VULNERABILITY IN MALE-FEMALE LOVE:
REVIEW OF “THE BROKEN HEART” BY JOHN FORD, PRODUCED BY THE THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE, FEBRUARY/MARCH 2012, AND REVIEW OF “ROSE, METAL, ASH” BY COMPAGÑA OLGA PERICET, FLAMENCO FESTIVAL 2012, MARCH 3, 2012
by Merle Molofsky
Two New York City theatrical productions in winter 2012, a 17th century tragedy and a flamenco troupe performance, presented images of male heterosexual love and desire that emphasized vulnerability and helplessness, softening, or even in a way reversing and negating, images of male sexual love and desire that take a sense of agency and even domination for granted.
“The Broken Heart” was written at the end of the Jacobean era and the beginning of the Caroline era, and its themes and subject matter reflect the historical shifts between the two eras. Ford’s dramatic sensibility was very much similar to the Elizabethan/Jacobean-era’s Shakespeare, yet was responsive to the emerging political thrust of Puritanism, which was beginning to color English mores. Ford rightly has been considered to have a “modernist” sensibility, his values harmonizing readily with our contemporary mores. In essence he can be seen as a 17th century feminist thinker, concerned with the role of women, and the limitations of their rights.
“The Broken Heart” is set in Sparta, and the main character, Penthea, a young woman who had been betrothed by her father to Orgilus, has been separated from her beloved Orgilus by her twin brother Ithocles, on the death of their father, and married to Bassanes, a man unsuitably older, and of poor character, dictatorial and mean-spirited. There is an unspoken hint of incestuous desire on the part of the twin brother, which may have been his motivation in dominating his sister in tearing her away from her own true love.
A second female character, Calantha, is the daughter of the king, and her love relationship with the interfering twin brother is a second love story within the play. A third love story, between Euphrania, the sister of Orgilus, the young man who has lost his own true love Penthea, and a young man, Prophilus, is the third romantic plot developing within the play.
Calantha is described during the play as a woman with “masculine” attributes, commanding and in charge. When her father the king dies, she inherits the throne, and is considered by all a suitable heir. Her representation as a capable monarch may be a reminder that Elizabeth I was a most effective monarch during her 45 year reign. She retained her power by not marrying.
Each name, by its Greek meaning, conveys a quality. For instance, Prophilus conveys love, Penthea complaint, Orgilus, anger. John Ford’s intent was to focus on the singular emotion and character trait each character embodies. Penthea represents the justifiable complaint women in a patriarchal society, without rights or independence, experience. Prophilus is not blocked in winning the woman he loves. But Orgilus is rightfully, righteously angry, doubly deprived of his love, Penthea, first by having her carried off and married to another man, and second, by having her refuse to marry him even if she were widowed, because she feels so defiled by being the unwilling wife and bedmate of the vile Bassanes.
All the lovers suffer. In most interpretations of the play Penthea is the main character, and John Ford’s sympathies seem very much to lay with her. In the Theatre for a New Audience production, the main character is Orgilus. And his most notable character trait in this production is not rage, not anger, not vengefulness – his most notable character trait is vulnerability, a sense of grief, loss, and mourning producing a pervasive melancholy, a total vulnerability in the face of such loss.
The production itself was exemplary as a piece of theater. The set, designed by Antje Ellermann, was stark, dominated by flanking Grecian columns and a balcony accessible by ladder at the back of the stage, and effective in its simplicity. The costumes, designed by Susan Hiferty, were also stark, refined, elegant, and mainly black. They were not recognizably “Spartan”, “Grecian”, nor 17th century British, although they alluded to antiquity and to 17th century fashion, and essentially evoked something contemporary and ageless. The direction, by Selina Cartmell, was superb, and she obtained amazing performances by her very talented, experienced cast. I was particularly struck by the performance of Jacob Fishel as Orgilus. He poignantly portrayed the grieving, scheming, overwhelmed, and extremely vulnerable state of the love-lorn abandoned lover. I don’t believe I ever have seen a theatrical or film performance that so evoked male vulnerability to love, desire, and loss. Perhaps the nearest might be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire”, but Stanley is a raw force of nature, willfully violent, consumed by rage. Orgilus as portrayed by Jacob Fishel is devastated, brought to his knees by the exigencies of fate, of loss. Other representations of male loss and vulnerability, such as Orpheus venturing into the underworld to barter with Hades for his lost love Euridyce, portray men who remain active and defiant in the face of loss. Their vulnerability never outweighs their sense of their own effectiveness in the world.
The second production, “Rose, Metal, Ash”, by Compaña Olga Pericet, at the Flamenco Festival 2012 at New York City Center, featured the choreography and vision of Olga Pericet. Her production was very much in the traditional style of flamenco puro, without scenic design, elaborate costumes, theatrical narrative, or instrumentation other than guitar and castanets. She is the only woman in her company. The company is composed of two male guitarists, Antonio Jiménez and Javier Patino; two male dancers, Jesús Fernández and Paco Villalta; and three male singers, Miguel Ortega, Jose A. Carmona, and Lavi. Ms. Pericet is the featured, and only, female dancer.
Most flamenco puro performances that I have seen – indeed, most flamenco performances that I have seen – feature male dancers who express a particularly macho concept of male desire – male desire represented as conquering, challenging, essentially dominant. Either two male dancers challenge each other for dominance in the pursuit of a woman, of a male dancer expresses his desire by challenging and ultimately dominating a woman. The woman herself is usually more expressive and challenging than submissive, may be flirtatious, may show longing, or grieving, certainly may be overtly sexual – but if true love is to prevail, or if a sexual encounter is going to take place, the man is going to be dominant. Not in Olga Pericet’s company. Her choreography features a self-contained woman, poised, confident, strong, sure of herself in pursuit of her own desire, her own goals. And her choreography features men helpless in the face of their desire, totally submissive to the power of the desired woman.
Most people expect fast, noisy, furious footwork in flamenco. In Pericet’s company, dancers may be barefoot, balletic, athletic. Ballet itself is derived from flamenco, and Pericet’s opening numbers, barefoot and balletic, evoke therefore ballet’s origins. Power therefore is not the predictable power of rapidly stamping feet, a power both male and female flamenco dancers demonstrate. In this company, power is more nuanced.
In one dance, Pericet wraps herself in a long, fringed shawl, and the shawl becomes an extension of her body, representing her entire sexual being. Essentially the shawl becomes a representation of female genitalia, the fringes the decorative outer labia and pubic hair. I attended the performance with a dear friend whose delightful and formidable attributes involve her being a psychoanalyst, art therapist, astrologer, middle eastern dancer, instructor in college and psychoanalytic institute programs, and an expert on duende. We were practically clutching each other in delight during the shawl dance, and, at the end, she voiced what I was thinking, saying, “I’ve never seen shawl work like that!”
The shawl work evoked veil work in middle eastern dance, and even the symbolism of can-can dancing. Can-can used the elaborate frilled petticoats and bloomers (when bloomers were worn – sometimes the 19th century and early 20th century can-can dancers performed without underwear, and their audience waited expectantly for glimpses – forbidden glimpses! – of female genitalia) to symbolize female genitalia, the frills representing the frills of external genitalia. Pericet’s shawl work celebrated a woman wrapping herself in her own femininity, a woman celebrating her own intense and extreme sexuality.
That the shawl work evoked middle eastern dance veil technique also acknowledges the lineage of the development of flamenco. Many dance historians believe that flamenco evolved from dance forms that emerged in the Indian subcontinent, were carried through what is now Iran and Iraq, into the Arabian subcontinent, into North Africa, and eventually into the Iberian peninsula, where it eventually became what we now recognize as flamenco.
In another dance, Pericet wore a black dress that had a dazzling luminosity, and an exceptionally long train. If I allowed my mind a customary phallicentric orientation, I might say the train evoked a penis. Perhaps. It certainly is an over-determined symbol. During the performance, one of the male dancers kept trying to win the love of the long-trained woman, a woman who evoked a whip-like power as she lashed her train about. Eventually, the man wound up rolling around the floor, overwhelmed by the helplessness of desire and need, until he finally rolled onto her train. As she danced, she dragged the fetally-curled, dependent, helplessly longing male dancer around. Was she dragging him by his own desire, yanking his chain, pulling him around by his penis? Was she dragging him with some mysterious phallic power of her own? One way to interpret “phallic” power is to include the clitoris as phallus. The clitoris has as much phallic power as a penis, in that reading of what phallus means. Or was she dragging him around by the power of the essential feminine? At any rate, he was so helpless, so vulnerable, and indeed she was dragging him around, secure in her power.
A brief note on the production – Olga Pericet’s troupe well deserves its featured billing of the Flamenco Festival 2012. All performers are excellent. The guitarists played with passion, delicacy, and nuance. The singers were raw-voiced, sweet-voiced, and also sang with the passion, delicacy, and nuance.
Thus in two productions of winter 2012, male sexuality and desire was presented in a form that evoked longing, helplessness, and deep vulnerability.
Something in world culture has changed dramatically. Even in the face of a long-lasting and oppressive patriarchal culture that exploits and represses women in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, a new consciousness has emerged that acknowledges female strength and male vulnerability. The feminist movement that began in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and which of course has roots that go back to Athens and the 411 BCE production of “Lysistrata”, to the 17th century CE era of John Ford, the 19th century CE era feminist rejection of Victorian repression and the late 19th century early 20th century woman suffragist movements in England and the United States, promotes an image of strong and capable women, Calantha in “The Broken Heart” and Hilary Clinton and many others in world politics. What movement has allowed for the depiction of heterosexual male vulnerability?
Does both strength and vulnerability transcend gender? I offer a resounding yes….