Backstory: The X-Factor

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When asked why it is so interesting to write about sex, playwright Wallace Shawn observed, “Sex is still shocking. Conflict is built into the theme of sex because people’s desires are often at cross-purposes.” Conflict, the very essence of drama, makes the stage an ideal space to explore and perform the myriad faces of human sexuality. By tracing the ways in which theater has treated sex, we can track some changing cultural views of sex through history. 

Sex has taken center stage as far back as ancient Greece. For the Greeks, the subject of sex belonged to the lower form of Comedy, rather than the higher form of Tragedy. The comedies performed in Athens during the fifth century BCE spared no limit in their exploitation of sex and other bodily functions; to the Greeks, the subject of sex was profoundly funny. Aristophanes, “the Father of Comedy,” wrote the most famous surviving sex comedy of his day. In Lysistrata (411 BCE), the eponymous heroine convinces the women of Greece to barricade themselves inside the Parthenon and withhold all sexual privileges from their husbands until the men abandon the Peloponnesian War. A battle of the sexes ensues, and to demonstrate the afflictions of rampant priapism, the male characters don large, erect leather phalluses. Ultimately, of course, they capitulate to their wives’ demands. 

But sex was not to remain the exclusive province of comedy. By the Renaissance, playwrights were exploring an expanding range of sexual and amatory experiences that traversed both comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare distinguishes himself with the astonishing comprehensiveness of his treatment of sex. From the freshness and exuberance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, in which characters discover love only to reckon with the realities of desire and its consequences, through the tormented sexual chaos at the core of Hamlet and the hints of same-sex relationships in the Sonnets, culminating in the exalted affirmation of marriage in The Tempest—Shakespeare’s complex and multifarious treatment of sex introduced an unprecedented amount of truthfulness to the theater.  

Such adventurism sputtered to a halt over the next few centuries as Western theater failed to evolve toward a greater degree of openness and honesty. A new age of social conservatism and Victorian reserve banished sex to the realm of inference and suggestion; sexual content onstage was unthinkable. So it is hardly surprising that the few beleaguered sex plays that did emerge from the early modern period exposed the sham of sexual morality and its consequences. Schnitzler’s La Ronde and Wedekind’s Lulu plays numbered among these and, most notably, Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891) criticized the sexually oppressive culture of nineteenth century Germany and contained scenes of homoeroticism, rape, abortion, sadomasochism and suicide, all involving young adolescents. 

The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed an outpouring of new works deeply invested in exploring and celebrating sexual themes. James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s musical Hair (1967) glorifies sexual freedom and polymorphous desires. Across the ocean, English playwright Joe Orton wrote a lurid paean to anarchy and hedonism called What the Butler Saw (1969), which delighted and appalled audiences. “Sex,” Orton noted, “is the only way to infuriate them. Much more fucking and they’ll be screaming hysterics.” Not long thereafter, Oh! Calcutta!, Kenneth Tynan’s avant-garde revue of sex-related sketches, became one of the longest running productions in Broadway history. 

With sex no longer a subject of censorship and outrage, the contemporary theater has succeeded in allowing human sexuality to figure prominently in outward behavior and motivations onstage. In recent years, we’ve seen playwrights moving towards even greater interiority. Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2013), Wallace Shawn’s lyrical odyssey of exotic sexcapades, has a decidedly narcissistic bent. With its arresting, provocative title, Kirk Lynn’s play evokes all these qualities and more, but Kirk turns the focus inwards to a frank and intimate character portrait that inhabits a space of its own.

Kari Olmon
Literary Resident

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