AFTER HIS recovery from the opium addiction, a new period in Cocteau’s life began when he moved into a small apartment in Paris at 10, rue Vignon, and when he discovered an overpowering interest in film making. This was a new means of expression for him, a new form of communication, and as with every other interest in his career, he threw himself whole-heartedly into the making of Le Sang d’un poète. This film, which is still shown today, continues to mystify its audiences, but it has reached the status of a classic.
A serious illness in Toulon momentarily interrupted his work. Thomas Mann sent him a message which he received in Toulon and it gave him the spark of encouragement he needed: Vous êtes de la grande race qui meurt à l’hôpital. In 1932 Cocteau completed La Machine infernale, which was to be first performed in 1934. This play is one of his masterpieces, one of the most unified and concentrated of his works. His interest in the painting of Giorgio di Chirico is the central preoccupation in a critical piece of writing, done also in 1932, Essai de critique indirecte. It represents a restatement, a reaffirmation of many of his convictions about art expressed earlier in the collection of essays, Le Rappel à l’ordre (1926). With Les Chevaliers de la table ronde (1933), Cocteau returned to writing for the theatre, and this time to a medieval subject where Pagan and Christian themes criss-cross.
For Le Figaro, during 1934, Cocteau wrote a series of articles, Portraits-souvenirs, which were journeys into his past, into his recollections of celebrities he had met and observed. The articles, published in book form in 1935, were a prelude to the real voyage around the world which Cocteau undertook for the newspaper Paris Soir in 1936, and which he called, in honor of the Jules Verne character Philéas Fogg: Tour du monde en 80 jours. During this voyage he met and befriended Charlie Chaplin. Between March 1937 and March 1938 he wrote a regular column for the Paris newspaper Ce Soir, and during the same period undertook the most unusual of his avocations: the role of manager of a world champion prize fighter.
Alphonse Theo Brown was born in 1902 in Panama, and became known as Panama Al Brown. At the age of twentysix, he won the bantam weight title. He lost this title in Valencia, Spain, to the Spaniard Balthasar Sangchilli. Cocteau met Brown at a time when the fighter had been down on his luck, and drinking, in the night club Caprice Viennois in Montmartre. He urged Brown to undergo a cure in a clinic and then had him trained in Aubigny for a come-back fight on September 9, 1937 at the Salle Wagram. In a series of matches Brown won over several fighters. The return match for the world title was set for March 4 at the Palais des Sports. Cocteau had just finished his play Les Parents terribles, and even the sports writers were beginning to call Al Brown l’enfant terrible. Brown and Sangchilli fought all fifteen rounds and Brown won back the championship. Brown himself claimed that this was clue largely to the skillful publicity campaigning, the encouragement, and the friendship of Jean Cocteau.
Immediately after the big fight, Cocteau, in an open letter to Brown published in the newspaper, urged the fighter to withdraw from the ring: “You must stop boxing.” But Brown insisted on fighting once more, on April 19, 1938, at the Palais des Sports, where he knocked out the fighter Angelman in the eighth round. Cocteau continued insisting that the fighter give up and devised for him a circus act, a kind of shadow-boxing dance. Sportswriters everywhere and Paris journalists accused Cocteau of meddling in matters that did not concern him and launched a series of vituperative attacks. For a while, Al Brown did travel with the Amar Circus and appeared in the act originated by Cocteau. But it was not long before he was fighting again. His last match, in which he was knocked out, was on January 25, 1944 in Panama City.
Al Brown died in April 1951, of tuberculosis, in New York’s Sea View Hospital. A policeman had picked him up when he had fallen on 42nd Street in a state of collapse. Cocteau was told of the seriousness of his friend’s condition, and he rushed a tape recording to him from Paris to the New York hospital. Brown listened to the tape on the very dav he died. Three Negro friends collected money in Harlem for the athlete’s funeral.
Two of Cocteau’s plays were first performed in 1937: Oedipe-Roi and Les Chevaliers de la table ronde. In the first Jean Marais played a minor role, and in the second he took the leading role of Galaad. In 1938, Les Parents terribles, admired today as one of Cocteau’s finest plays, began its difficult career. It was refused first by Jouvet. When it was played at Le Théâtre des Ambassadeurs, the Conseil Municipal tried to have it stopped as representing an affront to public morality. It moved to another theatre, Les Bouffes-Parisiens, where it enjoyed a successful run. It had reached its four hundredth performance when the war broke out.
More and more, Cocteau had been trying to reach a wide audience with his plays, and at the same time he was attempting to renovate the genre, to create a new kind of theatre for his day. In 1939, he wrote Les Monstres sacrés for the actress Yvonne Bray, who had played a leading role in Les Parents terribles, and a monologue play, Le Bel indifférent, for Edith Piaf. La Machine à écrire, first performed in 1941, was a play more in the Ibsen manner, on the theme of oppression and hypocrisy, and markedly a further effort on the part of the dramatist to find a communication between stage and audience. The intrigue is borrowed from melodrama, and even-character is caught in some form of deceit. The major female role was created by Gabrielle Dorziat, who had also played in the earlier Les Parents terribles.
In 1941, Cocteau moved into the small apartment in the Palais-Royal: 36, rue de Montpensier, which was to remain his Paris address until his death. Throughout the Occupation, he was the object of venomous attacks from journalists and critics and political figures, particularly on the occasion of the revival of Les Parents terribles. Not only was the play forbidden, but Cocteau himself was subjected to out and out brutality and indignities. He wrote a series of articles on the theatre entitled Le Foyer des artistes, and a long tragedy in verse: Renaud et Armide, performed at the Comédie-Française in 1942. In the same year he produced a new film, L’Eternel Retour, a fairly hazardous enterprise for wartime.
During the first post-war years there was no relaxation in Cocteau’s efforts to work in several artistic domains. His new play, L’Aigle à deux têtes, was an experiment in melodrama. His new film, La Belle et la Bête, was based on the famous fairy story. His new book of essays, La Difficulté d’être, is a series of moral considerations of some of Cocteau’s most persistent themes.
In 1947, he acquired the house at Milly-la-Forêt (Seine et Oise) where he was to die in 1963, and began work on his film Orphée, a work destined to reach a wide audience and destined to continue holding wide audiences to the present. Internationally acclaimed, this film is a summation of a long career, of a period extending between the writing of the play Orphée in 1926 and the film in 1947. It is the most spectacular revelation Cocteau ever made concerning his thoughts about the artist.
When in 1950 Cocteau decorated the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the home of his friend Mme Weisweiller, he began a series of important graphic works that occupied him intermittently until his death: frescoes on the City Hall in Menton, in 1956, and the chapel of Saint Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer; the chapel of Notre-Dame in London, 1958, the church of Saint Blaise-des-Simples in Milly-la-Forêt, 1959. At the time of his death he was preparing to decorate the chapel at Fréjus. He left so many designs and drawings for this work, that his adopted son Edouard Dermit was able to carry out the work in close accord with the wishes of Cocteau. For the chapel at Fréjus, consecrated to Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem, Cocteau had left one hundred and fifty drawings, and Dermit chose approximately twenty from which to do the wall painting. In the execution of this work, he remained faithful to Cocteau’s original designs. During the course of his work in the spring and fall of 1964, Dermit profited from the advice and guidance of Picasso, who came several times from his home in Mougins to la Tour de Mare, the section of Fréjus where the chapel stands.
In addition to his chapel frescoes and illustrations for his books (notably Les Enfants terribles and Opium), Cocteau left portraits of Apollinaire, Satie, Picasso, and Colette, and studies of the sphinx, Orphée, Judith et Holoferne, and the familiar profile half-Greek, half-angelic, which served almost as a signature on many occasions.
The play Bacchus of 1951 centered on a profound theme, the reaffirmation of freedom in its encounters with dogma. It was performed by Jean-Louis Barrault in his Théâtre de Marigny. Cocteau’s adversaries and in particular François Mauriac (who was present on the opening night and left before the final curtain) tried to find in it examples of religious heresy. Mauriac’s exit was widely noticed. In an open letter to Cocteau, published in Le Figaro Littéraire, December 19, 1951, he explained his departure and up braided Cocteau for his mockery of the Church, in the character of the cynical cardinal in the play. A few days later, on December 31, in France-Soir, Cocteau answered Mauriac in an open letter every sentence of which began with the words: Je t’accuse. He objected especially to the tone of hatred he sensed in the letter and accused Mauriac of respecting the tradition in France that consisted of killing the poets.
Cocteau’s work of essayist and chronicler had continued during all this time: in his Lettre aux Américains of 1949, written after a brief visit in New York, in the airplane, between January 12-13, taking him back to Paris; in Maalesh, the stor)xxx of a theatrical tour (1949) in the Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Istanbul, and Athens); in Journal d’un inconnu of 1952. After the publication of his poem Clair-Obscur, in 1953, official signs of recognition, one after the other, honored the significance of his career and his art. Already, in 1949, he had been made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. In 1955 he was elected to Colette’s chair in the Académie Royale de Belgique, and in the same year, to the Académie Française where he was received on October 20 by André Maurois. Oxford University gave him an honorary doctoral degree in 1956.
By January 1959, Cocteau had completed preparations for the making of his film Le Testament d’Orphée. In February the Opéra Comique de Paris presented for the first time his opera La Voix humaine, for which the music had been composed by Francis Poulenc. The one singing role was taken by Denise Duval. The original text of this monologue play had been first performed at the Comédie-Française by Berthe Bovy in 1930. A film was made of the play in 1947 by Cocteau and Roberto Rossellini, starring Anna Magnani. In July, in collaboration with Gian-Carlo Menotti, Cocteau presented a short play (minodrame) at Spoletto, Italy. In September he began shooting the film, Le Testament d’Orphée, in Les Baux-de-Provence. This was interrupted before the end of the year by a visit to London, where he decorated Our Lady’s chapel in the French church and recited the part of the chorus in Oedipus-Rex, under the direction of Igor Stravinsky.
Such a brief biographical sketch can allude to only a small part of the activities and achievements of Jean Cocteau. His position is not easily classifiable. It is in a no-man’s land where all the arts meet—drama, poetry, fiction, criticism— and where they are fused and unified in the visual, the verbal, the moral.
Many critics have claimed that from all of this work only a mere “atmosphere” will remain, a “style” designating the various periods during which Cocteau lived. But since his death, a new era has begun in which individual works are being reexamined and reesteemed in terms of their form and the expression of their themes. And some of these seem to have the chance of growing into permanent works of their age. It is true that such a work as Parade, when cubism appeared on the stage for the first time, is important for the “atmosphere” it created. And Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, in the same way, is a document on the early years of surrealism.
But the greatness of Cocteau will be seen in the critical interpretation of his essays, in some of his poems, in such a novel as Les Enfants terribles, and especially in some of his films and plays. He reconverted the theatre into what it really is: a place of illusion where he was able to expose such an eternal theme as mythomanie man in search of himself. This is the action of Cocteau’s Orphée, Oedipe, and Galaad. Man’s preoccupation with his death wish is visible in such works as Le Sang d’un poète, Plain Chant, and Bacchus. The theme of le merveilleux, or the miraculous, in the most commonplace objects is apparent in La Belle et la Bête and Les Enfants terribles.
Cocteau often demonstrates in his art that the reverse of what one usually believes is also true: that death is more beautiful than life, that children are wiser than adults, that criminals are nobler than the righteous. And he was also able to demonstrate the power and the surprises inherent in a boulevard type of melodrama. In Les Parents terribles, one of his best plays and films, a devouring mother kills herself because her love for her son turned her husband toward a mistress who is the son’s fiancée. This is Cocteau’s version, in Parisian terms, of ancient Greek tragedy.
Throughout his life, he was prodigal in surprises and mystifications, of which perhaps the most unexpected was his admission to the Académie Française, when officially, in terms of his country’s tradition, he became an immortal. In October 1964, on the first anniversary of Cocteau’s death, René Clair, as representative of the Académie Française, spoke briefly at Milly-la Forêt and claimed he would not be too amazed if Cocteau suddenly woke up and related to his friends his journey in death.
More persistently than most artists of his age, Cocteau was favored by chance. (Rémy de Gourmont used to say that chance is one of the forms of genius.) Whenever success became apparent in any of his enterprises, Cocteau would turn away from it, and move on to something else, to some other adventure that might end in success or failure. He praised the doctrine of disobedience as being one of the necessary impulses of youth. He worked in the realm of art as if he were unaware of interdictions, and as if every form of creation gave him pleasure. He was able to disguise under the appearance of a game his virtuosity, the skill with which he could move from genre to genre.
Already, the facile disrespectful judgments on Cocteau’s work are being revised. He is not the illusionist he was once called, he is not the prestidigitator whose art is the result of tricks. Cocteau was not just the bad pupil, but the steady hard worker who wrote on one of his earliest pages that one has to be first a man engaged in living and then a posthumous artist: il faut être un homme vivant et un artiste posthume.
He is one of the subtlest interpreters of the twentieth century, one of its most faithful chroniclers. Whatever picture of the age is held up, Jean Cocteau’s sharp shrewd profile is there etched in some corner. During the last years of his life when he met with the academicians, in whose company he continued to use the tu-form of address as lavishly as he had done in every other activity where he had participated, it was obvious to all those who had voted for his admission that he was a man who loved friendship passionately. Everything enriched Cocteau’s existence, friendship with the quiet simple people of Milly-la-Forét as well as friendship with celebrated acade micians. In one of his last poems, Requiem, he speaks of his friends who had died as being just beyond the place where he is. He has only to turn his head to see them. Each one had escaped from him as people disappear from sight in a festive gathering. These few lines constitute Cocteau’s understanding of the bond that joins friendship and death:
Mes arn is, mes eh ers amis
Où la mort vous a-t-elle mis
Je n’avais qu’à tourncr la tête
Déjà vous étiez oò vous êtcs
Et moi seul de l’autre côté
Chacun de vous me fut ôté
Comme on se perd dans line fête.