Sexing the Stage, from “King Lear” to “Anon”

Sexing the Stage, from King Lear to Anon

When I began reading Kate Robin’s Anon last week, I had just seen Goodman Theatre director Robert Fall’s rather racy production of King Lear at Sidney Harman Hall, home of Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C.  In this bold and bawdy take on the Bard’s tragedy, Oswald performs oral sex from underneath a blanket on Goneril while she, supine on a velvet sofa, plots and conspires against her father and sister, and this is just one of several such examples.  The audience the night I attended chuckled in titillation every time sex was suggested or nudity was presented, including Goneril’s numerous trysts with her servant Oswald, Albany’s implied premature ejaculation while trying to sexually overpower Goneril, Edgar and Lear frolicking in the buff, and the nude corpse of Cordelia, clad only with an S & M like collar.  This production of Lear went over so well at the box office that its performance run was extended. Sex sells, even in this bad economy. 

I left that night wondering if this is what the theatre today must do, particularly with older works, in order to compete in our highly mediatized, sexually permissive and promiscuous society.  

While it seems we have become less phased by sex on the screen, sex on the stage is another matter. The immediacy of theatre forces us to confront what unfolds before us in an arguably more personal and visceral way, and when not just a passing joke within a play, but an entire play, is about sex this can prove interesting.  Now, some people view theatre as a high brow art form, just below opera (and let’s face facts, attending professional theatre productions is pricey), and, therefore, they may not expect low brow or scatalogical topics to be discussed at length, let alone depicted on stage.  I know people, for example, who saw Fall’s Lear and were critical of its sexual gratuitousness. But sex on stage is not novel–ancient classical drama and Shakespeare’s plays alike are rife with sexual puns and plots, adultery and incest, as are Restoration comedies by playwrights such as Aphra Behn and fin-de-siecle comedies by Oscar Wilde.  Historically, however, sexual explicitness on stage seems to have been largely limited to suggestive dialogue and the slipperiness of language, the audience’s ability to perceive double-entendres, more than the actual soft pornographic depiction of sex.  This is clearly no longer the case.   

In Robin’s Anon, sex is not an occasional subject, but a central and ubiquitous one.  The title word, incidentally one commonly used in Shakespeare’s age, refers to time and means soon or at another time; it also serves as an abbreviation for anonymous. Both meanings resonate in the play, for sexual gratification and intimacy continually elude characters, and the names are never disclosed of the various women who deliver monologues between scenes about the sexual problems that have plagued their personal relationships.  

You name the sexual topic and Anon probably addresses it.  Lead character Trip has an addiction to porn that has made it impossible for him to be intimate with his girlfriend Allison; he even requests that she manicure her pubic hair like the women he watches on film.  During our first encounter with Trip’s parents, his father Bert, who, we learn, has had  countless affairs with strippers, walks in on Trip’s Catholic-to-a-fault mother, Rachelle, doing what appears to be masturbating and weeping at the same time.  When Rachelle, upset over Bert’s indiscretions, goes to stay with Trip, she has a heart to heart with Allison, informing her that “Men don’t change. They don’t have to. So they don’t.” A desperate optimist, Allison remarks, “They do have to if we make them. Rachelle’s rejoinder captures what appears to be the essence of the play’s sentiment: “How? One of us walks out, another walks in. It’s the tragedy of biology. I walk out, the girl with the smell walks in and then in twenty years she’s me. She’s me twenty years ago.”

One Response to “Sexing the Stage, from “King Lear” to “Anon””
  1. Stephen Tillman says:

    Sex is a highly disputable, ambiguous and somewhat bitter THING in terms of how it involves society, but is does, and to a great deal at that! It’s manifold, it’s complex, yet it’s so ordinary. In Anon, referring to his many porn videos, Trip states “It’s just a collection. Like baseball cards.” Allison says that “it’s a very sexual time, a…liberated time.” Dane Cooke once likened sex to a mere sneeze, comparable to blowing your nose. I’ve searched all over for that video with no luck.

    Considering how pervasive sex has become in contrast to earlier, more reserved years it’s safe to say that our view of sex is quite progressive. Like you’ve mentioned, the sex scenes to which we are deadened to have now extended beyond movies and television into theater. Some, like me, equate this occurrence to drug abuse; the idea that one must use an increasingly more potent drug dosage to become satisfied. In essence, movie scenes become increasingly more explicit as viewers become dull to previous ones and eventually there’s the depiction of sex on stage, which makes me wonder what’s next…theatric pornography, perhaps?…Hm.

    Anyway, despite how controversial the topic of sex may be, I really like how Kate Robin handles it. Although sex is at the very crux of Anon, Robin is very neutral about it. Knowing how explosive this topic is, I cringed upon reading the first act but soon came to realize that her purpose in writing is not to persuade, to change or to repeatedly bitch-slap her readers in the face with some wise proverb. She simply presents the sexually-oriented issues that burden society, untouched, as they are, as best she can.

    From what I understand about sexual trends in modern society, no ethnicity is exempt from sexual or emotional abuse, sexual addiction or the desire for intimacy, as Robin’s diverse group of qualifiers shows. Trip’s addiction to porn and the symptoms he shows due to it are very similar to those of sex addicts today, according to various documentaries on the pornography industry, one being, “The Price of Pleasure.” I didn’t think Bert’s sexual dysfunction was communicated well. However, through these characters, Robin addresses the most prevalent sexual issues in today’s society.

    I couldn’t help but notice that Anon was a bit sexist, though; the sexual dysfunction at the root of both Allison and Rachelle’s relationships stem from their male partners, Trip and Bert, the qualifiers are all partners of male sex addicts, and the qualifiers are all female. That’s my only complaint there, but I could also argue that it’s not sexist on the basis of a few statements: In act one, scene one, the first qualifier, Gina admits that she “always pretty much sexualized things,” and that she and Paul “were both sexual in that way.” In scene 3 Allison mentions the Girls Gone Wild “doling out oral sex to anyone who asks,” and the second to last qualifier, Rita begins her monologue by stating “I don’t want to just blame men for this.” I guess it’s less sexist than not, or something.

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