Spirit of the Age: the Paris of Needles and Opium

By Jess Katz

In Needles and Opium, running at The Geary Theater through April 23, theater artist Robert Lepage weaves together the lives of Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. But he also populates the play with the spirits of Paris’s leading philosophers and artists.

Simone de Beauvoir. Photo by Brassai, 1944. Courtesy Flickr.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) was the author of several works, foremost among them Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex, 1949), one of the foundational texts in second-wave feminist theory and criticism. Along with penning revolutionary treatises and authoring critically acclaimed fiction, de Beauvoir unapologetically broke with tradition in her personal life. She never married, never had children, nurtured a lifelong relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and had myriad lovers (men and women). Her intellectual appetite and her relationship with Sartre have cemented her status as a postwar Paris provocateur.

Jean-Paul Sartre. Photographer unknown, 1965.
Courtesy Dutch National Archives

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) is famous for his contributions to the existentialist movement with novels (La nausée, or Nausea, 1938), philosophical essays (L’être et le néant, or Being and Nothingness, 1943), and plays (Huis clos, or No Exit, 1944). His philosophical stance was deeply tied to his work as a writer. His novels and plays are concerned with representing people as close to their unvarnished selves as possible. These representations are often highly unflattering as his characters struggle with dignity and confront their capacity for cruelty and the consequences of their actions.

Juliette Gréco. Photo by Ron Kroon/Anefo, 1966.
Courtesy Dutch National Archives.

Juliette Gréco (born 1927) is a renowned French actor and singer who has been active in Paris culture and arts since the late 1940s. In 1949, she met jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The relationship that bloomed between them defied conventions of race and distance. Davis loved Gréco but rejected marriage, because he worried that racism toward him would negatively affect her career abroad, particularly in the US. Gréco went on to become a leading French actor and musical artist. She released her latest album in 2015 at the age of 88.

Needles and Opium runs through April 23 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Paris in 1949? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Jess Katz is the Artistic Fellow at A.C.T. 

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