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.”