Jean Cocteau - World Literature

World Literature

Jean Cocteau


BORN: 1889 Maisons-Laffitte, Paris

DIED: 1963 Milly-la-Foret, France


GENRE: Fiction, plays, poetry, screenplays


Les Enfants Terribles (1929)

The Infernal Machine (1934)

Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Orpheus (1950)



Jean Cocteau. Cocteau, Jean, photograph. AP Images.



Novels, poetry, lyrics, painting, movies, plays, and acting were all part of Jean Cocteau's artistry. A conversationalist, dandy, and outspoken public personality, he considered these elements of his life to be necessary to personal expression. Cocteau believed his art and his public life were inextricably bound. Like Oscar Wilde, he championed style in matters of great importance.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Wealthy Family. Jean Cocteau was born on July 5, 1889, at Maisons-Lafitte, a suburb of Paris, to Georges and Eugenie Cocteau. He was brought up in a well-to-do home frequented by notable artists of the day. He would be supported by family wealth through his youth and into his early forties.

The France of Cocteau’s youth and most of his adulthood was known as the Third Republic, a democracy run by a parliament instead of a king or an emperor as had usually occurred in France’s past. Though the Third Republic was relatively successful in terms of longevity—it lasted from 1870 until the German occupation of France in 1940—it was rarely considered ideal, which resulted in many different political groups vying for the support of the people and control of the government. This mix of political and philosophical ideas may have created the fertile environment in which Cocteau and his contemporaries flourished.

As a schoolboy at the Lycee Condorcet, Cocteau was anything but a model pupil, but he charmed his teachers with his verve and brilliance. His official debut as a writer was at the age of eighteen, when the renowned actor Edouard de Max gave a lecture on Cocteau’s poetry. Cocteau soon visited Edmond Rostand, Anna de Noailles, and Marcel Proust; everybody and everything fashionable attracted him.

Surrealism and Scandal. When the Russian ballet performed in Paris, Cocteau attended. Soon thereafter he proposed to director Sergei Diaghilev a ballet of his own. The resulting Blue God, run in 1912, was not a success. Undaunted, Cocteau started the ballet David, for which he hoped Igor Stravinsky would do the music. Although that work did not materialize, Potomak, dedicated to Stravinsky, did get written, and texts composed for both works were finally incorporated in a ballet called Parade. Composer Erik Satie and artist Pablo Picasso collaborated with Cocteau on this production, for which Guillaume Apollinaire, in a program note, coined the word “surrealistic’’ (though Cocteau would defy any such categorization).

Parade debuted at the Theatre du Chatelet on May 18, 1917. Some witnesses reported that the opening- night audience was scandalized; others claimed the public was unimpressed and indifferent. Whatever the case may have been, the production clearly proved unpopular, shutting down a week after opening. Although Diaghilev and others recognized Parade as original and exciting, it was not until the first revival in 1920 that it gained a wide appreciation. It was consistently performed in those ensuing years by the Ballets Russes in Paris, London, and across Europe.

Tragedy and Spectacle. The period after World War I was a most productive time for Cocteau. In addition to theater work and poetry, he wrote his first novels, working them in tandem with two of Raymond Radiguet’s. During this period he and Radiguet lived and worked together personally and professionally until, on a vacation to Toulon, Radiguet ate bad oysters, contracted typhoid, and died shortly after in Paris in 1923. Cocteau was so grief-stricken he was unable to attend the funeral.

During his time with Radiguet, Cocteau produced two spectacles for the Paris stage, one of which he conceived from a musical sketch provided by Darius Milhaud. It included the scenery of Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy titled Le Boeuf sur le toit, or The Nothing Doing Bar (1920)—comprised of ‘‘moving scenery’’ (actors with giant cardboard heads), a beheading, and a ballerina who, as she moves, smokes, drinks, and shakes the severed head ‘‘like a cocktail.’’ The piece was a success, running for one hundred performances, a significant number for a ballet. More importantly for Cocteau’s career, the spectacle established him as a serious collaborator for contemporary composers.

Mourning and Addiction. After these early dance collaborations, Cocteau turned to ancient Greece for inspiration, producing a one-act version of Antigone (1922). However, still despondent over Radiguet’s death, in January of 1924 he left Paris for Monte Carlo. There he met musicologist Louis Laloy, a meeting that marked a turning point in Cocteau’s life: Laloy suggested opium might ease Cocteau’s depression, and, while there is evidence Cocteau had tried opium before, during this period he became an addict. The rest of his life was punctuated by ‘‘cures’’ and relapses.

The Harshest Years. In 1934 Cocteau wrote his last major play based on Greek mythology. The Infernal Machine (La Machine infernale, 1934), an adaptation of the Oedipus myth, is generally considered to be one of Cocteau’s finest dramas.

The period between the composition of The Infernal Machine and the end of World War II is considered to be a low point in Cocteau’s career as an artist. During this time his opium addiction grew more severe, and he began to have financial trouble. These events coincided with a move toward plays with greater commercial appeal. While critics found Cocteau’s plays less original and less appealing, his fame continued to grow. Three more plays brought more attention, and a relationship with actor Jean Marais was Cocteau’s saving grace.

The Restful Years. The Knights of the Round Table (Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, 1937) took Cocteau three years to get produced. In the interim, he earned money through journalism, and began a new project: a journalistic re-creation of Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1872; Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). Cocteau and friend Marcel Khill retraced the path of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and in the process—on a Pacific steamer—ran into British actor and director Charlie Chaplin. Cocteau’s writings about the trip were published in the newspaper Paris Soir (Paris Evening), then collected in the volume Round the World Again in Eighty Days (Mon premier voyage: Tour du monde en 80 jours, 1936).

Despite repeated ‘‘cures,’’ Cocteau’s opium addiction was at its worst. Marais attempted to rescue him from it. Marais abhorred opium and pressured Cocteau to give it up, though Cocteau never did so entirely. During their time together Marais also inspired Cocteau to create plays and movies for him to star in. These included visually inventive versions of classic tales such as Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1950), both widely considered by film critics to be cinematic masterpieces.

Cocteau spent the last thirteen years of his life in semiretirement on the French Riviera, after charming wealthy patroness Francine Weissweiller, who invited Cocteau and his last companion, Edouard Dermithe, to live with her at her villa in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Cocteau decorated the house, engaged in several municipal projects, wrote less, and produced only one more work, the movie Le Testament d’Orphee (1959), which was partially financed by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. It received mostly negative reviews.

Yet Cocteau was also celebrated in his final years. He was elected to the Academie franyaise (The French Academy), and received an honorary doctorate at Oxford. He was knighted, becoming a Chevalier de la Legion d’hon-neur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) in 1949, and was made a member of the Belgian Academie Royale de Langue et de Litterature francaises (Belgian Royal Academy of French Literature and Language). When he died October 11, 1963, he was widely mourned.



Cocteau's famous contemporaries include:

Jean Anouilh (1910-1987): Surrealist playwright who, like Cocteau, explored the division between reality and ideality and is credited along with others for experimental theater.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948): Leader of the Indian independence movement and a spiritual founder of the Satyagraha philosophy.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992): U S. computer scientist who is considered a technological pioneer as one of the first Harvard Mark calculator programmers.

Edith Piaf (1915-1963): Popular French singer who sometimes collaborated with Cocteau.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): French philosopher, writer, and critic associated with modern existentialism.



One of Cocteau's most famous works was the 1950 film Orpheus, a modern version of the Greek myth of Orpheus, a young musician who travels to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, but fails. Many artists, musicians, and writers have been fascinated by the myth of Orpheus and the general idea of reclaiming a dead loved one. Other works that treat this theme include:

Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), a comic opera by Jacques Offenbach. This popular opera stands apart from other interpretations of the Orpheus myth by virtue of its riotous humor. The opera features the well-known ''Can-Can'' tune.

Black Orpheus (1959), a film directed by Marcel Camus. This winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or and an Academy Award for best foreign film is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the African- American community in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil.

''Orpheus and Eurydice'' (2002), a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. In his last published poem, Milosz contemplates the death of his wife and the pain of loss.

The Amber Spyglass (2000), a novel by Philip Pullman. In this last book of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, the young heroine Lyra (seemingly named after the lyre, the musical instrument Orpheus played) travels to an underworld drawn from Greek myth and leads its inhabitants out.


Works in Literary Context

Influences. Although Cocteau refused to classify himself as belonging to any literary movement, his early career was greatly influenced by surrealism and Dadaism. However, surrealists such as Andre Breton disdained Cocteau’s dandyism and refused to take him seriously. In fact, Breton became one of Cocteau’s harshest critics throughout the 1920s, instigating Cocteau’s constant need to justify himself to his peers, critics, and public.

Style. Cocteau’s attention to style served him well in all areas of artistic production, but most notably in the theater. In a career as a dramatist that spanned forty years, Cocteau wrote plays set in such disparate locales as ancient Greece, King Arthur’s court, and contemporary Paris. Throughout these plays, there is an emphasis on the status of the play as an event rather than as a text. Further, Cocteau was a contemporary of Antonin Artaud, who played the role of Tiresias in the first production of Cocteau’s Antigone and who shared what appears to be a mutual influence of dramatic practice and thought. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was experimenting in the ways that Artaud later proposed in his essay Theater and Its Double (‘‘Le Theatre et son double’’) (1938).

In the theater, as in most of his artistic endeavors, Cocteau was part of the avant-garde. Yet, after an initial period of dramatic rule-breaking, Cocteau began writing plays that conformed more closely to the standards established by traditional French dramaturgy. This change of approach may have made his later plays more palatable to the audiences of his day, but most are no longer performed.

Impact. Cocteau insisted he be called ‘‘poet’’ above all, believing poets existed in a realm removed from politics, a theory that was beneficial to his art but that led to criticism for some of his actions during World War II. He called his dramaturgy ‘‘poesie de theatre’’ (Theater Poetry) and his novels ‘‘poesie de roman’’ (Novel Poetry), but remained wary of labels that would limit his capacity as an artist. This concern is one of the reasons he never allied himself with any of the major artistic movements of his day. Yet, as an important innovator of what Guillaume Apollinaire termed ‘‘surrealism,’’ he had significant influence on other artists, including the group of composer friends in Montparnasse known as Les Six. Again, however, Cocteau denied being part of any such movement.


Works in Critical Context

Cocteau was a true visionary, producing innovative works in more genres than any other single artist of the twentieth century. But his career as a dramatist was uneven. Some of the characters of Cocteau’s later works reveal interesting aspects of human psychology, but they generally inhabited untidy plots that prevented critical success. One reason for the sloppiness of Cocteau’s drama was that he had shifted his attention to cinema, winning such prizes as those at the 1950 Venice Film Festival and the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. Thus, while his later theatrical pieces are widely dismissed, he added universally acclaimed motion pictures to his list of artistic achievements, left an enduring legacy built upon his revolutionary contributions to ballet, spectacle, and drama, and had an important and lasting effect on the dramatic arts in France and around the world.

While several of his works have earned greater recognition with time, some are considered his finest, among them The Infernal Machine.

The Infernal Machine. Based on Greek mythology, this adaptation of the Oedipus myth directed by the famous Louis Jouvet and set-designed by Christian Berard was widely praised by critics. Francis Fergusson, in a 1949 lecture at Princeton (published in book form in

1950), calls the play ‘‘at one and the same time chic and timeless—rather like the paintings of Picasso’s classic period, or his illustrations for [Roman poet] Ovid.’’ Neal Oxenhandler, writing in 1984, offers a more modern view of the play’s enduring quality: ‘‘In the age of nuclear threat, mass murder, and terrorism, Cocteau’s Infernal Machine remains wholly contemporary. It is a play for all time.’’ Although it is not the most oft-performed Cocteau theatrical work—that honor probably goes to The Human Voice—The Infernal Machine remains his most highly praised play.


Responses to Literature

1. Cocteau often insisted on defying categorization. Yet he is known as one of the eminent surrealist writers of his time. Visit the Web site of a major metropolitan museum. Look at surrealist art such as that of Salvador Dali, Giorgi De Chirico, or Max Ernst. Discuss with others what you find to be surrealist about their work (or a particular work). Then, find as many incidences of surrealism as you can in Cocteau’s work. For example, what is dreamlike in his writing? Discuss with others, so that you might each point out something the others in the group did not see and so you can collectively come up with your own understanding of surrealism.

2. Why does Cocteau’s Oedipus seem to have so many more faults or flaws than Sophocles’s Oedipus? Why do you think Cocteau made Oedipus so prone to error?

3. Considering Cocteau’s opium addiction, research opium production and use (or abuse) in the early twentieth century. Was Cocteau alone in his addiction? Did others use opium for depression, as a medicine, or for other purposes? If so, how did they use opium for physical and psychological purposes?

4. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the culture of post-World War I Paris. Select a prominent artistic figure of this period, and write a short biographical article on that person.




Borsaro, Brigitte. Cocteau, le cirque et le music-hall. Cahiers Jean Cocteau, Nouvelle serie, no. 2. Paris: Passage du Marais, 2003.

Brosse, Jacques. Cocteau. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1978.

Fowlie, Wallace. Jean Cocteau: The History of a Poet’s Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

‘‘Jean (Maurice Eugene Clement) Cocteau (1889-1963).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Eds. Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Robyn V. Young. vol. 43. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987, pp. 98-112.


French Review (March 1999): vol. 72: 687-695

Magazine Litteraire (September 2003): vol. 423: 37-38.

Paris Review (Summer-Fall 1964): vol. 32: 13-37.

Theatre Journal (October 1993): vol. 45: 363-72.

Web sites

108 Lenin Imports. Jean Cocteau: The Blood of a Poet. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from Last updated on May 17, 2007.

Books and Writers. Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). Retrieved January 31, 2008, from Last updated on May 17, 2007.

Robinson, Harriet Hanson. Dostoevsky and Existentialism. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from Last updated on May 17, 2007.