Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Stiff Dick Knows No Conscience

The recent brouhaha that erupted after Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut was a stern reminder of the double standard in the way male and female sexual appetites are judged. In medieval times, the notorious droit de seigneur (which forms a key plot point in Mozart's 1786 opera, The Marriage of Figaro) allowed lords to deflower the maiden daughters of their serfs.

While cherry picking was an eagerly embraced privilege among the nobility, the lower classes had to settle for more ordinary forms of carnal satisfaction. From Don Juan to Barney Stinson, predatory men with insatiable sexual appetites have been a staple of literature.

Opera fans may revel in renditions of La donna è mobile ("Woman is fickle") from Giuseppe Verdi's 1851 opera, Rigoletto, or the gypsy's seductive Habanera from Georges Bizet's popular Carmen (1875), but it was Mozart and his librettistLorenzo Da Ponte, who immortalized the toll of male narcissism in Leporello's famous "catalog aria." Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished) had its world premiere on October 29, 1787 in Prague. In the following video from a 1988 performance at The Royal Opera, the Don (Thomas Allen) makes another clean escape while Leporello (Stafford Dean) explains the cruel facts of his libidinous boss's lifestyle to Donna Elvira (Kiri Te Kanawa).

A series of paintings from 1732-1733 by the English artist, William Hogarth, entitled A Rake's Progress, served to inspire composer Igor Stravinsky. His opera, The Rake's Progress, had its world premiere on September 11, 1951 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding was published on February 28, 1749. After many years of success as a novel, it received a beautiful screen adaptation in 1963 with Albert Finney in the title role.

In 1890, Oscar Wilde scandalized readers with The Picture of Dorian Gray (if you click here you can watch a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury singing "Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird" to Hurd Hatfield's handsome Dorian Gray).

The pursuit of limitless casual sex took on a new face in the early years of the Gay Liberation movement:
Soon to be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Another Bullet Dodged is a 13-minute short by Landon Zakheim in which two lovers meet to solve an urgent problem. Vincent Cardinale plays a laid back young man who is driving through the rain while trying to placate someone over the phone. Upon arriving at his destination, his friend (played by Jennifer Landon), snarls "I can't believe you're late for your own son's abortion!"

Demonstrating little sense of responsibility or empathy, the man doesn't win any points for his behavior in the clinic's waiting room or when he brings his friend back home to her apartment. After her abortion, he has to be shamed into spending some time with her (the filmmaker likes to describe Cardinale's character as "a wolf in sheep's clothing who thinks he is a sheep").

By the end of the film, Cardinale's wolf has arrived at a friend's party, eager to make a fresh conquest. It's a story as old as the hills, which will be repeated with endless permutations. Here's the trailer:

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In a letter he wrote to Arthur Schnitzler in 1922 (on the occasion of the playwright's 60th birthday), Sigmund Freud confessed that:
"I believe that at bottom you are a depth psychologist, one supremely unbiased, honest, and unafraid to tell the truth about human beings. Whenever I became absorbed in one of your beautiful creations, I seemed invariably to find beneath their poetic surface the same suppositions, interests, and conclusions that I had thought were my own. I had the impression that you knew through intuition (though actually as the result of your own deep introspection)  everything I had to discover by laborious work on other people." 

Wikipedia reports that:
"In addition to his plays and fiction, Schnitzler meticulously kept a diary from the age of 17 until two days before his death. The manuscript, which runs to almost 8,000 pages, is most notable for Schnitzler's casual descriptions of sexual conquests — he was often in relationships with several women at once, and for a period of some years he kept a record of every orgasm. Collections of Schnitzler's letters have also been published. Schnitzler's works were called 'Jewish filth' by Adolf Hitler and were banned by the Nazis in Austria and Germany. In 1933, when Joseph Goebbels organized book burnings in Berlin and other cities, Schnitzler's works were thrown into flames along with those of other Jews, including Einstein, Marx, Kafka, Freud and Stefan Zweig."
Although Schnitzler died in 1931, his grandson (Michael) was born in Berkeley in 1944. When the Aurora Theatre Company announced that it would present the world premiere of a new translation of Schnitzler's short plays under the title of Anatol, I was eager to see what they would be like.

Although I had walked past the Shubert Theatre on numerous occasions when the 1961 musical by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz entitled The Gay Life was its tenant, I never got to see the show. Based on Schnitzler's "Anatol" plays, The Gay Life (which starred Walter Chiari, Barbara Cook, Elizabeth Allen, and Jules Munshin) has a lovely score and I have always enjoyed hearing Cook's gleaming lyric soprano sing "Who Can?" and "Magic Moment."

Tim Kniffin and Mike Ryan in a scene from Anatol
Photo by: David Allen 

Written in 1893, the "Anatol" plays were Schnitzler's first dramas. Margret Schaefer's new translation makes it crystal clear that, for all of his upper class privilege, Anatol von Huber remains:
  • A pompous fool. 
  • A preening and immature narcissist.
  • A severely insecure twit. 
  • An utterly bourgeois romantic sentimentalist.
  • An insufferably jealous playboy.
  • A self-avowed frivolous melancholic.
Shortly after Mike Ryan appeared onstage, I noticed his physical resemblance to Kelsey Grammar.  But it wasn't until he was facing away from me (and I could only hear his voice as he spoke Schnitzler's words) that I realized how much Anatol sounds like a 110-year-old prototype for Frasier Crane.

Although the final play -- in which Max tries to convince Anatol that he must leave his mistress behind in order to be on time for his own wedding -- caps off the evening with style, my favorite play -- in which a ballerina turns the tables on Anatol -- is entitled "The Last Supper." Announcing that (even though she will miss all the delicious champagne, oysters, and sacher torte) she is dumping him for another man, the woman is blissfully unaware that, during their dinner, Anatol has been waiting for an opportunity to inform her that she is being cast aside for another woman!

Mike Ryan, Delia MacDougall, and Tim Kniffin
in a scene from Anatol (Photo by: David Allen)

Barbara Oliver has directed this production with a keen sense of the battle between the sexes. With Tim Kniffin as the protagonist's jaded friend, Max, Barbara Oliver has cast Delia MacDougall as six different women who are among Anatol's many lovers.

Anna Oliver has done a clever job of dressing MacDougall so that each one of Anatol's girlfriends can look different with a minimum of fuss. As the show's costume designer explains:
"The objective challenge was how do I get this one person into six different looks without creating a drag anchor on the action. The way I did that was to create a base costume which is based on a 1900s silhouette.  Pieces come on and off to indicate times of day. Hair is really important!"
Making clever use of the small turntable built into John Iacovelli's trim unit set, Barbara Oliver moves the action all over late 19th century Vienna, stopping in restaurants and various living rooms to showcase Anatol's problems with the opposite sex.

A little bit of Anatol von Huber's ego goes a long, long way, which is why Tim Kniffin's Max and Delia MacDougall's gallery of feisty women enjoy much more sympathy from the audience. Performances of Anatol continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 13 (click here to order tickets).

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