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Poet of Pain 

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Madame de Sade

European Repertory Company

at the Storefront Theater

In 1965, when Japanese iconoclast Yukio Mishima sat down to write Madame de Sade, his increasingly imperialist views stood ready to overwhelm him. Two years earlier he'd split with the Bungakuza--one of Tokyo's best-established theater companies, with which he'd worked almost exclusively for a decade--because it took issue with one of his character's right-wing sentiments. The year after Madame de Sade premiered, Mishima devised his ill-fated four-year plan to lead his own paramilitary force in a coup d'etat to restore Japan's emperor to his former glory, then commit hara-kiri as the ultimate act of loyalty to the throne.

Contemporary Americans may not understand how a writer so far right of center could celebrate the Marquis de Sade, which is what Mishima did in this neoclassical swoon through the raptures of sexual cruelty and degradation. To us, sexual insurrectionists belong on the radical left. But in Mishima's worldview, eroticized mutilation harked back to Japan's samurai code, which held that disembowelment was the purest expression of devotion to the emperor. To Mishima, physical brutality was reactionary rather than transgressive.

His was a political philosophy charged by a long-standing fetish for blood, injury, and premature death (he committed suicide in 1970). As he wrote in Confessions of a Mask, the first time he masturbated was while staring at a painting of Saint Sebastian bound to a tree and pierced with arrows (Mishima assumed the same pose himself in a 1966 photograph). This autobiographical novel is filled with sadistic fantasies: he imagines feasting on a naked, unconscious schoolmate and establishing a "murder theater" in which gladiators would offer up their lives for his amusement. "All the deaths that took place there not only had to overflow with blood but also had to be performed with all due ceremony," he wrote.

It's no surprise that Mishima would write a play about de Sade. What's interesting is the restraint the playwright displays given his reputation: an unfettered exhibitionist, Mishima posed for nude photographs, acted in cheap gangster films for sport, and paraded about in his homemade military uniform. Perhaps the most formal of Mishima's plays, Madame de Sade borrows its conventions from Racine, as Donald Keene, the play's English translator, points out: it has a single setting, only a few characters (each of whom represents a different type of woman), and little plot-driven action, and it depends on emotional outbursts to reveal hidden truths.

The play is set in the home of Madame de Montreuil, whose daughter Renee is married to the Marquis de Sade. He's serving a prison sentence in Marseille--something about a whip studded with nails and several bloodied women. But Renee clings steadfastly to her monstrous husband and begs her neighbors, the ardently pious Baronesse de Simiane and unapologetically immoral Comtesse de Saint-Fond, to secure his release. Meanwhile Renee's well-connected mother, who believes the marquis to be an inhuman beast, promises to petition the king for leniency but secretly plots to keep the marquis locked up until he rots. When Renee's younger sister, Anne, shows up still beaming from her debauchery with her sister's husband, it seems the family will be torn apart.

Director Kirk Anderson has a keen appreciation for Mishima's artifice, opening this European Repertory Company production with a brief pageant, as though the women were presenting themselves at court. In reality they're presenting themselves to one another, by turns seductive and disdainful as they size up the competition. This formality is sustained throughout most of the three-hour staging: Anderson moves the women about like pieces on a chessboard, gives them all the same stylized gesture of caressing the face with the back of the hand, and frequently positions them downstage, where they talk directly to the audience. Little here is naturalistic; instead the action seems to float in a semiplayful, semithreatening universe apart from the waking world. When Madame de Montreuil sends a letter to the king, she simply releases it into the air--and it flies magically away.

This lyrical suspension is Anderson's most astute choice, for only on such an altered plane--somewhere between a fairy tale and a nightmare--can Mishima's heady, mesmerizing, but at times bewildering script coalesce. Continually warping whatever reality he creates, he gives his characters long, poetic monologues that blend their inner and outer selves in a nearly hallucinatory manner. Again and again they return to images of sexual cruelty, as though de Sade's deeds held their imaginations captive, drawing out parts of themselves that had lain hidden under layers of respectability.

Despite the cast's general shakiness on opening night--there were lots of flubbed lines--they conjure up a good deal of Mishima's peculiar magic, at least for the first two acts. Downplaying conventional acting and amplifying the text's perverse poetry, they don't jettison the notion of character altogether: Dado's Madame de Montreuil is a bumbling, fossilized aristocrat, Laura Scott Wade's Renee a conflicted soul battling an inner demon. But neither do they weigh down their characters with idiosyncratic detail--they merely suggest the women they portray. This lightness or transparency allows us to focus on the complexities of Mishima's script.

But in the third act that lightness begins to dissipate, largely because Mishima starts loading up the play with heavy-handed harangues about the potential for spiritual awakening in sadomasochistic sex: in the script's wash of rhapsodic testimonials, de Sade's whips and chains somehow liberate the human soul. The rhetoric becomes nearly impenetrable, except perhaps to those predisposed to agree with it. As in Mishima's other work, his fetishes get the best of him. Rather than granting us access to his fantasy world, as in the first two acts, he locks himself inside it at the end and shouts at us from an open window, insisting that liberation is to be found within his curious fortress.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Rothenberg.

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