Reflections on Venus in Fur
[Note: I have not written a review of this play deliberately. I did refer to a New Yorker review that I had read but could not recall or find. Georgia Klass in Winnipeg took note and found it for me. The review, “The Whip Comes Down” was written by Hilton Als, not Robert Risk as I indicated yesterday, and published in the 8 February 2010 issue of The New Yorker. It is a superb review for a superb play.]
In David Ides play, Venus in Fur, we have only one Venus and one fur in a singular semblance of an inversion of a representation – or so it seems. In actuality, we have multiple layers. There is the Western literary heritage of Greek drama and biblical writing in which the play is wrapped like a Christmas present. There is Sacher-Masoch’s’ life itself in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There is the representation of that life in the character of Severin and Wanda in his novella. There is the adaptation of the novella for the stage and the re-presentation of those same characters in a very different medium and, hence, a very different way in the draft script. There is the audition for the adaptation which, in the process, transforms Severin and Wanda once again. Then there is the dynamic between the playwright/director and the actor who auditions that becomes the main source of tension in the play. Finally, all this is enacted with perfect timing, execution and virtuousity encompassing every one of these levels with instantaneous shape-shifting in the context of references to a life for both performers outside the rehearsal hall, lives that are being continually sacrificed to the dynamic between the writer/director and the actress in the audition that becomes a re-enactment of the play but on terms more and more set by the actor being auditioned, and all this in the context of a vague and ambiguous sense of a political context that is both absolutely irrelevant and precisely relevant to what is taking place on stage. If simply describing that is an accomplishment, think about what an achievement it is to turn this into a work of art.
Unlike Severin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s novella, who is inexperienced in the ways of love, a romantic envisioning as his ideal a woman physically treating him cruelly, the director/playwright, Thomas Novachek (Rick Miller) begins as the master of the situation as in all auditions where the actor appears as a mere supplicant. Thus, although there is the reference in Sacher-Masoch’s novella to and obsession with Severin’s aunt who wore furs when she held Sacher-Masoch down as a youth and beat him (a creation of his own youthful imagination or an actual episode?), the reference serves only a dramatic effect but does nothing to explicate the psychological drama acted out on stage let alone any political dimension. What Severin and Thomas have in common is that they are both aesthetes in search of perfection, Thomas on stage in the arena of representation and Severin as the protagonist in his own life as the main character in a novella presumably as an alter-ego of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch begin as radical contrasts.
A passionate and saucy New Yorker with a filthy mouth, Vanda Jordan rather than Wanda (played with absolute brilliance by Carly Street), enters and makes Barbra Streisand who plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl look like a demure retiring flower. She is late for the audition. Everyone has left except the playwright-director who is frustrated after a day of unsuccessful auditions and he is anxious to get home to his fiancé. Thunder claps accompany Vanda’s tumultuous soaking wet entrance with a broken umbrella.
Only later when they recur will the thunder and lightning of The Bacchae throw light on what is taking place and only later will we understand that this is Semelê, daughter of Cadmus and mother of Pentheus being brought back to life in a new form on stage. Only then will we recall that Vanda’s swearing at the gods for her misfortune in the opening, that her cussing, has some depth of meaning. Vanda,, of course, true to type, at the beginning appears absolutely unsuited to the part of a sophisticated young and beautiful rich nineteenth century aristocratic widow. However, she turns out to have the acting skills and the hauteur of Maggie Smith. So the actress, Vanda, who auditions to play Wanda, a character common to a genre of Broadway and Hollywood comedies, is the very opposite of Wanda yet has to carry a huge weight of historical baggage as someone who misspeaks with a New Jersey or Brooklyn accent as she forces you both to forget and recall over twenty-five hundred years of art. As Severin says to the goddess Venus: “You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me forget two thousand years.”
The play is very different from Leopold von Sacho-Masoch’s book in a number of other respects, such as the relationship between the two main characters. Though there is playing at masochism, there is no real cruel and intensely physical beating ever. The play is NOT about masochism and an exploration of physical cruelty as the essence of love and of the male/female relationship more generally. (Severin as quoted in the play: “I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”)
The focus has shifted entirely to the master-slave relationship rather than its expression through sado-masochistic infliction of physical pain. What is left is the phenomenology of the experience rather than the experience itself as the playwright/director and the auditioning actress inventively and continuously switch roles from playing themselves to playing the roles in the play and from who is in charge to who is following orders. And the switch between them takes place subtly but directly as the profane and earthy actress auditioning for the part asks to switch off the glaring lights above and, without waiting for permission, simply does so. The impertinent and brash actress takes more and more responsibility for directing and even writing the play and becoming the guiding spirit to realize the director/playwright’s vision. It becomes the story of a muse who comes to life just as Severin’s marble statue took on a real life form.
The adventure takes place in peeling back layers of an onion as we both weep and laugh at our tears, in the provocations of thought much more than physical bodily reactions, in the boldness of both conception and execution in spite of, in fact, because of the minimalist but absolutely perfect stage and the restriction to only two actors in one uninterrupted 90-minute performance. The two milk the sensuality out of all this talk about sexuality in spite of what Jennifer Tarver, the director, may have thought she was creating with this excellent production. Like the writer/director in the play, what she created was something other than what she claims to have accomplished, and it, like the play within a play within a play within a play, etc., is an outstanding accomplishment. Indeed. I long ago learned that a director, whether it was Leon Major in the planning of my play for the Crest Theatre over a half century ago, or Robert Gill who directed the play in the Hart House production, the director’s version need not coincide with the playwright’s idea nor with the audience’s actual experience once the play is performed. The play is more cerebral than carnal, more comic than crazy, more kooky than kinky, and more sensual than sexual in spite of all the talk about sex.
Unlike the novella which served as the inspiration, the play within a play avoids dream states and plays with the transition between fiction and imagination and the so-called reality of the audition simply through the imaginative acting skills of the performers. For the play, unlike the novella, is much more about the relationship of appearance and reality – in this Jennifer Tarver is dead on – for in Sacher-Masoch’s world there is only appearance. The imagined world is the only real world. In the play on stage, the imagined world re-imagines one imagined world and replaces it by another. The contract of perpetual slavery is re-enacted in the play but NOT the alternative deal, that if the signed agreement fails, the alternative is that Severin agrees to forfeit his life. The Hegelian dimension of the struggle between life as survival and desire in the novella is also missing from the play. Instead, we get a much more minimalist focus on lordship and bondage as existential states, of domination and submission. For in order to survive, an actor must audition and subjugate his or herself.
The novella is truly sensational in re-enacting mascochism, and never more so than, when, after a severe beating, Wanda leaves with her new lover. “Blood was already flowing under the whip. I wound like a worm that is trodden on, but he whipped on without mercy, and she continued to laugh without mercy.” In the play, this cruelty is referred to and performed as a kind of stylized dance, but there is none of the blood, the sheer evocation of cruelty, the fear and anticipation, the dread and the physical pain that we find in the novella. The psychological degradation becomes much more important. Most significantly, while Wanda leaves with her Greek lover at the end of the novella abandoning the whipped and tied-up Severin, the play ends with the playwright worshipping Aphrodite – Venus in Fur. The master of the script has become its slave.
The play is NOT about sado-masochism. Sado-masochism is a reference point and a way of costuming the play which is about gender relations and the issue of master and slave, lordship and bondage, behind and beneath the act of sado-masichism, but it is not about sado-masochism. Nor is it an erotic play though there is one quasi erotic moment when the playwright puts Wanda’s long leather boot on her legs slowly and evocatively zipping it up. But where does humour have a place in an erotic setting? It is like cracking a joke and laughing in the middle of sexual intercourse. So when Wanda asks Tom if he wants to put her boots on, he abjectly accepts and then she cracks: “On me, not on you,” or words to that effect. A great joke but hardly a foundation for an erotic scene. But that is as erotic as it gets – not much more than a glance at a Paris postcard with a joke on the side . If you want to experience eroticism and the suffering of a person enslaved by love, go see the movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour for a fictional representation of eroticism between two females as imagined through a male director’s eyes.
In Ives’ play there is a reference to the book of Judith in the apocryphal bible. Sacher-Masoch’s book begins with a quote from ch. xvi, verse 7 of that book: “But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” This is what the play takes as the real essence of the novella and re-enacts on stage, not erotic sado-masochism. Perhaps in some sense an actor has to be a masochist to endure the humiliations of repeated auditions and rejections and perhaps directors have to be sadists in some sense to put actors through such cruel experiences. But in staging the inversion of that relationship rather than the process of gradual and even worse submission in the novella, we can better understand Ives’ play as an allegory about master and slave, seduction and being seduced, about plays and audiences and the sado-masochism is merely a metaphor for this much larger topic. There is none of the fear and pain that comes so alive in the Sacher-Masoch novella. Further, and ironically, instead of the representation of a sacred personage coming to life, instead of an “aureole”, we find a fictional character in a play playing another fictional character who transforms herself into the sacred Venus cum Aphrodite. We are transported from Roman to Greek worship through the epitome of the Greek imagination, the play.
Thus, Euripedes’ The Bacchae, looms much larger in the play than in Sacher-Macho’s novella where it is merely referenced. This is where we might have an implied political message, though Euripedes, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, was rarely subtle about his didactic message. In Sacher-Masoch, the equation of the heroine, Wanda, with the all-powerful and cruel Catherine the Great is direct. If I am correct, the political reference in the play, if it is indeed there, is subtle. For The Bacchae was written when Athenian democracy was in disarray; rational and responsible government had become dysfunctional. Is there some connection between the theme of inversion and displacement of the master-slave relationship with the accelerating decline of America as both a world power and a dysfunctional polity? I would have to see the play again to make a determination, but you can keep this question in mind if you have seen or go to see the play.
In Euripides’ play set in Thebes, the connection between the rise in dysfunctional politics and the increase of hedonism in general and the cult of Dionysus is unequivocal. Sacho-Masoch’s novella was written as the empires of the old order were proving dysfunctional. Is Ives suggesting that the rise of aestheticism into prominence is symbolic of what is happening in the political life of America where the Boston tea party at the heart of American ideology is being re-enacted in terms of a totally reactionary agenda and as a virtual cult? There is the parallel between the end of the Peloponnesian War which Athens lost and the series of wars from the Vietnam conflict to even the wars that America and her allies ostensibly won that have all turned into defeats for America and its allies as America retreats as a world power. However, Euripides’ message is not reducible to a simplistic contemporary political commentary. Certainly, neither is Ives. But the theme of submission, of reversals in roles and the seeming futility but nevertheless magical enchantment with attempting to realize an envisioned ideal are all in the play. Even the theme of surrendering to a higher power seems to dictate that every powerful empire is doomed to decline may be implicitly connected with the rise of the feminine into power politics and the decline of males as macho men.
But the cruelty and eroticism of Ives’ play lacks the graphic evocation of either the novella or the Greek play. If you have ever seen the Bacchae – I saw a very flawed production once – even if badly done, it is clear how important erotic and violent imagery are to the play. This is not the case in Venus in Fur. Perhaps this is because Ives’ play entertains and entrances more than it penetrates your soul. The unexpected is used to tease and enchant and turn the members of the audience themselves into mesmerized slavish witnesses to the turns and twists of the plot. That is why, at the end, you do not have the ecstatic moment of a Dionysian cultish service. Instead of arousing the audience to a pitch of sensuality, our intellects and imagination are excited.