“No man is worthy of dominating a goddess. He’s only worthy of being subjugated by her.”
—Venus in Fur
In his eccentric 1948 classic, The White Goddess (my old paperback copy of which is filled with marginalia and reinforced with masking tape), the English writer Robert Graves argues that all real poetry originates in worship of the Great Goddess—the one associated with the moon, the earth, wine, sex, growth, death, and magic. The one who was usurped by the rational, Apollonian gods of patriarchy.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch might agree. Or then again, maybe not—he was an intellectually cagey guy. In 1870 he published Venus in Furs, a novel of obsession—apparently based on some of his own—about a Mittel-European nobleman named Severin who makes a pact with his mistress, Wanda, to serve as her slave, submitting to all the whippings, humiliations, and plain nastiness she can dish out. In short, indulging his masochistic streak. At the end Sacher-Masoch disavows that indulgence: the final paragraphs pronounce Severin “cured,” as if the whole experience were a form of aversion therapy, and even give him a chirpily progressive, incredibly condescending little speech in the Apollonian-feminist vein, explaining that “woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.”
Still, there’s no getting around the previous hundred or so pages of ecstasy and despair. Of erotic lashings (the final one administered by Wanda’s Greek lover). Of Severin fervently worshipping his cruel goddess.
David Ives satirizes just this sort of hypocrisy in Venus in Fur, his 2010 adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel, which ran on Broadway for seven months and is now getting a pretty damned delicious production at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz.
Ives is the brilliant former Chicagoan whose intentionally anachronistic “transladaptations” of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar and Moliere’s The Misanthrope (aka The School for Lies) gave enormous pleasure last year in stagings by Writers Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare respectively. His version of Venus in Furs is not so much a dramatization of the book as a reimagining—and, often enough, a cunning subversion—of its themes, situations, and dynamics.
We’re in present-day New York. Thomas is a playwright getting his first chance to direct one of his scripts—yes, an adaptation of Venus in Furs (which, he’s at pains to point out, has a different title: Venus in Fur, without the final “s”). He’s just finished a long, fruitless day of auditioning actors and is about to head home for dinner with his fiancee when a young woman—Vanda—shows up, soaking wet from the storm outside. In a cringe-producing midwestern screech, she apologizes for her lateness and begs to be given a chance to try out for the part of Wanda. You should’ve seen her, she says, as the lead in Urinal Theater’s production of Hedda Gabler.
Thomas first does his courteous, then his blunt best to get rid of Vanda, but she won’t be put off. And once she’s reading the lines, she’s so utterly transformed that you might say he becomes her prisoner. What follows is a tug-of-war that pits Wanda and Thomas against each other as actor and director, fool and king, woman and man, student and teacher, dominatrix and slave (of course), goddess and—well, the thing takes on cosmic resonances at times.
The great delight of Venus in Fur lies in the constant shifts of power and identity between the two combatants. Whatever you think you’re watching one minute turns out to be something else the next. It’s a sort of a philosophical quick-change act. Yet nothing that happens is chaotic or gratuitous. Rufus Collins’s Thomas and Amanda Drinkall’s Vanda stay solidly grounded in the emotional and strategic reality—however weird—of their struggle. Collins, in particular, does a delicate job of letting us see Thomas’s pompous cluelessness without making a full-out ass of him. Director Schultz brings the tension between the two actors to an excruciating pitch by keeping air between them when it counts, making every touch resonate.
And speaking of resonance, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel draws unexpected nuance out of periodic thunderclaps. Like every other aspect of the play, his cloud rumblings run a gamut from running gag to revelation.