La Voix Humaine

Jean Cocteau, La Voix Humaine
(Cambremer: Éditions des Saints Pères, 2017)
First performed: 1930 
Bernard Buffet’s illustrations first published: 1957

« (Elle enroule le fil autour de son cou.)
Je sais bien qu’il le faut, mais c’est atroce ……… Jamais je n’aurai ce courage ……… Oui, on a l’illusion d’être l’un contre l’autre et brusquement on met des caves, des égouts, toute une ville entre soi ……… J’ai le fil autour de mon cou. J’ai ta voix autour de mon cou ……… Ta voix autour de mon cou ……… Il faudrait que le bureau nous coupe par hasard ………

[…] (Elle se lève et se dirige vers le lit avec l’appareil à la main.)
Alors, voilà ……… J’allais dire machinalement : à tout de suite ……… J’en doute ……… Oh ! ……… C’est mieux ……… Beaucoup mieux ……… (Elle se couche sur le lit et serre l’appareil dans ses bras.) Mon chéri ……… mon beau chéri ……… Je suis brave. Dépêche-toi. Vas-y. Coupe ! Coupe vite ! Coupe ! Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime ……… (Le récepteur tombe par terre.) »

As the curtain closes on Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine (1930), a monodrama set in what he describes as ‘the room of a murder’, our gaze is drawn once more to the inanimate object which has been centre stage throughout. ‘This banal accessory of modern interiors’, according to Cocteau’s own Preface, could justifiably be considered a character in its own right, its presence ever felt. The woman refers to it in almost animal terms (here it coils and recoils like a snake), and it regularly disrupts her conversation with her lover of five years. Hisses, crossed lines and operator’s mistakes compound the inevitable conclusion of their break-up.

The telephone would represent all that is wrong with modernity: a technology supposedly connecting people only serves to fragment and alienate the ‘human voice’. Gaps, silences and ellipses, interpreted so differently by actresses over the years (Berthe Bovy, Ingrid Bergman, Jeanne Moreau, Simone Signoret and Sophia Loren, among others) signify the ‘illusion’, ‘chance’ and ‘lies’ of the medium. In a ‘mono-dialogue’ where we hear one singular voice, spectators are left to imagine the voice ‘on the other side’. Presence and closeness thus give way to absence and distance.

However, whilst Cocteau most certainly denounces the potential evil of the telephone and its dehumanizing effect, the play should not be read as an outright condemnation of technology. For Cocteau the telephone remains ambivalent for it serves not only as a last-ditch lifeline, but also as the sole conduit to theatre and, ultimately, poetry: it is through it that the drama of the play arises. And if ‘murder’ there is, it is a very human one—the telephone a mere accessory. The Fall remains humanity’s responsibility and not the telephone-snake’s.

As such, the warning is not so much against technology as the ways in which we may use it. It is undoubtedly this human dimension that has attracted so many adaptations over the years, from Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amore (1948) to Francis Poulenc’s opera (1950) and Pedro Almodóvar’s constant revisiting of the play in Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and The Human Voice (2020).

Benjamin Andréo