Twentieth century art in many areas is indebted to Jean Cocteau (5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963). His accomplishments span the artistic and literary activities of his times, the diversity unified by his vision of all art as facets of the purest form: poetry. Whether working in film, fiction, theater, drawing, or verse, he considered himself to be revealing the poet in him. Critics now generally agree that his finest achievements are in the novel and the cinema. One of the most crystalline stylists among French writers of the twentieth century, Cocteau employed brilliant imagery and extraordinary visual qualities that make his novels powerfully evocative despite their terse style. Some regard him as a dilettante interested only in stylishness and facile demonstrations of his gifts; his classical style, however, allows him to transcend the limitations of ordinary novelists and their message-oriented prose to explore the resonances of mythology and archetype in a modern context. His versatility, irony, and playfulness encouraged his contemporaries to dismiss him, and he received few honors other than his 1955 election to the Académie Française. His novels are quirky, experimental, often chaotic, but filled with intriguing imagery and wit. Children of the Game is almost universally agreed to be his masterpiece.
Le Potomak was a crucial work in Jean Cocteau’s development, as he used it to break free of former influences and find an individual voice. Highly experimental, it is, however, not of compelling interest for any other reason, consisting as it does of an exploration of the subconscious through a hodgepodge of verse, prose, and drawings, all of which reveal Cocteau’s talents but mostly demonstrate rebellion rather than a mature concept of the novelistic art. Its writing was interrupted by World War I, and the influence of the war is apparent in the revised edition. Under the influence of Radiguet, Cocteau wrote The Grand Écart and Thomas the Impostor. Mythologizing memories of his childhood, Cocteau based The Grand Écart on a childhood visit to Venice and his recollections of boarding school. One of his recurrent images appears indistinctly in this novel in the form of the Englishman Stopwell. Like Dargelos and the Angel Heurtebise, Stopwell is an angel in the form of a tempter who brings about annihilation or metamorphosis. Thomas the Impostor was based largely on Cocteau’s own experiences during the war. Rejected for service, he posed as an ambulance driver on the Belgian front and was “adopted” by a group of Fusiliers Marins. When discovered by a superior officer, he was arrested and taken from the front. A day later, most of his comrades were killed. Rather than portraying the war as a horror, however, the novel turns it into a ghastly joke, a reflection of humanity’s chaotic mind, a cruel trick played by a Euripidean god. Being an impostor is likened to being a poet, and reality and impostorship merge only when Thomas the Impostor is shot in the Waste Land. The “Prince of Frivolity,” as Cocteau was known, uses flippant, humorous, outlandish imagery that accentuates the horror. The book is clearly one of his better novels, though not nearly equal to his next.
Children of the Game
Children of the Game is considered to be Cocteau’s most successful novel by far. In addition to being beautifully written, it is an extraordinary evocation of adolescent hopes, fears, dreams, and obsessions; it is said to have been regarded by French teenagers as capturing their alienation from adult society in the same way that J. D. Salinger articulated teen alienation in American culture. Perhaps because Cocteau, as an artist and a man, always held himself as a kind of alien visitor to the realms of the establishment from the world of subjectivity and irrationality, his sensitivity to adolescent alienation was enhanced. Children of the Game is not a realistic portrayal of adolescence, however. It is sensitive, but it is so overlaid with dream imagery and mythological overtones that whatever autobiographical elements and psychological truths it might contain are submerged.
Fragments from many mythological sources are identifiable upon even a cursory reading of the work. Cocteau was fascinated with mythology and at various times in his career wrote works dealing with Antigone, Orpheus, Bacchus, and the “Beauty and the Beast” motif. Cocteau wrote Children of the Game very rapidly—at the rate of seventeen pages a day for three weeks—while he was undergoing treatment for opium addiction, as if he were trying to let archetypal and subconscious elements flow freely onto the page. Too careful an artist to practice automatic writing without aesthetically manipulating the result, he nevertheless refused to make later changes in the text for fear of destroying the fabric of the book. Characters in Children of the Game quite often suggest beings from mythology, as Cocteau imbues people and events from his own life and imagination with a supernatural or divine aura.
Dargelos, for example, whose name is taken from a real boy whom Cocteau admired in his school days, takes on the characteristics of a god. Early in the book, Paul seeks Dargelos among the snowball wars in the Cité Monthiers. Paul’s love for Dargelos is described as “sexless and purposeless,” and his seeking him in order to fight beside him, defend him, and prove what he can do takes on religious overtones. Paul, however, is silenced by a snowball from one of his idol’s acolytes, condemning him to Dargelos’s wrath. Dargelos rises up in an immense gesture, his cheeks on fire and his hair in disorder, like a statue of Dionysus. Paul feels the blow of the snowball on his chest—a dark blow, the blow of a marble fist. As Paul loses consciousness, he imagines Dargelos upon a dais, in a supernatural light. Dargelos has struck Paul in the heart, with a snowball like Thor’s hammer or Zeus’s thunderbolt. Dargelos, throughout the rest of the book, is hardly mentioned; his presence, however, seems to loom over all subsequent events. As Wallace Fowlie has observed, he “grows into the figure of a dark angel who haunts the dreams and thoughts of the protagonist.”
Eden is evoked when Paul, his sister Elisabeth, and Gérard find themselves alone without adult supervision. In “the Room,” they are free of conventional worries about food and seem innocent of evil. Their childhood seems to be prolonged. Although the situation appears to be fraught with incestuous overtones—Paul and Elisabeth sleep in the same room and bathe together—there is instead a matter-of-fact sexlessness, a lack of shame. When a ball of poison (associated with Dargelos’s snowball) causes the cold, outside world of snow and death to blow into their Eden, one may see an analogy to the expulsion from Eden, the coming of mortality into Eden.
One must not, however, treat Children of the Game as allegory. Cocteau is weaving a fugue of implications and mythological elements. One critic has found the novel to be about the impossibility of escaping bourgeois ideology; another has found it to be the playing out of fate in the form of Eros-Thanatos. There is certainly a hint of inevitability in the sequence of events. Tragedy is suggested from the beginning, and the classical structure and sparkling sentences help convey this impression. The characters are in the grip of forces beyond their control. When Michael, the rich American Jew, is killed, it seems as if the Room reaches out to protect itself. When Dargelos gives Paul the fist-sized ball of poison, one is reminded of the marble-hard snowball and the apple that destroyed Eden. A reddish gash in the ball is reminiscent of both a wound and female genitalia, suggesting an association between mortality and the loss of innocence. The end is destined, and nothing can hold it back. Childhood is doomed. As Cocteau himself wrote in The Difficulty of Being: “Childhood knows what it wants. It wants to emerge from childhood. The trouble starts when it does emerge. For youth knows what it does not want before it knows what it does want. But what it does not want is what we do want.” Thus are the “holy terrors” doomed.
La Fin du Potomak
Le Fantôme de Marseille is a slight work containing associations and local color that Cocteau recalled from his running away to Marseilles at the age of fifteen. Later, in Le Picquey, in a hotel where he had stayed with Radiguet in 1923, Cocteau watched over the convalescence of a new love, actor Jean Marais, and returned to the inspiration of Le Potomak for his last novel. La Fin du Potomak is a curious mixture of fairy tales, aphorisms, riddles, and true stories recalling Cocteau’s experiences after 1913. A revival of Cocteau’s classicism has been seen in the work, but most often it is regarded as a mere shadow of Le Potomak, as if the author’s creative interests had shifted away frompoésie de roman (poetry of the novel). Brooding over the entire work is a disappointment with human nature and recurrent imagery of death, perhaps evoked by Marais’s illness and the memory of Radiguet’s sudden death. There is also an acceptance of the author’s own death (which was many years in the future), indicated by some lines of poetry at the end: “Death, don’t be clever/ . . . You see, I wait standing still/ I even offer you my hand/ . . . What does it matter? I leave behind a book/ That you will not take from me.”
Plays: Antigone, pr. 1922 (libretto; English translation, 1961); 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); Bacchus, pr. 1951 (English translation, 1955); Théâtre complet, pb. 1957 (2 volumes); Five Plays, pb. 1961; L’Impromptu du Palais-Royal, pr., pb. 1962; The Infernal Machine, and Other Plays, 1964.
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;Escales, 1920;Poésies, 1917-1920, 1920; Discours du grand sommeil, 1922; Vocabulaire, 1922; Plain-Chant, 1923;Poésie, 1916-1923, 1924;Cri écrit, 1925; L’Ange Heurtebise, 1925;Prière mutilée, 1925; Opéra, 1927; Morceaux choisis, 1932; Mythologie, 1934; Allégories, 1941; Léone, 1945; Poèmes, 1945; La Crucifixion, 1946; Anthologie poétique, 1951; Le Chiffre sept, 1952; Appogiatures, 1953; Clair-obscur, 1954; Poèmes, 1916-1955, 1956; Gondole des morts, 1959; Cérémonial espagnol du phénix, 1961; Le Requiem, 1962.
Screenplays: Le Sang d’un poète, 1930 (The Blood of a Poet, 1949); L’Éternel Retour, 1943 (The Eternal Return, 1948); Le Baron fantôme, 1943; L’Aigle à deux têtes, 1946; La Belle et la bête, 1946 (Beauty and the Beast, 1947); Ruy Blas, 1947; Les Parents terribles, 1948 (Intimate Relations, 1952); Les Enfants terribles, 1950; Orphée, 1950 (Orpheus, 1950); Le Testament d’Orphée, 1959 (The Testament of Orpheus, 1968); 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); Journal d’un inconnu, 1952 (The Hand of a Stranger, 1956; also known as Diary of an Unknown, 1988); The Journals of Jean Cocteau, 1956; Poésie critique, 1960.
Ballet scenarios: Le Dieu bleu, pr. 1912 (with Frédéric de Madrazo); Parade, pr. 1917 (music by Erik Satie, scenery by Pablo Picasso); Le Boeuf sur le toit, pr. 1920 (music by Darius Milhaud, scenery by Raoul Dufy); Le Gendarme incompris, pr. 1921 (with Raymond Radiguet; music by Francis Poulenc); Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel, pr. 1921 (music by Les Six; The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1937); Les Biches, pr. 1924 (music by Poulenc); Les Fâcheux, pr. 1924 (music by Georges Auric); Le Jeune Homme et la mort, pr. 1946 (music by Johann Sebastian Bach); Phèdre, pr. 1950 (music by Auric).
Translation: Roméo et Juliette, 1926 (of William Shakespeare’s play).
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Source: Rollyson, Carl E., and Frank N. Magill. 2000. Critical survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press.