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Jean Cocteau Biography and Works

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 Who is Jean Cocteau? Information on Jean Cocteau biography, life story, works, films and poems.

Jean CocteauJean Cocteau; (1889-1963), French writer, artist, and filmmaker, whose work includes poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, ballet, cinema, and paintings. In all these forms he thought of himself as a “poet,” and of his works as “poetry.”


Life. Cocteau was born at Maisons-Laffitte, near Paris, on July 5, 1889, the son of a successful lawyer. His mother’s interest in the arts, especially in the theatre and the opera, determined the course of Iris life. While a student at the Lycée Condorcet from 1900 to 1904, Cocteau met and admired many prominent theatrical personalities of the time, including Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan. He also admired the virtuoso performers of the circus and music hall.


In 1909, Cocteau published his first volume of poetry, La lampe d’Aladin. In the same year, he met the Russian impresario Diaghilev, at whose suggestion he made his first venture into ballet, writing part of the scenario for Le Dieu bleu (1912), choreographed by Fokine for Nijinsky.


Rejected for military service at the outbreak of World War I, Cocteau organized an ambulance unit, flew with his friend, the French ace Roland Garros, and had many extraordinary experiences at the front, most of which he used later in his poetry and in his novel Thomas imposter (1923; Eng. tr., Thomas the Impostor, 1925). In 1917 he returned to civilian life, gaining recognition through the production of his modernistic ballet Parade, with a score by Eric Satie and scenery by Picasso. Also in 1917, Cocteau helped to bring together in Paris a group of young composers later known as “Les Six” (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre ). Cocteau’s later ballets included Le boeuf sur le toit ou the Nothing Doing Bar (1920), with a score by Milhaud, and Les mariés de la tour Eiffel ( 1921), with a score by “Les Six.”


In 1918, Cocteau formed an intimate friendship with the 15-year-old novelist Raymond Radiguet, whose death from typhoid fever in 1923 was a severe blow to Cocteau and drove him to the use of opium,. Nevertheless, during the 1920’s he produced considerable poetry, drama, fiction, and criticism. His recovery from addiction is described in Opium (1930; Eng. tr., 1932).


In the 1930s Cocteau devoted himself largely to the theatre. During World War II he was primarily engaged in filmmaking, and after the war, he adapted some of his plays for the screen. In the last decade of his life he turned his attention largely to painting, including the decoration of several chapels.


In 1954, on the death of his friend Colette, the novelist, Côcteau took her place in the Belgian Academy, and in 1955 he was elected to the French Academy. He died of a heart attack at his château, Milly-la-Forêt, near Fontainebleau, on Oct. 11, 1963, after hearing the news of the death of another friend, the singer Edith Piaf.


Works. Cocteau began as a poet. His early verse was influenced by Edmond Rostand and the Comtesse Anna de Noailles, but with the volume Le Cap de Bonne Espérance (1919) it took on freer forms reflecting aspects of cubist, futurist, and dadaistic art. Cocteau’s main poetic works are Plain-chant (1923), Opéra (1927), and Clair-obscur (1954). His poetry is often elusive, embodying the relationship between sleep and waking, between life and death.


Cocteau’s best novels include Thomas l’imposteur, a subtle, moving account of an adolescent’s involvement in war; and Les enfants terribles (1929; Eng. tr., Enfants Terribles, 1930), probably his masterpiece, which describes four adolescents whose attempt to escape the realities of life leads to their destruction.


Cocteau’s most important artistic contribution was to the theatre. His scenarios for ballets were strongly surrealistic, poeticized treatments of the events of everyday life. His earlier plays reversed this technique, modernizing and deflating ancient legends, as in Antigone ( 1922; Eng. tr., 1961), Orphée (1925; Eng. tr., 1935), La Machine infernale ( 1934; Eng. tr., The Infernal Machine, 1936), and Les chevaliers de la table ronde ( 1937); Eng. tr., The Knights of the Round Table, 1963). Cocteau’s later plays include the romantic melodrama L’aigle a deux têtes ( 1946; Eng. tr., The Eagle Has Two Heads, 1948); and more conventional plays presented in modem dress, such as La voix humaine ( 1930; Eng. tr., The Human Voice, 1951); Les parents terribles (1938; Eng. tr., Intimate Relations, 1951); and La machine à écrire (1941; Eng. tr., The Typewriter, 1948).


Cocteau was best known outside France for Iiis films. They include, in addition to adaptations of his own plays, Le sang d’un poète (1932; The Blood of a Poet), an experimental classic of the early cinema; L’étemel retour (1944; The Eternal Return), based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult; and La belle et la bête (1945; Beauty and the Beast), a surrealistic treatment of the fairy tale.


Cocteau’s Art. Cocteau, although always in the avant-garde, was less an innovator than a popu-larizer in that he introduced to a given art various modes and techniques already developed in another. His art sometimes rests on trick effects and mechanical surprises, but this fault is outweighed by the wealth, variety, and profundity of his work.

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