Oxford Seminar Series: Drama & Performance

Drama and Performance, English Faculty, seminar room A, Wednesday 2nd week/19 October, 5.15pm;

Professor David Fuller, University of Durham

Joan Rogers in Opera North's 2006 production of La voix humaine, dir. Deborah Warner.

Jean Cocteau, La voix humaine (1930); Francis Poulenc, La Voix Humaine (1958)


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 does 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 a la place des oreilles”) – though her lover fails to penetrate lies about her own 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 be a subject relevant to diagnosis.

The play was used as the libretto of an opera by Poulenc. I shall consider both the play  and the opera, using recordings by the performer for whom each was written  — for Cocteau, Berthe Bovy; for Poulenc, Denise Duval. I shall also use a video recording of scenes from the opera by Denise Duval, and a television production of the play (1966, English) in which the woman was performed by Ingrid Bergman.

[Biography: David Fuller is Emeritus Professor of English and former Chairman of the Department of English Studies in the University of Durham. From 2002 to 2007 he was also the University’s Public Orator. He has held a University of Durham Sir Derman Christopherson Fellowship, and fellowships at the Huntington Library, the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies of the University of Toronto, and the Yale Center for British Art. He is the author of Blake’s Heroic Argument (Croom Helm, 1988), James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (Harvester, 1992), Signs of Grace (with David Brown, Cassell, 1995), and essays on a wide range of poetry, drama, and novels from Medieval to Modern, including work on Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Blake, Shelley, Keats, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, and the theory and practice of criticism. He is the editor of Tamburlaine the Great (1998), for the Clarendon Press complete works of Marlowe, of William Blake: Selected Poetry and Prose (Longman’s Annotated Texts, 2000; revised 2008), and co-editor (with Patricia Waugh) of The Arts and Sciences of Criticism (Oxford, 1999). His edition, with Corinne Saunders, of a version of the medieval poem Pearl modernised by Victor Watts was published by Enitharmon in 2005. He trained as a Musicologist and has written on Jacobean stage music, on opera, and on ballet. His current research is on Marlowe and Shakespeare in modern performance, including a book on the Sonnets to be published by Continuum in the series Shakespeare Now!]

Convenors: Sos Eltis (Brasenose), Sophie Duncan (Brasenose), Laurie Maguire (Magdalen), Ben Morgan (Balliol), Emma Smith (Hertford), Tiffany Stern (University).

(this is my first time co-convening Drama & Performance. I feel both privileged and over-excited. Please do come; D&P is the most friendly & sociable of any of the Oxford seminar series I’ve attended, and engaging for anyone working or interested in performance in any/all aspects. We feature a wide range of speakers, both academics & practitioners, at all stages of their careers. Seminars may be paper- or practice-led. Undergraduates, postgrads, faculty of all institutions and none: you’re very welcome! Do get in touch with any questions.)

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