So much female heartache, so many men making a career out of it

I am trying to understand why I found so infuriating Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, performed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Halina Reijn in the sole role, directed by Ivo van Hove) at the Harboufront Centre’s World Stage.

Is it because it’s yet another male-created and male-directed female character unable to continue her life without the man who left her? The drama, if there’s any real drama, is in her wallowing and humiliation. That van Hove’s woman drops the phone half way through the play and continues talking to an unspecified presence (her reflection in the glass, a boyfriend she dreamed up) doesn’t change anything.

Is it that she is further infantilized by wearing a Disney-themed top, a track suit bottom and pair of blue socks (which, at one point, step in vomit)? Ted Kotcheff’s film La Voix humaine (1966) with Ingrid Bergman gives us the lead with undeniable glamour even if she won’t leave her pink schlafrock. Bergman’s iconicity prevents the total annihilation of the character:

Anna Magnani in Rossellini‘s L’Amore (1948) is almost forceful, certainly confident and knowing, at moments pensive, never really taking pleasure in her own disintegration:

Is it that, unlike in Francis Poulenc’s opera, the original stage version has no soprano voice to make the main character formidable and/or shrill?

Is it that Cocteau wrote the play to appease an actress friend who had complained that he never bothered creating good female roles? So he came up with this. A play which might have equally been written by the author of He’s Just Not That Into You. No, I take that back: He’s Just Not That Into You gender philosophy is more sophisticated than La Voix’s. Yet the play is still being described as “one of the few great monologues in the world written for a woman” (the program synopsis). We can die happy now.

Is it that in the Q&A after the performance, Halina Reijn — an excellent actress, no qualms — said “How did Cocteau know this is what we go through? How did he know women that well? Ivo also knows women well. It’s like gay men know women better than women know themselves.”

Is it that nobody will ever be able to switch genders and cast a man in this role, with either female or male lover on the phone?

Whatever it is. I can’t understand why this play is still being revived.  And for a portrait of a woman scorned I return to Monteverdi’s Ottavia or Charpentier’s Médée. The baroque opera composers — unlike most playwriting men of the twentieth century — when they talked about women knew what they were talking about.

To Coc(k)teau I wish he gets a posthumous call from Ernestine.


16 thoughts on “So much female heartache, so many men making a career out of it

  1. I assume one has to see libretto and opera in a context of time: to my mind and – after Wagner and even after a lot Strauss and Hofmannsthal created – Poulenc’s piece belongs to a true revolution in the history of opera!
    And let’s be fair: what would it change if the addressee at the other end of the line were a woman, too?

    OK, it is unlikely that the main character could be a straight man, because they simply are wired differently but is that really of any importance regarding *the piece*?

  2. Clearly what the program notes meant to say was “one of the few monologues in the world written for a woman.” All that chatter takes up space, you know.

  3. Bergerchef, would love to know more about how Poulenc’s La Voix was revolutionary musically. He composed it with Denise Duval in mind, who’s in this film above. Have you ever seen it live? Felicity Lott recorded it, and many others.

    Stray, I wish a comedy was made of La Voix. Dr Schmitt knocks at the door to complain for the abuse of the party line, the dog starts talking, her mother calls to tell her “You never visit me nowadays” — SOMETHING.

    [edited to add]
    Forgot to address your second point, ‘Chef. If the self-destructive behaviour by one sex only (and about the other sex) gets so much airing in a culture, this behaviour gets cultural validity, women grow up learning about it as a significant possibility, as a way to be… if broken women are all around you in unambiguous monodramas and films and TV, it’s diminishing to personhood. This insight is very old, at least as old as Simone de Beauvoir who wrote a lot in The Second Sex about the toxic ways of loving available to women, and why we define ourselves by who we love and men, in general, don’t and have better things to do.

    I wonder what a woman-directed La voix either on film or in theatre would look like. I can’t imagine a flood of women directors rushing to do La voix, though.

    Women’s victimhood in opera is of a different kind, but that’s another post.

  4. Sorry DtO no time to ponder too much about Poulenc and Cocteau but – apart from what some musicologists call the first opera-like piece – “Lamento d’Arianna” composed by Monteverdi – La Voix is as Stray said: one of the few pieces in the world written for a woman, very reduced regarding setting and scoring – almost chamber music and yet a ‘real’ opera. I think it’s a fascinating piece and I really don’t care whether the protagonist talks to a man or a woman.

    Yes I have seen it twice, directed by a woman and by a man (I wrote the program notes for the „male“ production) and it did not look much different. After all, that’s more or less how a lot of us behave when a love is over or not answered. Nevertheless the piece is called ‘The *Human* Voice’, which is an interesting detail, I think. In fact: Cocteau’s text was rehearsed by Klaus Kinski (director and protagonist) in 1949:, though I am not sure Kinski really could play it because he became sick. Cocteau however was delighted that Kinski planned to play it… .

    By the way: do you happen to know Menotti’s „ The Telephone”? To my mind there is a lot more of stereotypic disorder shown there ;-).

  5. @Bergerchef, sorry, but my comment was intended to point up the Hobson’s choice aspect of this piece (in whatever form) as being “one of the few” at all, and therefore presumed to be “great”, not to mention “representative of”. My question to Ms. Reijn would have been “Who is ‘we’?”.

    If I wanted to be as essentialist as the going rate (and actually I don’t), I’d certainly question her assertion that gay men know women better than women know themselves. I’d say that no, gay men do not know women better than women know themselves, though they may know the stereotypes of women better than women themselves do.

    Then again, who is “they”?

  6. Then, Chef, I’ll have to leave your suggestion that Poulenc’s La Voix was a revolutionary opera aside as un-elaborated. As for the importance of noticing sexual difference in works of art, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think it’s very important.

    The trouble with the Kinski version — thanks for that link, it’s completely new to me — is that he was supposed to play her as a woman, not as a grieving, wailing, begging man. Which makes all the difference. Possibly makes it even worse. He looks like one of the Monty Python crew when they put on drag to play female characters in their skits (because, didn’t you know, biological women just can’t do humour).

    Stray, yes — I know. But we all must essentialize strategically in order for conversations to take place and political contentions to be voiced. I guess the statement “Sex W knows so much more about Sex Z than even Sex Z does” was the original annoyance for me. Had she said “Cocteau knows so much about women” and, half-nominalistically, stopped there, I’d simply disagree, and not go on a political rant.

  7. Hmmm well, DtO, ok let’s agree to disagree.
    Nevertheless to my mind what Cocteau voices here is the fear of loss or the fact of loss and I don’t think that fear is different if a woman fears to be left by a male or a female partner nor is her heartache different.
    Re Poulenc I tried to express what I meant by referring to the post-romantic… .

    I am afraid I can’t really follow what you and Stray are talking about. I assume you are referring to the program notes or to some other interviews partly mentioned above?
    I am just referring to the piece and of course one can’t transpose Poulenc’s score down.
    The only thing one could do is cast it with a male soprano – which brings me back to Kinski:
    I am not sure he aimed to play her as women. I suppose he planned to play her as a transvestite, and I suspect this was why the American occupation zone in Berlin finally forbade the performance.

  8. Let’s disregard Poulenc for now. It’s the play that’s at issue here.

    Also, forget about who’s on the line. It doesn’t matter who’s on the line or even if there’s anybody on the line at all. The woman at the centre of the play is what interests me. Whose disintegration we observe voyeuristically for 50min. That may be somebody’s idea of a challenging play. I think it’s a pointless exercise that reinforces (instead of challenging) an existing dominant stereotypical cultural model for how a woman’s life should be.

    What I’m much more interested in is why we take for granted that men are, as you put it, “differently wired” when it comes to suffering in love. I don’t think they’re biologically predetermined to be more independent of spirit when it comes to love. I think they’re socially/culturally predetermined to be. Forgive me for repeating these obvious points. 60-plus years from The Second Sex (and how many from Mary Wollstonecraft!) they’re now common-sensical.

    Then comes the revival like this. Maybe it was Reijn’s delivery that I found unbearable? Neither the Magnani nor the Bergman version (nor, by any stretch, Poulenc’s opera, which I anyway saw only in this Denise Duval film) made the play look so utterly irredeemable for me. Neither of these other interpretations ends up saying to its lead so unequivocally “You are nothing. Now die.” It didn’t help that after the performance Reijn said that “Cocteau really knew women”.

    Re Kinski: ah, that’s interesting. But again, he had to assume femininity in order to play the abandoned lover. It’s like saying, “Only the man who consciously embraces femininity would act like this in this situation.”

    Here’s something better to ponder: Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. A good film (if not an easy one to watch), uncompromising, stylized as Almodovar will be years later, yet it doesn’t hate its characters. BTPK is a film that actually tells you something about grief that you didn’t know. Things happen in it — it’s not a puddle of wallow with the main characters stuck in it permanently. Fassbinder, a gay guy, made a film about lesbians. Experiment absolutely successful.

    And now that I remembered him: most Almodovar’s films genuinely love their women.

    If you were to make a list of the straight male filmmakers who consistently create plausible female characters who are not in the film for the sole purpose of disintegrating before our eyes, what names would come to mind?

    (And now I’ll shut up. I feel like I’ve gone on a bender)

    1. If I remember the score of disregarded Poulenc correctly it does not say that she strangles herself; thus here the end in a way depends on the stage director… .
      And concerning Cocteau: his play was first staged in 1930, * 19 * years before Beauvoir said: „On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.“ Well then: Happy IWD 2011 !

  9. Thank you for this post, I’m afraid I know La Loix Humaine too little to say anything substantial on it specifically.
    @ Bergerchief, haha, yes, I know Menotti’s The Telephone, “Hallo, hallo, wie schön, daß du jetzt anrufst, gerade dachte ich an dich …. ” but in German 😀
    I am unsure whether the sexual orientation of a man makes him more or less apt to identify with women and thus depict and re-live their feelings in a credible way. And, what is credible, as women are a group where one individual differs so hugely from another that it is hard to tell.
    The best deconstructive bits, both monologues — for me better than Lucia’s mad scene even — are written by Handel.
    One: A man, dying, painfully slowly, by poison — Bajazet in Tamerlano.
    The second: La Lucrezia, dealing with a whole bunch of feelings circling around Lucrezia’s post-rape trauma leading to her suicide. The best recording imho of it is sung by a man, though: Gérard Lésne. (It is not on youtube, so if you want to listen into it drop me a line.) He is scarily good in it.
    Was Handel gay? some sources say so, but is it a key factor? I don’t know — he loved women? felt more like one? I am unsure, as his monologues leave gender behind. As a mother I can perfectly align to Bajazet, singing a lullaby to his long grown-up daughter in between (Figlia mia, non pianger’ no…), more than to many female roles.
    Andronico, the male “hero” (“a bit of a wimp,” according to Bejun Mehta) I can more allign to in his “benché mi sprezzi…” than I can with Asteria’s “se non mi vuol amar..” But that’s just me.
    Handel is God concerning monologues and arias that make gender a minor factor, as he takes madness, feelings, despair to the next level, where the sex of a person matters little.
    One of the most moving recordings of the “Figlia mia..” is by Leyla Gencer, i find 😉

    1. Handel’s monologues, or his librettists’?

      If there is a difference in the way women are represented on the 17th / 18th century stage from how the 20th century tended to represent them, it probably has to do with the 19th century getting in the way. Chalk it up to cultural indigestion caused by swallowing too much Freud.

      @Bergerchef, before Beauvoir, perhaps, but not before a lot of other people. Not that that matters much.

  10. IWD always reminds me that women in search of equality and freedom inevitably need to start with a focus on labour — who’s working how much for what kind of compensation. Fights over cultural representations (like this post) come after. (Or maybe they’re simultaneous? But bread first, then morality, as one good ally said.)

    George, this actually sounds neat. They’re not just blindly reviving the play, but they’re recontextualizing it. And adding dance! When I clicked first, the page showed I was in the waiting line, so for those who couldn’t see, here’s the description of the ROH evening from their site:

    Jean Cocteau’s monologues provide the inspiration behind an evening of opera and dance from ROH Associate Artist Aletta Collins and director Tom Cairns. They began to explore the inspirational synergy of music, dance and voice along with cocteau’s themes of possession and abandonment in their dance film for Channel 4, ‘The Human Voice’. Now this programme commissioned by ROH2 develops these strands into live performance. In Duet for One Voice, a world-premiere, Collins re-imagines Cocteau’s monologue Le Bel Indifférent for dancers, with a newly composed score by composer Scott Walker. For the second, a new production, Tom cairns stages Poulenc’s opera La Voix humaine (The Human Voice), which follows a woman’s desperate last telephone conversation with her departed lover. New ideas, reinterpretations, eclectic influences – this programme brings music and dance together with provocative drama in a unique and unmissable way.”

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