations.

Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover: University of New Hampshire Press, 1978. Scholarly work devotes chapters to Cocteau’s milieu, the nature of the real, and the roles of myth, consciousness, and power. Includes introduction and bibliography.

Fowlie, Wallace. Jean Cocteau: The History of a Poet’s Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. General study defines Cocteau’s originality by comparing him with other French writers and film directors of his lifetime. Proposes a very sensible evaluation of Cocteau’s real accomplishments.

Gilson, René. Jean Cocteau. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York: Crown, 1969. This thoughtful analysis of Cocteau’s films also includes...

(The entire section is 701 words.)