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Reviewed by:
  • S/M, and: The Libertine
  • Elizabeth J. Montgomery
S/M. By Mary Zimmerman. Lookingglass Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, Chicago. 9 February 1996.
The Libertine. By Stephen Jeffreys. Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. 13 March 1996.

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Figure 1.

Elizabeth Barry (Martha Plimpton) and John Milmot, Second Earl of Rochester (John Malkovich) in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Jeffrey’s The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

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Figure 2.

The Marquis de Sade (Andrew White) with the Servant Girl (Meredith Zinner) in the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of S/M, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Photo: Mary Zimmerman.

Within a two month period, the Steppenwolf Theatre’s two stages have served up two contemporary interpretations of notorious sexual renegades. Restoration England’s John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and revolutionary France’s Marquis de Sade share a reputation for outrageous sexual conduct. Both men were deeply involved with the historical events of their times; Rochester played an important role in Charles II’s restoration court while Sade was enmeshed in the events and aftermath of the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution. It is these two men’s shared passion for the theatre, however, rather than their roles in history that emerges most strikingly from the Chicago productions of S/M and The Libertine.

Both S/M and The Libertine assert the importance of theatricality as an epistemology: for both Sade and Rochester, theatre provides a truer, richer form of existence than “real life.” S/M uses an exploration of the lives of Sade and Sacher-Masoch in order to create a theatre piece which interrogates the concepts of performance and of “history”; despite its reliance on historical evidence (letters, journals), S/M ultimately relinquishes any claim to historical authenticity or completeness in favor of an exploration of the idea of performing, in the words of the play’s subtitle, a “dream biography.” In contrast, The Libertine relentlessly pursues the character of Rochester, using his fascination with the theatre as a way of understanding the man, of performing his biography as definitively as possible.

Mary Zimmerman’s growing reputation as a skillful author/adapter rests on her creation of engaging theatre from unlikely and often unwieldy textual sources, in recent years including critically-acclaimed adaptations of such unlikely sources as 1001 Arabian Nights, the Chinese novel Journey to the West, and Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks. In S/M, Zimmerman eschews narrative story-telling, instead creating a series of vignettes and vivid stage images drawn both from Sade and Sacher-Masoch’s lives and from their literary works. Although the play features scenes depicting both Sade and Sacher-Masoch, Sade’s story dominates the production.

Staged in a studio space, the set is comprised mainly of the bare space delineated by a rectangle of three tiers of scaffolding, each holding a single row of chairs. Actors drag on various props and stage pieces when appropriate—a large table, a miniature stage—but the mise en scène is created primarily through the effects generated by lighting and the actor’s costumed bodies. The unique set places each spectator in a front-row seat, highlighting the voyeurism inherent in watching the theatre, while simultaneously creating multiple perspectives from which to watch the action.

S/M blurs the boundaries between actor and character immediately as actors visibly move props and costumes on and around the scaffolding before the “action” of the play begins. All the actors in this production enacted multiple roles, disrupting any easy identification with individual characters. Even the Marquis de Sade, the piece’s core presence, remains something of a cipher, never fully psychologized. In an early scene, two young girls search for the Marquis de Sade in the dictionary. To their disappointment, the girls find only the short entry: French pervert. The play unfolds in part as coda and rebuttal to the paucity of this definition, displaying scene after scene from Sade’s life, from letters by and about him, from his own plays. Sade ultimately emerges as complex and enigmatic, a man who resists characterization. The...

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pp. 374-377
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