Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Heterosexuality

This has ended up being a very long ramble. I take a risk here because I engage in what I like to call "pure speculation" about heterosexuality ... by "pure speculation", I mean speculation unencumbered by fact or reference or proof, and founded upon the ramblings of my own mind. I do not want to offend anyone. But dynamics that we all experience deserve playing out and talking about. I believe in transparency, and I believe in making mistakes, especially of interpretation, in aid of finding your way forward. So here goes.

I spent the afternoon with my excellent friend Roy Ortopan at the American Conservatory Theater's production of Edward Albee's new and not so new At Home at the Zoo. So, spoiler alert, I plan to reveal anything I feel like, so those of you who might want to see this exquisite production should consider bookmarking these scribblings for future reference.

The play is a combination of two acts: the first act is new writing and concerns a discussion about matters of relationship and sex between a long-married couple Peter (Anthony Fusco) and Ann (René Augesen), both long-time regulars at ACT. It has the form of a prequel to the second act which is Albee's iconic first playThe Zoo Story, written in 1958. So a little criticism to start ... the first act exhibited the exquisite writing of a , each line crafted and yet natural. Augesen and Fusco oozed the comfortable relationship whose very smoothness is its own threat. The second act, Pinteresque in writing and in staging, is rougher, even coarser, with a long monologue in which Jerry (Manoel Feliciano) recounts to Peter a murderous story about a dog and works himself from accidental interlocutor to incarnate violence.

The unsettling nature of this production is in its interconnected but stylistically and emotionally distinct one-act plays. The challenge is to find the resistances that flow from the one to the other.

In the first act, set in an exquisite modernistic living room, white and sterile and clean, the exchanges between these comfortably married middle-aged Manhattanites expresses what I would call the inner dynamic of heterosexuality. That is, the dominance of the female irrespective of the power relationship, and therefore the alternating current of resistance and attraction to the female that is the dynamo of male heterosexuality. Let's lead by noting that there's a lot in that that is probably bullshit ... I mean that. But as a lifelong gay guy (notwithstanding an earnest and meaningful heterosexual relationship of 18 months at the end of my teenage years) I observe male heterosexuality as a sort-of alien force in the kitchen of my being. It is there, it is clearly real, and yet it is hard to quantify. It is passing difficult to quantify how the female principle drives straight men even as they alternately dominate it and submit to it.

I never fully accepted the inside game of feminism's more abstruse ideological perambulations. The obvious and ineluctable force of women demanding equality is not feminism ... I call that women's liberation, and I separate it from the ideological prescriptions of the high priestesses of feminism, especially in the 70s and 80s before they slowly faded from relevance in the face of rising female equality. So, a play like this throws light on our present post-feminist era. Women and men may continue to spar as they have done for centuries, but women have a better block from which to jump off than ever before, leastwise in Western society.

Ann presses her complacent husband to be dangerous. It is he who resists, who tells a story of the one time in his youth he was dangerous, and how it was terrifying and almost destroyed his life. This is a flip from stereotypes, because it is the female who is supposed to crave the secure and the predictable. But it is Peter who argues that he thought that they had agreed before marriage that theirs would be a peaceful and predictable journey where excitement was not at issue, but the pleasures of the long and the assured were in the fore.

There is no one heterosexuality, of course, any more than there is only one homosexuality. But one thing that distinguishes heterosexual men from exclusively homosexual men is that one way or another they must encounter the female principle in all its permutations. Gay men ... and this describes me to a T ... love women for the intelligence and wit and, most emphatically, their non-maleness. But the female principle "in all its permutations" we can take or leave. We don't live with it and we don't go home with it. Straight men do. The notion of the traditional chauvinist is that he pedestalizes women in order to wall himself off from those permutations; in other words, chauvinism is a way of isolating and crystalizing femaleness so that it can be used without interfering in the more fundamental and more powerful maleness which the chauvinist prefers.

There is another kind of chauvinist ... I call them "true heterosexuals." These are the men who are focused exclusively on women, and who hardly notice men at all. There are curiously few of these men. I had a lecturer in college who was a great influence on me and with whom I had many excellent conversations. But if there was a single woman present, I ceased to exist for him. I invited him once to my home for a slide show of a recent trip to Indonesia and we were having a rollicking conversation until a then temporary roommate, female and young and pretty, stopped by. He was gone; I never got him back.

But nowadays, notice how most coupled men ... and the more so the more urban or younger or more middle class they are ... foreground the female. Things as simple as walking a half step behind while girlfriend wife gabs on the cell phone (this drives me nuts), or as complex and laudable as the immersion in childcare or domesticity. It is that new convergence that Albee was expressing in his first act. But he is not afraid, as so many commentators are, to express the discomforts of the new prominence of the female in heterosexuality.

Peter found in his female approach to his marriage the comfort of taking the sting out of his masculinity. He complains at length ... and this gets plenty good laughs from the audience ... that his circumcision is retreating. Not that his foreskin is growing back, but that the glans of his penis is ever so infinitesimally disappearing under what foreskin was left by the surgeon's long-ago snip. Meanwhile, Ann complains that from time to time she wants Peter, whom she describes as a great lover and lousy fuck, to be dangerous, in essence to rape her with consent ... though she does not put it exactly that way.

So here we have the male principle slowly shrinking simultaneously happily and nervously, and the female principle casting around looking for the excitement that its very dominance precludes. Nice dialectics ... I love conundra like these. And as with the real world, there is no denouement, there is resolution. Life goes on, uneasily. You wonder if after this conversation they can return to the sweet satisfying lovemaking that Ann both accepted and rejected and that was all that Peter cared to do.

"Cared to do" ... because in the most violent portion of the conversation, Peter relates the one time when he was dangerous, when he had anally penetrated a woman and injured her, caused her to bleed sufficiently to send her to hospital, during a fraternity-sponsored initiation orgy long beforehand. Just that one brush with danger was enough for him, and the idea of role-playing violence with his gentle-voyage wife was thereby abhorrent.

Remember this ... it was blood and penetration forced upon Peter by the other that haunted him.

So the act wraps up with Peter leaving awkwardly to go for a walk with his book, to take a read in Central Park

Remember that the second act was written in 1958, and the language and staging is coarser. I would argue that this is both by reason of Albee's youth and by reason of the writing occurring before the rise of women's liberation. Jerry, a drifter, strikes up a conversation with Peter. From its inception, this conversation bristles with the implied violence of male-to-male heterosexual relations. That Jerry reveals in the course of the conversation that he has sexually hustled men only adds to that unexpressed violence. While in the first act, the audience is satisfied in a conversation that starts and ends essentially nowhere and travels from one indeterminate to another, in the second act, the audience knows that this cannot end well. Blood will be spilled; someone will die.

When straight men are together, they always bristle a little. It can be nice bristling, it can be humorous, vigorous, laidback. It can be any kind of bristling you want, but there is always at least a tiny charge. Perhaps it is almost as if everyone wants to put out a positive electrical charge to make sure that they all equally repel if they get too close. I think this is what explains the tendency to violence under the influence of alcohol, because the tiny positive electrical charge fades and suddenly, unexpectedly and most unwelcome, two men may find themselves too close.

I think that most men actually prefer the company of men ... notwithstanding my notion that the modern defusing of the male/female relationship leads to greater comfort between men and women. Because when men are together, the female principle no longer threatens or demands; it becomes a kind of icon for waving or saluting or acknowledging or, mostly, ignoring. That is why gay men, and I include myself in this, are always vaguely unnerved by being the lone gay guy with a bunch of straight guys. Again, this is meant to express underlying subcurrents, not some supervening agenda. Keep that in mind. Gay guys are unnerved because we do not output that tiny positive electrical charge. To turn the metaphor on its head, we are more AC with each other than DC ... we play by flipping from positive to negative charge, pushing and pulling, alluring and demanding. So the electrical pressure of all those positive charges we experience around a bunch of straight guys is demanding.

It is in this sense that Albee's depiction of the confrontation between Peter and Jerry is so successful. He plays with what I would describe as the AC/DC thing ... alternately repelling each other and attracting each other. But each submission, each attraction makes the subsequent repulsion the stronger. At one point as the denouement approaches, Jerry starts to tickle Peter who laughs and enjoys himself. That rapidly devolves into a fight over territory that leads quickly to Peter picking up the knife that Jerry threw to him, and Jerry impaling himself on the knife as Peter holds it as warning that Jerry must not approach further. The knife which Jerry provided is like the penis which the sorority girl had demanded in Peter's previous encounter with the dangerous. But where his youthful danger was male/female, and ultimately resolved itself, his adult danger was male/male, and death was the result.

Albee's genius here is in the way he flips back and forth. Remember that the earlier part of Peter's life was written recently, where this terminal encounter was written 50 years ago. I wonder how long Albee has been thinking of the prequel.

So I have rambled on as is my wont. These are irresolvable questions, in constant flux. The names of the principles may be eternal, but the practice of them is always changing. Whenever you hear of an eternal principle, keep that in mind. The name may be eternal, but nothing human is eternal. Nothing is solid.

Photos by Arod from a lengthy series I call "Flat Faces" ... pix of men on billboards or posters out and about.

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