The Erotic Life of Objects: "Venus and Adonis" in the Puppet Theater

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Famously, in the climactic moment of the puppet play within Ben Jonson’s Bartholmew Fair, the puppet Dionysius hikes up his skirt to reveal his lack of genitalia, proving by “plain demonstration” (5. 5. 96) a verity of his fellow performing objects: “we have neither male nor female amongst us” (93-4).1 Thus the Puritans’ “old stale argument against the players”—that their cross-dressing makes abominations of them—is answered (92). Playing to a Puritan assumption of continuity between biological sex and gender, Dionysius appeals to his essential sexlessness to exculpate himself from the charge of gender transgression. Laura Levine argues that, in addition to casting doubt on assumptions about sex and gender, Dionysius’s anatomical incorrectness entails a foreclosure of erotic experience: “The puppet presents a world devoid not only of sexual difference but of the very possibility of erotic experience itself.”2 She makes explicit a presumed continuity between genitally determined sex and erotic acts and gestures: “The puppet cannot be implicated in the world of sexuality, not because he is superior to it but simply because he lacks the equipment. He stands outside the world of erotic desire not because he is able to resist its temptations but simply because he lacks the capacity to perform its actions” (emphases mine, 100).3 The too easy conflation of the erotic and sexual here implies that copulative consummation is the orbit of erotic experience. Far from confirming such a notion, the puppet theater opens up possibilities of erotic experience that not only do not require genital gratification, but also do not proceed from a sexed body. The puppet—or performing object (as current discourse calls it), or motion (as the Renaissance called it)—offers an alternative conception of eroticism free from anatomic and copulative sex. Lacking the equipment does not mean the puppet lacks the capacity. As one puppet performance of a Shakespearean text has demonstrated, the very lack of bodily equipment can contribute to a puppet’s performance of erotic action.

Although the motions at Bartholmew Fair intend to perform a vulgarized version of Christopher Marlowe’s erotic epyllion Hero and Leander, their farcical descent into pugilism denies their audience the chance to witness the erotic possibilities of performing objects in motion. In the Fall of 2004, however, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Little Angel Theater gave serious attention to performing objects with the staging of another erotic epyllion, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Director Greg Doran staged the poem with various forms of puppetry, but his eponymous characters were inspired by Japanese bunraku, in which one or more puppeteers directly manipulate the life-like objects without the mediation of strings. A tabletop provided the main playing space, backed by a diorama-like woodland setting, the frame of which surprisingly would become a performing object itself. The five puppeteers, dressed in black with black hats, often showed in their faces the emotions of the puppets they operated. They contributed sighs, neighs, and halloos, but as with traditional bunraku, the Venus and Adonis puppeteers tended to disappear, or become subsumed by the life of the puppet they operated. The performing objects moved with such a lightness and grace that they seemed to initiate movement in the puppeteers, not the other way around, as they floated through the stanzas of Shakespeare’s poem, narrated by Michael Pennington. Guitarist Steve Russell, a Westernized version of the Japanese samisen-player, accompanied the reading musically. Venus and Adonis previewed in October, 2004, at Little Angel Theatre in Islington before moving to The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in November.4 The show was revived in 2007. The production offers insight into how sexless objects can be shaped for erotic experience, and how puppets question the genitally-governed teleology of eroticism.

Venus and Adonis is among the most erotically charged poetry of the canon, despite (or perhaps because of) Venus’s failure to engage Adonis sexually.5 While critics have noted the poem’s eroticism and near-pornography,6 copulation is not the highest or most urgently pursued erotic expression in the poem. Rather, the kiss governs erotic acts, abounding in various forms: kisses “sweet” (84), kisses “long,” kisses quick (22), kisses quickening and curing (479-505)— kisses by the tens and twenties (22), one for twain (209-10), a thousand, ten hundred, twenty hundred kisses (517-22).7 This list is not exhaustive, and the continual emphasis on kissing has not gone unnoted. A. Robin Bowers writes of the profuse osculation, “The erotic kiss was by no means an unusual topos in Elizabethan lyric and narrative poetry. Stemming from the classical lyrics of Catullus to Lesbia, where kisses symbolize the entire act of love, through the narrative and elegiac poems of Ovid, where kisses usually indicate the initiation of sexual intercourse, the topos appeared frequently in Elizabethan lyric poetry.”8 Within such a framework, the erotic kiss is not relegated to foreplay but can replace sex. Coppélia Kahn also focuses on the oral eroticism so prevalent in the poem, remarking that “the kiss is also an act of sexual intimacy, so that to kiss willingly would in a crucial way define Adonis as a man.”9 For Kahn, manhood is defined more by “desire for a woman” than by anatomy, and even as she writes about the “union” with Venus that would “confer manly identity” on Adonis, she maintains the narrative of Adonis’s development within the frame of oral contact (189, 190).10 In staging erotic experience in Venus and Adonis, the main “equipment” (to use Levine’s term) a performer needs would seem to be a mouth.

If what a puppet needed in erotic perfermance were the right equipment, and if genital congress were the definition of erotic experience, then certainly puppets could be fashioned with sexual specificity and manipulated into the sexual act. When theatrical representation calls for a specific eroticism (as Venus and Adonis clearly does) then the performing objects can be fashioned accordingly. From the semiotic standpoint of Jiri Veltrusky, member of the Prague Circle out of which much serious scholarship on performing objects is derived, in a puppet performance “the stage figure and stage action have only such qualities as are needed to fulfill their semiotic function; in other terms, the puppet is a pure sign because all its components are intentional.”11 The figure and the action are complementary in puppet signification—the puppet and its action are imbricated, as the term “motion” handily suggests.

To play Venus and Adonis, the respective puppets obviously must be good-looking, which Doran’s performers were, according to reviewers. Georgina Brown writes of Venus, “With her hour-glass figure and hair of spun gold, she’s every inch a sex-goddess in no more than a floaty little excuse of a frock,” while Quentin Letts takes notice of her “Dolly Parton cleavage.”12 Another critic writes that “Venus is a blond-wood bombshell that would raise the sap of most male marionettes. But Adonis—who scrubs up well in a toga—doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.”13 Adonis is also “a handsome boy with rock-hard pecs: perfectly formed but quite possibly a blockhead.14 Praise for the puppets’ comeliness suggests that, as far as appearance goes, they fit their roles to a semiotically-desired T, but the conceptual models behind their design come from surprisingly dissimilar sources, calling into question the notion of a corporeal referent for the “pure sign” of the erotic.

As Jan Zalud, a puppet-maker who worked on Venus and Adonis, indicates, the Venus puppet was based on Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, the painting’s Florentine sensuality appealing to the modern notion of a mythical sexuality.15 Adonis was born into a less curatorial pedigree. Zalud writes, “Adonis was meant to resemble a neo-classical sculpture of a youth. Of course I had to claim that I modeled the torso on myself but no one believed me especially when they saw that for a reference I was using a newspaper photo of a young, semi-clad Cliff Richard. I had to embellish him also.” Who would have imagined that the British pop icon of the 1950s and 60s would become the referent for the pure sign of the erotic male figure? The puppets had to be fashioned according to the comeliness of their mythic namesakes, however eclectic their models, but beneath the cosmetic, they had to be fashioned for eroitc stage action, for which being lightweight was as important as being superlatively beautiful or handsome. Zalud and fellow designer Lyndie Wright, cofounder of Little Angel Theatre, considered how the puppets’ materiality would affect their articulation. Both puppets had similar wooden faces, connecting them despite their otherwise different materiality. Venus’s body was constructed from “foam covered with leather, to instill a sensuality and softness to her movement that was meant to contrast with the implied stiffness of Adonis,” who was all wooden, perhaps appropriately so, given Adonis’s birth from Myrrha after she has been turned into a tree in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Because of his size, the wooden Adonis had to be hollowed out to reduce his weight. Being lightweight was key to the puppets’ representation of eroticism. Venus’s foam and Adonis’s hollow wood made it easier for the puppeteers to guide the objects through the motions of Shakespeare’s erotic poem.16

This concern for the puppets’ weight correlates with a theme in Shakespeare’s text: buoyancy in several senses recurs in the poem. Venus has a certain weightlessness to her, which bears on her understanding of love. She can play the part of the nymph and “Dance on the sands, and yet not footing seen” (148). She speaks perhaps of the emotion and perhaps of herself when she says, “Love is a spirit all compact of fire / Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire” (149- 50). In her description of “Love” as “light,” she risks insinuating that she is a wanton. Catherine Belsey asks of Venus, “Is her reiterated indication of lyric grace or vacuous triviality?”17 The negative connotations of lightness weigh on Venus, but the puppet theater presents a space to demonstrate the grace of light L/love.

In the most emotionally remarkable moment of the performance, the poem’s thematic lightness materialized in the bodies of the performing objects as Adonis finally consented to a gravity-defying erotic kiss. Venus, her arm entwined around Adonis, “lend[ing] his neck a sweet embrace,” relished his compliance, and she began to float above the stage, slowly pulling Adonis up with her (539). He innocently scuttled one foot in search of terra firma, a comical gesture marking his momentary release of everything familiar to which he had been so stubbornly wed. The puppets ended up in a floating, horizontal embrace with Venus on top and Adonis’s arm hanging languidly. Critics’ reactions capture the effect of the floating kiss as an erotic representation able to move the audience affectively. For John Gross, the moment’s effect infused the puppets with erotic life, in a way palpable to viewers: “Most memorable of all is the scene where the two lovers float into mid-air after Adonis finally succumbs. The eroticism of the piece is pervasive: you feel it can even animate the wood and leather which is in the end all the puppets are” (1337). That Gross feels the need to remind us of the puppets’ essential matter is telling of their powers of representation. But it is precisely because of their bodies—hollowed out, lightweight, generally lacking in “equipment” not necessary to their motion—that they could perform so movingly. Sam Marlowe also comments on the moving effect of the puppets’ erotic experience: “[I]t is striking not only how timeless Shakespeare’s evocation of the bliss and torment of passion seems [...] but also how intensely erotic it is too. The sequence culminates, as Venus finally wins Adonis’s physical capitulation, with the couple rising upwards, entwined, airborne by ecstasy. And that’s pretty much how you feel after watching it.”18 In this moment of felt erotic experience, the puppets’ defiance of gravity pointed to motion itself as the pure sign of the erotic.

Performing objects allow us to investigate how far we might go in dislodging erotic experience from the teleology of sex. Audience affective response to puppets calls into question the sexual content of the erotic, a topic that Debora Kuller Shuger raises as she examines the erotic content of religious subjectivity. She posits “a major shift in the cultural history of the body, occurring sometime during the later seventeenth century. Put very simply, what happened was the discovery of genital sexuality [...] for the first time one finds the assertion that sexual drives constitute the authentic substance of the erotic.”19 While Richard Rambuss has expressed doubt about an eroticism without sexuality,20 in light of the moving erotic experience of essentially sexless objects, we ought to entertain the possibility, even as the possibility entertains us. For puppets, eroticism need not be situated in the genitals, or the eye, or even the mouth. As the first term in “performing objects” suggests, puppets have something to tell us about the performativity of sexed and asexual bodies, and embodied desire. Puppets lead us to ask to what extent is eroticism simply “going through the motions?”

  • 1. Quotations of Jonson’s play are taken from G. R. Hibbard’s New Mermaids edition (1998).
  • 2. Laura Levine, _Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642_ (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 89.
  • 3. Historians of puppet theater have located its origins in sexual ritual. According to Henryk Jurkowski, evidence of primitive rituals performed by cults of procreation and fecundity in Asia, Europe, and Africa “tells of the erotic participation […] of men and puppets” (_Aspects of Puppet Theatre_, ed. Penny Francis [London: Puppet Centre Trust, 1988] 98). The phallus featured prominently on ritualistic puppets in Spain and Portugal, while in Zaire, “one could witness the sexual junction of a ‘man’ and ‘woman’” through erotic puppetry (99). Eileen Blumenthal reports, “In many cases, ritual penises of wood or stone have not even been attached to a body (it being widely agreed, apparently, that the organ has a life of its own)” (_Puppetry: A World History_ [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2005] 126). These detached penises, along with “Paleolithic Venuses with their swelled breasts and bellies” (125), foreground as the origin of performing objects in sexual “equipment.”
  • 4. The reviews referenced later in this paper are of Little Angel performances.
  • 5. Madhavi Menon finds in Venus’s failure a potential for resisting the historical narratives and imperatives of teleology. See “Spurning Teleology in Venus and Adonis,” _GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies_ 11 (2005): 491-519.
  • 6. Cf. Richard Halpern, “‘Pining Their Maws’: Female Readers and the Erotic Ontology of the Text in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis,” in Philip C. Kolin, ed., Venus and Adonis: Critical Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997) 377-88, 379, 380; Richard Rambuss, “What it Feels Like for a Boy: Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis,” in Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, eds., _A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works_, Vol. IV, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003) 240-58, 245; and Anthony Mortimer, _Variable Passions: A Reading of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis_ (New York: AMS Press, 2000) 74.
  • 7. All references to Shakespeare’s poem are from Stephen Greenblatt’s Norton edition (1997).
  • 8. Robin A. Bowers, “’Hard Armours’ and ‘Delicate Amours’ in Shakespeare’s _Venus and Adonis_,” _Shakespeare Studies_ 12 (1973): 1-23, 9.
  • 9. Coppélia Kahn, “Self and Eros in _Venus and Adonis_,” in Kolin, 189.
  • 10. That Adonis resists the life-altering desire for Venus Kahn attributes to his narcissistic fear of simultaneous development and self-obliteration. Rambuss calls the whole narrative into question by arguing for Adonis’s already-achieved manhood and his desire for homosocial bonds over a heterosexual one (“What it Feels Like”).
  • 11. Jiri Veltrusky, Puppetry and Acting,” _Semiotica_ 47 (1983): 69-122, 79.
  • 12. Georgina Brown, rev. of _Venus and Adonis_, dir. Greg Doran, _MAIL on SUNDAY_ 24 October 2004, rpt. in _Theatre Record_ 24.21 (2004): 1335-6, 1336; Quentin Letts, rev. of _Venus and Adonis_, dir. Greg Doran, Daily Mail 22 October 2004, rpt. in _Theatre Record_ 24.21 (2004): 1338.
  • 13. Dominic Maxwell, rev. of _Venus and Adonis_, dir. Greg Doran, _Time Out London_ 27 October 2004, rpt. in _Theatre Record_ 24.21 (2004): 1338.
  • 14. John Gross, rev. of _Venus and Adonis_, dir. Greg Doran, _Independent on Sunday_, 24 October 2004, rpt. in _Theatre Record_ 24.21 (2004): 1337.
  • 15. Jan Zalud, e-mail to the author, 25 January 2007.
  • 16. Pictoral evidence of an unclad Adonis confirms that he shared Dionysius’s essential sexlessness. Zalud, 25 January 2007.
  • 17. Catherine Belsey, “Love as Trompe-l’oeil: Taxonomies of Desire in _Venus and Adonis_,” _Shakespeare Quarterly_ 46 (1995): 257-76; 263.
  • 18. Sam Marlowe, rev. of _Venus and Adonis_, dir. Greg Doran, _The Times_, 20 October 2004, rpt. in _Theatre Record_ 24.21 (2004): 1337-38, 38.
  • 19. Debora Kuller Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994) 177.
  • 20. Richard Rambuss, Closet Devotions (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 164-165 n.47.