Tim Sanford on Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra
How honest are we about sex? The Kama Sutra of Vātsyāyana is a sacred Hindu text composed about eighteen hundred years ago. It was first published privately in English by an erotophile named Sir Richard Burton in 1883 and began to appear in pirated publications around the same time that Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. When Burton died, his wife reportedly burned most of his private erotic literature collection. As the most recent translator of The Kama Sutra, Aditya N. D. Haksarhas, points out, most English-speakers only know this ancient text via marketed “Illustrated” publications that highlight the notorious descriptions of copulatory positions that actually comprise only about one twentieth of the original work. A fairer summary would characterize it as a broad survey of sexual and social relationships between men and women. I lay out this bit of world literary history for you to come clean about my own way into Kirk Lynn’s fascinating, insightful, and moving story of a man’s messy journey from marriage to fatherhood.
I didn’t know much about Kirk’s play when we did a Superlab reading of it last year. Frankly, I didn’t know much about the actual Kama Sutra either, not that this ancient text has anything to do with the play, really, other than to orient us. So when the first scene started off with a bit of smartly rendered sexual role-playing, I will confess, I found myself pleasantly titillated (and intrigued). But I soon understood I was in the hands of a playwright wise and brave enough to understand that titillation is only the entry point into sex. The premise behind the role-playing Carla and Reggie undertake asks them to reenact scenes from their sexual histories. And their motive is not just to get off, but to expose themselves, to share their deepest fears, shame and passions with each other. We see the unnerving, liberating effects of their courtship indirectly in the friendship that Carla is able to form with Reggie’s audacious, ex-flame friend, Tony. Honesty turns out to be the great leveler.
Midway through the first act, the play introduces a parallel story about Reggie’s rebellious daughter Bernie and her new boyfriend, Sean. Reggie seems helpless in the face of her anger and recklessness. And where is Carla? In the second act, this story takes over and the once-fearless, impetuous Reggie turns into a stereotype of an autocratic father in the face of his daughter’s sexual awakening. Tony re-enters the scene and the emotional undercurrents of the two acts and the two time periods collide. Sex opened up gateways between Reggie and Carla, but has shut the locks between Reggie and Bernie. Or has it? Once tongues are unloosed, it becomes clear that sex hasn’t been the issue at all. What has been missing has been honesty and time: the time both Reggie and Bernie have lost with Carla. And as the play reaches its climax, maybe it merits a somewhat humorous comparison to that ancient Hindu text: the search for truth assumes many positions. And the over-arching principle that guides both the search for truth and for pleasure is mutuality: "Whatever things may be done by one of the lovers to the other, the same should be returned by the other."
I have barely touched on one of the most remarkable aspects of the play, and the most palpable evidence of the sure-handed skill and experience of its author. The two time frames of the play live side by side so naturally and it makes its shifts clearly and theatrically, without fuss. But in the process it also emphatically dramatizes how alive time is for these characters. All time seems fully present in the play, and hence all truth too. We ache for the characters to discover this too, we know it hovers just there for them, like the ghosts of characters that haunt their memories. And when they begin to, it feels inevitable yet still surprisingly affecting.