Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963) was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, boxing manager, playwright and filmmaker. Along with other Surrealists of his generation (Jean Anouilh and René Char for example) Cocteau grappled with the "algebra" of verbal codes old and new, mise en scène language and technologies of modernism to create a paradox: a classical avant-garde. His circle of associates, friends and lovers included Jean Marais, Henri Bernstein, Édith Piaf, whom he cast in one of his one act plays entitled Le Bel Indifferent in 1940, and Raymond Radiguet.

Like Victor Hugo, he unsuccessfully intended his artistic work to serve a dual purpose—to be entertaining and political. The results played out in the theatrical world of the Grands Theatres, the Boulevards and beyond during the Parisian epoque he both lived through and helped define and create. His versatile, unconventional approach and enormous output brought him international acclaim.

Early years

Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, a small town near Paris to Georges Cocteau and his wife Eugénie Lecomte, a prominent Parisian family. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. At the age of fifteen, Cocteau left home. Despite his achievements in virtually all literary and artistic fields, Cocteau insisted that he was primarily a poet and that all his work was poetry. He published his first volume of poems, Aladdin's Lamp, at nineteen. Soon Cocteau became known in the Bohemian artistic circles as 'The Frivolous Prince'—the title of a volume he published at twenty-one. 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. Around this time, it was said that Cocteau could bring himself to orgasm without touching himself, purely by the power of imagination. During the Great war Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, artist Amedeo Modigliani and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated. The Russian ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write a scenario for the ballet - "Astonish me," he urged. This resulted in Parade which was produced by Diaghilev, designed by Pablo Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie in 1917. An important exponent of Surrealism, he had great influence on the work of others, including the group of composer friends in Montparnasse known as Les Six. The word Surrealism was coined, in fact, by Guillaume Apollinaire in the prologue to Les mamelles de Tirésias , a work begun in 1903 and completed in 1917 less than a year before he died.[1] "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.[citation needed]

Friendship with Raymond Radiguet

In 1918 he met the 15-year-old poet Raymond Radiguet. They collaborated extensively, socialized, and undertook many journeys and vacations together. Cocteau also got the youth 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 garner the "Nouveau Monde" literary prize for the novel. Cocteau's admiration for the youth was intense and passionate, to the point where some contemporaries and later commentators believed there must have been a romantic component.[2] Cocteau himself was aware of this perception, and worked earnestly to dispel the notion that their relationship was sexual in nature.[3]

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,[4] 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, Diary of a Cure, 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.

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 invention by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875 grew out of the teacher of the deaf's long-time desire to develop a "harmonic telegraph" and the newer idea of a telephone. Leading up to the 1929/1930 theatrical production, Bell had won the prestigious Volta prize along with 50,000 francs from the Académie française in Paris in 1880 and the first transatlantic radiotelephone service had been laid in 1924. 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 Poetiques 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 1500s) 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, in a nutshell, represents Cocteau's state of mind and feelings towards his actors at the time: on the one hand, he desired 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 of the same name, Gian Carlo Menotti's "opera bouffa" Le Telephone and Roberto Rosselini's film version in Italian with Anna Magnani L'Amore (segment: "Il Miracolo") (1948), to name the high point. 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.[5] "When, in 1930, the Comedie-Française produced his La Voix Humaine...Cocteau disavowed both literary right and literary left, as if to say, "I'm standing as far right as Bernstein, in his very place, but it is an optical illusion: the avant-garde is spheroid and I've gone farther left than anyone else."


In the 1930s, Cocteau had an unlikely affair with Princess Natalie Paley, the beautiful daughter of a Romanov grand duke and herself a fashion-plate, sometimes actress, model, and former wife of couturier Lucien Lelong. She became pregnant. To Cocteau's distress and Paley's lifelong regret, the fetus was aborted. Cocteau's longest-lasting relationships were with the French actors Jean Marais and Edouard Dermit, whom Cocteau formally adopted. Cocteau cast Marais in The Eternal Return (1943), Beauty and the Beast, Ruy Blas (1947) and Orpheus (1949).

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. He struggled with an opium addiction for most of his adult life and was openly gay, though he had a few brief and complicated affairs with women (including, some say, Piaf). He published a considerable amount of work criticising homophobia.

Cocteau's films, most of which he both wrote and directed, were particularly important in introducing Surrealism into French cinema and influenced to a certain degree the upcoming French New Wave genre.

Cocteau is best known for his 1929 play Les enfants terribles, the 1948 film Les parents terribles, and the films Beauty and the Beast, (1946) and Orpheus (1949).

Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74, only hours after hearing of the death of his friend, the French singer Édith Piaf. He is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint Blaise Des Simples in Milly La Foret, Essonne, France. The epitaph on his gravestone set in the floor of the chapel reads: "I stay among you."

Awards and recognitions

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.


Feature Films

  • Le sang d'un poète (1930)
    • The Blood of a Poet
  • L'Eternel Retour (1943)
    • The Eternal Return
  • La belle et la bête (1946)
    • Beauty and the Beast
  • L'aigle à deux têtes (1947)
    • The Eagle Has Two Heads
  • Les parents terribles (1948)
    • The Storm Within
  • Orphée (1950)
    • Orpheus
  • Le testament d'Orphée (1960)
    • The Testament of Orpheus

Short Films

  • La villa Santo-Sospir (1952)

Other Films

  • Coriolan (1950) Never Released
  • 8 X 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957) Co-director, Experimental


Selected works:

  • 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, The Holy Terrors (Les enfants terribles), translated by Rosamond Lehmann, New Directions Publishing Corp., 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.A. 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

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  1. Surreal Lives
  2. Richard Berrong, "Poet of the Cinema" in The Gay and Lesbian Review July/August 2008 p.32
  3. Francis Steegmuller (1970). Cocteau, A Biography. “Monsieur, I have just received your letter and must reply despite my regret at being unable to explain the inexplicable. It is possible that my friendship for your son and my deep admiration for his gifts (which are becoming increasingly apparent) are of an uncommon intensity, and that from the outside it is hard to make out how far my feelings go. His literary future is of primary consideration with me: he is a kind of prodigy. Scandal would spoil all this freshness. You cannot possibly believe for a second that I do not try to avoid that by all the means in my power” 
  4. Jean Cocteau Biography - Jean Cocteau Website
  5. Brown, Frederick,An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau, The Viking Press, New York, p.170

Other references

  • See also references in Les Six article.
  • Breton, André (1953). La clé des champs, p. 77. Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire.
  • Steegmuller, Francis, Cocteau: A Biography, Atlantic-Little, Brown, Boston, 1970.

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