Having been here in London for a total of three days, I have come to the conclusion that if a play isn’t about sex, it isn’t going to show up on the London stage. Okay, I’ll amend that a little: if a play is about finding the perfect nanny, or battling orcs, it might sell a couple of tickets, although god knows why anyone would still be buying tickets to The Lord of the Rings. (Over the summer I went to see it with my two boys and it was bad, bad, bad. The only bad thing I’ve ever seen in London. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t about sex.)
But sex is clearly all. This occurred to me early, as well as often, beginning Saturday night, a few hours after my arrival, when I was directed to exit the Picadilly Circus underground station via the statue of Eros. Naturally, I was on my way to see The Country Wife, a restoration comedy about…. YES! Sex. What is there to say about The Country Wife? Let’s see. Wycherley has a low opinion of enduring married love. A low opinion of women’s fidelity. A really low opinion of what motivates men. (Do you really want me to tell you what motivates men? YES! Sex.) It was very funny, very cynical, and featured the guy I saw over the summer in a Harold Pinter play called Betrayal, Toby Stephens, as the rake who decides he will have better access to the women of the town if he lets a rumor go about that he is impotent. This is a plot device I wouldn’t have thought could work but, it turns out, this rumor gives him unfettered access to women, all of whom fall in his lap, as it were. I will say this — he was charming. I think he might have been wearing the exact same pair of jeans he wore in Betrayal. And yes, when I wasn’t laughing, I was wondering if they were his favorite jeans.
Last night I saw The History Boys, which was pretty great. You’d think that this play would be mostly about education, and how we learn, or at least that’s what I thought. In fact, it is mostly about the link between education and seduction. Its tragic turn naturally comes about because of misplaced passion.
It’s pouring here, and indeed it is pouring plays about sex. Tonight, I am going to see Shadowlands, which is about… what else? C.S. Lewis’s late in life marriage. Pouring it on, tomorrow, I will be seeing not one but TWO Harold Pinter plays and, no, they are not about finding the perfect nanny or battling orcs. And then, Thursday, best of all, I am going to see Much Ado About Nothing, which I am reading right now, and really enjoying for its depiction of a woman and man determined not to love. Shakespeare would agree that eros matters much, particularly in the comedies, where the failure to love properly is the focus of much of the action.
Which brings me to Wallace Stevens and Jane Austen, for whom the sex is all formulation was a bit complicated. I give these insights to you free of charge, particulary to those who are getting here via google because you have a paper due in English class tomorrow and you would love to be able to talk about Stevens and Austen and sex in the same breath. Let it never be said that I do not have sympathy for those who (a) procrastinate and (b) try to do everything.
Stevens seldom wrote directly about love and sex. And when he did, he observed not that sex is all, but that sex is not all that: “If sex were all, then every trembling hand/Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” My conclusion is that this had much to do with his complicated and not very satisfying relationship with his wife Elsie, who seems to have entered a sort of spinster-ish old age very early in their marriage. There is something bitter about these two lines, which makes me think that if he is expressing something he believes to be true, then he is being less than honest with himself. And that is because sexual desire is very hard to deny, and cannot be dismissed so easily. When you do try to deny it, it just crops up in other places. I haven’t thought a lot about it (this is, after all, a blog), but I’m going to guess that Stevens simply transformed sexual desire into other sorts of passion — for some communion of word and life, for beauty, and for a hearty embrace of good food.
As for Austen, after reading Claire Tomalin’s terrific (and short) biography, I’m inclined to think that Austen and her sister Cassandra (neither of whom ever married) also answer, in their choices and lives, the question of where eros goes when it cannot find direct expression in one’s life. For Cassandra, as for Elsie Stevens, eros is tamped down by going early into old age. (And I’d question whether old age is truly a place where eros doesn’t live. Look at Harold and Maude.) For Jane Austen, who seems to have loved once, and been unable to marry the man she loved, and then refused to marry anyone else, eros lives in a series of remarkable novels, novels which explore how we love well and how we love badly.
In The History Boys, one of the students, the sexually precocious Dakin, says, “The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers . . . It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.” If literature is about losers, then we are all losers, of course, because we are all concerned with the great issues literature takes on, particularly the question of how to love well. And the things we learn about love in literature, whether it is that sometimes we have to bury our desires to survive them, and sometimes we love so badly we cannot continue, and sometimes we are lucky and learn to love properly, are the best sorts of consolations, because they show us that we are not alone in our struggle with this most important of all questions. That is a consolation I would not want to have to do without, and, fortunately, here in London, will not have to do without, as long as the statue of Eros is pointing the way to the theater.