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
"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
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
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
"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,
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
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
"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
-- 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
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.
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
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
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
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 wives...to 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,
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
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
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