For a long-distance driver in America, talk radio is the gift that keeps on giving – particularly late night radio. Usually the talk centers on the weird, the troubled or the upset. One may easily hear about how prankish aliens that invaded a ranch herded a group of mesmerized bulls into a trailer where they rested until the rancher made the mistake of waking them while still in the trailer. Or one may hear about how America's morals are going down the tubes faster than you can say Eric Robinson. And it always comes back to sex.
To write about sex in the United States is to engage in something disturbing. Mainly the disturbance comes from how much Americans fetishize sex. Seriously, the idea that people engage in behavior that may engage the body twixt navel and knee puts more undies in knots in America than one can imagine. This is so despite a culture in which the private home viewing of other people having sex on tapes and DVDs is a multi-billion dollar industry. Darn it, someone is buying/renting the porn.
But that's not what I want to talk about. Despite the amount of sex in the culture, there's surprisingly little that happens on stage in the theatre. Oh, sex may be talked about, referred to, and have consequences on stage. But, seriously, the vast amount of theatre work one sees is fairly chaste.
What I find curious about theatre and sex, instead, is that the question of gender.
As a general rule, the contemporary majority American tends to look at gender as a destined fact of biology. The fact of penis or vagina decides the issue. Amen.
Interestingly, the theatre -- perhaps because of the malleable notions of gender held by the Greeks – regularly allows for the bending of gender on stage. Biology does not dictate gender in a play – the playwright and convention does.
Ancient Greek society provides a clear example of a masculine hierarchy. This does not imply some vague sense of male superiority. Rather, men in this society have total control over all public levels of the culture. It seems an idea at the time was that a man who spent too much time with women might become more female. Certainly ancient Greek men show an ability to couple with both men and women with fluidity and without social comment. Indeed such fluid coupling seems to be an expectation within the culture. For example, in ancient Sparta it appears young boys trained for the army naked in front of older men who would serve as mentors and potential lovers.
Now, when this sort of the thing is brought up in a theatre history class, a teacher observes a physical ripple in the eyes of the students – a visible "ick." Given that the ancient Greeks are dust these past few millennia, I doubt they care about a contemporary student's reaction to their sexual practice, but there you are.
Another consequence of this male culture may be seen in Greek theatre practice. Evidently the ancient theatre was made by men. So the first Jocasta, the first Antigone, the first Electra, the first Medea – all played by men.
Over time this practice has come back into theatre practice. For example, in Rome female parts could easily be played by men. Suetonius indicates that Caligula, for example, would perform for select audiences as a woman.
People in the theatre are very familiar, of course, with the practice of using young men (boys?) to play female roles in Elizabethan England. The first Juliet and the first Lady Macbeth were played by young men. It seems that in a world where a tradesman learned his craft by working with a master, young men learned acting by working with a master actor. So Richard Burbage may be assumed to be not only a great actor for his ability to play Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, et al. But he was also a great teacher to help train young actors to play opposite him in roles like Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, etc.
One of the oddities of culture is that while English audiences were accustomed to watching men play women on the stage, Italian and French audiences evidently had no qualms with seeing women on the stage.
Again, as theatre people know, women made their first appearance on the British stage during the Restoration period. But as women entered the stage, they also began reversing the bending of gender. Women would play "breeches" parts – a male role or a character disguised as a male and requiring the woman to wear knee breaches and stockings. In a world where the female ankle was covered in public, the actress in breeches playing a male created a stir.
All this is simple theatre history. But where does this leave us today? It's easy for us to be all-jolly about the past. And sometimes we pick up these old conventions. Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray, all-male or all-female productions of Shakespeare, the occasional cross-gender casting. Where does this leave us?
Once I heard a minister speak about the portion of scripture in which Jesus advises his listeners to cut off their hand or eye and thrust them in the fire if hand or eye be the cause of the person's undoing. The eye or the hand. The minister made the point that Americans would probably want Jesus to have said to cut off the penis – that is the cause of our undoing – the sex thing. The minister pointed out that Jesus, instead, focused on what the person sees and what the person does.
A good lesson to get all of us on the right track today. In a world where we can so easily ignore injustice, poverty, and misery of all sorts, we have the privilege of being storytellers. Telling stories that open eyes – both with comedy and tragedy – to the common humanity of us all is al we need do. And we know from our own past that gender isn't all that important – it can be twisted every which for the needs of the story. That is what's important – the story. And humanity.