COMES NATURALLY #06
Spectator Magazine - April 2, 1993
(c) David Steinberg
Paraphilopolis Journal; Sex and Theatre: The Duchess of Malfi and Unquestioned Integrity; Marco Vassi's Novels Reprinted
Overheard at a San Francisco coffee shop:
Young woman behind the counter: "Mikey! Good to see you! How come you never come in any more? Do I have to beat you?"
Mikey (thoughtful pause): "Beating would be nice...."
They both look over at me, a little shyly. I smile warmly, to reassure them. We all smile together, breathe, enjoy the shared permission. I remember for the thousandth time how much I love this city.
Some time ago, I took my partner on a little head trip. Foreplay, you might say, to later goings on. She was rather wonderfully slutted out in black and skin, and then I blindfolded her and helped her into the car for a sightless hour and a half drive to San Francisco. Once in town we stowed the car and took a leisurely stroll around the Market/Church area, moving from initial awkwardness and caution to develop real ease, trust and rhythm together. Pretty soon we could walk together, arm in arm, about as easily and quickly as any other two people. People on the street either didn't notice us or just didn't care that a blindfolded, helpless woman in short skirt and low-cut top was being led around by her elbow.
Then it was into Sparky's for a bite to eat. "Three steps up," I warned, and then watched with delight as she tentatively felt her way up the stairs. The young hostess watched us with a blank face. If she was disapproving, or even curious, she didn't show it. "Smoking or nonsmoking ?" was all she said when we came up the last step to her level.
"Non-smoking," I replied, matching casual with casual.
"Right this way."
We followed her to a table around back. My partner felt her way around the table to a chair while I took the menus from the hostess. She pulled me a little aside.
"Is she blindfolded?" she asked, her voice just above a whisper, acknowledging for the first time that she noticed anything at all. The whisper, I thought, came from not wanting to intrude on what we were doing, a courtesy and consciousness that both surprised and pleased me.
"Yes," I confirmed, watching her face for reaction.
"Cool!" she grinned, going on about her business. And that was that. The people in the booth across from us looked over from time to time, curious and positive. When I caught their eyes they smiled and nodded appreciatively. If I had wanted to, I probably could have incorporated them into the scene.
Maybe it would have been different if we were in Spuntino's or Max's or Stars, instead of Sparky's. Maybe it would have been different, even at Sparky's, if her hands had been bound or handcuffed in addition to her being blindfolded, or if I had tied her to her chair. (Maybe I'll just have to check out some of these possibilities and report back....) But isn't it a treat to live where it's possible to take someone out blindfolded, even leave them sitting blindly alone while you go to the bathroom, and while you pause for a long time before coming back, pleased to just watch them sitting there, open, undefended and safe -- to be able to use the city as a prop for sexual theatre without being corrupted or interrupted by people misunderstanding or thinking you weird? "302.83-302.84 and proud," as my most esoteric T-shirt proclaims. (A free Spectator subscription to the first listener who correctly identifies that tune....)
Maybe we should start collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to rename this town Paraphilopolis once and for all, to acknowledge the forbidden erotics that have always been the core of San Francisco's Baghdad-by-the-Bay mystique. Then the Chamber of Commerce could openly sell tourists on what so many of them come here for anyway.
In the meantime we could all put ourselves into the public eye a little more each day. If we made it a practice to go to restaurants and films, not to mention City Arts and Lectures readings, or concerts at Davies Hall, blindfolded, latexed, and bound, sooner or later everyone else would just used to it. I mean, it's not like it's illegal or anything, right? Who knows, maybe public bondage would even become chic. Black and White Ball, anyone?
Off With Her Clit!
Frontal nudity, male and female! Sadomasochism! The heroine strangled nude on the lip of the stage! A third of every audience fleeing the theatre in horror at intermission!
I read the reviews of ACT's modern-dress production of The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster's 1613 play. I bit. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Now I know.
If you blink you'll miss the much vaunted sadomasochism in The Duchess of Malfi. For about ten seconds, the overwhelming scaffolding of the set lights up to display an array of stereotypical s/m icons, meant to portray the generic domination and degradation of women. A woman getting spanked in slow motion. Another woman, more or less nude, tied to the imposing metalwork. That sort of thing. Cliche'd enough to make Steven Meisel's photos of Madonna look like Michael Rosen. A strobelight snapshot for pure effect. On, off, gotcha. S/m as code for debasement. Get used to it: we're going to see a lot more of this in the months and years ahead.
Pre-intermission (when the great exodus is said to be taking place) that was it, in terms of what might shock a pristine theatergoer to leave in horror. This is what the reviewers say is shocking people out the doors? I looked at my partner and we both shrugged.
Admittedly there's more dramatic use of naked skin in the second half. The heroine does get strangled to death after being entirely disabused of her clothes and bright red stuff is poured over her naked body in a bright, if purely gratuitous gesture. (Oh, I know: blood, violence, violation. I get it, I get it, I get it. I'm not being overly literal here, but the woman was being hanged, not knifed. Later on, when the men get gutted with knives, there's no blood at all. Are we being told that only women bleed? That women always bleed?)
There's another scene in which supposedly deranged (though stunningly attractive) women writhe around bizarrely to ear-splitting music to make a statement about the conjunction of unrestrained female sexuality and madness. And there's an effective scene in which the insane Duke is brought naked to a doctor who attempts (unsuccessfully) to conquer his madness with the power of civilized intellect. The image of the Duke's muscular body stalking the stage and later straddling the frightened doctor is the one unsymbolically effective use of the naked body in the play.
I guess this all adds up to shocking out there in America. And I'm truly glad to see cocks and men's asses taking their places beside breasts and women's butts as manipulatable visual stimuli. More of this and we won't have to worry so much about young co-eds being terrified at the sight of Andrew Martinez's lovely but hardly threatening unhidden member. So shock-wise and sex-naked-wise this play gets a mixed review: thumbs up for the Duke, thumbs down for the writhing lovelies and the red paint, loud raspberries for the conflation of s/m and degradation.
I came away from Malfi half asleep, half impressed, half amused, half mystified. It's true that by the end of the play a good portion of the audience had disappeared, but I suspect it was much more from being bored and confused than from being offended. It's too bad, because it really is an interesting play, bold and ambitious, with a lot of message that I, for one, want to see proclaimed very loudly indeed. But it is also a lot of work to sort one's way through the 17th-century language, the broad overstatements and the sheer length and ponderousness of the play. Add the continuous distraction of the 20th-century office backdrop activity (making the worthwhile point that sexual harassment is the modern-day mechanism for the control of female sexuality) and the fact that the production clobbers you over the head with everything it is trying to do, and you end up with more work than the play is really worth, and certainly more work than this audience of well-to-do people assembling sophistication for their next cocktail party conversations could be expected to put out.
This is a play about the conflict between propriety and male power on the one hand, and passion, sexuality, and liberated womanhood on the other. The Duchess, against the orders of her incestuously possessive brother, remarries after the death of her husband, thereby putting the hot dictates of her female blood ahead of the cold dictates of patriarchal authority. Not only that, she marries her steward -- a commoner, a servant, in this production a black. (The racial stereotyping offended me just as much as the simple-mindedness about s/m. The whorish mistress of the Duchess's brother, the play's other sexual temptress, is also the play's only other black.)
Director Robert Woodruff wants to ask good questions with this play, questions about our own time as much as about Jacobian England. "Why does there seem to be, in our society, a fear of the feminine?" he asks in his director's notes. "What is the male fear and discomfort with womanness and fluidity? This production explores aspects of human sexuality... as a locus for thinking about our systems of political and corporate power, and how these structures promote behavior that degrades women."
The play contrasts male, asexual, cold, cerebral power (true Sadism, not the fun kind) with unrestrained, arational, unreasonable, female passion. We see the Duchess subjected to vicious mental torture, but always within a context of cool detachment. In the end, the Duchess, the embodiment of sexuality refusing to be bound by rational dictates, is murdered for her heresy. But while she loses the battle in the realm of worldly power, she wins decisively at the level of sanity and human dignity. Murdered with her head held high, she never loses her sense of self, her internal power and aliveness, her emotional groundedness and integrity. By contrast, her two brothers, the Duke and the Cardinal, go insane within the tortured contradictions of their own sexual selfdenial and self-loathing.
A good message. Substitute Madonna for the Duchess and you should get the picture. Can't go about letting the women have their sexuality full strength and on their own terms or... or... or... who knows what might happen? Unfortunately director Woodruff, like so many people obsessed with the political content of their art, gets carried away with his dedication to his message and makes the fatal mistake of bludgeoning us with sledgehammers when some artful slicing with a scalpel would be much more effective. Thus we have the stage dominated with only slightly metaphorical images of gargantuan male body forms fashioned of metal tubing -- now standing over us, spread-legged, cock over our heads; now turned with its back to us and a huge chute ready to shit in all our faces; now with an immense plunger-cock pistoning out and back to the clamoring sound of industrial machinery. Thus the cheap and misplaced s/m buzz imagery, the gratuitous blood, the writhing sexual maniacs. Thus line after line overplayed, overemphasized, overacted.
Wouldn't it have been more skillful, more effective -- more honest -- to use a little subtlety to convey the same message? Don't we need to move beyond Four-Legs-Good-Two-Legs-Bad thinking on these issues? Reagan is gone now. Son of Reagan is gone. What needs to be gone with them is the dangerous notion that the issues of our times can or should be reduced to sound bites, to simple-minded one-liners, to right and wrong, black and white, us and them.
P.S. -- I can't close this without noting that Randy Danson is truly brilliant as the Duchess -- passionate in all the best senses of the term: lusty, alive, powerful, overflowing with emotion. She is passionate in her sexiness, her anger, her joy, her grief, even passionate in the way she resigns herself to her destruction and finally to her death. She embodies exactly the point of femaleness respected: she is able to combine most inspiringly being out of control and retaining a sense of natural balance and dignity. She had tears in her eyes as she took her curtain calls to the most tepid applause from what remained of the audience, and I could feel her frustration, trying to carry the great weight of this production, 500-pound pearls before swine, so to speak, by the sheer force of her passion. That, as Betty Dodson once said, is the price of being a sexual revolutionary.
Pawns in their Game
I went to see Magic Theatre's Unquestioned Integrity: The Hill/Thomas Hearings with more than a little ambivalence. The hearings were hard enough to watch the first time around. What's the point of assembling a play entirely from hearing transcripts? I wondered. I expected an exercise in one-dimensional Oh-Isn't-It-Awful-What-They-Did-to-AnitaHill: true but stale.
Happily the show went far beyond that kind of simplicity, raising a wealth of unexpected feelings and perspectives and managing to be theatrically engaging as well. Spurred most of all by a wonderfully passionate Artis Fountaine (Clarence Thomas), the play shows both Thomas and Hill to be pawns in the white male power structure game, sexual gladiators doing a verbal race-sex show for the titillation and entertainment of soap-opera-loving white America.
What struck me most was the real anger and embarrassment of both Thomas and Hill, forced into performing verbal sexual tricks for a panel of power brokers hopelessly confused and oblivious to the gender, sex, and race issues before them. Magic Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Mame Hunt, who created the play, shows that not all feminist sexual perspectives are simple-minded, even on an issue as susceptible to blind rage as sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this play, like The Duchess of Malfi, will close before this column makes it to print, but if it is revived, it is definitely worth seeing.
Marco Vassi Back in Print
Marco Vassi aficionados will be glad to hear that ten of Vassi's books, all long out of print and generally unavailable even through used porn distributors, have been republished as "The Vassi Collection" by Second Chance Press. Vassi, who has been hailed as America's foremost erotic writer and heir to the mantle of Henry Miller, wrote most of his fiction in the early 70s -- novels and short stories that range from vintage explorations of sexual philosophy to pulp outpourings that Vassi himself referred to as "formula pieces without any relationship to literature at all." Most were originally released by care-less porn houses, though several were also published by Olympia Press, the groundbreaking publishing house that championed the work of such avant-garde authors as Henry Miller, William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett.
The collection includes The Stoned Apocalypse (1972), Vassi's autobiographical description of his work as "an old Bolshevik of the sexual revolution," and nine novels: Mind Blower (1970), The Gentle Degenerates (1970), The Saline Solution (1971), Contours of Darkness (1972), Tackling the Team (1976), In Touch (1976), The Devil's Sperm Is Cold (1976), The Sensual Mirror (1977), and Slave Lover (1977). The somewhat funky trade paperbacks (the books preserve the unattractive and sloppy editing and typesetting of the original editions) are available by mail individually ($19.95 postpaid), or as a set ($110 postpaid) from Second Chance Press, Noyac Road, Sag Harbor, NY 11963. The first printing is a limited edition of 151 copies, so if you're a long frustrated Vassi buff you'd best get your order in right away.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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