Jean Cocteau’s play The Typewriter, as adapted by Giles Cooper and produced and directed by Joan Kemp-Welch for Associated-Rediffusion, is a strange strange beast. The scholar of French literature Jacques Guicharnaud has written that the 1941 drama is ‘generally considered [Cocteau’s] worse play and one that he himself repudiated’ (quoted in Kenneth Krause, The Drama of Fallen France, Albany: SUNY Press, 2003, p. 4; .pdf online here) and as transferred to television here with the conventions of a British drawing-room detective story it becomes almost incoherent.
My response on viewing this Play of the Week swung from finding it simply dull to becoming fascinated by its eccentricity — but you can explore your own response as it enjoys a rare screening at BFI Southbank in the UnLOCked: The Library of Congress Discoveries season.
Kenneth Krause’s book, which is partially available as a .pdf, contains a detailed account of the controversial circumstances in which the play was first produced in Nazi-occupied Paris. Starring Cocteau’s sometime lover and perennial muse Jean Marais as identical twins, the play opened at the Théâtre Hébertot, then closed and then, after some amendments to appease the censors, reopened. To some at the time the play was taken as a critique of the petty and provincial middle-classes (an intention that is discernible in the A-R television production), but Krause’s reading of its presentation in 1941 foregrounds the queer subtext.
The play was not merely theatre scripted by a homosexual but an expression of its author’s subculture; to some degree, The Typewriter, in spite of its attempts to resemble a conventional piece, was (wittingly or unwittingly) perceived as a discernible expression of a contemporary homosexual sensibility. (pp. 3-4)
Five years after the Wolfenden report and five before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two adult males, an anonymous critic for The Times suggested that this production of Cocteau’s play had rather more about it than perhaps initially met the eye:
M. Cocteau believes — or claims to believe — that is is simply a picture of French provincial life, but if Mr Giles Cooper shares this odd aberration it fortunately did not emerge in his translation-adaptation for Associated-Rediffusion last night.
In the process of adaptation the play has had to lose an hour or so, and since it chases off on two divergent tracks at once Mr Cooper has very reasonably cut more of the less successful track — that which purports to take us on a scenic tour of provincial turpitude, depicted in the most gloomy sub-Mauriac shades. (‘The Showy Part of Cocteau’, The Times, p. 15)
(That The Times could assume its readers’ familiarity with the writings of 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Francois Mauriac speaks much about the place of French writing in our culture then and now.) Instead, as The Times review details, the drama focuses on the tangle of personal relationships in which the twins are involved. The spine of the drama, such as it is, concerns the identity of an anonymous scribe of poison-pen letters exposing the hypocrises and infidelities of the village. [SPOILER alert, since the next para from The Times encapsulates the rest of the plot.]
In the first act the fiancé confesses, in the second act the brother she really loves confesses and then throws a [epilectic] fit, and in the third act the other woman who loves him is unmasked as the real culprit. In the latter role Miss Margaret Johnston’s usual mannerisms served her to more than usual effect; Mr Jeremy Brett, excellent as the hysterical Pascal, was less compelling as the more masculine but no less neurotic Maxine [the double role originally taken by Jean Marais]; and Mr Patrick Wymark, as the improbably amiable detective, who pads through the action, brought a touch of humanity to an otherwise sparklingly inhuman display.
One other aspect is worthy of note: Joan Kemp-Welch, who was responsible for many of the most adventurous studio dramas from ITV in the early 1960s, directs with a style that makes frequent use of extended shots; one in particular lasts for more than three minutes without an edit. Choreography within an uninterrupted shot is a trademark of classical studio drama, and Ms Kemp-Welch here proves herself to be a past master of the technique.