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Contained as we’ve been in a black-box style apartment for the last week and change, I’ve found myself oddly preoccupied with the false gestures that fill me with such vital embarrassment whenever I’ve gone to see a play or musical live. Even quite good plays, and quite thrillingly-produced musicals; even high-budget film adaptations of thrillingly-produced musicals. I like musicals, generally! Yet I always have to spend at least the first ten or fifteen minutes after the house lights dim trying to writhe as inconspicuously as possible, merely from the knowledge that the actors are only pretending not to see me, and call one another by false names, and so on. I writhe from the fact that it is a play, which does not make sense to me – I’ve never been tricked into attending the theater, the actors know that they are acting, there’s nothing inherently embarrassing about telling a story or pretending. And yet from that first boisterous ensemble trot onstage, I am seized with an urge to die and melt into the ground.
I don’t think it’s merely a dislike of bad or cheaply-staged theater; nor do I think it’s a Stanislavski thing — I don’t much fetishize accessibility — staginess doesn’t bother me in the same way. I like staginess. (VAUDEVILLIAN: I like staginess. I’m a transsexual!) I’d prefer the broad affection of (Fierstein-style) drag to the self-congratulatory disavowal of the inherent transphobia in the sort of “serious” cross-gender casting where women play Shakespearean heroes. You know the kind I mean, I think.
A WOMAN WHO HAS BEEN CAST AS A MALE ROLE IN A SHAKESPEAREAN PLAY
Seriousness pervades the theater. Ushers speak in more-than-usually hushed-in-awe tones. The photos of the cast members in the playbill sparkle with both brilliance and reserve. The Woman-Hero bursts onstage and hurls herself into a chair halfway through a monologue where she does a lot of “hunh”-style puffs of laughter and possibly buffs her nails against her tunic. She sits down in a gesture the audience will immediately recognize as “manspreading,” and laugh knowingly in response. At some point during a scene with either Ophelia or Gertrude, the Woman-Hero will roll her eyes and do a “Women, amirite?” gesture hidden behind her non-gesturing hand. Sulkiness, grimacing, eye-rolling, pocket-stuffing, wall-hitting, collar-loosening, conspicuous screaming into the spotlight to draw attention to serious little flecks of masculine spittle will abound. (I haven’t seen Ruth Negga’s Hamlet. I’ve seen enough.) The atmosphere, generally, will be something like: Isn’t it brilliant how the idea of a woman acting like a man reveals how inherently ridiculous men are? Now they can all stop. The staging says: I love boyishness, but I hope you’re not thinking of going on T. I heard it turns you into a raging monster. Have you tried being Eileen Myles? The playbill says: When women wear men’s button-downs…that’s feminism.
SHUTTING A DOOR AGAINST A STORM
It’s just such a show of struggling, isn’t it? How many times in your life have you had to shut an open door against a storm, as opposed to shutting a door against a report of an open storm?
POURING A DRINK
TAKING OFF A COAT
EVERYONE IN THE ENSEMBLE RUNNING OUT ONSTAGE TO SORT-OF MUSICALLY “GREET” ONE ANOTHER BEFORE THE PLAY’S REALLY STARTED
Hey! Hey there! Oh, hey! Let’s do a big “recognizing” look and then handshake, hug, pat on the back, pause and draw back to look at one another again in recognition, then go back in for another hug! Let’s throw more greetings on the pile – Whoa, over there! I can see someone else! Can you see how much I’m seeing them? Fulsome, fulsome handshake! I’m gonna jog over here, now. Yeah! Should we high-five? Yeah! Okay, okay, let’s settle in for some Listening time, now.
I don’t have the same problem with monologues, or dialogue that doesn’t “sound” like how people talk in real life, or with the song-and-dance aspect of a musical; I think it’s the particular attempt to inject directness into the sort of action I might perform periodically or even every day in my own life, and the subsequent sounding of an immediate false note as they attempt to imbue the action with characterization, rather than taking refuge in increased staginess, in a further, stylized remove from reality: It’s the same reason I so dislike this preoccupation with whether a TV character’s coffee cup is really full.
There’s something simultaneously very provincial and insufferably self-mythologizing about claiming to be both “too real” to watch an inauthentic-seeming moment of prop work and “too sensitive” to watch actors act. Particularly because the problem lies less often with the actor and more often with the prop — the door is obviously attached to a lightweight set and wobbles when closed, the drinker is not actually thirsty so the gesture of sipping has nothing to do with drinking and everything to do with conveying repression/resentment/flintiness, the coat was protecting no one from “the cold,” etc. Of course the same problem is true on TV and in film; it’s just easier to pretend there’s really a storm when I’ve got some plausible-seeming fake snow to look at.
But if the problem isn’t falsity, what is it? I’m inclined to think what I cringe at is bad guessing. A Woman-Hero playing Macbeth or whomever strikes the transmasculine viewer as the cheerfully-condescending cis interlocutor who says something like, “Bet you can’t wait to close that pay gap!” when you mention you’re thinking of transitioning. I’ve seen enough “passing of the peace” interludes in church services to know that whenever a big group of people who mostly know one another are instructed to greet one another after they’ve already gathered in the same place, they resort to that same forcibly-hearty, reluctantly-enthusiastic, showy sort of running through the paces of Recognition. “Oh, peace to you too, peace.” It’s embarrassing then, too. Worse than embarrassing. Sincerity can cover up a multitude of other sins, but it can’t substitute an accurate guess for an inaccurate one.