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René on stage: A Review

A Smut Sampler
A Light-Hearted Reading of Selections from Some Notorious Banned Books

Thursday, November 3, 2011
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX

WARNING: This review uses explicit language to discuss a performance of readings from books that contain sexually explicit language and situations. If you are under 17, or are uncomfortable with descriptions of sexual subjects,
do NOT read this review. Thank you.


by Mary S. Shaver and Marguerite Krause
(Review originally printed in ORACLE newsletter, January 2012)

Mary

René joined Kristen Vangsness (Criminal Minds) and Isaiah Sheffer (Selected Shorts) in a reading of selected banned works. The event took place at the University of Texas (UT) Harry Ransom Center (HRC) on Thursday, November 3, 2011. I took advantage of the live webcast offered by UT to see and hear the evening's readings.

The performance was part of a larger project by the HRC that chronicled the history of banned writings. Sheffer hand-picked the writings and they ran the gamut from humor and satire to clinical sexual manuals and 'how-to' pamphlets, and from popular fiction to literary classics.

Marguerite

My husband Mike and I were fortunate to be able to travel to Austin to see the performance in person. The HRC's exhibition was called Banned, Burned, Seized and Censored and was described on their website as follows:

"How did hundreds of thousands of books, pictures, plays, and magazines come to be banned, burned, seized, and censored in the span of less than 30 years? This exhibition reveals the rarely seen 'machinery' of censorship in the United States between the two world wars. Using tactics from extra-legal intimidation to federal prosecution, censors from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, New England's Watch and Ward Society, the Post Office Department, and the Treasury Department waged war on 'objectionable' literature. Larger-than-life personalities battled publicly over obscenity, 'clean books,' and freedom of expression while writers, agents, and publishers attempted to navigate the increasingly complex world of American censorship."

Thursday evening's Smut Sampler performance was free and open to the public, and people began coming in as soon as the doors opened around 6:30 p.m. By the time the organizer introduced Isaiah Sheffer, René, and Kristin, a few minutes after 7:00, I'd estimate that the auditorium was a bit less than half full: perhaps 150 people in all.

Mary

In this "anything goes" culture of the 21st century, it might seem unbelievable that less than 100 years ago crusaders were successful in passing legislation that censored literature and mandated behavior in accordance with the prevailing morals of the day (the 18th Amendment wasn't repealed until 1933). Of course when you consider that books like the Harry Potter series were restricted in numerous townships and municipalities during the past decade, then perhaps this sort of censorship isn't so unbelievable after all.

Viewing over the webcast lends a certain voyeuristic quality to the performance and provides a unique perspective. The nervous laughter that rippled through the audience (which I couldn't see) in reaction to some of the more graphic or racy passages being read was revealing. Perhaps it reflected our society's puritanical roots that made bans on these books acceptable in the first place. In any case, Sheffer selected works that left nothing to the imagination.

Marguerite

From my perspective, sitting just about in the middle of the auditorium, I didn't feel that there much, if any, "nervous" laughter--just generally amused and entertained reactions. Many of the audience members were college students, so I wonder if they all were either pretty much unshockable about sexual matters, or determined to appear to be worldly and unflappable in front of their friends.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if Mary heard at least a few nervous titters now and then. Our society makes us all self-conscious when it comes to talking about sex in public! Very early in the program, the first time Isaiah read the word "penis", he hesitated, stammered, and mispronounced it, and Kristen corrected him. A little later, she did the same sort of stammer with "vagina", and he corrected her pronunciation. Each time they did that, the audience giggled. I'm sure Sheffer planned those "mistakes" on purpose, as a way to help the audience members get any embarrassment out of their systems--because there was certainly a lot more graphic language ahead! And from where I was sitting, it seemed to work. It was as if Isaiah was saying, "Okay, we're all adults here, so let's get past the adolescent impulse to snicker at 'dirty words' and actually pay attention to these passages for how well--or not well--they're written, and what they say about censorship in our society."  

Isaiah Sheffer

Isaiah Sheffer deserves a lot of credit for the way he presented the material. The evening felt very much like a seminar on a historical topic…which just happened to be the topic of how the United States struggled to define and censor "obscene" material in the first half of the 20th century. I think Sheffer struck just the right tone with his introductions to each piece, and his occasional commentaries on the people involved in the censorship battles (politicians and community leaders and writers and publishers), and how all of it fit into the larger historical picture, with Prohibition and the rise of Nazi fascism and so on. He treated sex as a serious scholarly subject…. but also, by interspersing his historical comments with anecdotes from his personal life, he acknowledged that curiosity about sex, and adolescent embarrassment about the subject, are feelings that most of us experience at one point or another. For example, when he talked about himself as a teenager, hiding a copy of Fanny Hill behind his math textbook, the audience laughed not from embarrassment, but from remembering similar stunts--defying authority, pursuing the forbidden--that they'd performed themselves.

Mary

The program ran as follows:

"It Can't Happen Here", by Sinclair Lewis
Ensemble reading

This story, written in 1935, was a fitting introduction to the subject. While not smut, this biting commentary written in response to the rise of Nazism in Germany presents the hypothetical scenario of a dictatorship in America, with its resulting curtailing of civil liberties and the overarching presence of the "thought police" who are charged with the removal and burning of material deemed objectionable by the State. While this particular book was not banned in America, it was--surprise--banned in Germany.

The scene read centered on political dissenter Doremus Jessup and his confrontation with Vermont state police chief Shad Ledue (read by René with a broad New England accent). Shad is a jumped-up former employee of Jessup who is drunk on power and determined to expose Jessup's cache of heretical books. Finding nothing objectionable but not wanting to leave empty-handed, Shad confiscates Jessup's beloved collection of the works of Dickens that was passed down to him. It's a poignant moment when Jessup looks on helplessly as the cracked old leather volumes are flung onto the bonfire and go up in flames. It is also a chilling reminder that such a thing was actually happening across the Atlantic. By 1935, Hitler had the bit firmly between his teeth and was barreling towards WWII. I found this story an appropriate way to remind us that freedoms are hard won and easily lost, often with our own short-sighted consent.

"Reformers: A Hymn of Hate", by Dorothy Parker,
part of a collection of works entitled Unsenseorship
Read by Kristen Vangsness

Scathing satire by the incomparable Dorothy Parker. I found the following bit quite amusing:

"And then there are the All-American Crabs;
The Brave Little Band that is Against Everything.
They have got up the idea
That things are not what they were when Grandma was a girl.
They say that they don't know what we're coming to,
As if they had just written the line."

And how many generations have used that line to bemoan the current condition of their society that they think has gone to hell-in-a-hand basket?

"The Sex Side of Life", by Mary Ware Dennett
Read by Isaiah Sheffer

Birth control activist and pacifist Mary Dennett wrote this pamphlet in 1926 to explain human reproduction to teenagers. This little brochure is remarkably clear and straightforward, detached without being clinical. A far superior "how-to" manual than the literature distributed when I was a teenager, with its tortured text and work-around words that only lent further confusion to the taboo of sex and invited wild and totally inaccurate speculation. However, as Sheffer pointed out, even the progressive and ahead-of-her-time Dennett ignored a small but important part of the female anatomy. If you have to ask, you need remedial education!

Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor.
Read by Kristen Vangsness 

Kristen in rehearsal

This book, written in 1944, was banned in 14 states as pornography. Kristen read the scene when Amber loses her virginity. I remember reading Forever Amber as a teenager, but this sexually explicit scene was largely lost on me due to my own ignorance (see above). Today it reads as bad fanfiction.

Marguerite

When Kristen finished reading her Forever Amber passage, she got a nice round of applause from the audience…. and René, sitting beside her, started fanning himself with some of his script pages, as if he was feeling a bit "overheated" from listening to the scene. At that, the applause for Kristen's performance acquired an additional ripple of applause and laughter from people responding to René's "editorial comment."

Mary

Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D. H. Lawrence
Read by René

Written in 1928, Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in the U.S. until the ban was overturned in 1959. It is a common theme among all the books presented that they managed to find their way into the marketplace and were made even more popular for being decried as obscenity.

Lady Chatterley's Lover chronicles the deteriorating relationship between Connie and her husband after he returns from WWI paralyzed from the waist down and rendered impotent. As he becomes more and more distant and detached, burying himself in his obsession with financial success and fame, Constance turns her eye on Oliver Mellors, the estate gamekeeper.  

In rehearsal

René read the scene where Connie and Mellors make love in a forest glade. René brought the words to life with his own evocative style, and you could feel Constance laying back against the boughs of the fir trees and her astonishment at the connection with her lover gained by "coming off" together. The passion unleashed by their lovemaking forges a profound bond between them. A really beautiful scene, beautifully read by René.

Fanny Hill: or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,
by John Cleland
Read by Kristen Vangsness

Fanny Hill is a lively, lusty, first-person account of the life and loves of a prostitute. Written in 1748, the book landed Cleland in prison until he disavowed it. The novel was predictably banned until 1966 in the United States and 1970 in Great Britain.

The scene read by Kristen is of a voyeuristic Fanny who, at this point, is still a virgin. Fanny watches the passionate lovemaking of Polly, another girl in the brothel, with a young and virile Italian. The more she watches, the more her own desire mounts, despite her innocence. The scene also establishes Fanny's fascination with the male anatomy--specifically the size of the "machine," as Cleland describes it (evidently there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that Cleland wrote the novel on a dare to demonstrate that it was possible to write about prostitution without using vulgarity).

Fanny Hill was considered salacious. It is unique in that a man wrote the story from a woman's first-person perspective. With the unauthorized addition of a male same-sex scene and Fanny's obsession with phallic size, some critics consider it a homoerotic work.

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, by James Branch Cabell
Read by René
Chapter XXII "As To A Veil They Broke," or "Holding His Lance Erect."

René read this obscure piece of erotica with theatrical aplomb. The story, as best I can figure it out, chronicles the journey of the hero, Jurgen, as he travels into fantastical realms, including heaven and hell, all the while seducing the women he meets along the way.

The scene read by René is a writer's paradise of double entendre. The protagonists, Jurgen and Queen Anaitis, perform a ceremony called the Breaking of the Veil. I have transcribed part of the text that René read because the scene is so far over the top as to defy description. Just use your imagination to see René and hear his voice as he tackles these words with incomparable flourish and élan.

Duke Jurgen held the lance erect, shaking it with his right hand. This lance was large, and the tip of it was red with blood.

"Behold," said Jurgen, "I am a man born of a woman incomprehensibly. Now I, who am miraculous, am found worthy to perform a miracle, and to create that which I may not comprehend."

Anaitis took salt and water from the child, and mingled these. "Let the salt of earth enable the thin fluid to assume the virtue of the teeming sea!"

Then, kneeling, she touched the lance, and began to stroke it lovingly. To Jurgen she said: "Now may you be fervent of soul and body! May the endless Serpent be your crown, and the fertile flame of the sun your strength!"

(And it goes on, at great length, along those same lines.)

Marguerite

It was fascinating to listen to René read this selection. He read the entire thing completely seriously, with sincerity and passion and his usual exquisite clarity of diction, so that every word was comprehensible…even if any larger-scale meaning remained elusive. But all of the author's (intended or not) double entendres came through crystal clear! The audience reaction swung back and forth between disbelieving laughter and attentive listening as René navigated his way through all the archaic language and convoluted sentence structure. People definitely seemed to get caught up in the glorious grandiosity of the language even as we struggled to figure out what the heck it was supposed to mean. Then René would reach another part where Jurgen "held his lance erect" and the audience would burst out laughing again!

On the day after the performance, Mike and I spent an hour or so going through the Banned, Burned, Seized and Censored exhibition at HRC. More on that later, but among several things we learned was that Cabell, the author of Jurgen, intended the whole novel to be a dream or vision, expressing "streams of Unconsciousness." Seen in that light, it makes sense that it didn't make much sense!

Mary

Poem by Ogden Nash
Read by ensemble

I missed the title of this little piece of satire, but the gist of the story was a parody of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which was used to enforce the banning of objectionable books and other written material from abroad. A sample from a couple of the verses:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput….

Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf;
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself…..

Married Love, by Marie Stopes
Ensemble reading

Marie Stopes was born in 1880 and was a campaigner for women's rights and a pioneer in the field of birth control. Her sex guide, Married Love, was evidently written when she was still a virgin. However, it contains a wealth of information and emphasizes the woman's needs as more than an inert and submissive vessel.

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
Read by Isaiah Sheffer

A candidly sexual novel set in France in the late 1920's, Tropic of Cancer is a semi-autobiographical recounting of the life of a struggling writer. The scene read by Isaiah is an erotically visceral fantasy about what Miller wants to do with a woman named Tania. The scene is incredibly vivid and leaves nothing to the imagination ("Tania, I want to make your ovaries incandescent!").

Needless to say, the novel, published in 1934, was banned from importation to the United States. In 1964, the U.S Supreme Court ruled the book was not obscene.

Ulysses, by James Joyce
Read by René
"Nausicca"

The Smut Sampler evening came to a close with two readings from Joyce's Ulysses. I confess I was never able to plow my way through Ulysses. I tried on numerous occasions, but found myself staring at the same lines on the same page. I could take the high road and say it's on my "bucket list," but after finding the texts for the scenes read, I honestly don't think I have it in me. So I'll admit failure and proclaim it a brilliant work that I can best appreciate from afar.  

In rehearsal

Now that that's off my chest . . . For the first Joyce reading, René read the scene where Leopold Bloom comes across Gerty McDowell at the beach. Gerty spots him in the distance and his gaze sends her pulse tingling. To the backdrop of a fireworks display, Gerty puts on something of a peep show for Bloom. René read this scene with such sympathy and yearning in his voice. Close your eyes and hear him as he reads the close of the scene:

…and she wasn't ashamed and he wasn't either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn't resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl's love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

Ulysses, by James Joyce
Read by Kristen Vangsness
"Penelope"

Molly Bloom's stream (river? flood? torrent? cascade? cataract?) of consciousness as she lays in bed and thinks about life.

Marguerite

Like Mary, I've never read Ulysses. I accept the judgment of others that James Joyce was a genius and that his novel was groundbreaking and fascinating…. but I've never been able to make heads or tails of it. Guess I'm a natural-born editor in that way: I need my sentences and paragraphs to have punctuation!

However, I have to admit, after listening to René and Kristen read their sections, that maybe if I listened to an audiobook of Ulysses, read by someone who's as good at reading as René is, I might be able to appreciate it!

When René read his selection, his vocal inflections put "punctuation" into all of the sentences and phrases. Yes, the passages still "run on" in Joyce's famous stream-of-consciousness style. But when a human being reads aloud, they have to pause now and then to take a breath, and choosing when to pause imparts its own meaning to the words being read. Also, a good reader doesn't read in a monotone, like a computer voice--his voice rises and falls, and gets faster or slower, and each of those variations colors the meaning of the words and phrases. With both René and Kristen, the pace at which they read, the places they chose to take a breath, the places where they simply paused for a heartbeat or two--all of that reflected their interpretation of the meaning of what they were reading which, in turn, communicated that meaning to me--in the case of Ulysses, far better than the words printed on the page have ever communicated their meaning!

The performance ended with enthusiastic applause for René, Kristen, and Isaiah.  

Mike at HRC

As I mentioned earlier, the next day, Mike and I went and explored the exhibit at the HRC. It was very interesting to see the full timeline of how the various "local societies" grew up, dedicated to protecting citizens from "obscene" books and usually spear-headed by one person who was a real crusader for "morality". For instance, I've always known about the phrase "banned in Boston", but the exhibit gave details of how the "New England Watch and Ward Society" was founded and how, eventually, some writers and publishers made a point of making sure their book contained at least a sentence or two that would cause it to be "banned in Boston," because that would guarantee it would become a bestseller in the rest of the country, due to people buying copies in hopes of finding some sexy contents!

I'd also never realized to what an extent the Book of the Month Club contributed to censorship. They would not print "questionable" material, and so publishers and authors voluntarily created versions of novels that met the Book of the Month Club criteria. Self-censorship for the sake of sales. And then sometimes, later, the publisher would put out new, "unexpurgated" versions of the same book…. again often attracting lots of buyers eager to see what "naughty" passages might have been added that had been cut the first time around.

In many of their display cases, the HRC presented examples of pages from an original novel side by side with the censored version, and it was fascinating to see just what sort of things could get an entire book banned. Sometimes it was a passage only five sentences long, out of a 500-page book…. but if those five sentences were judged, by someone, to be "immoral", the whole book was condemned.

Mary

All in all, I have to say the presentation was a lovely two-hour diversion into the world of smut! What I took away was a new-found appreciation for those who so stridently advocated on behalf of literary free speech. While some may find sexually explicit material to be of "no socially redeeming value," the inclusion of such works in our bookstores and libraries makes it possible for books that others value and esteem to be available for everyone to make up their own minds about them.


Top four photos courtesy of Pete Smith, Harry Ransom Center
Bottom photo by Marguerite Krause

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