Letters to the Editor

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Why Must As You Like It Be Gayed Up?

To the Editor:

So much is wrong with Ryan Tracy’s recent review of As You Like It at BAM [July-Aug. 2010] it’s hard to know where to start or how to stop laughing. If his view of the play is cramped and humorless, it is also profoundly philistine and depressingly clichéd, the kind of thing that might pass for clever at a second-tier university, say, in Iowa, but is hard to stomach in print.

If my opinions seem opinionated they are informed by a lifetime of working in the theatre both on stage and off, in the UK and the U.S.; a lifetime that has allowed me to act the play in question (as an utterly unconvincing Silvius, a bitch of a part under the best of conditions, though it does give one a long enough break mid-play to change, go do the shopping, get back into costume and make it onstage for the final scene with time to spare); to see it several times; audition for it; read it a lot and, before any of this, to act several of Shakespeare’s girls in school productions. I attended a school in London founded by the Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn, a depressing dump in my day but tolerant in a patronizing, thoroughly English manner, of its theatrical beginnings. So I made my debut as Cordelia in long blond plaits before, in the spirit of full disclosure, veering off into Shaw for Barbara in Major Barbara and then, just as my voice was breaking, Iolanthe in the eponymous G&S comic opera. An experience, though not listed on my résumé, that was not unlike that of Shakespeare’s boy actors. My triumph as Cordelia was the single most important event of my first thirteen years and first made me think of taking up acting as a profession.

Projecting the gender-bending that seems to be fashionable at our colleges backwards onto Shakespeare makes nonsense of his plays since it has no bearing on the reality of the theatre of his time. Simply stated, the Elizabethans found it funny to watch a woman pretending to be a man. That the woman was played by a boy could seem to be a clue to some unstated desire until we remember that this almost always happened in comedies. And not very many of them: As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and that’s it—plus Imogen in Cymbeline, a personal favorite. And doesn’t Joan La Puce wear a man’s armor in one of the histories? Hardly a motif of profound significance in the canon. More a device he had some fun with as he pumped out product for the King’s Men.

The issue of boy as girl as boy seems to me to have been blown entirely out of proportion. In As You Like It, Shakespeare never so much as allows himself to hint at the gender of Rosalind’s actor. I didn’t see the production in Brooklyn that so offended Mr. Tracy’s sensibilities, but it sounds like pretty standard issue to me. What your reviewer seems not to understand is that performances are worked out between the director and the actors (dare one say “negotiated’?). Not every sin can be laid at the feet of Mr. Mendes. Nor are all the laurels his. In my experience, most theatre reviewers lack any kind of practical knowledge of how the theatre works and consequently seem incapable of sorting out who does what, confusing lighting design, for example, with direction or script with acting. This seems to be compounded when the reviewer is wearing his Queer Theory goggles, bristling at the merest hint of what Mr. Tracy so quaintly terms “homophobia.” But let me turn to the play for just a moment.

That it is lovely and beloved is beyond dispute. That it pokes fun at lovers not knowing whom they love, expressing this in imaginative and amusing ways, is also beyond dispute. To think that there is any kind of erotic tension between Celia and Rosalind, despite what Camille Paglia has to say, is not only preposterous but undermines the very structure of the play. It simply isn’t there. Also, there is nothing very strange about Orlando allowing Ganymede to coach him. Poor dumb jock that he is, he’s hoping the strangely sophisticated youngster can give him some pointers to use next time he sees Rosalind. It is customary for Rosalind at some point to forget herself and react as a woman might to a man she loves before recollecting herself and her predicament. This is known as comedy. It can be done with varying degrees of taste and skill but such moments are built into the situation and this is where, fingers crossed, a lot of the fun lies.

If exposure to imagined homophobia causes such extreme anguish, it might be better next time to look away from the stage. The traditional stage business often involves the unsuspected proximity on the part of Orlando to Rosalind’s breasts (I hope this isn’t too traumatizing) and the effect on her of the nearness of said hunky dolt who is not exactly quick on the uptake. If Touchstone over-acts and makes phallic gestures, well, it goes with the territory. Indeed, I suspect it’s genetic: if you’re the kind of actor who plays Touchstone, you will make phallic gestures. Try and stop him and he’ll most likely take to drink. Bottom is cut from the same cloth, as indeed are most of the mechanicals: Dogberry, Costard, etc. In the business we call them “dick jokes.”

Some factual correction: the National Theatre revival directed by Clifford Williams was produced in 1973 (in London), not 1963. There was no censorship when it was produced, so that theory bites the dust. It came to Broadway in 1974 and then toured very successfully. The Epilogue is not usually performed? On what planet? The Epilogue is always performed: it is one of the highlights of the play. If Mr. Tracy ever directs it, can I please be there when he tells the actor playing Rosalind that he’s cutting the “potentially homophobic” epilogue? I’d like to hear what she has to say. If one must give Lawrence Olivier a title then give him his correct title: he was Lord Olivier. Principle? Don’t we mean principal? And the account of the end of the play lifts into pure fantasy. To call Shakespeare’s joyous resolution that unites all the various pairings of lovers, punishes the wicked duke, and the rewards the good—all done in some of the most elegantly poised language of the play—to call this scene as a “cluster-fuck four-way wedding” is simply juvenile. A failure of taste compounded by more self-righteous huffing and puffing at Sam Mendes’s supposed “homophobia.” This displays not just ignorance of tradition and the realities of the theatre but a writer addicted to making himself feel somehow outspoken by manufacturing misplaced moral indignation. A “devastating choice”? Really? It’s a revival of As You Like It. How “devastating” could it be?

As an actor, I’ve come to dread those announcements we see all too often of groundbreaking new readings of Shakespeare’s plays: Richard III at the court of Saddam Hussein; Richard III at the court of George W. Bush. I was once in a Tempest which boasted costumes that made us all look suspiciously like the crew of the Starship Enterprise on disco night. Somehow or other the plays shine through. And even if they don’t, we can read them. So this ridiculous review can do no lasting harm. I can’t even think it managed to unsell a single ticket—and selling tickets is about the only real function of reviews, good or bad.

Last Sunday, my husband and I attended a high-school production of The Laramie Project. Unfortunately, that was its final performance. Otherwise I would have pointed Mr. Tracy to Rhinebeck, where he would see a perfect example of Shakespeare’s gender-blind casting in action. After five minutes or so, when one’s eyes had become accustomed to the style of the production, when a thirteen-year-old black girl told us she was a middle-aged white judge, one simply thought “okay.” That’s how it is when a thirteen-year-old boy plays Cordelia. With any luck, what the audience sees is her warmth and honesty, not the gender of the actor. It’s not like drag, which parodies the idea of being a woman. One simply plays a part. And since the theatre can make us believe anything, we can easily believe that Rosalind is a woman and enjoy her adventures among the Lost Boys of Arden. To add a further layer of dramaturgical tosh—that we have to imagine that the woman is in fact a boy who is pretending to be a woman pretending to be a boy—speaks more to the ambition of the critic than the intention of the playwright, and burdens an otherwise airborne play with a burden that can only make it crash and burn.

Stephen Temperley, Glenford, NY

Author’s Reply:

I’m not interested in getting into a catfight with someone who took the time to read my article and then compose a lengthy response to it. But I feel the need to defend my honor, so I will try to do that without giving in to parodying Mr. Temperley’s rather arch letter.

I wrote my article out of an impulse to examine my reaction to seeing Sam Mendes’ production of As You Like It. I had gotten a free ticket to see the production, so I was not there as a professional critic; nor had I gone with any intention to write about it. But my intense reaction brought to mind a series of interconnected issues I find of particular interest to my current intellectual projects. My reaction was that Mendes directed his players to exhibit and perform gay panic while also intentionally restraining (including changing the syntax of Shakespeare’s original text) reasonable homoerotic tensions that arise in the script; or, tensions that most likely will be summoned for those who understand that homoerotic desire is ever present in our lives, that it is being contested presently at all levels of American politics, and that it is constantly being identified and contained by homophobic attitudes.

Mr. Temperely’s response relies heavily on ad hominem attacks and name-calling. I am called “juvenile,” “philistine,” “second-tier,” “Iowan.” (Perhaps of note: I have never taken a course in “queer studies,” nor have I ever gone to school in Iowa.) While this is the sign of someone who is not prepared to deal with the content of my arguments—and whose objections can thus  be largely ignored—I encourage readers to consider Mr. Temperley’s letter as a case study in the exact classist, incredulous hallmark by which homophobia manifests itself in intellectual discourse.

I have an inkling we are living through the last gasps of this intolerable age of prejudice against homosexuality and non-heteronormative, non-gender-conforming ways of being. Three cheers to Mr. Temperely for adding to this chorus of the vanquished!

Ryan Tracy, Brooklyn

 

Don’t Overlook Whitman’s Best Feature

To the Editor:

I was surprised by an omission in the iconographic analysis offered by Jeff Solomon [“How Whitman Seduced Us with a Photograph,” July-August 2010] of Walt Whitman’s authorized photograph that adorns the original editions of Leaves of Grass. In addition to the clothing (shirtsleeves, workman’s pants, jaunty hat), pose (hands on right hip and in left pocket), and self-presentation (cultivated comfort, casual freedom, and subtle “attitude”), there was another formal element that would predictably be noticed by gay men: the artistic rendering of the crotch. The carefully retouched daguerreotype provides two different visual interpretations of Whitman’s basket. On his right side, a horizontal line and wavy upward motion suggest that the pants are tight enough to allow visualization of an underlying protuberance. On his left, there is a downward bulging object depicted beneath his pants, clearly drawn at a distance from his left hand, so that, even though the hand is in the left pocket, it is conspicuous that the bulge is not a hand (or a hand attempting to cover a body part). This official image makes doubly certain that the viewer is aware of this rough dandy’s elegant working tool.

I wonder if portrait historians of that era would consider this crotch representation as unusual for its times. It’s certainly not what might be expected during the Victorian era in another country. With the fancy pleated shirt and bulging casual pants (and without the outdated hat), this man—if translocated to a modern gay bar—would appear to have the ambiguous “come hither” look of disinterested attention that might tentatively invite greater familiarity. The bulge would seem to settle the question of whether this was or was not a sexualized image of Whitman. The only question might be of sexual orientation. That appears to be addressed by the slightly effeminate carrying of the chest, which is relaxed and unprominent rather than forward and broad—which would have afforded a more conventional depiction of official masculinity. The impact on the eye of the average 19th-century viewer might be difficult to discern, especially if the eye is culturally trained to “not see” certain types of sexuality or sexual communication. The basket can provide the modern eye with insight into Whitman’s sensitivities, but for Whitman’s contemporaries this image might have given his admirers a quiver in the loins and a reach into the soul of the man.

Fred Waseau, Lenox, Mass.

 

Let Bogotá Define ‘Gay’ for Itself

To the Editor:

Great to see so much international coverage in the special travel issue. But I was concerned at the unproblematic way in which so many writers use gay or GLBT when talking about non-Western societies, as if these terms were universally translatable. We have twenty years of good research that show the variety of understandings of homosexual behaviors, identities, and desires across cultures, and these varieties need be reflected in any account of sexual lives internationally (and within western countries as well).

To illustrate, it was exciting to read an account from Colombia [“In Bogotá, Freedom Is in the Ghetto,” by Jairo Ordóñez, July-Aug. 2010], but I was perplexed by some of his claims. When he writes, “there are an estimated 500,000 that belong to the GLBT community,” what does he mean by “community”? There may be 500,000 people in Bogotá who have some sense of homosexual feelings—I have no idea how that number is arrived at—but I’m quite sure there is nothing like that number who

would see themselves as part of an identified community.

Ordóñez then writes that “gay life in Bogotá is still provincial,” and gives as examples the absence of “a bear community, an S/M community and exotic sexual practices.” I would not regard any of these as signs of particular sophistication, but perhaps there are other forms of sexual practices and identities that would be worth reflecting upon. Why should we measure sophistication by the standards of Manhattan—as he appears to do when he writes: “The educational level of Colombians is generally low. Few speak good English…” Well, I unfortunately do not speak good Spanish: does this make me uneducated? I assume Ordóñez, like me, speaks no Chinese—where does this place us? And while there may be “only one gay bookstore” in Latin America [in Buenos Aires], I know from experience that there is a vibrant “gay” literature and press in Mexico City—yet there is no longer an exclusively “gay bookstore” in New York City.

It seems odd for an Australian to question a Latin American about his sensitivity to different cultural norms, but I’d love to hear Mr. Ordóñez’s response to what strikes me as unfounded and American-centric views in his article.

Dennis Altman, La Trobe Univ., Australia

 

‘Get Thee to a Seminary!’

To the Editor:

Replying to your BTW squib on the gayness of Pope Benedict’s assistants [May-June 2010]: what puzzles me about all the superficial chatter concerning the Catholic Church and priestly celibacy, pedophilia, and so on, is the complete silence about a fundamental sociological and demographic aspect of the makeup of the Roman Catholic lower clergy and hierarchy. The most powerful, most privileged, most respected, safest, wealthiest—and also in part the most corrupted—formal and legally incorporated association of closeted gay men worldwide is the Roman Catholic priesthood. (Conservative estimates of the percentage of gay priests in the U.S. at sixty to 65.)

No other international professional male association offers more opportunities to gay men to live very comfortably, to advance right to the top, than does the Roman Catholic Church.

That is why for hundreds of years sophisticated parents in Catholic cultures, recognizing a lack of sexual interest in girls on the part of their adolescent sons, actively encouraged them to become priests, giving reverential expression to their same-sex-oriented eternal souls. A successful variant of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been the guiding philosophy of these Catholic parents of gay sons since the Middle Ages. For many parents, it still is. A knowing mother or father of a deviant Catholic boy would lovingly guide the lad, whisper into his ear: “Get thee to a seminary.”

Once out of the seminary, and on an ambitious upwardly mobile climb in the higher ranks of this powerful gay men’s club, it is easy to become corrupted as a hermetically closeted (supposedly) gay young man. It makes sense for those becoming bishops and cardinals, as part of a grand cover-your-ass strategy, to insist on the theological correctness of mandatory priestly celibacy, no female priests, no abortion under any circumstances, no contraception, no divorce, and the mindless “sanctity” of marriage and plain vanilla family, meaning above all no same-sex marriage. The prelacy, to distract attention from the gay aspects of their tightly controlled Church, want to project the straightest possible image of themselves.

Essential to this ass-covering strategy are three cardinal rules: 1) The laity, predominantly gay unfriendly, must remain forever subservient to the prelacy. 2) There must be a legally protected absolute secrecy of internal administrative matters of the Church. 3) Regarding sexual orientation, a priest must never be asked, and a priest must never tell.

Nothing said above is intended as an attack against thousands of gay priests who in their heart of hearts completely reject this strategy. These gay parish priests support profound reform of the Catholic Church. They approve of power-sharing with the laity, of optional celibacy, same-sex marriage, liberal abortion laws, transparency and openness in all the fiscal and policy matters of the Church, as well as a completely out and respectful straight and gay fellowship of the priesthood—including women. Enlightened and very dedicated, these gay priests are among the best and the brightest that the Roman Church has to offer.

Ivor Kraft, Honolulu

 

Dearth of Lesbian Writers Noted

To the Editor:

Sorry to note that your four feature articles in your last issue [July-Aug. 2010] didn’t carry their usual zip and zing. They were a tough slog. I well realize that an editor has to go with what he has got on hand, not what he’d like to have.

Which brings me to a more serious issue: the poor quality of the lesbian writing in the Review. It continues to be second- and third-rate. I say this not just to get across a sexist jibe, but as a call and challenge to lesbian writers to rise to the occasion to be heard. Case in point: Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s feature article, “Finding Myself in Antarctica”: honestly, can anyone care if she was the sole lesbian on an ice floe, or did I miss some hidden theme?

If these comments bring on a storm of protest, so be it. But if it stimulates a few thinkers and creative women to get busy, and to produce meaningful and memorable prose, then we are all the winners.

Paul Lorch, Guerneville, CA

Literary Editor’s Reply:

As a lesbian writer, I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Lorch. Over the years we have published articles by Lillian Faderman, Dorothy Allison, Jewelle Gomez, and Sarah Schulman, to name just a few notable American lesbian writers.

Some lesbian writers prefer to publish where they will be paid more than what we are able to offer. Lesbians in academia may need to publish in peer-reviewed journals to assure their colleagues of the legitimacy of their research interests; others may feel their writing would be more welcome in the women-only spaces popularized decades ago, and some are publishing exclusively on-line.

To answer the question posed by Mr. Lorch: being the sole lesbian, surrounded by straight men in an isolated place and having to decide when, or if, to come out to them seems to me a genuine moral dilemma and a worthy theme for an article in this magazine.

Martha E. Stone, Boston

 

Proust’s Translation Came Out When?

To the Editor:

If Proust died in 1922 and The Gay & Lesbian Review has a photograph of his tomb to prove it, he could hardly have published his translation of what he called Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens in 1926. In fact, the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, holds four successive printings from 1904. Jeffrey Round should have paid the library a visit, or your copy editor visited a website.

E. C. Ronquist, Montreal

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