Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963)
French artist and writer, who made his name widely known in poetry, fiction,
film, ballet, painting, and opera. Cocteau's works reflect the influence of
surrealism, psychoanalysis, cubism, Catholic Religion, and the use of opium. In
his time Cocteau was a promoter of avant-garde styles and fashions, and his
friends included such prominent figures as Pablo Picasso, the composer Erik
Satie, the writer Marcel Proust, and the Russian director Serge Diaghilev.
Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Lafitte into a wealthy Parisian family. His
father was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was
nine. Cocteau's father had a lasting influence on his son. According to
psychoanalytical critics this tragic event also created his awareness of human
weakness which he compensated by putting himself in the service of the
performing arts and the mysterious forces in the universe. Poetry was for
Cocteau the basis of all art, a "religion without hope." In the secondary school
Cocteau was only a mediocre student who was unsuccessful after repeated attempts
to pass the graduation examination. His first volume of poems, Aladdin's Lamp,
Cocteau published at the age of 19.
Soon Cocteau became known as 'The Frivolous Prince' - the title of a volume of
poems he had published at twenty-one. In 1915 he met Picasso and fell under his
The Russian ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write for the
ballet - "Surprise me," he said. This resulted Parade (1917), a ballet produced
by Diaghilev, sets by Pablo Picasso, and music by Erik Satie. In 1919 appeared
LE POTOMAK, a prose fantasy centering around a creature, who lives caged in an
aquarium. The book established Cocteau's reputation as a writer. The theme of
the poet's ability to see clearly into the world of the dead was a central theme
is Cocteau's early poems, such as in 'L'ange Heurtebise' (1925). Cocteau's first
major work of criticism, LE RAPPEL À L'ORDRE, was published in 1926. His
adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone was performed in 1922 with scenery by Picasso
and Renaissance costumes by Jean Hugo.
During World War I Cocteau served as an ambulance driver on the Belgian front.
Soon after the war he met the future poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet, whose
early death led of typhoid fever him to an addiction to opium and a period of
cure. He turned in the 1920s to the psychological novel with Thomas the Impostor
(1923), and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1929), a terrifying story of four children
who become trapped in their own spooky world.