Sodomy on stage: It's a sin

Next week a new play opens at the National Theatre which shows sodomy on the stage. Should we be shocked, or has one of the great biblical crimes become just another artistic cliché?

By Mark Simpson
Thursday 27 February 2014 04:47
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Buggery isn't what it used to be. In 1980 Howard Brenton's play The Romans in Britain provoked a scandal with its representation on stage at the National Theatre of the anal and oral rape of a young naked male Celt by Roman soldiers. The tabloids were apoplectic with sweaty-palmed rage and Mary Whitehouse, a self-appointed moral guardian of the time, brought a private prosecution against the play's director Michael Bogdanov for "procuring an act of gross indecency".

Twenty-one years later, in what might be interpreted as staged sodomy's coming of age, next week sees the opening, also at the National Theatre, of Mark "Shopping and Fucking" Ravenhill's new play, Mother Clap's Molly House, which he promises will feature "plenty of buggery", and aims to turn the stage into an 18th-century all-male sex-party (a molly house was a tavern where working-class men, drank, cross-dressed and had sex). Will anyone even bat a jaded eye?

Oh, you can bank on an outcry. For old time's sake the Daily Mail will bleat about "subsidised sodomy" at a publicly funded theatre and the toothless successor to Whitehouse's moral junta have already made some noises. But the bottom line is that in the theatre anal sex has become commonplace. Banal, even. The shocking truth about simulated anal sex between male actors on stage is that it's not, of itself, terribly shocking, any more than the idea of it going on for real backstage. However, Ravenhill reckons he has an ace up his, ahem, sleeve – he aims not just to show men sodomising each other on stage but show them actually enjoying it.

"I think that sex between men has tended to be represented as either a kind of sexless romanticism, such as in Beautiful Thing [a play by Jonathan Harvey]", explains Ravenhill, "or as a climactic moment – usually in the form of violent anal sex, bordering on rape." He cites plays such as Antony Neilson's Penetrator (a squaddie victim of bullying is buggered with a broom handle), Simon Bennett's Drummers, (a young criminal rapes his brother for betraying him), and Sarah Kane's Blasted (a male journalist is raped by a soldier), but cheerfully admits his own culpability: "I've tended to be one of the greatest culprits." At the end of Shopping and Fucking one of the rent boys begs for a "a knife or screwdriver" to be shoved up his backside. Ravenhill argues that what's missing from representations of anal-sex is pleasure. "What we don't have is portrayals of it on stage as something done for fun, which is, after all, the usual motivation."

If Mother Clap's Molly House succeeds in showing the shockingly pleasurable side of buggery at the National Theatre perhaps it might prove as much a cultural watershed as The Romans in Britain. Since it was staged in 1980, using anal sex as a metaphor for imperialism, sodomy between men has been completely colonised by violent cliché – and not only in the theatre, but in films and even TV soaps.

Time was when you had to be sent down to see such things. For some time prison movies have had no chance of being taken seriously without the statutory shower gang-bang scene – a proud rite of passage for many a young actor from Tim Robbins (Shawshank Redemption) to Ed Norton (American History X). However, anal sex has become so popular that it is no longer confined to prison movies. Pulp Fiction teased us with the possibility in that very curious basement redneck "gimp" scene (a Deliverance flashback?); in Friends and Neighbours Jason Patric reminisced fondly about how he took part in a gangbang of a boy at High School; and in Me, Myself & Irene a policeman has a live chicken's head inserted into his anus. Some gross-out comedies are perhaps already anticipating in their sniggersome disavowing way Ravenhill's desire to acknowledge the fun of anal sex: in Me, Myself & Irene a split-personality Jim Carrey wakes up to find he's used a dildo on himself while having sex with a woman, and Road Trip features a young man getting turned on to the pleasures of anal sex when a nurse assists him in providing a semen sample with her gloved finger(s).

Arse attacks have also made it onto TV. Not only is there a series on the American channel HBO practically dedicated to them (the male prison drama Oz, also shown on Channel 4), anal sex has even reached Hollyoaks, also Channel 4, in the form of a male rape hour-long "special" where a lad was violated over the bonnet of his Mini-Metro by a young footballer.

What's truly scandalous, however, is not just how often this meta-anal cliché has been deployed on stage and screen, or even the way that the audience just lies there and takes it, but the way in which every playwright/scriptwriter lazily reaching for it seems to think that they are being so original, so fearless, so visceral. Possibly the worst practitioner of the meta-anal cliché is Irvine Welsh. In his play You'll Have Had Your Hole the audience is violated by a monstrous conceit. Two men kidnap a young man, tie him up, torture and rape him. One literally screws him, while the other metaphorically penetrates him by screwing his girlfriend (calling out his name while doing it). Nor was this Welsh's first foray into the colon of the popular unconscious. The film of his novel The Acid House, for instance, has three anal intrusion moments – a bloke watching his dad being buggered blind by his mam wearing a strap-on, a nasty squatter who sodomises the soft upstairs neighbour's worthless wife and then, just in case we missed the significance of this, knocks a hole through the soft man's floor from below and plugs an extension cord into his socket to steal his juice. And the film of Trainspotting begins with some eye-wateringly large suppositories.

Why do they do it? And why do we let them get away with doing it to us? Partly because in a "sex positive" world anal sex is the last naughty, filthy, thing we can do – and partly because it's the easiest way to dramatise literally the "crisis of masculinity" and the ambivalence of relations between men. The anus is the "weak spot" in the male body – and God saw fit to add temptation to vulnerability by giving all men a prostate gland. However hard or phallic or good at spitting a bloke may be, he still carries a secret "manhole" with him wherever he goes. In a consumer culture which is encouraging men to say "yes" to pleasure and sensuality there is an anxiety about the "yes" of sexual passivity which still needs to disavowed. Men are still saying "no" to being penetrated – but it happens anyway. The depictions of "male rape" are really a kind of a rape of the male. "No" always means "yes", at least in plays and films and soaps.

But ultimately it comes back to Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodomy is a biblical crime, defined as non penile-vaginal intercourse – it is not gender-specific, or in fact anal-specific (oral sex, for instance is also a form of sodomy, and still punishable under anti-sodomy statutes in several US States). Nor is sodomy sexuality-specific. The important thing about sodomy is not whom you do it to but that it's non-reproductive, sex-for-its-own-sake. This is what the Cities of the Plain were levelled for – and why Lot's kinky wife was turned to a pillar of salt – she couldn't resist "looking back" at the titillating scene.

Male homosexuality in general, and male anal sex in particular, might be the epitome of bestial lust, mostly to those who've never tried it. But in a post-pill, post-marital, post-monogamy society we're all – male and female, gay and straight – tangoing in Sodom. Anal sex is such a "hot" issue because, not just because it represents anxious identities, but also because it symbolises the non-reproductive, non-romantic use of sex we're all making: one up the bum for fun – no harm done.

As Ravenhill points out, "before the advent of reliable contraception in the 20th century anal sex was the only reliable form of contraception – the molly house was a place where men could go and have fun without any consequences, or responsibility". This, of course, is why women like Mary Whitehouse think we're all doomed. Other women, however, might take a more pragmatic view of sodomy. Women like the madame who appears at the end of Ravenhill's play to buy the molly house – because of the popularity of molly houses her female brothel has gone bust. Says Ravenhill: "She announces that God came to her in a dream and told her: 'It's a bugger's world. Arse will always triumph over c--t.'"

'Mother Clap's Molly House': Royal National Theatre Lyttleton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), now previewing, opens 4 September

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