“Sex Is Imminent:” The Evolution of Onstage Eroticism

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Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in Sex With Strangers’ NYC premiere at Second Stage Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

While looking through several articles about Sex With Strangers’ NYC premiere in 2014, I noticed writer Laura Eason and director David Schwimmer talking a lot about the amped-up intimacy in the play since its 2011 world premiere in Chicago. For example, Schwimmer commented to the New York Times about heightening the play’s “dark, sexy, funny” qualities. And American Theatre Magazine reported that, in Sex With Strangers’ first two productions at Steppenwolf and Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, “the sex was shielded by a change in lighting or the actors’ timely exit. Now, for the play’s New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre, […] Eason’s stage direction, ‘Sex is imminent between the characters,’ might be more than implied in transitions.”

All this got me thinking about how sex has been portrayed onstage, and how delicately a new play must tread a public’s sensibilities when it comes to sexually explicit material. There are so many factors to consider in the life of any new play, but a new play that includes explicit material can be particularly vulnerable to criticism: Will conservative subscribers write off the play as crude? Will Eason not be taken seriously as a female playwright writing a romance seemingly right out of an erotica novel (“Oh, she’s a woman…Of course she’s gonna write about sex and romance!”)? Will the creators and producers be accused of using sex as a cheap commercial trick to seduce ticker buyers and curious eyes (as was the case with The Black Crook, supposedly the first American musical, whose superfluous sexy dancers redeemed the show in the box office from its terribly-written plot)?

Given all of these considerations, did Eason and Schwimmer make the right choice in dialing up the heat in Sex With Strangers? Ultimately, there’s a larger question here about whether or not explicit stage intimacy is justified: When does sex onstage have true artistic merit, and when is it merely a gratuitous gimmick?

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline as Titania and Bottom in the 1990 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Certainly, an onstage sex scene’s success relies heavily on an audience’s willingness to observe it at all, and Western audiences have come a long way in accepting intimacy onstage. Sam Weiner’s excellent overview of how sex has been depicted onstage through history (to which I owe a great deal of credit for many of the historical examples here) demonstrates how theatricalized intimacy has ebbed and flowed through time. On the whole, though, performing arts audiences have progressed towards accepting more sexually explicit action. While the Greeks were known to make lots of sexual innuendo in their dialogue (which was made reference to in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum earlier this season at Geva), and while actors wore leather phalluses to satirize Greek men’s unsatiated desire in comedies like Lysistrata, the ancient dramatists always reserved sex itself for offstage action. The Elizabethans kept up this trend, where sex is implied by pre- or post-coital scenes between the couple in bed (for example, Titania and Bottom preparing for bed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Juliet dreading the rising sun on her wedding night). That same device continues to be used in film and theatre today—couple kissing passionately, cut to black, lights back up on the morning after—but in the later 20th century, more dramatic opportunities for intimacy and nudity became available: Hair ushered in a new era accepting full nudity onstage in 1968, and the 1975 play Equus features an onstage orgasm. By the time Spring Awakening premiered on Broadway in 2006, critics were eager to accept the artistry in its explicit teenage romances. While regional productions of Spring Awakening still get some pushback, the commercial theatre tastemakers of the day signaled their relative comfort with sex onstage in the 21st century by embracing this new musical.

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Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening. Photo by Broadway.com.

Now, audiences seem more open than ever to sexually explicit material onstage, though some vocal critics remain. John Istel is frequently cited for his 2007 article in American Theatre Magazine decrying nudity onstage. Here, Istel wrote that “not only is [nudity] distracting, it’s anti-theatrical. It’s the death of artifice. […] Most often, it’s just plain embarrassing, both for audience and performers.” Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones elaborated on Istel’s points in 2013, saying that, “It helps when there is some visual distance to frame the experience; when you don’t have other audience members as a backdrop [and are making you think about their reactions to the sex more than the scene itself]; and when the sex session really, truly has something radically distinctive to say.”

But therein lies the issue precisely…What determines whether sex onstage is “distinctive” or not? Weiner suggested that, for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production of Tom Jones, “It doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks when characters stumble onstage in their underwear and frumpled hair or with stage directions such as ‘bush sounds of…well, romance.’” Other artists believe that omitting sex from onstage storytelling is a disservice to the kinds of stories they wish to tell. Some may even say it’s precisely these “blanks” that theatre must “fill in,” by acknowledging diverse sexualities that are often not portrayed onstage. Playwright Mariah MacCarthy made a fascinating statement about how writers can reflect human nature more authentically when artists are willing to be honest about human sexuality:

I think it’s important to actually show sex onstage and not shy away from it (assuming that’s the author’s intention). I think the people we become in the moment says a lot about us, and it’s important to learn about those people. And generally, in theatre, we don’t! Most of the sex you’d see on an average Off-Broadway stage represents, like, 0.000001 percent of what actually happens during sex. During sex, people request nasty things and say stupid shit and put fingers in each other’s mouths and change positions and have to move a leg or an arm in a way that kills the moment and make ridiculous noises. Most of the time they don’t just get under the covers and quietly thrust a couple times and call it a night, which is what you’ll generally see if you’re watching “sex” onstage. And if they do, that’s kind of sad and maybe the play should be about how sad that is (but it never is). And I think it’s important to show how terrible people can be during sex, too.

As sex slowly sheds its taboo nature in art and in our society, audiences seem eager to see sex included in truthful representations of their everyday lives (and fantasies) in art. Furthermore, sex onstage has a unique appeal compared to other art forms: When such an intimate act is performed live in public, one might be equally amazed at the actors’ authenticity in their fabricated intimacy, while also keenly aware of one’s own relationship to the bodies onstage. As director Courtney Ulrich puts it,

People like to be voyeurs. The movies are completely saturated with sex, but it still seems safe, because existing in a different time and place than the action protects us. Theatre is live and we are all in the same room, therefore equally complicit in the act. I think we also have a yearning to see things that are real, and we are tired of denying sexuality. As a lot of the shame and taboo around sex fades, we want to see ourselves represented. We want to see theatre where life is happening.

In Sex With Strangers, the explicit sexual encounters make sense for what the play’s trying to say. Structurally, the play is modeled after romance/erotica novels that that would likely live on an airport bookshelf right next to Ethan’s Sex With Strangers. It’s a classic case of “form fits function;” the characters live in an erotic fantasy, and as they become more and more intimate, the artifice of their romance-novel relationship slips away and a more naturalistic genre takes over. This transition in the play’s tone would not be taken as seriously without an honest depiction of Ethan and Olivia’s steamy affair. Furthermore, in a play about intimacy and two partners’ ability to honestly express their desires, the sex must be equally honest in order to justify Olivia and Ethan’s emotional honesty.

At the end of the day, the question seems to be less about whether or not sex is “appropriate” onstage, and more about whether sex onstage is appropriate for the story at hand. When you come to see Sex With Strangers at Geva, I think you will also find that the “imminent” sex is absolutely justified in the storytelling…as well as fodder for a fun adult date night.

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LeeAnne Hutchison and Darian Dauchan in Sex With Strangers at Kitchen Theatre Company. Photo by Dave Burbank.


Ever wonder what it’s like to be an actor preparing to do a sex scene onstage? What’s a sex choreographer’s rehearsal process? And what factors might writers take into consideration before producing a play with sexually explicit action? Here’s a wonderful HowlRound article that answers all these questions, and more, drawing from experiences of theatre artists across the country: http://howlround.com/let-s-talk-about-it-an-exploration-of-sex-and-the-new-american-theater

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2 thoughts on ““Sex Is Imminent:” The Evolution of Onstage Eroticism

  1. Was just in southern France and met playwright Tim Fountain and had the most fascinating discussion about his work, and how Michael Billington in The Guardian slammed his piece Tim Fountain: Sex Addict, at the Royal Court, for being little more than a tease, simply because the ‘onstage’ eroticism actually happens after the curtain falls. Hmmm, but that was 2005, maybe we’ve moved on?

  2. The only issue I have – and this applies to film and TV – is that sexual content is now being seen as an obligation, rather than a tool. You have writers and actors all saying that people expect to see it now. At that point it loses its effectiveness and impact (note how Hair and Equus are remembered nearly a half century later while most people have already forgotten the more recent examples). Plus its ultimately insulting to the audience because it assumes they no longer have the ability to engage their imaginations to fill in the blanks. I wish I could say that was an exaggeration, but I’ve spoken to writers who actually believe this and feel obligated to include explicit material because their readers can’t process romance anymore without explicit sexuality. I’m of the opinion that film and TV will move into unsimulated scenes more frequently in the years to come, and I wonder if stage actors are prepared to do things on stage that right now you only see in shady clubs in Barcelona and Amterdam? Think I’m exaggerating? Ask me again in a decade.

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