Sunday, October 04, 2009

Transvestism, Pantomime and Striptease

TLS September 25 2009

from Allan Massie's review of John Carey's William Golding: The Man who wrote "Lord of the Flies":

The victim in Rites of Passage is the young clergyman Colley, who takes to his bed and apparently dies of shame after participating in a drunken homosexual incident on the lower deck. Some of Golding's friends believed that he had homosexual tendencies himself, and after a dream in which he had dressed up in his mother's clothes Golding wrote in his notebooks: "I pretend to be immune to such bent delights as homosexuality and transvestism, but my dreams won't let me get away with standard attitudes about myself." He dreamed of making love to two of his Oxford contemporaries and of being invited by a small Ethiopian boy "to bugger him". He declined the invitation "with a gloomy sense that he has missed the only thing the place has to offer". Such dreams represented his unconscious self, and he denied any "real life" homosexual experience. Carey, perhaps wisely, does not indulge in further speculation, though he notes that when Golding's daughter published a novel, it was one in which the heroine's father "reveals that he was in love with another man before meeting her mother".

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TLS October 2 2009

from Rowland Smith's review of Seneca's De Clementia, edited by Susanna Braund:

A growing interest among modern philosophers and cultural historians in the analysis of the emotions and the role of evaluative judgement in their formation, and in Graeco-Roman representations of philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise, a spiritual "art of life", has prompted renewed attention to Seneca's essays and letters: his "care of the self" intrigued Foucault in the 1980s, and subsequent expert readings (notably, Brad Inwood's) have built a strong case for him an an innovative and important Stoic philosopher in his own right. The focus on firsthand ethical and emotional experience in the essays is seen now as central to Seneca's philosophic purposes--and as resonating also in his drama: the theme of "constructed selfhood" and its pathologies in extemis figures strongly in recent literary analysis of the tragedies.

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from Denis Feeney's review of New Directions in Ancient Pantomine, edited by Edith Hall and Rosie Wyles, and Demons and Dancers: Performance in late antiquity, by Ruth Webb:

The mime was performed by a troupe of male and female actors, without masks, mounting plots of everyday intrigue involving song and verbal wit; the pantomime displayed a virtuoso dancer--before the Byzantine period, almost invariably a man--who wore a mask with no mouthpiece, or a succession of such masks, as he silently took on the various roles of a mythological story that a singer or a chorus sang to musical accompaniment. . . . Of the two forms, the pantomime was the more popular and the more fascinating, attracting stringent censure and fanatical partisanship, with critics and fans alike mesmerized by that adaptable body, capable of gliding mid-step from being a conquering hero to a swooning widow.

For a culture as obsessed with maintenance of gender identity and hierarchy as was the Roman Empire, there was phenomenal electricity to be generated every time thousands of people gaped at a man transforming himself from his "natural" state into that of a woman and back again. These metamorphoses were accomplished with no aids beyond a change of mask, and even that was apparently not de rigueur. Otherwise, Rosie Wyles tells us in a fascinating chapter on costume, the artist had nothing but a standard robe, a scarf and metal-plated sandals with which to carry his body's multiple illusions. Webb cogently argues that this ability to occupy so many different human possibilities in sequence blurred the lines between the real and the artificial in ways that heightened already long-standing anxieties about the perils of taking on an alien habitus or watching someone else do it.

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As Webb points out, the pantomime was a far more charismatic, uncanny and disquieting figure than the mime. We can all imagine being the dummy husband or the adulterous wife, but that enigmatically silent mask atop that constantly metamorphosing body posed quite different problems of identification: no surprise, then, that Webb claims to know of no funerary epitaph where the pantomime speaks in his own voice, as opposed to the many examples we have of a mime speaking in the first person.

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Physically, pantomime was a highly-demanding profession, with a punishing training from childhood. A number of Hall and Wyles's contributors stress that the performers ended up being--to quote what Billy Elliot says to his father--"as fit as athletes". The ancient world too had its equivalents of Billy Elliot's father, those who scored the effeminacy of the dancer without realizing that it took a lot of hard work to look that soft . . . .

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The legal and social status of the performers was nominally an extremely lower one, a notch above slavery: this is, after all . . . a society where you could brag on your tombstone about how upwardly mobile you had been in turning yourself from a musician to a pimp. In ways that are reminiscent of the status of actors and actresses in the modern world until fairly recently, the performers' nominally low status did not ba them from the possibility of mingling with the highest in society.

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The interplay between the Roman and Greek dimensions of the form is very intriguing. The word "pantomime" is itself a Greek one, meaning "someone mimicking all the roles". But according to the second century AD Greek writer Lucian it is in fact the word used by those who spoke Latin; residents of the Greek East just called the artists "dancers" or referred to the form as "rhythmic tragic movement".

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from Frances Wilson's review of Noralee Frankel's Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rachel Shteir's Gypsy: The art of the tease:

Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-70) preferred the term "Striptease Intellectual" to "ecdysiast"--from the Greek for moulting--which is the word coined by the cultural critic H. L. Mencken to describe what she did. . . . . according to Rachel Shteir, her stage appearances posed the question: "what is left when we reveal everything?".

*

"There must be something amusing about a naked woman talking", Gypsy speculated. "Most of the fan, muff and bubble dancers keep their mouths shit--then I came along with dialogue and they laugh at anything."

Put more accurately, Gypsy came along with monologue and her audience found themselves with better cause to laugh than to leer. It is no coincidence that her style of verbal striptease, in which she clothed her broad-hipped, flat-chested body in one-liners and double entendres, took off in the year that talkies were born. The achievement of Gypsy Rose Lee was not only to make nakedness witty, but to do so without ever being fully naked. "You don't have to be naked to look naked", she explained. "You just have to think naked."

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[Shteir's study] is . . . a satisfyingly short and smartly analytical study in which cultural commentary and biography are deftly woven together, and Shteir's conclusion, that Gypsy exposed America's "pathological urge to reveal everything", is surely right.

2 comments:

Eshuneutics said...

The Golding issue is quite interesting. Carey's biography has been criticised, I believe, for sitting on the fence about so much that is uncomfortable in Golding's life. It's curious that the point is made simply in relation to Rites of Passage (a dubious pub by Golding). The homosexual element is clear in Lord of the Flies...it abounds with images of poles and anal sexuality. Darkness Visible is a very uncomfortable read because it represents male child molestation.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I almost can't believe now how I could have read "Lord of the Flies" so innocently.