Voice, Body, Technology: David Fuller on Cocteau-Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine”

David Fuller writes: Cocteau’s La voix humaine is a play for a single actress, who speaks on the telephone to a lover who has left her. The audience hears only what is said by the woman. The main issues are about voice and the body: what can one hear in a voice; how do bodily presence and technological intervention affect how one speaks and what one hears. The speaker supposes she can hear in the voice whether one is lying – though she fails to hear in her lover’s voice a lie she discovers by other means; and she claims one can tell from the voice what a person is doing (‘J’ai des yeux à la place des oreilles’) – though her lover fails to penetrate lies about her actions that the audience sees she is telling. The play also raises issues about how the voice is affected by technology – both how one speaks (because speaking to an instrument, not a person; or because of hearing indirectly, through technological intervention); and whether the audience supposes it understands what it hears differently from the lover, because, as well as hearing the speaking voice, it sees the speaking body. The action also presents suicidal depression: the speaker describes treatment for a failed suicide attempt (with a drug overdose), and the play ends with her apparently strangling herself with the telephone cord – with her lover’s voice (‘J’ai ta voix autour de mon cou’). What can be heard in the voice may also, as her account of resisting treatment suggests, be a subject relevant to diagnosis.

 Cocteau stressed in his preface to the published play that he intended it as an aural-visual work, not a written text, and interpretation has therefore to take full account of the meanings of the performer’s vocal inflections and body language. The play is peculiarly difficult to read, principally because there is so much space for interpretative inflection: the performer has to decide what her fragmentary texts imply about what the audience does not hear, to which it understands her as responding. The audience glimpses one alternative perspective on the unheard lover, given by a woman who interrupts after listening on the telephone party-line. She takes (we discover by implication) a low view of him, indicating that he might be seen in terms quite other than those expressed by the woman through whose engagements the audience’s sense of him is otherwise filtered. Both audience and interlocutors receive unusually partial signals, especially for a conversation of such intimacy: audience – only fragments of the material usual in interpreting a dialogue; interlocutors – voice, with no body language, technologically filtered and addressing the listener through a mechanical surrogate. The play therefore embodies with particular intensity the degree to which interpretation depends on medium of communication and point of view.

 The play was used as the libretto of an opera by Francis Poulenc. In this paper, proposed for the 2011 Association for Medical Humanities conference, I shall consider both the play and the opera, using audio recordings by the performer for whom each was written (for Cocteau, Berthe Bovy; for Poulenc, Denise Duval), a video recording of scenes from the opera by Denise Duval, and a television production of the play (1966, in English), in which the woman was performed by Ingrid Bergman. I shall also consider whether technological intervention between us as listeners and viewers replicates aspects of the technological interventions in the play/opera by considering a current live performance of the opera (ROH2, Linbury Studio, June 2011). Methodologically I shall draw on Roland Barthes (‘The Grain of the Voice’, and ‘Listening’), David Appelbaum (Voice), and Jonathan Ree (I See a Voice).

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