Authors: Jean Cocteau

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

French author, filmmaker, poet, playwright, artist, and actor.

July 5, 1889

Maisons-Laffitte, France

October 11, 1963

Milly-la-Forêt, France


An artist possessed of many extraordinary talents, Jean Cocteau (kawk-toh) astonished the world for more than five decades with the originality of his poems, novels, plays, films, paintings, drawings, and critical articles. Prolific, brilliant, and charming, Cocteau earned the admiration and friendship of intellectuals and artists from many fields: The painter Pablo Picasso, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the writer André Gide, and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel were counted among his friends. Born near Paris in 1889 into a wealthy bourgeois family, the young Cocteau enjoyed all the advantages of his situation. The theater enchanted him, as did music halls and the circus. He hated the Lycée Condorcet, which he attended from 1900 to 1902, finding the classrooms gloomy and the teachers uninspiring. He began writing at an early age and read his first poems aloud at the Théâtre Fémina on April 4, 1908; soon after, he founded a literary magazine with several friends.

As a young man, Cocteau became interested in all the new movements which flourished around him in Paris—Surrealism, Dadaism, cubism—and he was fascinated by the promise of cinema. A keen interest in music prompted him to cultivate a relationship with the composer Eric Satie, who was surrounded by numerous fledgling composers. These musicians, along with several others, eventually formed a group known as Les Six, for whom Cocteau was the unofficial spokesman; they explored new melodic and harmonic possibilities and opened new vistas to contemporary composition. Cocteau supported their efforts through his critical writings, particularly Cock and Harlequin. Contact with members of the Ballets Russes who were visiting Paris inspired Cocteau to create scenarios for numerous ballets.

Jean Cocteau



(National Archives)

Cocteau’s concern with language and poetic imagery became apparent with the publication of his first novel, Le Potomak, in 1919, along with the publication of many volumes of poetry before and after that novel. His interest in spoken theater was manifested in 1927 and 1928 with the publication of Antigone and Orpheus. Reaching beyond traditional techniques, Cocteau cultivated a form of writing which blended symbolism with evocative narration, stressing irony and the beauty found in the commonplace. Some years later, his description of the snowball fight in Children of the Game distilled the essence of adolescent psychology through the creation of almost mythic characters who defy conventions with movements of ferocious poetry, scorning the adults around them. Dargelos, a character probably based on Cocteau’s friend Raymond Radiguet, hurls a hard snowball which wounds his friend Paul; the two boys represent disillusioned and introverted adolescents, tragic in their pursuit of liberation from a life of dogma and bourgeois morality.

Perhaps most brilliant as a filmmaker, Cocteau wrote and directed four full-length feature films and participated in the production of several others. The combination of literary genius, visual inspiration, and symbolic conception places these works among the masterpieces of world cinema. The Blood of a Poet shows the portrait of a creative person trapped in a world of violent events which have no bearing on his inner life. In Beauty and the Beast truth is revealed under the mask of a fairy tale; dream is mingled with reality as Cocteau stamps the tale with his own temperament and vision. This film is not merely a diversion for the public; it is an expression of Cocteau’s insights into the nature of friendship and love. In Orpheus and The Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau synthesizes the themes of many of his earlier works, traversing the frontier which separates life from death. The thoughts of the poet triumph over reality, establishing the supremacy of creativity and imagination over worldly matters. The aesthetic problem of the origin of artistic inspiration is posed, but it is solved only by death: The source of genius remains impenetrable and mysterious.

Cocteau’s perceptions are generally expressed in brief statements and aphorisms which do not explain his art; he sought to avoid the traps of words through simple and bare language. He considered all forms of art to be varieties of poetry which depict, innocently but seriously, the memories of the artist who is a revealer, an unveiler, of objects seen in a new light, without preconceptions. A singular sincerity governed his expression.

Author Works Long Fiction: Le Potomak, 1919 Le Grand Écart, 1923 (The Grand Écart, 1925) Thomas l’imposteur, 1923 (Thomas the Impostor, 1925) Le Livre blanc, 1928 (The White Paper, 1957) Les Enfants terribles, 1929 (Enfants Terribles, 1930 also known as Children of the Game) Le Fantôme de Marseille, 1933 La Fin du Potomak, 1940 Poetry: La Lampe d’Aladin, 1909 Le Prince frivole, 1910 La Danse de Sophocle, 1912 Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, 1919 L’Ode à Picasso, 1919 Poésies, 1917-1920, 1920 Escales, 1920 Vocabulaire, 1922 Plain-Chant, 1923 Discours du grand sommeil, 1924 Cri écrit, 1925 L’Ange Heurtebise, 1925 Le Mystère de Jean l'oiseleur, monologues, 1925 Poésie, 1916-1923, 1925 Prière mutilée, 1925 Opéra. Oeuvres poétiques (1925-1927), 1927 Morceaux choisis. Poèmes (1926-1932) , 1932 Mythologie, 1934 Enigme, 1939 Allégories, 1941 Les Poèmes allemands, 1944 Léone, 1945 La Crucifixion, 1946 Le Fils de l'air, 1947 Neiges, 1947 Poèmes, 1948 Un ami dort, 1948 Le Rythme grec, 1951 La Nappe du Catalan, 1952 Le Chiffre sept, 1952 Opéra, 1952 Poèmes inédits, 1952 Appogiatures, 1953 Dentelle d'éternité, 1953 Clair-obscur, 1954 Poèsies, 1946–1947 Poèmes, 1916-1955, 1956 L'Autre Monde, 1958 Paraprosodies, 7 dialogues, 1958 Gondole des morts, 1959 Opéra. Oeuvres poétiques (1925–1927), 1959 Cérémonial espagnol du phénix, La Partie d'échec, 1961 Le Requiem, 1962 Pégase, 1965 Faire-Part. Poèmes inédits 1920–1962, 1968 Embarcadères. Poèmes inédits, 1986 Opéra bis, 1987 Oeuvres poétiques complètes, 1999 Drama: Le Dieu bleu, pb. 1911, pr. 1912 (ballet scenario with Frédéric de Madrazo) Parade, pr. 1917 (ballet scenario music by Erik Satie, scenery by Pablo Picasso) Le Boeuf sur le toit, pr. 1920 (ballet scenario music by Darius Milhaud, scenery by Raoul Dufy) Le Gendarme incompris, pr. 1921 (ballet scenario with Raymond Radiguet music by Francis Poulenc) Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel, pr. 1921 (ballet scenario music by Les Six The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1937) Antigone, pr. 1922 (libretto English translation, 1961) Les Biches, pr. 1924 (ballet scenario music by Poulenc) Les Fâcheux, pr. 1924 (ballet scenario music by George Auric) Orphée, pr. 1926 (Orpheus, 1933) Oedipus-Rex, pr. 1927 (libretto English translation, 1961) La Voix humaine, pr., pb. 1930 (The Human Voice, 1951) La Machine infernale, pr., pb. 1934 (The Infernal Machine, 1936) L’École des veuves, pr., pb. 1936 Les Chevaliers de la table ronde, pr., pb. 1937 (The Knights of the Round Table, 1955) Les Parents terribles, pr., pb. 1938 (Intimate Relations, 1952) Les Monstres sacrés, pr., pb. 1940 (The Holy Terrors, 1953) La Machine à écrire, pr., pb. 1941 (The Typewriter, 1948) Renaud et Armide, pr., pb. 1943 L’Aigle à deux têtes, pr., pb. 1946 (The Eagle Has Two Heads, 1946) Le Jeune Homme et la mort, pr. 1946 (ballet scenario music by Johann Sebastian Bach) Théâtre de poche, 1949 Phèdre, pr. 1950 (ballet scenario music by Auric) Bacchus, pr. 1951 (English translation, 1955) Théâtre complet, pb. 1957 (2 volumes) Nouveau Théâtre de poche, 1960 Five Plays, pb. 1961 L’Impromptu du Palais-Royal, pr., pb. 1962 The Infernal Machine, and Other Plays, pb. 1964 Screenplays: Le Sang d’un poète, 1932 (The Blood of a Poet, 1949) La comédie du bonheur, 1940 Le Baron fantôme, 1943 L’Éternel retour, 1943 (The Eternal Return, 1948) La Belle et la bête, 1946 (Beauty and the Beast, 1947) L’Aigle à deux têtes, 1946 Ruy Blas, 1947 Les Parents terribles, 1948 (Intimate Relations, 1952) Enfants terribles, 1950 La corona negra, 1951 (also known as La Courounne Noir and Black Crown) Orphée, 1950 (Orpheus, 1950) La villa santo sospir, 1952 8 x8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements, 1957 (codirected with Hans Richter) Le Testament d’Orphée, 1959 (The Testament of Orpheus, 1968) La princesse de Clèves, 1961 Thomas l’Imposteur, 1965 Nonfiction: Le Coq et l’Arlequin, 1918 (Cock and Harlequin, 1921) Le Secret professionnel, 1922 Lettre à Jacques Maritain, 1926 (Art and Faith, 1948) Le Rappel à l’ordre, 1926 (A Call to Order, 1926) Opium: Journal d’une désintoxication, 1930 (Opium: Diary of a Cure, 1932) Essai de la critique indirecte, 1932 (The Lais Mystery: An Essay of Indirect Criticism, 1936) Portraits-souvenir, 1900-1914, 1935 (Paris Album, 1956) La Belle et la bête: Journal d’un film, 1946 (Beauty and the Beast: Journal of a Film, 1950) La Difficulté d’être, 1947 (The Difficulty of Being, 1966) The Journals of Jean Cocteau, 1956 Poésie critique, 1959–1960 Le Cordon ombilical, 1962 La Comtesse de Noailles, oui et non, 1962 Portrait-Souvenir, 1964 Entretiens avec André Fraigneau, 1965 Du cinématographe, 1973 Entretiens sur le cinématographe, 1973 Jean Cocteau par Jean Cocteau, 1973 Translation: Roméo et Juliette, 1926 (of William Shakespeare’s play) Bibliography 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. 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. Gilson, René. Jean Cocteau. Translated by Ciba Vaughan. New York: Crown, 1969. This thoughtful analysis of Cocteau’s films also includes several insightful comments on Cocteau by actors whom he had directed in his films. Griffith, Alison Guest. Jean Cocteau and the Performing Arts. Irvine, Calif.: Severin Wunderman Museum, 1992. This museum catalog includes critical analysis of Cocteau’s work as well as information on his contribution to the performing arts. Bibliography. Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Cocteau. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Thorough study pursues both psychological and literary views of Cocteau’s work, with chapters following a chronological approach. Includes chronology, notes, bibliography, and index. Lowe, Romana N. The Fictional Female: Sacrificial Rituals and Spectacles of Writing in Baudelaire, Zola, and Cocteau. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Highlights the sacrificial victim common in nineteenth and twentieth century French texts: woman. Traces structures and images of female sacrifice in the genres of poetry, novel, and theater with close readings of the works of Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Cocteau. Mauriès, Patrick. Jean Cocteau. Translated by Jane Brenton. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Brief biography provides information that places Cocteau’s works within the context of his life. Illustrated with many photographs. Peters, Arthur King, et al. Jean Cocteau and the French Scene. New York: Abbeville, 1984. Essays on Cocteau’s biography, his life in Paris, his intellectual background, his view of realism, his work in the theater and movies. Also contains a chronology, index, and many illustrations and photographs. Saul, Julie, ed. Jean Cocteau: The Mirror and the Mask: A Photo-Biography. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1992. This compilation from an exhibit celebrating the one-hundred year anniversary of his birth, with an essay by Francis Steegmuller, provides insights into the life of Cocteau. Selous, Trista. Cocteau. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2003. Retrospective catalog compiled by the Centre Pompidou and the Montreal Museum offers an illustrated review of Cocteau’s creative output along with seventeen essays on his life and work. Sprigge, Elizabeth, and Jean-Jacques Kihm. Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. New York: Coward-McCann, 1968. An early biography. Kihm knew Cocteau in his later years, and Sprigge also met her subject. A lively biography copiously illustrated. Includes bibliography and index but no notes. Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1986. Major biography discusses Cocteau’s childhood, the influence of his mother, and fellow poets. Defines Cocteau as a “quick-change artist” with a propensity for constant self-invention, discarding old views and activities and assuming new roles or guises with remarkable facility. Includes illustrations, twelve informative appendixes, bibliography, and index. Tsakiridou, Cornelia A., ed. Reviewing Orpheus: Essays on the Cinema and Art of Jean Cocteau. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Focuses on Cocteau’s film work but is valuable for insight into his general artistry. Williams, James S. Jean Cocteau. London: Reaktion Books, 2008. Biography chronicles the development of Cocteau’s aesthetic and his work as a novelist, poet, dramatist, filmmaker, and designer. Concludes that Cocteau’s oeuvre is characterized by a continual self-questioning.

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