Who wields the power? A love story

Date posted: November 6, 2014

(A gentle invitation to shy theater-goers to come and experience David Ives’ Venus In Fur)
by Georgia Sitara, Phd

In 1870, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published his novel Venus in Furs in which the main male character experiences exquisite sexual satisfaction from being dominated by a beautiful woman wearing gorgeous fur. Two decades later, the author was dismayed to learn that a doctor of psychiatry, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, had used Masoch’s family name ‘to denominate a sexual perversion’ (masochism) in his catalogue of sexual pathologies. Krafft-Ebing considered only reproductive sex to be ‘normal’ sex. He considered it a perversion for men to willfully give up power as the dominant sex and find pleasure beyond the missionary position. Sadism (also named after another literary figure, the Marquis de Sade) was merged with masochism to create the new term of sadomasochism (S&M or SM): erotic pleasure obtained through subjugation and domination. It would take a century for the medical establishment to agree with Sacher-Masoch that Krafft-Ebing got it wrong all those years ago. SM is no longer considered a pathology by the medical establishment, although there is still some way to go to unshackle the popular imagination.

In David Ives’ play Venus in Fur, an actress comes in to audition for a stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel, and reads with the playwright /director. The play is explicit about its concern for the rights of women, and its disdain for sexism and woman-blaming culture. It explores power struggles between the sexes and power struggles between lovers. In this play, ‘there are no villains’ – only an intricate exchange of power. It is a play within a play about (erotic and gender) power play.

What should theatre-goers know about SM? First and foremost, enthusiasts tell us that SM is about pleasure, not pain. It is what John Cougar Mellencamp was singing about in his 1982 hit song “Hurts So Good.”

Theatre enthusiasts may also appreciate SM practitioners’ description of SM as theatre. SM involves scripts which participants plot, negotiate and work out together. Together, they create the scenario that they will play out. Consent is the fuel. The play cannot proceed without it. Dynamic tension is built through dialogue, an intellectual exchange about giving and withholding power.

Like theatre, SM play also involves props (ordinary everyday objects invested with erotic meanings and sensuous pleasures) such as fur, feathers and leather, as well as objects associated with power and control, such as dog collars and whips.

Also like theatre, participants adopt roles – such as mistress and slave or master and servant – for the agreed upon duration of the play.

Most importantly, participants switch. The roles of mistress and slave, master and servant are not permanent. Through the course of the play, the mistress becomes the slave, the servant becomes master. What is more, power does not always reside with the master. In SM,‘the top is ruled by the bottom.’ It challenges our pre-conceptions of power and opens the door to new understanding.

Power is fluid. It is abdicated. It is wielded. It is exchanged. It is an intellectual thrill to explore its deft handling in this play. David Ives’ Venus in Fur takes place entirely during one audition, one evening, one location. Ives harnesses many SM tropes – script, roles, props, power play, negotiation, consent and switching – to bind the audience, like a lover, to the play. It is playful. Masterful. It will leave you thinking about where power resides and about who wields it.

Georgia Sitara (Phd) teaches “A History of Sexuality” and “Sex, Power and Pleasure” for the Departments of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Victoria.

PHOTO CREDIT: Titian’s Venus with a Mirror is referenced in the play. Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Used with permission