The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur

The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur


Howard Adelman

In David Ives’ play, Venus in Fur, there is a running joke about the confusion between ambiguity and ambivalence. In Euripedes’ play, The Bacchae, the sexuality is very ambiguous; we are uncertain about how to interpret the performances. In Ives’ play, the interpretation is not ambiguous  – as Tom makes clear to Vanda over and over again – but the choices are ambivalent. With all his clarity of intention, Tom constantly reveals himself to be uncertain about which choices to make. Ambiguity is about interpretation; ambivalence is about choice and action. The Bacchae is a play about ambiguity; Venus in Fur is a play about ambivalence. Ambivalence makes you prone to surrendering your will to another and becoming the other’s bondsperson. In contrast, the actions in the Bacchae are direct, savage, erotic, bestial and absolutely ruthless. Venus in Fur has as its lead player a dithering playwright pretending to know what he is doing, where he is going and how to get there and the raw artistry of a true thespian, Vanda, who takes him there.

Compare Vanda of the play and Dionysus of The Bacchae, a play which came to the stage almost exactly twenty-five hundred years ago. Dionysus is a god in a human shape rather than a person who takes on the pretence of a god or an actress who transforms herself into a deity on stage. Dionysus is both male and female as well as both god and man even though Dionysus is referred to in the masculine form. So while Venus in Fur is about the human realm (as is Venus in Furs), The Bacchae is about the realm of the divine. In that Greek tragedy, the direction is never anything but un-ambivalent, a characteristic of the Greek divine realm; however, the messages delivered to humans are always ambivalent and full of double meanings. The Greeks did not produce nineteenth century moral fables with clear and dogmatic lessons that one could take away from a performance.

However, all three works of art have one common thread. There is no justice meted out at the end. Did Tom deserve to have his relationship with his fiancé shattered just because a tempestuous and highly skilled actress came late to his audition and took him off guard, or because he seemed so self-certain and proved he was not, or because he lost his way? Did Severin deserve to be so mistreated and cast off because he desired to be a total slave to a woman of beauty?  Did Pentheus, Cadmus and Agave deserve their horrible fates in The Bacchae?

We cannot answer these questions because they are the wrong questions to ask. In Greek drama, the punishment is not commensurate with the acts but, rather, is fated.

Watchers are there in the skies,

That can see man’s life, and prize

Deeds well done by things of clay.

But the world’s Wise are not wise,

Claiming more than mortal may.

Life is such a little thing;

Lo, their present is departed,

And the dreams to which they cling

Come not. Mad imagining

Theirs, I ween, and empty-hearted!

[Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae]

The same point is true of both Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur. Both are works of fiction in the Greek mould. In The Bacchae that fate is both majestic and horrific; in Venus in Furs, the complete degradation of Severin belongs to a purgatory of his own making. In Venus in Fur, the total reversal of the roles of the director/playwright/casting director and the auditioning actress is both magical and human-all-too-human. In the modern era, humans are supposed to be masters of their own fate. In the Greek world, they are simply playthings of the gods and inherently can never be masters. Only in the Hebrew world and the legacy it left can men aspire to be divine yet be fully human and responsible for all their actions even when men become idolatrous and are prone to worship at the feet of their vision of the divine feminine while, in reality, they continually make the same mistake and believe that power is equivalent to force. Woe it is when women are seduced into the same folly as in The Bacchae.

What if the women were actually divine or, under the spell of a divine god such as Dionysus? Would they abandon men as superfluous? Would they engage in bacchanalian revels? Would brave men take on the gods and declare war as King Pentheus does to rescue their women folk from a cult of absolute ecstasy? The twist in Euripides is that, as in Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur, an unarmed woman can defeat an army of men and make them submit. Further, in The Bacchae, man, in the role of King Perseus, is torn limb from limb by the savage bacchae when they are seduced by the wonders of sexual ecstasy. Perseus attempts to join the women by disguising himself as one of them and becomes their victim. But that is not the worst. His main butcher is his own mother under an ecstatic spell. Her fate is even worse than her son’s for she is brought back to “her senses” and comes to recognize that it was she who danced around with her son’s severed head.


Thou bearest in thine arms an head—what head?

AGAVE ( beginning to tremble, and not looking at what

she carries).

A lion’s—so they all said in the chase.


Turn to it now—’tis no long toil—and gaze.


Ah! But what is it? What am I carrying here?


Look once upon it full, till all be clear!


I see … most deadly pain! Oh, woe is me!


Wears it the likeness of a lion to thee?


No; ’tis the head—O God!—of Pentheus, this!

Thus, Cadmus, the old king, his daughter, Agave, her son and the grandson of Cadmus, the current King of Thebes, Pentheus, and his aunt, Semelé, Cadmus’ other daughter, become the twisted lengths of the same serpent fatalistically turning on itself. The play begins with a son of god, the only child of a divine being in human form, Dionysus, coming down to earth. Dionysus, was the love child of Zeus’ affair with Semelé. Dionysus is, in fact. the divine or half-divine half-human cousin of Pentheus swearing to wrack revenge before his mother’s tombstone for the slaying of his mother at the hands of the divine Hera and her fury at and jealousy of Semelé.

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land

Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she

Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand

Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,

Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,

I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan

Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side

I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,

The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great

Faint wreaths of fire undying—as the hate

Dies not, that Hera held for Semelê.

And you think modern drama can be complicated! But why pick on Thebes? The answer is presented at the beginning of the play. The people of Thebes thought that their King, Cadmus, had made up the story when his daughter became pregnant and said that the father of her child was Zeus. They believed their ill fate was a result of their king and his daughter’s lie when the real reason was their own lack of faith and their failure to recognize the divine origins of Dionysus. Pentheus himself refuses to worship with his people in accordance with the rites and ecstatic mysteries of Dionysus. As Dionysus says:

I cry this Thebes to waken; set her hands

To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,

And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.

For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,

Semelê’s sisters; mocked by birth, nor deemed

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.

Only the old king Cadmus and his prophet, Teiresias, see and recognize the truth.

A little family history is helpful. Cadmus had four daughters. One, Autonoe, who taught the arts of prophecy and the healing skills of Asklepios, married Aktaion, the great hunter and grandson of the greatest female hunter in all of Hellas, Kyrene, a tomboy par excellence who won the kingdom of Libya by hunting down and killing a lion who had turned to making human beings its prey. Aktaion by chance on a hunt saw the goddess Artemis naked bathing in the company of her nymphs. In revenge for espying her naked, Artemis turned Aktaion into a deer and his own dogs tore him to pieces.

Behind this murderous act may have been the tale that Aktaion was really in love with his own aunt, Semelé, or because Artemis was acting at Zeus’ behest, or because Aktaion dared to compete for hunting perfection with Artemis herself, or in revenge for Aktaion’s attempted rape of his own aunt, or a long list of other possible motives depending on whose account of the story you take up. One of the many ironies is that Aktaion’s own sister, Makris, had been the nurse for the god-man Dionysus. Further, his own father, Aristaios, after being initiated into the Dionysian cult became a wanderer after Aktaion’s  death until he was lost forever – the same fate that lay in store for Cadmus, the old king..

Semelé was Cadmus’ second daughter. The greatest and mightiest god of all, Zeus, who fell head over heels in love with her and seduced her, then promised, like Severin, that he would do anything for her that she wished. What did she ask of him when she was pregnant? To test his love, she asked him to make love to her as he did with his own wife Hera, a request Hera herself had suggested when she visited Semelé in the guise of a Thebean nurse. Zeus was dumfounded on hearing the request but was bound to fulfill it. He returned on his chariot and threw a thunderbolt at Semelé, who, because she was human and not divine like Hera, was reduced to ashes. Thus, when Vanda in Venus in Fur enters the rehearsal hall to thunder and we hear her rail and swear at the gods for her misfortune, and later there is a reference to The Bacchae, the association of Semelé’s fate comes to mind, or, at least, the reversal of the fate, or even possibly Semelé’s rebirth as a Jersey fugitive with a potty mouth who would reverse the process and exercise her revenge on man.

Semelé’s six month old foetus was saved when Semelé was reduced to ashes; the foetus, “he babe-god hidden in the torn flesh of his sire,” was brought to full maturity by being sewn up for another few months in the thigh of Zeus. Thus was the one son of god born of both a woman and a man as well as being a child of both a human and a divine being. Perseus rejects the tale as a lie in spite of what his old grandfather, Cadmus, and his prophet Teiresias tell him.

This tale of Dionysus; how that same

Babe that was blasted by the lightning flame

With his dead mother, for that mother’s lie,

Was re-conceived, born perfect from the thigh

Of Zeus, and now is God! What call ye these?

Dreams? Gibes of the unknown wanderer? Blasphemies

That crave the very gibbet?

The third sister was Ino who, at the request of Zeus, adopted Dionysus. But Hera drove both Ino and her husband mad. Zeus intervened once again to save Dionysus from Hera’s jealous wrath and turned him into a goat to be raised by some nymphs. (Before this happened to Ino, there is a side story, a Greek version of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, a story of Ino tricking her husband into sacrificing her stepson on an altar as a sacrifice to god who at the last minute is saved by the substitution of a ram.).

The fourth daughter of Cadmus was Agave who plays a very important part in The Bacchae for she is the only one left of the bloodline whom Hera is determined to destroy. To be sure, all of Thebes must be destroyed. It is Hera, using Dionysus unbeknownst to himself, who lures the women, including Agave, into a cult of ecstasy.

For his kingdom, it is there,

In the dancing and the prayer,

In the music and the laughter,

In the vanishing of care.

Perseus is convinced by Dionysus (in disguise) to spy on the ecstatic rites in which the women are engaged. He thinks they are caught up in the worship of Aphrodite – that the dramatic frenzy is all about love and eros and he is determined to erase the cult of this false God, Dionysus. Behind the impression of Aphrodite is the work of Dionysus and behind that the vengeful, manipulative power of the scorned god, Hera. However, Perseus is discovered, torn to pieces by the women, after his own mother, Agave, cuts off his head and carries that severed head around in a dance of ecstasy. In irony, Dionysus becomes Hera’s tool for the destruction of Thebes.

And up they sprang; but with bewildered eye,

Agaze and listening, scarce yet hearing true.

Then came the Voice again. And when they knew

Their God’s clear call, old Cadmus’ royal brood,

Up, like wild pigeons startled in a wood,

On flying feet they came, his mother blind,

Agâvê, and her sisters, and behind

All the wild crowd, more deeply maddened then,

Through the angry rocks and torrent-tossing glen,

Until they spied him in the dark pine-tree:

Then climbed a crag hard by and furiously

The Bacchae of Euripides

Some sought to stone him, some their wands would fling

Lance-wise aloft, in cruel targeting.

But none could strike. The height o’ertopped their rage,

And there he clung, unscathed, as in a cage

Caught. And of all their strife no end was found.

Then, “Hither,” cried Agâvê; “stand we round

And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take

This climbing cat-o’-the-mount! He shall not make

A tale of God’s high dances!” Out then shone

Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon

The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down

It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown

Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry

Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by

Was horror visible. ’Twas his mother stood

O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.

He tore the coif, and from his head away

Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay

To her own misery. He touched the wild

Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,

Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echion’s hall!

Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall

Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son!”

But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run

Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be

On earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly,

Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put

Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,

Drew … and the shoulder severed!—not by might

Of arm, but easily, as the God made light

Her hand’s essay. And at the other side

Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,

And on Autonoë pressed, and all the crowd

Of ravening arms. ‘Yea, all the air was loud

With groans that faded into sobbing breath,

Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.

And here was borne a severed arm, and there

A hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare

With rending; and swift hands ensanguinèd

Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.

His body lies afar. The precipice

Hath part, and parts in many an interstice

Lurk of the tangled woodland—no light quest

To find. And, ah, the head! Of all the rest,

His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,

As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,

Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,

Bears it on high!

In comparison to The Bacchae and even Venus in Furs, we can see how tame Venus in Fur is. It is not ecstatic. It is not an orgy of denigration and death. It is human-all-too-human and the better a contemporary play for it because it is self-conscious of its own history and weaves that history as the foil for the story of the theatre itself. The play portrays a tale which is the essence of theatre itself – and perhaps politics – seduction and role playing. The director/playwright at the very beginning of the drama when still alone describes the ecstasy, the moment of epiphany, when he comes across the correct actor for the part. For the audition itself is more than anything about a master and slave relationship and the moment when the right slave is selected to become master of the role and, in effect, turns the playwright into his or her servant.

I experienced it myself when my play Root Out of Dry Ground was put on the stage over fifty years ago. But it was only when it was played before an audience that I could tell that the actress playing one part was inadequate and also when some of my own written lines were false. Like Ives’ character, Tom, who only recognizes the true voice when it is performed – what Tom in the play called “the moment” – even though it does not match the one in his head, one feels both humbled and enthused for one has written a play that becomes its own thing and no longer belongs to you alone. Ives’ play is, in the end, a paeon of gratitude to actors and not his own skills as a playwright and/or director. For the actor is the physician to the gods who, like the Hebrew forefathers, comes before the divine in an audition, lays his or herself bare and simply says, “Here am I!”

One can only weep tears of joy and enthusiasm when the director and the actors pull off such a tremendous coup in an outstanding production of a superb script. For David Ives worships at the feet of Dionysus and recognizes that thought and reason and wisdom have their limits. What counts is comedy and joy. And true respect for the power of women. That is the message of the Chorus of the The Bacchae and of the true cult of Dionysus.

A God of Heaven is he,

And born in majesty;

Yet hath he mirth

In the joy of the Earth,

And he loveth constantly

Her who brings increase,

The Feeder of Children, Peace

No grudge hath he of the great;

No scorn of the mean estate;

But to all that liveth His wine he giveth,

Griefless, immaculate;

Only on them that spurn

Joy, may his anger burn.

Thus does David Ives undercut and critique the fantasy of the femme fatal and the worship of Aphrodite as a frozen, cold alabaster or statuaria marble statue.


Reflections on Venus in Fur

Reflections on Venus in Fur


Howard Adelman


[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.  

Reflections on Venus in Furs

Reflections on Venus in Furs


Howard Adelman



I am cursed. I was determined to take off today and write nothing. But I saw Venus in Fur by David Ives playing at the Berkeley Theatre. The show has been around for awhile and previously played at the Bluma Appel Theatre. I am delighted that I saw it at the Berkeley Theatre which seems so much better suited to the play. It is a fantastic production and a phenomenal play. If it is not playing in your city now, it will be very soon. It is bound to play all over the world and soon be on many high school curricula if it is not already.  There will be many amateur productions but they will be a real challenge.

I will not tell you very much about the play and what I will write I will save for tomorrow. In any case, I simply cannot. I usually replay a drama or a movie for the next day or two in my mind. Then I can barely remember it afterwards. In the case of this play by David Ives, it was impossible. There are just too many twists and turns, inversions and conversions. So instead of serving as a Dionysian critic entranced by the passion in the play, I will serve as an Apollonian commentator.

I had read a review of the play in The New Yorker by Robert Risk but that only came back to me this morning when I woke up at 5:30 writing this commentary in my mind. I went looking for The New Yorker but could not find it. So I only remembered that he, as well, loved the production he saw. And that was the only expectation I had when I walked into the play and read the credit notes which were about appearance and reality (recall my discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave). But I had two advantages. I had written and published a great deal of commentary on the Adam and Eve story and always wanted to write a play about Adam’s seduction of Eve and how that story got turned into Eve’s seduction of Adam.

Secondly, when I was an undergraduate almost sixty years ago, my friend, Milton Zysman, introduced me to an author, Sacher-Masoch who was the source for Von Krafft-Ebing’s analysis of masochism of which I learned by first reading Arthur Koestler’s Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler wrote that book under a pseudonym. The volume was a fat seemingly learned tome that was really a mixture of sexual experience and some knowledge dressed up in pseudo-scientific language that was actually taken to be an authoritative document on the study of sex. I was surprised to learn at the time that the book continued to be regarded as such almost twenty years later when I was an undergraduate. I delighted in exposing its fraudulent roots when I was a student twenty years later and I found that readers still took it as a serious contribution to science and thought I made the story up that Koestler had written the book to make a quick buck in Paris. So does fiction continue to trump reality.

I had read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book that had a strong and everlasting influence on me, particularly on my strong negative attitude towards communism. Reading Darkness at Noon led me to his other writings, including this so-called scholarly study of sexology and other books on the subject. However, I could not recall ever reading Venus in Furs,. So that is the first thing I did this morning and is the topic of this blog rather than the play.

Venus in Furs

The 1870 sado-masochistic novella version that I read by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, a Galicianer like my mother, but a German rather than a Jewish one, was translated from German into English by Fernanda Savage. Sacher-Masoch had been born a century before me. His wife wrote under the pseudonym Wanda von Dunajew (yes, literally dunn-a Jew). Wanda happens to be the name of the heroine in Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel as well as the heroine of the book which the writer in Ives’ play has adapted for the stage. In fact, Sacher-Masoch’s wife, Aurora Rűmelin, introduced herself to her future husband because she had read his 1870 book and wrote a letter to him telling him that she was the perfect person to fulfill his desires; she would (and did) perform the role of a dominatrix. Evidently, if her 1906 sensational Confessions are to be believed, role reversals were endemic to their tumultuous relationship as they are in the novella and the play.

In Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Severin von Kusiemski, though not rich at the time until he later inherits his father’s property, is a nobleman from Galicia with enough income to lead a life of quiet sedentary leisure. Wanda Tartakovska is a very wealthy young and beautiful widow and only 24 years old. The two meet at a very small holiday home in the Carpathian mountains. Severin has the ground floor and Wanda the suite on the first floor above. 

Severin is an inexperienced aesthete, in love with the goddess Venus, love that is consummated in some sense when he views the portrait of “Venus in her Mirror” by Titian discussed in Ives’ play. In the portrait, Venus is nude except she is draped in a fur and it is cupid who holds the mirror up for her.

In the novella, Wanda dresses herself in furs as the Venus of Severin’s imagination and Severin falls in love with her.  She, the seductress, beguiles this inexperienced dreamer and, in turn, falls in love with his passion. She begins, however, as a natural force whose pagan philosophy is articulated by Venus in what turns out to be a dream. Venus articulates a philosophy of life based on “passion and of natural love, which is woman’s nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love everything, that pleases her.” She rejects the idea that love must bring with it pain. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there—woman or man? You of the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.” “Love, which is the highest joy, which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you children of reflection. It works only evil in you. As soon as you wish to be natural, you become common. To you nature seems something hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and out of me a demon.”

And then come the thesis: “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise.” And she continues. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.”

Other Choices

All this is revealed in a dream before Severin even gets to know his Wanda. Severin is woken up by his tall Cossack servant and he realizes he has fallen asleep with his clothes on in a chair with a book by the German philosopher Hegel open at a page. The book must have been the Phenomenology of Spirit with the page opened at the beginning of the section on “Self-consciousness” and its introductory discussion of desire and life. And then there is the description of the painting in that room somewhat different than the one above.

“A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.”

Soon, Venus, a real fictional woman (Wanda) dressed as Venus, will be sighted in the garden. Like the painting, her skin is marble-like and she is trembling like a cat though wearing the red velvet fur trimmed wrap. Unlike the painting in which Venus looks at herself with sparkling beautiful and admiring eyes, the eyes of the Venus in the opening of the novella are dead and stony. Further, in the novella she is trembling and sneezes twice in succession.

Severin and his friend discuss love, mastery and cruelty in the context of another book, Confessions of a Supersensual Man. Severin styles himself as a supersensual man. There is also the discussion of the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha. “‘The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.’ How ungallant these Jews are, I thought. And their God might choose more becoming expressions when he speaks of the fair sex.” 

There are thus alternative choices for desire – desire as voluntary self-sacrifice in the service of the female – masochistic love. Desire as pagan love and giving oneself to the temptations and desires of the moment without any future commitment. And then there is the divine biblical love of the bible in which one gives oneself in service to God, to a love of an abstraction rather than a sensuous presence, and in service, not to one’s own sensibilities but in the aspiration to be one with the divine. The book is dedicated to the exploration and advocacy on behalf of the first kind of love.

Stages of Seduction in an Erotic Masochistic Relationship

Severin delivers himself into the hands of a woman by seducing her with his sensuous talk of masochistic love whereas she starts by wanting a man who will dominate her. “”I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his innate (my italics and corrected spelling) strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman’s hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel.”

The conversation is very prophetic..Stage by stage the novella turns the roles around. Severin seduces his Venus into becoming the cruel one and accepting, indeed demanding he be her slave. He, in turn, is whipped into submission, forced to degrade himself and eventually to be subjected to a whipping by a handsome Greek she accepts as a lover. In the process, Severin’s infatuation with fur and with masochistic love is given a psychological root by Severin telling a childhood story of his experience with his aunt. “One day my parents drove to the capital of the district. My aunt determined to take advantage of their absence, and to exercise judgment over me. She entered unexpectedly in her fur-lined kazabaika,[2] followed by the cook, kitchen-maid, and the cat of a chamber-maid whom I had scorned. Without asking any questions, they seized me and bound me hand and foot, in spite of my violent resistance. Then my aunt, with an evil smile, rolled up her sleeve and began to whip me with a stout switch. She whipped so hard that the blood flowed, and that, at last, notwithstanding my heroic spirit, I cried and wept and begged for mercy. She then had me untied, but I had to get down on my knees and thank her for the punishment and kiss her hand.”

Greasy-haired Jews, the epitome of commerce and modern man  appear throughout the novel, as providers of art and needed artifacts, but also as the person who seduced the respectable woman with whom Severin once fell in love. Jews are regarded as very far from the supersensuous love for they are too in love with commerce and ambition. But they are minor sideshows, intermediaries and distractions. WOMAN is the main other protagonist. “No woman is so good or so bad, but that at any moment she is capable of the most diabolical as well as of the most divine, of the filthiest as well as of the purest, thoughts, emotions, and actions. In spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she came out of the hand of nature. She has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates at the moment. Throughout history it has always been a serious deep culture which has produced moral character. Man even when he is selfish or evil always follows principles, woman never follows anything but impulses. Don’t ever forget that, and never feel secure with the woman you love.”

Nevertheless, in spite of warnings, Severin signs the contract to be Wanda’s slave, a scene repeated in the play. Severin dedicates himself to serving as her slave as she diddles with him. The novel is very fast paced for a nineteenth century story, though, if I recall correctly, it was referred to in Ives’ play as turgid. Further, and surprisingly, it is full of sly humour as well as many twists and turns like Ives’ play. In the novella, Severin professes his love as a mixture of hate and fear in which the relationship of the sexes is presented as a battleground in which one partner must of necessity play the hammer while the other is its complement, the anvil. Severin can only worship a woman who treats him cruelly.

The novella reaches its culmination when Alexis Papadopolis appears on the scene and not only woos Wanda, but is the kind of man of whom Wanda always dreamed. “a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion’s lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face—” And in the worst of horrors, Alexis lashes Severin under Wanda’s orders.

“The sensation of being whipped by a successful rival before the eyes of an adored woman cannot be described. I almost went mad with shame and despair.” Such is the cruelty of love which must by its very nature be cruel because men and women are unequal and one must dominate and the other be dominated: “whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”

That is the philosophy of masochism. That is NOT the thesis put forth in Ives’ play, Venus in Fur.