How Music Informed the Writing of Satie et Cocteau: A Rehearsal of a Play of a Composer by a Poet.
by Mike Czuba
Within the pages of the script this play is attempting to find a Rock & Roll spirit. Only this play, Satie et Cocteau: A Rehearsal of a Play of a Composer by a Poet, is about Erik Satie, a Minimalist Classical composer who died in 1925, as told by the Poet/Artist Jean Cocteau. The concept of the play is that we are watching Cocteau direct an Actor playing Satie in a play that he allegedly wrote in1939 called ‘Soyons Vulgaires’. The action takes place during what turns out to be the final day of rehearsals, after Cocteau has learned that he’s lost his financing. This last rehearsal is where Cocteau wishes to have the Actor fully embody Satie so Cocteau can posthumously demand Satie acknowledge all that he had done for him. This ultimately backfires and Cocteau ends up a broken man, asking Satie for forgiveness. The framework, bordering on absurd and meta-theatrical, allows the play to ‘stage’ sections of Satie’s life as they suit the narrative. Throughout the play the audience will discover both Satie and Cocteau’s desires and philosophies about Music and Art within the conflict between Cocteau and the Actor. So how can Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau be Rock & Roll? After 18 months of writing and research, the answer is: easily. Rock & Roll is tension, aggression, attraction and desire and isn’t that what we want to see on our theatre stages? Satie was music. He created, influenced and foreshadowed. He was a precursor, a thorn, a distraction, a jester, and a magician.
During my research I teased myself with these grand academic notions of breaking down and analyzing his music and layering them into the play. I set out to read different books on musical semiotics to decode the significance of his music. That all ended in a little under a week when I realized I was way out of my depth. Music has been an integral part of my entire life, but I never learned how to read music or felt I needed to understand the larger cultural significance of a suspended ninth chord. Music has always been a visceral, instinctual endeavour for me. So I deciphered what Satie said about his music (which was very little) and what others said about it, then distilled that information to permit those impulses to inform me, letting the music, not the theory of it, tell me where it wanted to go.
Cocteau needed to talk about his and everyone else’s (A)rt hoping he would be able to understand it, or make others believe that he knew the secrets that lay behind its creation. Satie would not talk about his music and refused to analyze it. So how do you communicate with someone who refuses to explain his own language? And then how do you communicate that to an audience? Just before he died, when he and Cocteau were no longer on speaking terms, Satie wrote, “Music requires a great deal from those who wish to serve her … A true musician must be subjugated to his Art . . . he must put himself above human miseries . . . he must draw courage from within himself . . . from within himself alone.” We can take those words and place them in front of any band, musician or artist today; Springsteen, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Prince, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Ron Sexsmith, Feist, The Mars Volta and on and on. By staying true to the music, I would be staying true to both men, allowing the music to act as another layer of antagonism within the structure of the dramatic conflict and thus creating Rock & Roll theatre.
The obvious top layer materialization of the music was going to be found in Satie’s actual compositions. As the concept of the play developed, presenting various elements of Satie’s life, the easiest part was simply narrowing down the time periods and then matching them with an appropriate piece of music. Even though Satie would have approved, I knew it had to go beyond just dropping in a track here and there to provide a backdrop. I was not going to receive a musicology degree before finishing the writing of the play so I studied how Satie composed to determine what he was trying to achieve with his music. I seized structural elements from the music to use as structural elements in the play. I adapted Satie’s musicality and created a ‘scriptuality,’ a non scientific, completely instinctual interpretation of the musical shapes, from notes to words, script + structure + musicality = scriptuality.
In his book Erik Satie, Alan Gillmor writes, “Satie’s music, with its characteristic mosaic structure and its collage-like juxtaposition of familiar musical (and extramusical) elements, suited Cocteau’s purpose admirably” and it now suited my purposes perfectly. I did not want to break down and analyze the music to simply place it into individual scenes, but to have his musical ideas of simplicity, beauty and honesty live and breathe through the entire play. I began to think of Cocteau and Actor as two hands on a giant metaphorical piano.
Another element of the music I wanted to utilize was its power as an entity. Yes, Satie wanted music to resemble a chair and not “go into convulsions,” but for my purposes I wanted the music to carry a certain amount of antagonism between the characters. Music was Satie’s (A)rt and the thing that Cocteau could never fully penetrate, so it already had an element of violence. It would not have been enough if all the Actor did was ‘talk’ because Cocteau is the poet and words are his domain. Having the Actor use certain pieces as metaphorical punches when he felt words alone were not making his point would allow the music to live on stage. An example of this musical antagonism is Satie’s Vexations, which I included as the intermission’s music. The piece is a repetitive, slightly dissonant work that Satie recommended be played 840 times and as Robert Orledge suggests in Satie the Composer can create “hallucinatory effects”. The title alone is antagonistic, hinting that Satie knew this piece of music would drive the player mad.
I also investigated the idea of ‘sketches’ or unfinished pieces of music by a composer. Satie abandoned many unpublished, unknown and forgotten pieces of sheet music in his apartment. I decided to look at the play as a series of sketches, of unfinished moments in time, because Cocteau was never finished ‘re-writing’ them. I also used a literal version of sketches within the play when Cocteau hands Actor a pile of music that he wants to be performed during the show and the Actor notices that none of the pieces are actually finished. I, in turn, took sketches of Cocteau and Satie’s ‘relationship’ and finished them in a way that I hoped remained true to their respective characters. These elements have allowed the music of Satie to exist as its own character and the concepts of music as man, collage, as a physical entity and as sketches have given the play its scriptuality.
Early in the development of the play, before the heavy research began, I scribbled a narrative equation into my notebook:
‘Actor needs Cocteau,
Cocteau needs Satie,
Satie needs Cocteau,
Cocteau needs Actor’.
When I returned to review my old notes, I was struck byhow this ‘doodle’ had become the actual shape of the play and how it fit so easily into the very shape of Satie’s music and the mirrored structure of Satie’s music to Parade.
Image from: Robert Orledge Satie the Composer p.173
In writing Satie et Cocteau: A Rehearsal of a Play of a Composer by a Poet I was interested in creating a piece of theatre that challenged audience’s expectations of what theatre, music and (A)rt is and could be. The spirit of Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau are within the pages of the play and I hope to continue their work by challenging conformity and to never, ever be predictable. Sounds like Rock & Roll to me.
**Robert Orledge, a Satie scholar and composer, who has written two books about Satie, says the play is: “…a truly excellent piece of theatre which deals convincingly and imaginatively with one of the most fraught love-hate relationships in modern French art. It has real depth and excellent dramatic pacing and is a work of art in itself”
“I admired the irreverence, theatricality and sheer fun of the piece. I found it to be a very enjoyable read” Bob White, Director of New Plays – Stratford Festival.
 No original copy of Soyons Vulgaires has ever been found. The events of the play have been (re)assembled using the Actor’s own journal written during the rehearsal process. The journal was purchased for a dollar from a barn sale in Ohio in 1972 and was only recently (re)discovered… maybe.
 Prince is god.
 Satie had no patience for over-analysis.