Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales


Rebecca Nesvet reflects on the THEATRICAL AESTHETICS OF EROTICISM AND DEATH symposium

In the irreverent 1960 musical The Fantasticks, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones), we meet a down-on-their-luck, totally unscrupulous team of travelling players: a worn-out Shakespearean actor reminiscent of Henry Irving, and his sidekick. If you look at the dramatis personae, each of these characters is named for their stock role (“The Boy” “The Girl” “The Villain,” etc.): the sidekick is “The Man Who Dies.” He’s an actor, and he performs only death scenes, but is a stage legend, or so he claims. Why, across the ages of theatre’s history, has the stage representation of death and the dead been so… provocative? To investigate this question, the University of Wales, Aberystwyth Department of Theatre, Film, and Television Studies put together a one-day free symposium, held on 1 May. According to the TFTS press release, the symposium will inaugurate a research project, curated by Karoline Gritzner and Professor David Ian Rabey, and “affiliated to UW Aberystwyth CREAM (Centre for Research into Extreme and Alternative Media).” CREAM intends to hold an international conference on the subject at UWA in 2006, and to publish the results of research on this topic.

At the symposium, theory and practice were engagingly woven together. Some papers discussed plays the authors have seen or encountered through textual evidence; in other presentations, theatre artists discussed their own work; and the day concluded with the second performance of the premiere production of playwright and Rabey’s twinned one-acts Lovefuries.

As a playwright, I found the symposium topic intriguing, especially as one of my plays begins and ends with a protagonist observing the autopsy of her own abandoned body, unnerving the tormented doctor who may or may not have been indirectly responsible for the suicide of that character, the object of said doctor’s sublimated desire. If one forgets the dialogue, this scenario looks stolen from Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne across her husband’s coffin, though I never noticed that until seeing it blocked. That said, CREAM’s field of study is new to me, so please bear in mind that this report represents my attempts to piece together my sketchy mere appreciator’s notes. I expect that CREAM would be happy to provide the speakers’ contact information if anyone wants more detailed information about any of the material, and to clarify anything I may have misunderstood.


Peter Hands, author of Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror, lectured on “Hugo, Mirbeau, Grand Guignol and Parisian Theatre.” In a discussion on the Theatre in Wales forum in 2003, someone compared the Grand-Guignol to ‘snuff’ films, provoking one of the site’s characteristically animated and irreverent debates. Hands outlined some of the contexts and conventions of this movement. When the Eiffel Tower was newly constructed, Hands showed, rabidly misogynistic Parisian editorial cartoonists and other commentators became obsessed with the city’s alleged exploitation by (irrationally, not of) its huge number of female prostitutes. These women and Paris’s reputation as the sex tourism capitol of Europe were held to threaten the city’s men, economy, and fame. In their critics’ nightmares, the boundaries of the city, its social systems, and its citizens’ bodies become frighteningly permeable. In this culture’s literature, the perambulations of the archetypal flâneur, or wanderer, take him into the sewers. In such a climate, it is no wonder that the Grand-Guignol, with its combination of sacred and profane traditions, flourished semi-underground. The scripts prescribe spectacles of sadistic violence, usually but not exclusively directed against women, strung together by bare sketches of narrative. However, the performances were highly ritualistic, and often incorporated religious imagery and scenarios, while the theatre building itself was a former chapel. While the ‘snuff theatre’ label isn’t entirely inaccurate, it seems the Grand-Guignol also questioned which rituals, values, icons and institutions really defined Parisian culture.

In “Dying for Love: The Tragicomedy of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra,” Robert Wilcher gave a close reading of the cross-signification of morbid and erotic imagery in the conclusion of Antony and Cleopatra, focusing on the moment between Cleopatra’s capture and her suicide. In these ill-starred lovers’ world, love can be communicated and experienced only through brushes with death, mourning, and death itself. Wilcher discusses Cleopatra’s negotiations with Caesar and Antony and her reactions to the death of Antony’s wife Fulvia, whom he dismisses as a romantic interest by mourning inadequately. He contextualizes Antony and Cleopatra’s deadly language of love with parallel examples of eroticized death and double-entendre in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. The alternate meaning of the word ‘death’ in Renaissance English has long been understood: Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick makes it clear in his wish to “die in” Beatrice’s “lap.” In Antony and Cleopatra, however, death itself, rather than the word ‘death’, functions as a dangerous signifier, with results that might be described as horrifically comic and extremely absurd.

In “Visions of Xs: Experiencing La Fura’s XXX and Ron Athey’s Solar Anus,” Roberta Mock, artistic director of Lusty Juventus Theatre Company, discussed the reception of two these two pieces of sado-masochistic performance erotica . (The first is the 2003 variation on the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom by the Spanish company La Fura del Baus ‘The Furies from the Sewer’.) Mock’s research explored the widely varying ways in which these performances have been “experienced” interpreted, and categorised by critics of various genres and, in the case of Athey’s piece, in its live and screen versions. Mock argued that tabloid journalists were unafraid to identify XXX as erotic spectacle for its own sake, and to voice visceral reactions to it. The established theatre critics of the broadsheet papers, on the other hand, proffered vague debates about whether XXX was ‘art’, misinterpreted de Sade’s ideas, and only pretended to have read his Philosophy. Also interesting was the idea that Solar Anus can be understood as Athey’s painful and ecstatic transformation of his body into a human “printing press”—the message becomes the medium.


When we represent death or corpses onstage, is it actually death we want to explore? Not necessarily. According to Josette Feral (2002), as Helen Iball quoted in her presentation, “Theatricality as Eroticism, and Recent Attempts on its Life,” theatricality may be defined as ‘the result of a series of cleavages, inscribed by the artist and recognised by the spectator, aimed at making a disjunction of systems of signification, in order to substitute more fluid ones.” Feral’s theatricality defines the plays of Lucy Gough, Dic Edwards, and Howard Barker, as they revealed in their presentations. Their protagonists, respectively, have included would-be re-animators of the dead, “living corpses”, and an ecstatic necrophiliac. While all of these playwrights confront death as reality as well as metaphor, they argued that their morbid characters and scenarios also become powerfully surreal signifiers of their most vital recurring themes.

For the “living corpses” of Edwards’s Casanova Undone, Utah Blue, and, most recently, The Pimp: A Life of Baudelaire, meta-theatrical attempts at love and other activities usually result in impotence, variously defined. Walking, breathing, talking corpses try to love and act, and fail. Edwards’s studies of this condition enable surreally stylised spectacle as well as incisive studies of deadly and latently necrophiliac ideologies. In “The Dramatic Paradoxes of Sex in the Living Corpse,” Edwards declared that “the living corpse is possible in drama because death can be investigated.” In life, it can’t. By investigating death, the “transformative” art of theatre reflects (upon) itself, given that “the ultimate transformation is death.” Gough’s depictions of death onstage paradoxically communicate a life-force. Like those Native Americans who believe that completing a circle in visual art is blasphemous and asking for trouble, the representation of death onstage can paradoxically resist finality. In “Is There Beauty in the Raggedness of Theatrical Deaths?” Gough revealed that she often uses the image of lovers of the dead to explore struggles for survival. In many of these plays, re-animation or even grief expresses resilience or hope. This theme, Gough showed, runs through her radio and stage dramas, including The Raft (of the Medusa), The Furnace (after the life and imagination of Charlotte Bronte), Gryf/Head, and Our Lady of the Shadows. To illustrate her recollections, Gough shared some scenes from her work, on recordings and stage-read by two actors.

Finally, Barker (Victory, Brutopia, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo) argued that, prior to his Gertrude/The Cry, no canonical drama had represented what he considered the ultimate taboo: a character depicted in orgasm with a corpse, as suggested by the facial expression depicted in the Renaissance sculptor Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Barker argued that, in this sculpture, spectacles of extreme ‘passion’ in the dying and living figures are paralleled and combined. It is an ideal tragedy, if a static one, because tragedy, when effective, “brings us closer to death than society wishes us to come.” This is why tragedy, though older than social realism, remains more radical and rare. Barker aimed to achieve Bernini’s effect in Gertrude, having found it in no existing tragedy. I wasn’t convinced that Gertrude is the only tragedy of necrophiliac spectacle in the English-language canon. Juliet’s last soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet fits that description, as I pointed out to Barker and he conceded in a letter kindly written a few days after the symposium.


That evening, in the first play of Lovefuries, titled The Contracting Sea, the fiancée (Antoinette Walsh) of a just-shipwrecked sailor splits schizophrenically into two characters: the distraught, Gothically maudlin, self-repressed Morgana and the Maenad-like Elisheba, siren-like sexy personification of the seductive and homicidal sea, which, we find, “contracts” in two senses of the word. This takes place on a seaside promontory in the actress’s native Ireland, but the time setting is unidentifiable. Rabey’s romanticised language places this fantasy in the world of Yeats’ plays—but without Yeats’s nationalist allegories, or some of the early works of Brian Friel. I kept hearing parallels with the suicidal Grace Hardy’s monologue in Friel’s shocking and lyrical Faith Healer (1981). However, I felt that in Rabey’s play, some archetypes (or stereotypes) remained types, and never burst into a full-fledged character or unpredictable story. These include bride/madwoman; life-instinct/death-instinct; and, in the costumes, the biblical binary of drab, veiled female masochist and crimson-corseted sadistic dancer/harlot. I’m not trying to impose p.c. upon Rabey’s avowedly a-ideologically (not that this is really possible) work, but to note that stock types are predictable and predictability can become boring. Nevertheless, The Contracting Sea was mesmerisingly acted and beautifully designed, with an original jazz score by Paula Gardiner.

The second play, The Hanging Judge, was more conflict-driven and original. As in the first play, the character, played by Gareth Potter, has just been traumatised by a lover’s death and is deliberating suicide. By deconstructing a Lewis Carroll rhyme, he figuratively resurrects the ghost of his horrid mother and the men whose abuse of her child she enabled. If this sounds fatalist and whingeing, it’s not. The title involves a really neat prismatic double-entendre, which I can’t explain without giving away the big secrets. The character’s struggle is fierce, suspenseful, and genuinely surprising in its outcome. set, made of scaffolding and a great deal of real dirt, was interesting but unnecessary, as Rabey’s words create their own atmosphere, and could have been performed just as effectively in extremely minimalist settings.

There was something very unnerving about spending an entire day listening to dialogue and monologues concerning the theatrics of death and eroticism, especially when outside the Parry-Williams building the newspapers were carrying photos of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi POWs, some of which have since been found to be ineptly staged optical illusions. The symposium was a great success, and I will be thinking about the issues raised for some time to come. In any case, I’ve decided to be less apologetic about the play with the avenging spirit at the autopsy. Its living/corpse character seems to have a lot of inspiring company.

author:Rebecca Nesvet

original source:
21 May 2004


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