Colette: The Secrets of the Flesh
A secret history
Writer/performer Yvonne Caddell talks to Sandra Marron about her new play based on the scandalous life and work of French novelist Colette
Glasgay! 2007, Scotland’s annual celebration of queer culture, features four exciting weeks of new contemporary boutique theatre from emerging artists at the new studio space at the Q! Gallery.
Opening this mini-season is a new play written and performed by Yvonne Caddell about the iconic Parisian writer, thrice married author, scandalous lesbian and subject of great controversy Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
Glasgay! producer Steven Thomson commissioned the work, entitled Colette: The Secret Scenes, after seeing Caddell perform a short excerpt at the Arches’ Scratch night last year. Caddell first stumbled upon her subject in a London bookshop in 1999. She had been looking for someone to write about and hoping to find a subject that she could relate to or be interested in, and there, beckoning her from the display table was the new hardback book Colette: Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. The front cover, which featured a ‘lovely, soulful, wistful picture of Colette just facing out at me’, is what prompted her to pick up the non-fiction work, which is filled with Colette’s letters of correspondence to her friends and to lovers.
Through these writings and subsequent research Caddell became interested in Colette’s relationships, particularly her troubled relationship with her mother, which is explored in the play.
‘A lot of who Colette is – and she will say this herself – actually points back to her mother and her mother’s influence,’ says Caddell. ‘You could say that to know Colette you have to get to know her mother, Sido. A lot of Colette’s relationships, you could say were born or realised in a very promiscuous, very open, bohemian time. What I think is rooted in Colette, in her work, in her view of life, in her soul and in whom she eventually wants to be like, is this mother figure.’
Colette was married to charismatic Parisian wit Henri Gauthier-Villars aka ‘Willy’ and it was he who introduced Colette to the aristocratic music hall star and Paris’ most famous and most talked-about lesbian of the time, the Marquise De Mornay or ‘Missy’ as she was known. Missy befriended Colette and the two ended up having an affair, prompting Colette to divorce Willy and move in with her new paramour, which was nothing short of scandalous for the time.
More fuel was added to the fire when Missy and Colette appeared together in a pantomime. Colette played a Mummy and Missy an archaeologist who discovers and unwraps her. The lovers’ onstage kiss sent further shockwaves throughout Paris.
The couple lived together for six years. ‘It’s almost like their relationship was quite maternal,’ says Caddell. ‘When Colette is writing about homosexuality she can sometimes refer to the union of two women as “a maternal adoption”. In her relationships she would say that, the seduction emanating from a person of uncertain sex is powerful. I liken it to a maternal adoption,’ she says. In essence Missy is the embodiment of Colette’s longing to love and touch her mother Sido, and these intertwining themes and relationships are at the heart of Caddell’s play.
Colette: The Secrets of the Flesh, Studio at Q! Gallery, Glasgow, Tue 16–Sat 20 Oct.