Venus in Fur

Today’s post is about David Ives’ Venus in Fur! The play has heavy sexual references, some violence, explicit language, and (arguably) sexist themes, but if you liked August Strindberg’s Miss Julie or E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, then you’re probably well acquainted with these themes. If you’re into metatheatricality,this play will no doubt be of interest to you.

Plot: A man acts out his masochistic fantasies with the help of a woman who plays the role of actress, goddess, and dominatrix.

Initial thoughts: I honestly don’t know what to make of this play. This play is metatheatrical; it is literary criticism; and if I wanted to end this rhythm on a sexy note, I would say that it is pornographic. (My working definition is that pornography is explicit sexual material meant to sexually stimulate audiences, so in that sense, no, this play is not pornographic. However, I would not be surprised if some people labelled it as such.) For some reason I have completely forgotten, I expected this play to be about a drag queen, so you can imagine my surprise when it turns out to be about masochism.

I enjoyed how the play challenged itself by providing critique of the playtext, though depending on your lens, the meaning of the play might vary. Vanda at multiple times says things like, “Now this part is so sexist it makes me, like, scream,” which seems to be a feminist critique of an arguably misogynistic play (52). On the other hand, Vanda-as-Aphrodite is a reductive device that leaves Vanda “Like Venus in disguise,” assimilating the two entities (47). Whereas Vanda’s critique of both Thomas and Sacher-Masoch appears as a feminist challenge to the double standard applied to female sexuality, when the same line is interpreted through the character Venus, it seems as if it’s simply a ploy to further challenge – and humiliate (which we shouldn’t forget is Thomas’ pleasure) – Thomas.

Furthermore, combining Venus, Vanda-the-actress, and Vanda-the character embodies all feminine presence in the play (except for Stacy, who never appears). Vanda is flexible in being both the “And I was all like whatever and he was all like, y’know, and I go like whatever and he’s like all, y’know” that Thomas detests (in spite of the fact that this conversation sums up the entire play) (3) and the “sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls” that he seeks and envisions in Vanda-the-character and Venus (3). Vanda’s guessing, knowing, or befriending of Stacy also suggests that Vanda embodies her as well, since it is Vanda and not Stacy who determines Stacy’s meaning and presence in the play. How is this problematic? Thomas represents himself as playwright/translator/adapter/director, and it is his person embodied in the masochistic desires of both characters Kushemski-turned-Thomas and Vanda. He does not represent all of mankind (though you could make the argument that the Count is a foil with the same desires as Kushemski-turned-Thomas and thus all men and their desires are the same) unlike Vanda, who represents so much meaning that she is lost in herself. Though there is far more feminine presence in the play than masculine presence, Thomas has the power as author and director (which, although he loses some of this power, he still retains the final word on the script, such as when he says “This is the play. And nobody’s going to make me think otherwise. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You are not a playwright. You’re not going to take this play down whether you’re in it or not. So fuck you” [61]), and the power that Vanda/Vanda-as-character/Venus wields over him only serves his pleasure. While it may be simple to fall into the trap of reading the play through Thomas, who insists, “She’s as passionate as he is, and this play is about how these two passions collide,” it is undeniable that the play only speaks to his desires and never of hers (52).

Itty Bitty Research: In case you were wondering, yes, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is a real book (published in 1870), and yes, his name is where the word “masochism” comes from. Initially I thought these were nuances that seemed so unlikely that they had to be fiction, but as you would have it, reality is stranger than fiction. Other elements of the play, like Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, are also real. (It’s the featured image for this post, in fact!)

Now that the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is out, I thought I might look into any connection. It seems that ever since Fifty Shades appeared on the bookshelves, there’s been more talk about BDSM and whether or not it’s harmful to women. Venus in Fur debuted off-Broadway in 2010, a year before the first Fifty Shades of Grey book was published. However, we know that Fifty Shades was originally fan fiction inspired by Twilight, which  were published between 2005 and 2008, meaning that the rumblings of Fifty Shades was well underway. I’m less interested in why USA society circa 2011 was suddenly interested in BDSM in media rather than the adaptation process of both Fifty Shades an Venus in Fur. Like Fifty ShadesVenus in Fur is an adaptation-cum-original work inspired by the 1870 novel, similar to how Fifty Shades of Grey is an alternate universe adaptation-cum-original work inspired by Twilight. My point here is that Venus in Fur has been acclaimed and praised for its innovation despite doing the same thing that Fifty Shades has done. Yet Venus in Fur has received high praise and despite Fifty Shades’ economic success, many have condemned the books as well. We attach the label “fan fiction” to James’ work, but is that not exactly what Ives has written? Perhaps the only difference is that James chose a more timely and relevant source whereas Ives’ source is out of copyright.

Rating: 3/5

Works cited: Ives, David. Venus in Fur. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2011. Print.

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