OFFSTAGE SOUNDS: THE PERMEABLE PLAYHOUSE OF CHARLES CHARLES
ROBERT F. GROSS
Provincetown Playhouse manifests a complex thematic interplay of Sameness and Difference, which is rooted in the commonplace misrepresentation of male homosexual desire as a narcissistic formation unable to embrace Difference. Normand Chaurette makes use of this popular prejudice while moving beyond it. The drama not only critiques the inability of a homophobic society to accept alterity, but also critiques a gay identification with a masculinist ideology that perpetuates racism and sexism. Charles Charles's play, "The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty," is a violent attempt at purging a male society of the feminine. In Charles's comic failure to suppress alterity during the performance of his play, Chaurette gives a model of the many unsuccessful attempts to eradicate Difference throughout Provincetown Playhouse.
Provincetown Playhouse montre l'interaction thématique complexe entre l'Identité et l'Altérité, interaction qui est enracinée dans la représentation erronée et banale du désir homosexuel masculin en tant que formation narcissique incapable d'inclure l'Altérité. Normand Chaurette se sert de ce préjugé très répandu tout en le dépassant. La pièce ne critique pas seulement l'incapacité d'une société homophobe d'accepter l'altérité mais aussi une identification gay avec une idéologie phallocrate qui perpétue le racisme et le sexisme. La pièce de Charles Charles,"LeThéâtre de l'immolation de la beauté", s'efforce violemment de purger une société masculine du féminin. En nous montrant l'échec comique de Charles d'y parvenir dans la représentation de sa pièce, Chaurette nous donne, tout au long de Provincetown Playhouse, un modèle de beaucoup d'autres vains efforts pour supprimer l'Altérité.
To observe that Normand Chaurette's Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j'avais 19 ans is a play that investigates the categories of Same and Other is to make an observation that could apply to any play, for "Nothing," muses Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "in Western thought, isn't categorizable and deconstructable under 'same' and 'different'" (157). Yet reflection on those two ubiquitous categories is inescapable in gay studies, since the homo that prefixes homosexuality has defined this sexuality as an eros lacking alterity.(1) In our century, distinctions of the same sex (homo) and the other (hetero) have played a major role in constructing our understandings of sexuality. The interplay between Same and Other in Chaurette's drama is the product of a tradition of constructing male/male desire as a dynamic of the Same that is incapable of dealing with difference. In a fascinating act of theatrical revisionism, Chaurette draws on this tradition and reconfigures it, both to provide a critique of masculinity as fear of the Other and to query the relationship of gay identity to masculinist ideology.
Rather than constructing his drama according to the familiar clash of protagonist and antagonist, a technique that would foreground the confrontation between Self and Other, Chaurette eschews the direct conflict of opposing forces in favor of a cast of characters who function as ever-attenuated emanations of its central figure. Charles Charles 38 is an inmate of a Chicago mental institution in 1938, who presents an unreliable version of his actions 19 years previously, on July 19 1919, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The next largest role is Charles Charles 19, a representative of the central figure's younger self. Next comes Winslow Byron, Charles's lover (also nineteen years old in 1919). The last and least intimately known to Charles is Alvan Jensen, a nineteen year-old friend of both Charles and Byron. All the other figures in the play are only referred to or are quoted by one of these four characters. The further away we move from Charles Charles 38, the more attenuated our sense of each character becomes.
From the beginning, Chaurette minimizes the differences between his characters. Charles Charles 19 and Charles Charles 38 are the same person, merely separated by time, while Alvan Jensen, Winslow Byron and Charles Charles 19 are described from the start in terms of sameness:
Projecteur sur trois garçons. Enveloppés dans la fumée bleue de leurs cigarettes, avachis dans un coin, serrés les uns contre les autres comme un seul monstre à trois têtes, ils fixent le public avec méfiance. Ils ont pourtant l'air égaré, dépaysés comme des bêtes de cirque avant le spectacle et c'est un peu ce qu'ils sont, ces trois garçons aux cheveaux blonds tout juste bons à être beaux. Ils portent le blue jeans coupe 1919 et leurs doigts et leurs torses brillent de signes cabalistiques, l'Étoile à six branches, et les nombreux symboles, l'Échelon des cieux et de la terre, l'Onyx de Contemplation, la Turquoise des Antagonistes, le médaillion du Zen chinois (25).(2)
All blond, all young, all similarly and indiscriminately adorned in fanciful jewelry, these adolescents are introduced as a single beast, "un seul monstre à trois têtes.'' Rather than meeting individualized figures, we are met with a monster of non-differentiation, albeit a handsome one. These three figures are never placed in dramatic opposition; we never see them in conflict. Chaurette does little to distinguish them as characters--Charles is the playwright, Alvan is his lover, Byron is a dancer--but there is little else to distinguish them in biography, character or behavior. One way to account for their minimal individualization is that the play takes place in the mind of Charles Charles 38, and all the characters are projections of his psyche. Just as Charles describes his new play, The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty, as "un one-man-show à trois personnages" (27),(3) Provincetown Playhouse is a one-man show for four players, to such an extent that the play has been performed by a single actor.(4)
This explanation, however, does not go far enough in accounting for Chaurette's technique. He could just as easily have populated Charles Charles 38's psyche with a vivid cast of highly differentiated and conflicting characters. Instead, he has minimized difference, thus homo-genizing his cast of characters, all of whom, we learn, are homosexual. The characters who differ from the four Caucasian homosexual artists are kept offstage--the Philistine and homophobic judges who try the three young men for murder, and most importantly the murder victim, Frank Andrews, who is Black. In this respect, the dramaturgy of Provincetown Playhouse works to obliterate difference, relegating to offstage any characters who cannot be subordinated to Charles's sense of self.
Despite the muting of character differentiation in the play's cast, however, the plot centers on the murder of Frank Andrews, an African-American child who lies drugged in a sack, and is stabbed nineteen times by Alvan and Byron at the climax of Charles's experimental drama, The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty. Andrews becomes the sign of an alterity that cannot be effaced from Provincetown Playhouse, a victim of a masculine project of mastery that is inherently violent.(5)
Although The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty is an adolescent's overwritten dramatic poem in praise of beauty, its climax is the murder of an innocent youth named Astyanax, who is in a sack. Stabbing the child through the womblike bag nineteen times, the beautiful young men assert themselves both against maternity and childhood. Nineteen years old themselves, they perform a perverse initiation rite into the order of masculinity by violently penetrating the womb and its fruit. When Charles, unknown to Alvan and Byron, drugs Frank Andrews and puts him in the bag, he merely serves to underline the violence inherent in the play's vision from the start.
Charles explains to the judges at his trial for murder that his play was inspired by Greek mythology, and gives his version of the aftermath of the fall of Troy. In his version, the Greek leader burns all of Troy and the Trojans, but forgets to burn the Trojan Women, "D'où la tragédie grecque" (46).(6) In Charles's perverse revision of Euripides, the women mourn because the Greeks have forgotten to kill Astyanax. In short, Charles construes the tragedy of the fall of Troy as the failure to put women and children to death. In so doing, he identifies the characters in The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty with the slaughtering Greeks. On the verge of adulthood, Charles kills a child, in an orgy of blows that figuratively become gang rape, matricide and infanticide. All signs of weakness and the feminine are obliterated, and only normatively constructed adult males remain.
The drive for violent mastery in The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty is reflected in all of Charles's actions. Not only does he write a play about the murder of Astyanax, but he arranges things so his friend and lover will unwittingly kill Andrews. Nineteen years later, in the mental hospital, he tries to present his own version of that bloody evening so many years before. Throughout Provincetown Playhouse, Charles Charles obsessively attempts to control the stage, though without success. This is seen most comically in his account of the sole performance of his Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty at the Provincetown Playhouse on July 19, 1919. The effect of this grandiloquent symbolist drama is undercut by the playhouse itself, whose architecture fails to isolate the performance hermetically:
Encore si on avait joué dans un grand théâtre, ou dans un endroit isolé . . . mais non, on jouait au-dessus d'un marché, ça sentait le poisson, il y avait de la musique en bas, tout était contre nous . . . (59)(7)
The performance of The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty deteriorates into a comedy of errors, as authorial control is repeatedly undermined by the outside world. The arrival of each latecomer interrupts the drama, and makes the actors return to the beginning and perform the play from the top. With each repetition, the audience knows the script better, and is more impatient to proceed. The ultimate effect of these interruptions borders on farce:
Un des retardataires a demandé qu'est-ce qu'il y avait dans le sac. Et tous les spectateurs ont répondu en choeur, c'était divin comme effet: 'Un enfant' . . . (72)(8)
The comedy derives from the repeated demonstration of the lack of control that Charles Charles, as creator, has over his creation. Here, the Other, in the guise of the audience, repeatedly intrudes into the Same, and subverts it. The poetic playwright's Will to Power, which W. B. Worthen has traced from T. S. Eliot to Samuel Beckett, is undercut by the autonomous reality of offstage sounds, latecoming spectators and a frustrated audience.(9) In Provincetown Playhouse, total authorial control is impossible.
The lack of artistic control is found not only in the premiere of The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty, but also in Charles's subsequent replayings of it. In his nineteen years of replaying the events of July 19, 1919, Charles has occasionally substituted more innocuous elements for the disturbing murder of Frank Andrews, but his substitutions have been ludicrous:
Un soir, j'ai décidé de remplacer le sac par un petit lapin! À chaque fois qu'on disait "projecteur sur un sac"', le petit lapin se mettait á sauter, c'était assez baroque, les gens comprenaient difficilement pourquoi on faisait tant d'histoires autour d'un petit lapin, mais moi je me suis amusé follement! (100) (10)
As an alazon figure, Charles mistakenly asserts that he controls the events of July 19, but the effects actually range from the comic to the pathetic; the murder is not a fictional element that can be dissolved by a playwright's revisions. Like the permeable walls and floor of the Provincetown Playhouse, Charles Charles's works of artifice are not hermetically protected, and the Other repeatedly seeps into them.
The failure of Charles Charles to completely banish alterity from his aesthetic creations echoes the psychoanalytic discourse of Same and Other that has dominated Western understandings of male same-sex desire in our century. Since Chaurette both draws on that discourse and critiques it in Provincetown Playhouse, we need to move away from the play for a moment, and explore the larger discursive context.
The psychoanalytic discourse of homosexuality is a discourse of the Same: the Greek homo that prefixes sexuality proclaims it an eros bereft of alterity. Historically, this is an unusual construction of sexuality, for, as Michael Warner has noted in his fascinating article, "Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality," "Only modern liberal society, after all, understands sexuality as a choice between hetero- and homosexualities, conceiving them as sexualities of difference and sameness" (192). This understanding, Warner argues, is exhibited throughout the psychoanalytic tradition, whether in Freud's repeated treatment of homosexuality as a variety of narcissism, in which the homosexual desires "not another of the same sex, but himself in the guise of another" (Mitchell 34), or in Lacan's diagnosis of the homosexual as one who "exhausts himself in pursuing the desire of the other, which he will never be able to grasp as his own desire, because his own desire is the desire of the other. It is himself whom he pursues" (i.221).(11) This narcissistic fixation leads, the psychoanalytic discourse of homosexuality argues, to a fundamental delusion in the homosexual's erotic life, for when one man desires another, he only pretends to himself that he is in pursuit of the Other, while he is actually in pursuit of himself. Trapped within the prison of the Same, the homosexual subject is fundamentally mistaken about his or her relationship to reality, and incapable of attaining that relationship with the Other represented by genital heterosexual relations. As Jonathan Dollimore has argued, these theories tend:
to demonize homosexuality as fear of difference, or, more actively, as a drive towards undifferentiation and de-creation [. . .] And in all of them homosexuality echoes Augustinian privation--the more dangerous for being deeply, inherently inadequate, a kind of non-being and inauthenticity: an inimical absence which provokes paranoia and on to which is projected the fear of difference inherent within sexual difference (268).
At their most reactionary and demonizing, these theories lead to such extreme pathologizing of homosexuality as Christopher Lasch's claim that the homosexual "erases the more fundamental distinction between the self and the not-self, the source of every other distinction (xiv)." For Lasch, the homosexual becomes nothing less than an embodiment of primal chaos, oblivious to difference.
Gay theorists have taken various approaches to these discourses of the Same. In Sexual Dissidence, Jonathan Dollimore has investigated the categories of alterity that exist in relationships, aside from that of sexual difference (329-356). In "Homo-Narcissism," Michael Warner has looked at the presence of narcissism within heterosexuality, and shown how "modern homosexuality needs a discourse about homosexuality as a displacement of its own narcissistic sources" (206). In Homos, Leo Bersani has set out to recuperate the category of the Same, singing the praises of "the inestimable value of relations of sameness, of homo-relations" (6-7). Hoping to correct what he sees as a disproportionate emphasis on difference in current theory, Bersani sets out his project as one in which:
New reflection on homo-ness could lead us to a salutary devalorizing of difference--or, more exactly, to a notion of difference not as a trauma to be overcome (a view that, among other things, nourishes antagonistic relations between the sexes), but rather as a nonthreatening supplement to sameness. (7)
Bersani replaces the opposition of Sameness and Difference with "a vast network of near-sameness, a network characterized by relations of inaccurate replication" (146).
The notion of homosexuality as Sameness has made its way into the critical literature on Provincetown Playhouse through André Loiselle's 1992 essay "Paradigms of 1980s Québécois and Canadian Drama: Normand Chaurette's Provincetown Playhouse: juillet 1919, j'avais 19 ans and Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations." Taking a stance reminiscent of Christopher Lasch's, Loiselle draws upon the Freudian understanding of homosexuality as narcissism to define Charles. In his narcissism, homosexuality, insufficient grasp of reality, resistance to alterity, emotional immaturity and paranoia, Chaurette's characterization of Charles draws on the tradition which negatively construes homosexuality as a fear of difference. Loiselle takes the argument further, however, when he equates Charles's character flaws with those of the play, and proceeds to adopt this reading of the play as a symptom of a widespread decadence in Canadian theatre of the 1980s. Straying from the greater good of the Canadian nationalist project, the theatre of the 80s is figured by Loiselle as a homosexualized one, fixated on itself and oblivious to difference. Loiselle sums up his argument:
Hence the homosexual metaphor in Blood Relations and Provincetown Playhouse is not just an incidental device used by Chaurette and Pollock to represent their respective issues on stage. Rather, it is a manifestation of the contemporary narcissistic imagination. (103)
For Loiselle, homosexuals are narcissists, and narcissists are by their nature oblivious to the greater social good; therefore, this argument implies, the homosexual is inherently threatening to the greater good. Loiselle takes the discourse of the Same, as used by gay dramatist Chaurette, and turns it against gay drama in an argument that appropriates and reconfigures the desire for the Same into a sign of a crippling and dangerous perversion.(12)
As Robert Schwartzwald has shown, a similar vilifying of homosexuality took on a particularly significant role in the cultural critiques offered by certain Québec intellectuals who equated homosexuality with Québec's failure to achieve nationhood, especially in the wake of the defeat of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty association:
In learned discourse, intellectuals determined to bring Québec 'into' the world as a modern national community have been more apt to adopt the homophobic assignation of homosexuality as arrested development, and to rely upon this diagnosis to buttress explanations of Québec's long, halting progress toward self-determination. ("'Symbolic' Homosexuality" 67)
This intellectual discourse finds itself inscribed within Provincetown Playhouse. Charles Charles 38 is drawn not only as a homosexual, but as a case of arrested development as well. Not only is he doomed to repeat an event that occurred when he was nineteen years old, but he is also a man who asks for only nineteen candles on the cake for his thirty-eighth birthday (31). Charles Charles repeats; he does not mature. Yet the mere passage of time removes him from the person he was; in the nineteen years since his nineteenth birthday, he has become his own double--a Charles Charles 38 who both reflects his 19 year-old self and is double his earlier self's age. The simple passage of time makes it impossible for him to coincide with his younger self--they are divided into two separate theatrical figures. Charles compulsively repeats the events of his nineteenth birthday, but that does not mean he remains the same--the temporality of repetition inevitably renders him other than he was. In a Deleuzean dynamic, the repetition ensures difference.(13) The repetitions of July 19 do not transcend the passing of time, but accentuate it.
Charles Charles's nineteenth birthday not only was the occasion of a murder, but his sole appearance onstage as a playwright. The historical Provincetown Playhouse, the mythical nursery for modern American drama through the early, homosocial, anglophone sea plays of Eugene O'Neill, is transformed into the site for a gay, francophone theatre, one which, in the imagination of Charles, is confirmed by the presence of masters of American drama in the audience that night--Eugene O'Neill, Lee Strasberg and William Vaughn Moody (49). The performance becomes a fantasy of the marginalized validated by the hegemony; whether gay culture by the straight majority, North American francophones by anglophones, Canadian culture by the United States, or Québécois theatre by Broadway. On this level, Provincetown Playhouse can be interpreted as the story of a theatrical culture of arrested development, one which cannot progress to maturity.(14) The psychoanalytic view of homosexuality as arrested development, extended to Québec in cultural debates, becomes linked to the adolescent dramaturgy of The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty. In this interpretation, Charles's arrested development is seen as overdetermined by psychoanalytic, political and theatrical forces, and the traditional discourse of the Same is reconfirmed by Chaurette's drama.
This interpretation, however, still fails to account for many of the play's details, and makes the mistake of confounding the adolescent failure of The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty with the mature success of Provincetown Playhouse. Chaurette draws on these tropes of immaturity, narcissism, homosexuality and arrested development, but reshapes them toward more progressive and sophisticated ends.
Both Jane Moss and Robert Wallace have been more sensitive to the play's progressive aspects. Their readings of the play have focused on the tension between the play's homosexual artists and the homophobic judges. For them, the central opposition is between homosexual desire and bigotry; they both reintroduce difference by focusing on the tension between the gay artists and their homophobic opponents. This approach avoids the dismissal of homosexuality as narcissism found in Loiselle's reading, but it creates two problems. First, it moves the trial to the center of the play, even though the climax of the play, Charles's confession of his responsibility for the death of Andrews, takes place after the trial. Secondly, it assumes that Alvan and Winslow are convicted of the murder and go to their deaths because they dare not admit that they were in bed together during the time Andrews was drugged and put in the bag (Moss 290; Wallace 41).(15) For both Moss and Wallace, the play testifies to a fatality of a 'love that dare not speak its name'. This interpretation, however, is at odds with Winslow's earlier admission at the trial that he and Charles were lovers (75). The fact is, Alvan and Winslow's silences are never clearly accounted for in the text.
Rather than settle on a unambiguous, realistic motivation for these shared silences, it is more productive to understand it as the characters refer to it-- as a "blanc" (103-104)(16)--an absence that cannot be filled in by reference to the rest of the text. Like the seaside sounds that can be heard within the Provincetown Playhouse, like the latecomers who repeatedly interrupt The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty, the silence of Winslow and Alvan is the sign of an irreducible alterity, one that Charles cannot control. It finds its visual equivalent in the moment at which Charles discovers the two men together. Interestingly enough, he does not see them in a sexual act, but sleeping, something that disturbs Charles more deeply than sexual activity would have:
Winslow. Et puis Alvan. Tous les deux. Dans la chambre. Ils faisaient que dormir. . . dans le silence, ma foi ils souriaient. . . une tendresse qui m'a fait plus mal que si j'avais vu autre chose. . . ce soir-là, l'immolation de la beauté . . . (109) (17)
In their slumber, the lovers not only are seen as presenting Charles with evidence of desire that exists independently of Charles's, but they are also both totally oblivious to his presence and their slumbering dreams are kept completely removed from Charles, with smiles that indicate a tenderness from which Charles is excluded. No longer the three-headed gargoyle of the play's opening speech, Alvan and Winslow introduce alterity into the trio. In the calm, tender, passivity of their slumber, they testify to a realm of experience totally alien to Charles's vision of mastery, which he exhibits both in his monomaniacal artistic projects, and the murder of Andrews.
Within the representation of the Same in Provincetown Playhouse lies a fissure between two different visions of homosexuality, one violent and obsessed with control, the other tender and passive. The violence is presented from the outset as an imitation of heterosexual behavior, proving that the homosexual still is subject to the normative construction of masculinity despite his sexual orientation:
Ce jour-là, Winslow s'etait battu avec un Noir, sur la plage. On reparla beaucoup de cette bagarre par la suite. . . comme s'il devait y avoir un rapport avec notre pièce. . . Tu te souviens, Charles Charles, comme tu étais fier de Winslow, cet après-midi-là, comme il était beau ton amant quand il s'est relevé, l'air de dire à la face du monde entier: je sais me battre! J'aime les garçons, mais je suis capable me battre!(48)(18)
In accepting violence as an attribute of masculinity, Charles and Winslow also accept an ethos of domination and oppression. Rather than identifying with Blacks as victims of oppression, they relegate the Blacks to the status of objects who have been subjugated to prove the virility of their oppressors. Eager to defeat homophobic charges of effeminacy, they prove themselves masculine by becoming violent and racist. Although Charles may claim that there was no connection between the fight on the beach and the murder of Andrews, they are ideologically linked in a common definition of a masculinity that can only prove itself through violence. At this point, the homophobic judges and the racist gays prove themselves to be cut from the same cloth.
The murder of Frank Andrews becomes the locus for the violence against women, children and racial minorities in a display of masculine ''beauty.'' These persecuted Others, who have been banished from the stage in Charles's dramaturgy of the Same, return. What looked like simple omission is revealed as violence. Just as Charles wants his experimental drama validated by both the high priests of American realism--Moody, O'Neill, Strasberg--and their deity, Stanislavski, he also wants his masculinity validated by the norms of the status quo. For all his purported iconoclasm, he is caught in his desire to be accepted by the Other. As a result, the Other can never be banished, but returns at the heart of the very ritual designed to celebrate the triumph of the Same. Even though Charles tries to repress the presence of the slain Black child, substituting a rabbit or a tractor, and even though Chaurette keeps his corpse out of sight, Frank Andrews's slain body reasserts itself at the center of the play.
Although it may appear at first that Chaurette's Charles is narcissistic by virtue of his homosexuality, it becomes clear that it is not homosexuality that fears the Other, but, instead, it is machismo which fears the Other, regardless of the sexual orientation of the subject. Chaurette has recast a stereotype of homosexuality into a play that questions definitions of masculinity in gay life. Andrè Loiselle's accusation of this play as a work of narcissism could not be further from the truth. Normand Chaurette's play brilliantly dramatizes the destructive potentiality of a gay identity that unquestioningly accepts and perpetuates masculinist ideology. In embracing its claims to violent superiority, it ensures its own undoing. This problem of gay and masculine identity is widespread, for, as Leo Bersani has observed:
In his desires, the gay man always runs the risk of identifying with culturally dominant images of misogynist maleness. For the sexual drives of gay men do, after all, extend beyond the rather narrow circle of other politically correct gay men. A more or less secret sympathy with heterosexual male misogyny carries with it the narcissistically gratifying reward of confirming our membership in (and not simply our erotic appetite for) the privileged male society. (64)
In Provincetown Playhouse, the marginalized look for confirmation from the hegemony: homosexual men from heterosexuals, the experimental stage from the American theatrical establishment, the francophone North American culture from the anglophone. But the confirmation never comes. Despite his desperate acceptance of the heterosexual definition of masculinity as mastery, Charles and his friends remain Other, condemned to execution and incarceration. The bloody Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty cannot hope to win Charles a place within the mainstream. As a homosexual, he remains situated beyond the pale of the society whose values he has internalized, but which will not accept him as an insider.
In their shared silence, Alvan and Winslow choose to remain outside the pale, ultimately unknowable to the judges, Charles and the audience. Their final speeches identify themselves with the attributes of the feminine that Charles has tried so hard to efface. In this play without female characters, Alvan summons up the image of his mother as a young woman, "elle etait belle" (105)(19), and shifts from the violent Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty to nostalgic contemplation. Similarly, Winslow introduces an aesthetic opposed to the megalomaniacal drive toward control that distinguishes Charles's masculine aesthetic. He dreams of sketching the sunset; not forcing his spectacle on the world, but responding to the world's beauty. These images, which are spoken out of silence and at a time near death, are images of aesthetic contemplation that evoke a set of values very different from the culture of masculinity.
Provincetown Playhouse creatively refashions the traditional discourse of Sameness, and, in so doing, moves beyond both destructive homophobic simplifications and facile gay self-affirmations to a serious questioning of gay identity within a sexist society that equates mastery and violence with masculinity. In this unsettling drama, alternative values lie at the fringes of its world--in the silent spectacle of two men in bed with a certain tenderness in their smiling faces. In this idyllic moment, there is no fear of difference, no violent oppression under the banner of the Same, but "a notion of difference not as a trauma to be overcome [. . .], but rather as a nonthreatening supplement to sameness" (Bersani 7). The brief glimpses of natural beauty and mutual tenderness throughout the play signal to us from afar, much as the sound of the sea and the harmonica permeate the immature and violent theatrics of The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty.
In Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j'avais 19 ans, we initially seem to be met with a gay world, one from which Otherness has been banished; there are four gay men who seem to operate within a single psyche. On further examination, as Wallace and Moss have demonstrated, we see these four characters running up against the intolerance of a homophobic system. Looking even further, however, we see a gay protagonist who is still adopting a definition of masculinity that generates homophobia, and a gay world that is destroyed by its inability to create its own values. The Sacrificial Slaying of Beauty is ultimately an act of self-destruction, and is best understood as the ritual of a counterculture that is arrested in its development, one caught up in an unthinking acceptance of the values of the hegemonic culture. The tragedy of Provincetown Playhouse is not, as has been argued, a tragedy of the closet, but of a gay society that has not yet repudiated a heterosexually dominated definition of what it means to be a man.
My thanks to Stephanie Barbé Hammer, of the University of California-Riverside, and Jim Gulledge, for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
1.Throughout this paper, I will use the term "homosexuality" to refer to a construction of
same-sex desire deriving from a late nineteenth century clinical tradition of such desire as
perversion, and "gay" to refer to a cultural and political movement opposed to homophobia and
arguing for the acceptance of male same-sex desire.
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2. All quotations in the body of this paper are taken from the original text. The corresponding
passages from William Boulet's English translation are contained in the endnotes. "The
spotlight's on three youths, shrouded in the bluish haze of cigarette smoke, huddled in a corner
like some three-headed gargoyle, eyeing the audience warily. The look lost, bewildered, like
circus animals before the show, which is what they are, these young blond beasts, blessed with
good looks if little else. Their clothes are straight out of 1919, and their fingers and chests are
alight with the dazzle of occult insignia: the Lamashtu Amulet, the Thorn of the Holy Crown, the
Turquoise Cicada, and the Jade of the Marquis of Tai" (23).
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7. "If only we could perform in a larger hall, or somewhere totally secluded. But no, we were
performing above a fish market. There were fish smells. Music coming from downstairs. We
had everything going against us" (34).
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10. "One night I even decided to replace the bag by a small rabbit. Every time we said 'the
spotlight's on the bag' the rabbit would start hopping around. It was a bit much. People didn't
quite understand why we were making such a big fuss over a rabbit. But I enjoyed myself like
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11. For one of the finest histories of homosexuality in psychoanalytic thought, see Lewes. Lewes is
particularly useful in showing how Freud's theories of homosexualities were far more complex
and openended, and less prescriptive than, many of his successors. See Dollimore, 233-268, for
a very useful survey of modern theories of homosexuality and fear of difference, only some of
which are rooted in psychoanalysis.
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12. Although Loiselle acknowledges the existence of less damning theories of queer desire, he uses
the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss to justify the use of a conservative and normative
understanding, "since it explains sexual orientations in terms that reflect the bias of the majority
of spectators" (100). Loiselle's insistence on the greater good of nation-building elsewhere in the
article here manifests itself in a belief in the validity of majority belief. Such an interpretive
move closes the door on any alternative beliefs as having any exegetical validity, and also
forecloses any investigation of homophobia in the majority.
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14. For a sophisticated reading of another text with a similar, problematic relationship between gay
and Québécois identity, Michel Tremblay's Hosanna, see Schwartzwald, "From Authenicity to
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17. "I saw Winslow. . . and then Alvan. I saw them both . . . in the bedroom. They were sleeping
quietly. They were both smiling. It's the tenderness which hit me, more than if I'd seen . . .that
night . . . the sacrificial Slaying . . ." (50).
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18. "That day Winslow had picked a fight with a coloured boy on the beach. Remember? They
sure talked a lot about that fight afterwards, as if there were any connection to the play.
Remember, Charles, how proud you were of Winslow that afternoon, your lover Winslow, how
handsome he looked when he got up, as if to say to the world: I can fight, you know. I might like
boys but I can still fight" (31).
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Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
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