Sexual Spectacles: Theatricality and the Performance of Sex in Early Encounters in the Pacific
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Sexual Spectacles:
Theatricality and the Performance of Sex in Early Encounters in the Pacific

The history of cross-cultural encounters is normally written as a legacy of pain: a story of conquest, exploitation, far-reaching cultural changes, and disruptions. Technologically dominant European powers impose their will on nonliterate peoples through a combination of military force, religious subterfuge and medial superiority (the power of the written and printed word). While in no way wishing to mediate this legacy of pain, it needs to be stressed that cross-cultural contacts were also marked by pleasure: aesthetic, ludic, epistemological, and sexual. It is on this other pole of colonial history that I wish to concentrate in an attempt to elucidate some of the discursive preconditions of the colonial enterprise as they were prepared for in the first contacts between Europeans and Pacific peoples in the mid-18th century. The performance of sex will be analyzed from two interlocking perspectives: as a complex of theatrical metaphors and in its contemporary theoretical meaning of being performative rather than prescriptive. It is on the theatrical dimension of sex that I wish initially to focus. The examples, drawn entirely from first contacts between Europeans and Tahitians, will be followed and concluded by an attempt to situate the spectacle of sexual contact in a theory of performative encounter.1

Metaphors of Spectacle

When Louis-Antoine de Bougainville first glimpsed the high peaks and luscious vegetation of Tahiti on 5 April 1768, probably only the second European ship’s captain to do so, the metaphors that sprang to mind and that he recorded in his logbook, were theatrical ones: “The aspect of this coast, elevated like an amphitheater, offered us the most enchanting spectacle” (1772:214). For the next 10 days, during which the two ships, La Boudeuse and L’Étoile lay at anchor in Matavai Bay, Bougainville and his fellow shipmates and explorers encountered a seeming unbroken succession of “scenes” and “spectacles.” Whether of the pastoral type—two Tahitians lying under a tree with one playing an air on the noseflute, a scene “worthy of Boucher’s brush” (220)—or in the form of repeated erotic encounters in public, as actual dance performances, or the famous self-presentation of a naked “Venus” on board ship to lusty [End Page 67]

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1. This engraving, A Dance at Otaheite, was done by J.K. Sherwin after John Webber and published in James Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784). Webber, who accompanied Cook on his third and final voyage, is generally acknowledged to have produced the largest collection of ethnographically accurate images from the early voyages of exploration. In this representation of Tahitian dance both dress and movements correspond closely to written accounts.

Phrygian shepherds (the French sailors), in each case, the vocabulary is drawn from the theatre: it is almost invariably a “scene” or “spectacle.”

As we shall see, the metaphors of spectacle employed in the French accounts are by no means just a peculiarity of the French language—even James Cook’s arid seaman’s prose can sometimes find no other word but “scene” or “spectacle” with which to render the sights and events that unfolded before his eyes or were related to him.2 The theatrical metaphors that abound are, it shall be argued, not just stylistic embellishments but rather symptoms of deeper-seated fundamental categories of perception that can be embraced by the term “theatricality.” In its many manifestations, theatricality is one of the modes of perception that then, and still today, dominates the way we perceive Pacific peoples.

For the purposes of this article, theatricality is broadly defined, following Elisabeth Burns, as an historically and culturally determined “mode of perception” (1972:13). While Burns is concerned with exploring the ways theatre and role-playing in social life are laminated, the focus here will be on the links between representation and perception. Theatricality as a mode of perception means that things and actions, peoples and places, are not in themselves theatrical—they possess no inherent theatricality—but rather are rendered as such by a combination of aesthetic conventions and discursive practices. In turn...


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