|Laura Campbell in THE SURRENDER. Photo by Paul Kolnik.|
Adapted by her for the stage from her book The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir, the play The Surrender by Toni Bentley is currently enjoying its American premiere at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. If the Marquis de Sade and The Story of O are your cup of tea, this paean to the joys of sexual submission, masochism and, especially, anal sex may be right up your alley. Otherwise, you might just find it more of a turn-off than a turn-on.
There is no denying that Ms Bentley is a highly talented, courageous and eloquent writer and she is much to be admired for the work she has created. Similarly, the star of the play, Laura Campbell, displays considerable talent, courage and eloquence of her own in her depiction of the playwright’s persona as she transitions from a woman with quasi-nymphomaniacal tendencies into one obsessed with anal sex in all its aspects: not only physical and emotional but bio-mechanical and spiritually transendental as well. And so, given my admiration for the work of both Ms Bentley and Ms Campbell, I can truly say that I appreciated this play. But appreciation isn’t enjoyment and, given the play’s subject matter, I can’t really say that I enjoyed it.
The Surrender, in its focus on anal sex, is presented as being a “sensual glimpse into a taboo erotic experience” but that’s something of an overstatement. Anal intercourse hasn’t really qualified as much of a taboo for quite some time. I can recall that, as far back as the 1990s, those who saw themselves as the sexual avant-garde were proclaiming that “anal is the new oral.” So much for the “taboo” aspect of this supposed “taboo erotic experience.”
But if anal sex isn’t a “taboo” experience, is it at least an “erotic” one? Well, for many I’m sure it is - but you wouldn’t really know it from the way it’s presented here. To be sure, the play’s set, a “lush, modern-day woman’s boudoir” has been designed to be “sexually suggestive” and the very lovely Ms Campbell, decked out in a black silk dressing down, garters, black stockings, and very high black heels, certainly contributes to the play’s erotic allure. (Even more so as Ms Campbell’s gown opens as she moves about, displaying her bare thighs and buttocks.) But as for the play’s anal sex aspects, not so much.
One of the reasons for this is that Ms Bentley devotes considerable verbiage to describing the biomechanical aspects of the human body accommodating (or discouraging) anal intercourse – the digestive system, peristaltic contractions, involuntary inner anal sphincter control, and voluntary external anal sphincter control. If you enjoy sexually fantasizing about your gynecologist or proctologist, maybe it will work for you. Otherwise, I doubt if you’ll find it even as erotic as watching Miley Cyrus twerking.
What is most apparent to me is that Ms Bentley simply is not comfortable in her own skin. She is a mass of contradictions, does not know who she is or who she wants to be, and is continually being torn between her plaintive desire to fit in and her urge to prove just how different she is from everyone else. As a child, she was raised as an atheist in the Bible Belt and assumed the persona of “an atheist who longs to believe.” In subsequent years, she began crossing herself before going onstage as a ballerina, not because the sign of the cross had any meaning for her but because others did it and it seemed to make them feel better. She collected rosaries because she “figured that if they were old and French, they would be suffused by the faith of previous believers and…some of their faith might rub off on me.” For the remainder of her life, she continued to search for God – albeit in the strangest of places!
Her feet didn’t hurt when she danced in her toe shoes but pained her terribly when she removed them. To her, “This paradoxical marriage of physical discomfort and euphoria was my first taste of transcendence.” Apparently concurrently, she began to identify with the Catholic saints and “honed in on the women who starved, who bled, who beat themselves with birch branches, who woke up screaming in the middle of the night pierced by God’s love.” We’re witnessing the birth of a true masochist.
When she took to spending innumerable hours before the mirror, she saw herself becoming both subject and object and denied that her behavior was narcissistic. Indeed, eventually her mirror image was more real to her than she was to herself or, as she put it: “I relinquished my entire perception of myself to my reflection….I existed solely in the mirror….”
But it is not just Ms Bentley’s masochistic tendencies and lack of a sense of self that are so striking, she also holds to several ideas that are so much at variance with conventional thinking that they are, indeed, to be marveled at. In an age in which “equality” – social, sexual, economic, you name it – is generally looked upon favorably, she is glad to proclaim just the opposite. As she sees it, “Equality negates progress, prevents action. But a top and a bottom, well, they can get to the moon and back before equals can negotiate who pays, who gets laid, and who gets the blame.”
Similarly, unlike most of us, for whom “love” is one of our species’ highest and most desirable ideals and “lust” is little more than an animal instinct, Ms Bentley has it the other way around, proclaiming that “I trust lust more than love.”
Little wonder that she gets the sex act ass-backwards too.