You are just my type. Blond, blue eyes, balding. I have watched you play a cowboy, an angel, a man alone in a room. You are the epitome of what one famous director describes as his favorite kind of actor: "a guy who looks like he's got secrets in his pockets." You have plenty of secrets.

You wear your characters lightly. The mask you wear is transparent. I can see your own face under the mask. Often I can understand what your mask is doing but not your face. Your voice is a mask, too. You hesitate when you speak. Your speech is soft, but there's anger and violence in the jagged pauses. You have an interior life onstage that bothers me, that gives me pause, that makes me ask questions and make up my own answers.

Through my advocacy, you've won your first acting award. I've described you in print as "beautiful." Then it turns out we go to the same health club. You occupy the next lounger on the sun deck. You dress in the same row of lockers. We shower together. We talk. You are friendly and guarded. You come to my house for dinner. I drink a beer; you refuse one. You tell me the story of your life: your unusual family, your juvenile delinquency, the time you spent working as a day laborer on a oil rig in Louisiana. We speak about our personal lives. You are seeing "someone," gender unspecified. We talk about New York City. You describe a scary encounter, a macho cockfight on the Bowery in which a knife suddenly appears and you are stabbed.

"Do you want to see the scar?" Before I can say anything you take off your shirt. Your chest and arms are powerful from working out on the punching bags. They're covered with blond fur. You are standing in the doorway of my kitchen with your shirt off, showing me your scar.

I am an arm's length away. Here is my chance to enter the movie, to do the dreamed-of thing, to touch the scar and maybe more.

I can't. I don't want to break the spell you cast when you exhibit your power onstage. I want to keep guessing. I stay put. I admire from afar.

In the theatre my desire is ardent, unchecked. In the distance between actor and spectator, desire can run rampant. Intimacy pulls the plug.


Any balletomane who's being honest will cheerfully admit that one of the primary pleasures of going to the ballet is looking at the dancers' bodies -- beautiful, sleek, idealized bodies. Theatre holds the same allure, but we tend not to talk about it, because we can pretend to "higher" matters; the play, after all, is the thing. So why do I spend 20 minutes absorbed in the sweat that pours off of Tom Hulce's face? How long do I tune out while I sit mesmerized by Elizabeth Ashley brushing her hair and stretching her sinewy body across the bed? Why does a hush fall over the audience every time Alec Baldwin takes his shirt off? What playwright's lines could compete with the line of hair that descends from Alec Baldwin's muscular chest over his paunch and disappears into his boxer shorts?


"I'll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities." -- Samuel Johnson

Ogling actors is a guilty pleasure, an ancient one. The persecution of actors throughout history stems almost entirely from the perception of the actor as object of desire.

In ancient Rome, a third-generation descendant of an actor was not allowed to marry a third-generation descendant of a senator, lest he pollute noble Roman blood. In Imperial China, descendants of actors were not eligible to take the examination which opened the way to a career in public service. In France, not alone among Christian countries, actors were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground until the revolution.

At heart, of course, objections to the theatre boiled down to a morbid obsession on the part of clergymen and puritanical social leaders with the hopeless task of controlling the sexuality of the populace. or as French scholar Moses Barras piquantly put it, the church fathers feared "especially the effect of actresses upon the male members of the audience."


You manipulate time like a lover. You slow down, you stretch your neck, you speak softly so I have to lean forward to hear you. You make me shift in my seat. You display yourself. You keep still, you say nothing, you hang back, you conceal yourself. You stalk me, you seduce me. You say things, but that's only the beginning. You want me to know what the words mean, and you want me to guess what you're not saying. You want to impress me with your eloquence, your sense of humor, your deep emotion. You hope I don't notice the surgical scar above your collarbone or the burn on your leg. You do want me to look at your ass. But you don't want to be cheap about it. Oh, go ahead. Be cheap. You're an actor. We expect it of you.

We expect actors to be pretty. To be easy on the eyes. The hero should have clear skin and broad shoulders. The heroine should have good hair and nice legs. We will be looking at you continuously for an hour or two. We want to relax in your beauty. Your beauty is at once a gift from God for all humanity to share and your link to us. We look at you and see our inner selves, the people we know ourselves to be really, underneath our workaday clothes and our potbellies and our fear and our anger.

No wonder directors and casting agents tend to hire actors who are younger, prettier, thinner (not to mention whiter) than the characters they're supposed to play. It's understandable, if not exactly excusable. But beauty takes many forms. What are the lines from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George? "Pretty isn't beautiful/Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges/Is beautiful."


To what extent is my desire for you welcome and to what extent threatening?


"What we love that we have," writes Emerson, "But by desire we bereave ourselves of the love." In other words, desire signifies separation from the beloved -- or, from another angle, we desire what we don't have. Aside from the erotic desire aroused by performers we find sexually attractive, our desire is provoked by a curiosity about people very different from ourselves. Sometimes they are our mirror, sometimes we are theirs. We try on their attributes; we imagine looking like them. Watching actors is a form of human window-shopping.

Watching Jesse Borrego dance onstage alone to Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" in JoAnne Akalaitis's production of Len Jenkin's American Notes, I want to have his streetwise gracefulness. Watching Roc Dutton curse God ("Turn your back on me, motherfucker!") in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I crave his ability to express blistering anger. Howie Seago used to be a leading actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf; I'd like to have his poetic hands. I don't know what kind of ethnic cocktail Kevin Gray is, but seeing him in the Off-Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures makes me dream of possessing such quintessentially Asian, definitively masculine beauty. Watching Colleen Dewhurst, I don't know which I'd rather have -- her amazing, raspy, O'Neill-meets-Janis-Joplin voice or those sunken blue eyes burning out of a face crinkly with life and laughter.

Sometimes I think that if I could swap my short hairy Portuguese body with that of any actor, I'd like to be Danitra Vance. If only I could have her expressive eyes, her rich chocolate-colored skin, her comic timing, the way she wears a hat.


You think I'm admiring your technique, but I'm studying your torso. You think I'm enthralled with your interpretation, but I'm examining your legs. You think I'm listening to the words you're saying. I'm listening, I'm listening. But I'm also following your line of vision, to see whose eyes you're looking into. I want to make contact with your eyes. Laurie Anderson: "Your eyes/It's a day's work just looking into them."


The erotic relationship between actor and spectator can only exist in live theatre, when there are breathing creatures in proximity. Desire for actors on the screen is more pornographic: a one-way sensation.

I once watched Richard Gere shoot a scene from a movie. The scene required no acting, and got none, but it had a lot of erotic presence. he sat in the cab of a pickup truck while a bank of electric lights set up on the frosty lawn of an Iowa farmhouse simulated the lonely moon. To observe Gere in repose is to understand the objectness of movie stars. He is the perfect example of the actor as a beautiful surface. Just the lighting falling on his cleanly shaved cheek and jaw is haunting.

Actors can be sensual in a movie or on television but not consensual. That's when actor-as-object gets dangerous. Ask Jodie Foster. Ask Theresa Saldana.


"Like most very successful actresses, Miss Fayne was not beautiful. That is, she possessed few of the attributes which the adolescent taste of America usually demands of its beauties. She had a broad free brow, eyes set well apart and slightly protuberant, high cheekbones, and a wide scarlet mouth like a venomous flower. The effect of all this was arresting -- even startling. So her great following, baffled by this mask which gave the effect of beauty without actually being beautiful, fell back on the trite word 'glamorous' and clung to it."

-- Edna Ferber, "Glamour"


One of the most interesting volumes of theater history I've ever read is Mendel Kohansky's The Disreputable Profession: The Actor in Society, which deals at length with the public perception (part disapproving, part envious) of actors as prostitutes and sexual libertines. This age-old fantasy picked up steam when it became acceptable in the second half of the 16th century for women to take their place on stage. Kohansky writes, "In times when modesty was regarded as one of a woman's chief virtues, the home and hearth her sole province, it was naturally assumed, and much of the time with some degree of truth, that a woman who exhibits herself in public, be her attire as decorous as a nun's and may she confront her male partner at a distance only, was a woman of loose morals, and she was treated accordingly."

Is it such an insult for actors to be compared to whores? After all, they are paid to give pleasure, to satisfy desire. Even those who condemn actors on moral grounds sometimes acknowledge the hypocrisy of society's excluding from the privileges of citizenship the people who entertain them. Female Roman street mimes and actresses in commedia dell'arte were considered to be no better than common whores because they enacted bawdy scenes of adultery with the penchant for realism that the audience demanded. As second-century Roman theologian Tertullian pointed out, "What perversity! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they applaud; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace."

It's true, of course, that in many cases there was a fine line between women who wore revealing garments in public in service of a playwright's intentions and those who were trying to attract paying customers. Actresses in Restoration theatre, with few exceptions, came from the lowest strata of society, some directly from the brothels. Highly undisciplined, most with little talent, they had only their good looks and self-confidence to offer; many didn't even pretend to separate their work on the stage from more lucrative pursuits in the boudoir. In 19th-century Russia, actresses were assumed to be available as bedmates to noblemen. Turn-of-the- century British streetwalkers picked up by police officers frequently gave their occupation as actress, since many had trodden the boards at one time or another. One of the first great French actresses, Adrienne Lecouvreur, maintained a luxurious household not through her work in the theatre but as courtesan to a number of rich, aristocratic lovers. And the term demi-monde arose to describe the mid-19th century theatre scene in Paris when women who made a living as prostitutes also performed onstage in plays about women who made a living as prostitutes.

The twilight overlapping of acting and prostitution had its squalid aspects -- gentlemen often enjoyed free access to backstage areas while the actresses were dressing -- but the theatre nonetheless offered social mobility as well as economic and sexual independence to women. Nell Gwynn was brought up in a brothel, started out in the theatre as an "orange girl" (serving as go-between for illicit lovers), began playing bit parts, and eventually became a star -- Dryden's favorite actress -- and then the king's mistress. Her epitaph read: "Here Nelly lies, who, though she lived a slattern/Yet dies a Princess acting in St. Cattrin."


You remind me of my sister, with your flippy brown hair and your funny southern accent. I've seen you play a goofy teenage orphan, a lesbian folksinger's tomboy sidekick, a high-strung suburban wife, not to mention your movie breakthroughs, the comic kidnaper and the TV executive. You toss your hair a lot. Your vitality alone makes people laugh and feel happy.

Here you are playing a character with badly dyed hair, twirling a baton in your living room, front and center on a major theatre's tiny second stage. Suddenly my anatomy registers your presence: a sparky young actress with gorgeous breasts standing a few feet away, wearing nothing but a frilly slip, in the throes of thespian passion. Your body is telling my body something that hadn't occurred to my mind. This desire takes me by surprise, and I feel unexpectedly vulnerable. You're the first woman who's given me an erection in years. I feel like an adolescent.

Does this mean we have to get married?


"Why do eyes, mouth, nose and brow transfix us, when they have so little relation to the sexual prowess and bodily perfection of their bearer? The answer is simple: the face is the primary expression of consciousness, and to see in the face the object of sexual attraction is to find the focus which all attraction requires -- the focus on another's existence, as a being who can be aware of me.

"Much has been written about the glance of love, which seems so imperiously to single out its object and so peremptorily to confront him with an intolerable choice. In truth, however, it is the glance of sexual interest that precipitates the movement of the soul, whereby two people come to stand outside the multitude in which they are presently moving, bound by a knowledge that cannot be expressed in words, and offering to each other a silent communication that ignores everything but themselves."

-- Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic


What's the difference between an attractive person on the street and an attractive person onstage? You're permitted to stare at the person onstage. In fact, it's required. And actors know it. That's why they're onstage, to be looked at. "An actor," Milan Kundera writes, "is someone who in early childhood consents to exhibit himself for the rest of his life to an anonymous public. Without that basic consent, which has nothing to do with talent, which goes deeper than talent, no one can become an actor."

He's talking about vanity, and can I just put in a word in praise of vanity? Vanity is a public service. Most of us have neither the time nor the raw materials to indulge in personal vanity. Yet we love, enjoy, crave witnessing beautiful human beings. Smooth, perfect beauty. Ragged, zesty, carnal beauty. We drink it in. It makes our souls feel big. We understand and appreciate the human body, God's taste.

My preference is for as little vanity as it takes to convince an actor to show his or her work. Is it logic and practical experience or some kind of snobbery that makes me believe stage actors are better equipped for great performances than film actors? Actors in films who have no stage experience often have nothing to go on but vanity, the indeed rare ability to exhibit oneself, especially if one has extraordinarily good looks. Acting for the camera is, after all, measured in seconds at a time. Actors onstage must act continuously for minutes, an hour, sometimes several hours. That takes talent, training, stamina, more than vanity. (I'm not saying film acting doesn't require stamina -- it certainly does. But it's the stamina to fight the boredom of the slow pace of moviemaking, not the stamina required of exercising your art over a period of time.) The fact of the matter is that in film, talent is secondary. Vanity is often sufficient. Look at Kim Basinger.


Choreographer William Forsythe recalls skipping high school classes in Long Island to go to musical comedy auditions in New York, even though he didn't have a union card: "They let me in -- probably liked my butt or something."


The public celebration of men as erotic objects is a phenomenon that could only occur in periods when women had gained a measure of social equality. The late 19th century saw the emergence of the matinee idol, an actor whose looks and personality especially appealed to female audiences. "The matinees were patronized by women who would never have ventured out of the house alone in the evening, lest their reputation be soiled," explains Mendel Kohansky. "Moreover, when the lady went to the theatre in the evening, properly chaperoned by husband or parents, she had to maintain a demure stance, while at the matinee, surrounded by other women, she could give vent to her desire to shout, blow kisses, even swoon at the sight of her idol making love to the lucky woman on the stage." Hundreds of women used to gather at the stage door waiting for the arrival of Harry Montague, America's first matinee idol. When he died young, thousands of women walked around with black ribbons across their chests and built huge altars in front of the theatre where he had appeared with his initials spelled out in red carnations.

Idolatry of male performers in an ancient tradition, though. Pliny the Younger describes a wealthy, high-ranking Roman woman named Ummidia Quadratilla, who had in her employ a troupe of male mimes who performed both at parties and in her boudoir. And Caesar Augustus once ordered the Roman comedian Stephanio flogged on three consecutive nights after a lady of senatorial rank, disguised as a boy, was found waiting for the actor at the stage door.


Receding hairlines I have known and loved: Paul McCrane. Dan Butler. Ed Harris. Peter Friedman. John Malkovich, Will Patton. Jessica Tandy. John Pankow.


Stagy acting used to be the epitome of bad acting in movies; selling it to the balcony looks repulsive in close-up. That's the main reason Broadway legends such as Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel and Carol Channing never made the leap to Hollywood success. For anyone who wishes to check it out, the old scream-shout-wave-your-arms style of American stage acting has been captured for posterity, with all its energy and excessiveness intact, by Sidney Lumet in movies such as Bye Bye Braverman and Just Tell Me What You Want. But American theatre has changed, and so has American acting. When Broadway entered its dinosaur era sometime in the '50s, the art part of theatre began to develop Off Broadway in theatres much cozier than those that sustained the great American stage actors of previous generations. The current ranks of 40-ish stage-trained American movie stars -- Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, John Malkovich, etc. -- all spent their formative years working out only a few feet from most people in the audience. No wonder they were able to move into film acting without transition. Their acting style had always been an intimate one. If anything, now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction -- the theatre is short on flamboyant, tempestuous, show-offy performers who can electrify a 1500-seat house and long on subtle, superbly detailed, technically polished performers whose mortal fear is to be accused of overacting.


The connection between eros and theatre goes very deep. Scratch the surface of ancient Greek theatre and you uncover phallic worship. The very art of acting, the practice of representing someone other than oneself, grew out of the religious rapture of Dionysiac devotees who, drunk on wine and frenzied from dancing in the mountains to flutes and drums, believed themselves to be satyrs and maenads, the fertility god's sacred herd making visible to others the ecstasy they experienced in their devotion. These rituals served a serious function in primitive society, whose members genuinely believed their sexual self-expression magically made the crops grow. When the science of agriculture revealed that things grew by other means than sexual magic, the ruling class would have liked to get rid of the Dionysiac rituals, but the peasantry clung to them as a release from the inhibitions of social repression.

The Dionysian drama festivals took their form directly from this social tension. The middle class sought to refine the intellectual content of the drama and remove it from direct contact with reality; thus evolved tragedy. Meanwhile, to satisfy the taste of the peasantry and the proletariat for the obscene and riotous behavior of primitive rituals, a satyr play -- a burlesque variation on classic heroic tales -- always accompanied the tragedies at festival time.

In the Greek imagination, satyrs are daimones, immortal beings with superhuman wisdom, yet at the same time they are wild creatures of the forest full of uninhibited desires. They are part beast and part god, mythological tributes to the phenomenon of sexuality no less celebrated than deities representing other human traits. Whenever in history theatre has been attacked or suppressed, it's usually been true that the prevailing culture viewed sexuality not as a joyous aspect of human life but as demonic, diabolical, the opposite of godliness, the antithesis of spirituality.

St. John Chrysostom condemned 5th-century Roman theatre as "naught but fornication, adultery, courtesan women, men pretending to be women, and soft-limbed boys." Clergyman John Northbrooke attacked Elizabethan theatre using the argument that it teaches people "howe to bee false and deceyve your husbandes, or husbandes their move to lustes, to ransacke and spoyle cities and townes, to bee ydle, to blaspheme, to sing filthie songes of love, to speak filthily, to be prowde, howe to mocke, scoffe and deryde any nation...." In his famous 1697 pamphlet A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, the Rev. Jeremy Collier made the classic case for theatre not as an open-eyed reflection of human behavior but as a vehicle for moral tales whose business "is to recommend Vertrue, and discountenance of Vice." Not content with holding the theatre responsible for the ills of society, Collier later blamed the theatre for causing a natural disaster, a two-day violent storm in 1703 that took lives and destroyed property.

This attitude has had some of its most virulent proponents in the United States. In the early 1800s, Yale president Timothy Dwight called actors "a nuisance in the earth, the very offal of society." today, artists whose work deals with homoeroticism are publicly accused by televangelist Pat Robertson of using federal funds to teach taxpayers' "sons how to sodomize one another." And performance artist Karen Finley, whose shamanistic performances express feminist outrage at violence against women, has been reduced in public discourse to being described as "a nude, chocolate-smeared woman."


The word "theatre" comes from the Greek word "theatron," meaning "a place for seeing." Heroic fantasies, spiritual visions, glimpses of the truth -- these are what we hope to see. But what we actually see is the actor, the body that gives life to those visions we desire.

A theatre is among other things a temple of Eros, and when I enter I am looking for YOU.


My desire for you (inevitably?) produces shame. I want to possess you, and I know I cannot, and I feel the violence of my passions rise within me. The taking of photographs and the use of recording devices can be hazardous for the performers and is prohibited by law in many states. Still, I want to take snapshots. I'm trying to possess your image while you're trying to move through a transcendent action. I feel guilty about this. I feel I am blaspheming your art. But I can't help myself.

Years later, when I see you in a play or on the street, I get a sharp feeling in my heart thinking of the first time I ever saw you. It was your first play in New York. You were still in high school. I remember the scene where you washed your mother's hair, and when you stood under a stark spotlight singing a fragment of a song. It always surprises me to hear you sing. You have a beautiful voice.

Maybe I feel guilty, too, because I don't tell you enough. If by some chance I'm in the lobby when you leave or someone introduces us, I shake your hand and deliver my all-purpose benediction to actors: "Good work." To say more would be embarrassing; but to say so little feels like a betrayal, of myself and of you, of my appreciation and of my desire.

This desire between us must always be frustrated. You are the actor. I am the spectator. You play for me. I witness. That is the exchange. I go home, and my heart aches where you sliced it, with your performance, your intelligence, or your beauty, or your face, or the curve of your buttocks. You take off your makeup, you wash your face. If you're lucky, you have a mate to cling to or a fellow actor who shared your passion tonight. But maybe you, too, leave the theatre with an emptiness, a longing to complete the connection you made with me tonight.

But you don't know who I am.

American Theatre, October 1990

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