Born in 1948 to a middle-class family in Metz, his life was violent and anchored in revolt. He tried his hand at writing at a very young age but later renounced it, and didn't take to the stage until the age of twenty. He garnered recognition for his work on a production of Medea (Médée) directed by Jorge Lavelli in 1970.
After seeing the film actress Maria Casarès, he was inspired and resumed writing, completing around ten plays in his lifetime. His first piece, the long monologue, The Night Just Before The Forests, was staged in 1977 at the Avignon Festival, and subsequent productions were put on in collaboration with director Patrice Chéreau. Koltès died in 1989 due to complications from AIDS.
Koltès's work, based in real-life problems, expresses the tragedy of being alone and of death. His writing style accents the dramatic tension and the lyricism of his plays. Koltes is most famous for his plays The Night Just Before the Forests (La Nuit juste avant les Forêts, 1976), Sallinger (1977) and In the Solitude of Cotton Fields (Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton, 1986). Many of these plays were first directed by Patrice Chereau when he was artistic director of the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre. Koltes also translated into French Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.
It is evident that Genet and the absurdists influenced Koltès's writing. Like other absurdist writers, he felt exiled - in his case, as a homosexual in a heterosexual world. In Africa, he saw native cultures being wiped out by European influences. This theme brought forth Black Battles with Dogs. After a visit to America he wrote Quay West (1985), about a brother and sister in a foreign culture. The psychopathic killer Roberto Succo provided the inspiration for his final play Roberto Zucco. It was first performed posthumously in Berlin in 1990, directed by Peter Stein. It has since been performed across Europe and the United States.