Biography of Jean Cocteau
Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker. Cocteau is best known for his novel Les Enfants terribles (1929), and the films Blood of a Poet (1930), Les Parents terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1949). His circle of associates, friends and lovers included Kenneth Anger, Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Jean Marais, Henri Bernstein, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Erik Satie, María Félix, Édith Piaf and Raymond Radiguet.
Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a village near Paris, to Georges Cocteau and his wife, Eugénie Lecomte; a socially prominent Parisian family. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. He left home at fifteen. He published his first volume of poems, Aladdin's Lamp, at nineteen. Cocteau soon became known in Bohemian artistic circles as The Frivolous Prince, the title of a volume he published at twenty-two. Edith Wharton described him as a man "to whom every great line of poetry was a sunrise, every sunset the foundation of the Heavenly City..."
In his early twenties, Cocteau became associated with the writers Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Maurice Barrès. In 1912, he collaborated with Léon Bakst on Le Dieu bleu for the Ballets Russes; the principal dancers being Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. During World War I Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated. Russian choreographer Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Cocteau to write a scenario for a ballet, which resulted in Parade, in 1917. It was produced by Diaghilev, with sets by Picasso, the libretto by Apollinaire and the music by Erik Satie. The piece was later expanded into a full opera, with music by Satie, Poulenc and Ravel. "If it had not been for Apollinaire in uniform," wrote Cocteau, "with his skull shaved, the scar on his temple and the bandage around his head, women would have gouged our eyes out with hairpins." Cocteau denied being a Surrealist or being in any way attached to the movement. Cocteau wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinsky's opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, which had its original performance in the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris on May 30, 1927.
An important exponent of avant-garde art, Cocteau had great influence on the work of others, including the group of composers known as Les six. In the early twenties, he and other members of Les six frequented a wildly popular bar named Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a name that Cocteau himself had a hand in picking. The popularity was due in no small measure to the presence of Cocteau and his friends.
Friendship with Raymond Radiguet
In 1918 he met the French poet Raymond Radiguet. They collaborated extensively, socialized, and undertook many journeys and vacations together. Cocteau also got Radiguet exempted from military service. In admiration of Radiguet's great literary talent, Cocteau promoted his friend's works in his artistic circle and also arranged for the publication by Grasset of Le Diable au corps (a largely autobiographical story of an adulterous relationship between a married woman and a younger man), exerting his influence to have the novel awarded the "Nouveau Monde" literary prize. Some contemporaries and later commentators thought there might have been a romantic component to their friendship. Cocteau himself was aware of this perception, and worked earnestly to dispel the notion that their relationship was sexual in nature.
There is disagreement over Cocteau's reaction to Radiguet's sudden death in 1923, with some claiming that it left him stunned, despondent and prey to opium addiction. Opponents of that interpretation point out that he did not attend the funeral (he generally did not attend funerals) and immediately left Paris with Diaghilev for a performance of Les noces (The Wedding) by the Ballets Russes at Monte Carlo. Cocteau himself much later characterised his reaction as one of "stupor and disgust." His opium addiction at the time, Cocteau said, was only coincidental, due to a chance meeting with Louis Laloy, the administrator of the Monte Carlo Opera. Cocteau's opium use and his efforts to stop profoundly changed his literary style. His most notable book, Les Enfants terribles, was written in a week during a strenuous opium weaning. In Opium: Journal of drug rehabilitation (Opium : Journal d'une désintoxication), he recounts the experience of his recovery from opium addiction in 1929. His account, which includes vivid pen-and-ink illustrations, alternates between his moment-to-moment experiences of drug withdrawal and his current thoughts about people and events in his world. Cocteau was supported throughout his recovery by his friend and correspondent philosopher Jacques Maritain. Under Maritain's influence Cocteau made a temporary return to the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
The Human Voice
Cocteau's experiments with the human voice peaked with his play La Voix humaine. The story involves one woman on stage speaking on the telephone with her (invisible and inaudible) departing lover, who is leaving her to marry another woman. The telephone proved to be the perfect prop for Cocteau to explore his ideas, feelings, and "algebra" concerning human needs and realities in communication.
Cocteau acknowledged in the introduction to the script that the play was motivated, in part, by complaints from his actresses that his works were too writer/director-dominated and gave the players little opportunity to show off their full range of talents. La Voix humaine was written, in effect, as an extravagant aria for Madame Berthe Bovy. Before came Orphée, later turned into one of his more successful films; after came La Machine infernale, arguably his most fully realized work of art. La Voix humaine is deceptively simple—a woman alone on stage for almost one hour of non-stop theatre speaking on the telephone with her departing lover. It is, in fact, full of theatrical codes harking back to the Dadaists' Vox Humana experiments after World War One, Alphonse de Lamartine's "La Voix humaine", part of his larger work Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and the effect of the creation of the Vox Humana ("voix humaine"), an organ stop of the Regal Class by Church organ masters (late 16th century) that attempted to imitate the human voice but never succeeded in doing better than the sound of a male chorus at a distance.
Reviews varied at the time and since but whatever the critique, the play represents Cocteau's state of mind and feelings towards his actors at the time: on the one hand, he wanted to spoil and please them; on the other, he was fed up by their diva antics and was ready for revenge. It is also true that none of Cocteau's works has inspired as much imitation: Francis Poulenc's opera La Voix humaine, Gian Carlo Menotti's "opera bouffa" The Telephone and Roberto Rosselini's film version in Italian with Anna Magnani L'Amore (1948). There has also been a long line of interpreters including Simone Signoret, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann (in the play) and Julia Migenes (in the opera).
According to one theory about how Cocteau was inspired to write La Voix humaine, he was experimenting with an idea by fellow French playwright Henri Bernstein.
In the 1930s, Cocteau had an affair with Princess Natalie Paley, the beautiful daughter of a Romanov grand duke and herself a sometimes actress, model, and former wife of couturier Lucien Lelong. She became pregnant. To Cocteau's distress and Paley's life-long regret, the baby was aborted. Cocteau's longest-lasting relationships were with the French actors Jean Marais and Édouard Dermit, whom Cocteau formally adopted. Cocteau cast Marais in The Eternal Return (1943), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Ruy Blas (1947), and Orpheus (1949).
Biographer James S. Williams describes Cocteau's politics as "naturally Right-leaning." During the Nazi occupation of France, Cocteau's friend Arno Breker convinced him that Adolf Hitler was a pacifist and patron of the arts with France's best interests in mind. In his diary, Cocteau accused France of disrespect towards Hitler and speculated on the Führer's sexuality. Cocteau effusively praised Breker's sculptures in an article entitled 'Salut à Breker' published in 1942. This piece caused him to be arraigned on charges of collaboration after the war, though he was cleared of any wrongdoing and had in fact used his contacts to attempt to save friends such as Max Jacob.
In 1940, Le Bel Indifférent, Cocteau's play written for and starring Édith Piaf, was enormously successful. He also worked with Pablo Picasso on several projects and was friends with most of the European art community. Cocteau's films, most of which he both wrote and directed, were particularly important in introducing the avant-garde into French cinema and influenced to a certain degree the upcoming French New Wave genre.
Cocteau is best known for his novel Les Enfants terribles (1929), and the films Blood of a Poet (1930), Les Parents terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1949).
In 1945, Cocteau was one of several designers who created sets for the Théâtre de la Mode. He drew inspiration from filmmaker René Clair while making Tribute to René Clair: I Married a Witch. The maquette is described in his "Journal 1942-1945," in his entry for February 12, 1945:
I saw the model of my set. Fashion bores me, but I am amused by the set and fashion placed together. It is a smoldering maid's room. One discovers an aerial view of Paris through the wall and ceiling holes. It creates vertigo. On the iron bed lies a fainted bride. Behind her stand several dismayed ladies. On the right, a very elegant lady washes her hands in a flophouse basin. Through the unhinged door on the left, a lady enters with raised arms. Others are pushed against the walls. The vision provoking this catastrophe is a bride-witch astride a broom, flying through the ceiling, her hair and train streaming.
Cocteau was openly gay. His muse and lover for over 25 years was actor Jean Marais.
Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Forêt, Essonne, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74. It is said that upon hearing of the death of his friend, the French singer Édith Piaf the same day, he choked so badly that his heart failed. He is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint Blaise Des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt. The epitaph on his gravestone set in the floor of the chapel reads: "I stay with you" ("Je reste avec vous").
Honours and awards
In 1955 Cocteau was made a member of the Académie française and The Royal Academy of Belgium.
During his life Cocteau was commander of the Legion of Honor, Member of the Mallarmé Academy, German Academy (Berlin), American Academy, Mark Twain (U.S.A) Academy, Honorary President of the Cannes film festival, Honorary President of the France-Hungary Association and President of the Jazz Academy and of the Academy of the Disc.
Jean Cocteau's Works:
Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet) (1930)
L'Éternel retour (The Eternal Return) (1943)
La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
L'Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle with Two Heads) (1948)
Les Parents terribles (The Storm Within) (1948)
Coriolan (1950) never released
Orphée (Orpheus) (1950)
La Villa Santo-Sospir (1952)
8 × 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957) co-director, experimental film
Le Testament d'Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus) (1960)
1909 La Lampe d'Aladin
1910 Le Prince frivole
1912 La Danse de Sophocle
1919 Ode à Picasso – Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance
1920 Escale. Poésies (1917–1920)
1923 La Rose de François – Plain-Chant
1925 Cri écrit
1926 L'Ange Heurtebise
1946 La Crucifixion
1952 Le Chiffre sept – La Nappe du Catalan (in collaboration with Georges Hugnet)
1953 Dentelles d'éternité – Appoggiatures
1961 Cérémonial espagnol du Phénix – La Partie d'échecs
1962 Le Requiem
1968 Faire-Part (posthume)
1919: Le Potomak (definitive edition: 1924)
1923: Le Grand Écart – Thomas l'imposteur
1928: Le Livre blanc
1929: Les Enfants terribles
1940: La Fin du Potomak
1917: Parade, ballet (music by Erik Satie, choreography by Léonide Massine)
1921: Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel (music by Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre)
1924: Roméo et Juliette
1927: Oedipus Rex (music by Igor Stravinsky)
1930: La Voix humaine
1934: La Machine infernale
1936: L'École des veuves
1937: Œdipe-roi. Les Chevaliers de la Table ronde, premiere at the Théâtre Antoine
1938: Les Parents terribles, premiere at the Théâtre Antoine
1940: Les Monstres sacrés
1941: La Machine à écrire
1943: Renaud et Armide. L'Épouse injustement soupçonnée
1944: L'Aigle à deux têtes
1946: Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, ballet by Roland Petit
1948: Théâtre I and II
1960: Nouveau théâtre de poche
1962: L'Impromptu du Palais-Royal
1971: Le Gendarme incompris (posthumous, in collaboration with Raymond Radiguet)
Poetry and Criticism
1918 Le Coq et l'Arlequin
1920 Carte blanche
1922 Le Secret professionnel
1926 Le Rappel à l'ordre – Lettre à Jacques Maritain
1932 Essai de critique indirecte
1937 Mon premier voyage (Around the World in 80 Days)
1943 Le Greco
1947 Le Foyer des artistes – La Difficulté d'être
1949 Lettres aux Américains – Reines de la France
1951 Jean Marais – A Discussion about Cinematography (with André Fraigneau)
1952 Gide vivant
1953 Journal d'un inconnu. Démarche d'un poète
1955 Colette (Discourse on the reception at the Royal Academy of Belgium) – Discourse on the reception at the Académie française
1956 Discours d'Oxford
1957 Entretiens sur le musée de Dresde (with Louis Aragon) – La Corrida du 1er mai
1950: Poésie critique I
1960: Poésie critique II
1962 Le Cordon ombilical
1963 La Comtesse de Noailles, oui et non
1964 Portraits-Souvenir (posthumous ; A discussion with Roger Stéphane)
1965 Entretiens avec André Fraigneau (posthumous)
1973 Jean Cocteau par Jean Cocteau (posthumous ; A discussion with William Fielfield)
1973 Du cinématographe (posthumous). Entretiens sur le cinématographe (posthumous)
1925 : Jean Cocteau fait du cinéma
1930 : Le Sang d'un poète
1946 : La Belle et la Bête
1948 : L'Aigle à deux têtes
1948 : Les Parents terribles
1952 : La Villa Santo-Sospir
1955 : L'Amour sous l'électrode
1957 : 8 × 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements
1960 : Le Testament d'Orphée
1943 : L'Éternel Retour directed by Jean Delannoy
1944 : "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" directed by Robert Bresson
1948 : Ruy Blas directed by Pierre Billon
1950 : Les Enfants terribles directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, script by Jean Cocteau based on his novel
1951 : La Couronne Noire directed by Luis Saslavsky
1961 : La Princesse de Clèves directed by Jean Delannoy
1965 : Thomas l'imposteur directed by Georges Franju, script by Jean Cocteau based on his novel
1943 : Le Baron fantôme (+ actor) directed by Serge de Poligny
1961 : La Princesse de Clèves directed by Jean Delannoy
1965 : Thomas l'imposteur directed by Georges Franju
Director of Photography
1950 : Un chant d'amour réalisé par Jean Genet
1924 : Dessins
1925 : Le Mystère de Jean l'oiseleur
1926 : Maison de santé
1929 : 25 dessins d'un dormeur
1935 : 60 designs for Les Enfants Terribles
1941 : Drawings in the margins of Chevaliers de la Table ronde
1948 : Drôle de ménage
1957 : La Chapelle Saint-Pierre, Villefranche-sur-Mer
1958 : La Salle des mariages, City Hall of Menton – La Chapelle Saint-Pierre (lithographies)
1959 : Gondol des morts
1960 : Chapelle Saint-Blaise-des-Simples, Milly-la-Forêt
1960 : Windows of the Église Saint-Maximin de Metz
Colette par Jean Cocteau, discours de réception à l'Académie Royale de Belgique, Ducretet-Thomson 300 V 078 St.
Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel and Portraits-Souvenir, La Voix de l'Auteur LVA 13
Plain-chant by Jean Marais, extracts from the piece Orphée by Jean-Pierre Aumont, Michel Bouquet, Monique Mélinand, Les Parents terribles by Yvonne de Bray and Jean Marais, L'Aigle à deux têtes par Edwige Feuillère and Jean Marais, L'Encyclopédie Sonore 320 E 874, 1971
Collection of three vinyl recordings of Jean Cocteau including La Voix humaine by Simone Signoret, 18 songs composed by Louis Bessières, Bee Michelin and Renaud Marx, on double-piano Paul Castanier, Le Discours de réception à l'Académie Française, Jacques Canetti JC1, 1984
Derniers propos à bâtons rompus avec Jean Cocteau, 16 September 1963 à Milly-la-Forêt, Bel Air 311035
Les Enfants terribles, radio version with Jean Marais, Josette Day, Silvia Monfort and Jean Cocteau, CD Phonurgia Nova ISBN 2-908325-07-1, 1992
Anthology, 4 CD containing numerous poems and texts read by the author, Anna la bonne, La Dame de Monte-Carlo and Mes sœurs, n'aimez pas les marins by Marianne Oswald, Le Bel Indifférent by Edith Piaf, La Voix humaine by Berthe Bovy, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel with Jean Le Poulain, Jacques Charon and Jean Cocteau, discourse on the reception at the Académie française, with extracts from Les Parents terribles, La Machine infernale, pieces from Parade on piano with two hands by Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc, Frémeaux & Associés FA 064, 1997
Poems by Jean Cocteau read by the author, CD EMI 8551082, 1997
Hommage à Jean Cocteau, mélodies d'Henri Sauguet, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, Jean Wiener, Max Jacob, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Delage, Georges Auric, Guy Sacre, by Jean-François Gardeil (baryton) and Billy Eidi (piano), CD Adda 581177, 1989
Le Testament d'Orphée, journal sonore, by Roger Pillaudin, 2 CD INA / Radio France 211788, 1998
1946 La Belle et la Bête (film journal)
1949 Maalesh (journal of a stage production)
1983 Le Passé défini (posthumous)
1989 Journal, 1942–1945
Marianne de Cocteau, 1960
Cocteau, Jean, Le Coq et l'Arlequin: notes autour de la musique – avec un portrait de l'auteur et deux monogrammes par P. Picasso, Paris, Éditions de la Sirène, 1918
Cocteau, Jean, Le Grand Écart, 1923, his first novel
Cocteau, Jean, Le Numéro Barbette, an influential essay on the nature of art inspired by the performer Barbette, 1926
Cocteau, Jean, The Human Voice, translated by Carl Wildman, Vision Press Ltd., Great Britain, 1947
Cocteau, Jean, The Eagle Has Two Heads, adapted by Ronald Duncan, Vision Press Ltd., Great Britain, 1947
Cocteau, Jean, "Bacchus". Paris: Gallimard, 1952.
Cocteau, Jean, The Holy Terrors (Les Enfants terribles), translated by Rosamond Lehmann, New Directions. New York, 1957
Cocteau, Jean, Opium: The Diary of a Cure, translated by Margaret Crosland and Sinclair Road, Grove Press Inc., New York, 1958
Cocteau, Jean, The Infernal Machine And Other Plays, translated by W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, Dudley Fitts, Albert Bermel, Mary C. Hoeck, and John K. Savacool, New Directions Books, New York, 1963
Cocteau, Jean, Toros Muertos, along with Lucien Clergue and Jean Petit, Brussel & Brussel,1966
Cocteau, Jean, The Art of Cinema, edited by André Bernard and Claude Gauteur, translated by Robin Buss, Marion Boyars, London, 1988
Cocteau, Jean, Diary of an Unknown, translated by Jesse Browner, Paragon House Publishers, New York, 1988
Cocteau, Jean, The White Book (Le Livre blanc), sometimes translated as The White Paper, translated by Margaret Crosland, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1989
Cocteau, Jean, Les Parents terribles, new translation by Jeremy Sams, Nick Hern Books, London, 1994
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Grave mouths of lions
Sinuous smiling of young crocodiles
Along the river's water conveying millions
Isles of spice
How lovely he is, the son
Of the widowed queen
And the sailor
The handsome sailor abandons a siren,
Her widow's lament at the south of the islet