Before I met 36-year old Chicago-based director Joanie Schultz, I never really saw or thought about the connection between Jane Austen and the politics of the dominatrix.
This was among the topics we discussed recently at the opening of a production of Venus in Fur that Schultz directed at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The comedic play, by David Ives, is based on the 1870 German novella, Venus in Furs, about a man obsessed by sexual fantasies of being dominated (the word “masochistic” even comes from that author’s last name, Sacher-Masoch). Venus is now by far the most-produced play in the United States, according to Playbill. We talked about the complexities of this play—written by an older white male—and if it possibly could be (in my words) “good for the feminists.”
Before this play, Schultz directed a thoroughly captivating and funny adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known novels, Northanger Abbey, for the brainy, smaller-budgeted Remy Bumppo Theater Company. “It’s interesting because I think that both [Northanger Abbey] and Venus in Fur are feminist plays,” she said, pointing to the bold choices Austen’s characters made within the confines of marriage, their only respectable economic option in life.
I think Jane Austen … pushed women in her writing to make smart choices and not settle and to also look for this idealism of also having love. Which was not really what marriage was about then.
As with Venus, Shultz’s approach to Jane Austen was multilayered:
When I see really campy productions of Jane Austen, I am immediately insulted as a woman because they’re usually directed by men. …They put up this big, fun, frivolous production of Pride and Prejudice, and Pride and Prejudice is not fun and frivolous.
On the surface, Venus could also be seen as one-note, playing to a very conventional male gaze. It features two actors on the stage: one rumpled middle-aged male and an attractive woman in her early 20s decked out in leather lingerie and a dog collar. No wonder Roman Polanski liked it enough to make a 2013 French art film out of it.
Trying to explain the popularity of this play and another by Christopher Durang, my fellow Ms. blogger, critic Holly L. Derr, recently pointed out that the two are “set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant.” Of course it doesn’t hurt that Venus in Fur is budget-friendly to produce, with only two actors to cast and one simple set to build.
Schultz readily recognized her conflicts with directing the lead woman character, Vanda, played by Amanda Drinkall, to be “sexy.” “That makes me feel kind of dirty,” she joked to me. “It’s hard for me to objectify Amanda, to make a point about objectifying Amanda,” she also said in a March feminist-themed panel at the Goodman.
But she said the appeal of the play goes beyond its cheapness to produce: It is entertaining, suspenseful, comedic and multilayered. “What’s interesting about the piece is that David Ives does leave a lot up to interpretation,” she said. “My agenda is about having a really complicated, interesting discussion about power dynamics between the sexes, and in theater, and in life.”
The lead actress’ role is complex in that ‘I’m basically in my underwear and … on stage for a really long time, and I’m basically being objectified.’ But at the same time [she's] the one getting all the power and turning it around. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
What is so exciting about Vanda as a character is that she is someone who understands or, at least in my opinion, develops a real feminist point of view throughout the play. I think that she walks in as someone who is really different than someone she walks out as.
Through her “audition” on stage, Vanda increasingly challenges what she sees as “sexist” parts of the play—and even starts directing the director’s moves as he reads the male part. She reflects Sacher-Masoch’s point of view from the original German novel that the power plays of SM don’t fly in an unequal playing field. Playing her character, Vanda says:
In our society, a woman’s only power is through men. Her character is a lack of character. She’s a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her. I want to see what Woman will be when she ceases to be man’s slave. When she’s men’s equal in education and a partner in work. When she becomes herself. An individual.
To inform the actors’ roles, Schultz invited a 30-something woman dominatrix to talk to the cast, who framed SM in terms of “power sharing.” Schultz recalled,
One of the things we realized was how close role play and theater are to each other. She was like, ‘Well we’re not really acting, we’re just bringing out parts of ourselves.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s kind of what acting is. It’s just bringing out a part of yourself that’s already there.’ So I think that people need to work things out through fantasy.
Venus in Fur plays through April 13 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.
Photo from Schultz’s production of Venus by Liz Lauren.
Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including All in My Head: An Epic Quest To Cure An Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache. Her first two books were about Gen X women and feminism, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement (1991), noted as the first “Third Wave” feminist book.