We saw this play about S/M at the Magic Theater on Friday, called “Pleasure + Pain.” Despite the somewhat obvious title, it wasn’t half bad; at times on the obvious and overwritten side, and definitely in the “plea for understanding” vein… but with complicated and nuanced characters, and some genuinely interesting ideas.
And one of the most interesting ideas was one that wound up bugging me the most at the end… and it’s what I want to talk about here. (Warning: Big time “giving away the whole dramatic ending” spoiler alert.)
The device I found so interesting was this: To represent the fantasy life of the main character Peggy, they had a hunky man in a cage, with whom she was playing in various kinky ways. Or at least, he was in the cage at the beginning of the play. As her fantasy life began intruding more and more into her real life, the man in the cage escaped, and kept showing up at inopportune moments, refusing to go quietly back into the cage and trying to get her to come into the cage with him… and he switched from being a submissive to an increasingly insistent top. It was a surprisingly effective way to express the experience of having your fantasies becoming harder to ignore, and more demanding of your attention — to have them made into a physical presence, both in the form of the man and the form of the cage itself.
And now comes the spoiler. At the end of the play, Peggy finally allows herself to experience and explore her submissive fantasies. At the end of this scene, she finally steps into the cage — and the bars of the cage dramatically fly apart, and go clang in pieces on the floor.
Now, this bugged me for two reasons. Partly, I thought it was just really bad theater. So obvious, so heavy-handed, so unoriginal. Yes, yes, when you finally allow yourself to be who you are, the bars of the prison fly open and you’re free. Thank you for sharing.
But what really bugged me wasn’t that the symbolism was so obvious.
What bugged me was that it was wrong.
If the cage represents the place that her sexual fantasies have in her life… well, you know, when you come out in some sexual way, it’s not as if the divide between fantasy and reality disappears. It’s not as if your fantasies suddenly become reality. One of the hardest, most complicated lessons that adults have to learn is that acting out fantasies is NEVER the same as the fantasy itself. Sometimes the acting out is disappointing; sometimes it wildly exceeds your expectations; sometimes it goes off in some totally other direction that you would never in a million years have expected.
But it’s not the same. When you come out — as queer or kinky or a fetishist or whatever, but let’s say kinky for the moment — you still have the cage in the corner, with all your fantasy characters in it. You still have the cage, with the adoring and perfectly compliant submissive beauty… or the cruel but loving master/mistress who’s completely fascinated with you and always knows exactly how much you can take… or the cruel and heartless tyrant who doesn’t give a damn how much you can take… or the wide-eyed innocent weeping and struggling over their defilement… or the wide-eyed innocent gasping with joy over their defilement…
(Or Alan Rickman as Snape. Boy, folks, that one is just not going away…)
And you still have your life, and your partner or partners, who have their own cages with their own characters that hopefully overlap yours… not 100%, but enough.
The bars of the cage don’t fly apart. They just get tangled up in your life: sometimes in a complicated and beautiful weave, sometimes in a hopeless mess, and hopefully in a way that’s interesting and fulfilling and satisfying. But the cage in the corner of your life — and the people in it — are not going anywhere.