Reinvention: Jean Cocteau in Needles and Opium

By Shannon Stockwell 

When Needles and Opium creator Robert Lepage was first introduced to French writer, film director, and visual artist Jean Cocteau in the 1970s, he immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Here was another artist whose interest in the relationship between form and content mirrored his own.

Olivier Normand in Needles and Opium. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
From a young age, Jean Cocteau was entranced by all forms of art: painting, drawing, sculpture, writing of every kind, dance, opera, theater, and music. In 1909, Cocteau met Sergei Diaghilev, the manager of the iconic Ballets Russes. When Cocteau expressed interest in working with the ballet, Diaghilev responded, “Etonne–moi.” (“Astonish me.”)

Astonish is precisely what Cocteau spent his entire life trying to do. Until his death in 1963, he was a whirlwind of artistic activity as he attempted to impress and amaze. Although today he is best known for his filmmaking—he made six films over the course of his life, the most famous being La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) in 1946—he also produced four novels, seven plays, seven poetry collections, four autobiographical works, thousands of drawings, several essays, and a handful of sculptures.

Despite his extensive creative output and his friendship with many members of the Parisian avant-garde, he never quite achieved the same level of fame as other artists of his time. Because of his ability to participate in so many fields, many of his contemporary critics called him an “acrobat,” a show-off without the intellectual substance to back up his art.

“No doubt the sheer variety of his output contributes to his discredit by exposing him too much and emphasizing his about-faces,” says biographer Claude Arnaud. “But he was incapable of premeditation. . . . He didn’t know if what he did was excellent or insipid: he just did, the way blacksmiths forge or bees gather pollen.”

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Jean Cocteau and Robert Lepage? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Popular posts from this blog

“To Be or Not to Be”: The Iconic Speech’s Origins, Interpretations, and Impact

The American Sound: The Evolution of Jazz

A Hell of a Businessman: A Biography of Joe Glaser