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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Submit to Lulu

I'm fascinated by Franz Wedekind's Lulu plays, which are the basis for both the classic Louise Brooks film Pandora's Box and the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu is the kind of woman men ruin their lives for, and her romances tend to end in syphilis, suicide, or murder. She's often regarded as a femme fatale, but in my view the fatalities owe more to pre-feminist sexism than malice on her part; Lulu keeps bumping up against male expectations that she cannot/will not fulfill, and the men respond very, very badly. The play exists in several versions, since Wedekind had to rewrite his original single-play version to get past the censors, and Wedekind revised the details continually, expanding one play into two. The plays are also filled with odd details that don't necessarily advance the narrative but do lend texture to his expressionistic social critique. As a result, the material is bottomless; every engagement turns up fresh connections and possibilities.

Anyway, there's a scene in some versions of the play in which Lulu browbeats her favorite lover, Dr. Schon, into writing a breakup letter to his fiance. Lulu dictates the letter, and he writes it while moaning about how ruinous this is. Sure, it's a femme fatale moment, but Lulu and Dr. Schon have had a tortured on-again off-again relationship for a long time (he was her foster father before he was her lover; such is the ickyness of Wedekind's world). It only recently occurred to me that they may have done dry runs for this letter-writing domination before. It may be that writing (or transcribing) this letter, which destroys Dr. Schon's forthcoming marriage along with his hard-won reputation, is the most erotically thrilling moment of Dr. Schon's life. Compare and contrast to the depressing fetishes of financial domination and erotic blackmail (don't worry; this is a link to a Salon article, not a smut site). 

One big difference between the silent Pandora's Box and the Lulu plays is the representation of (big spoiler warning) Jack the Ripper, who murders Lulu at the end. In the silent film he's sentimentalized, a Nice Guy with a Hands of Orlac problem. The plays have no time for such nonsense. Wedekind's Jack (who isn't necessarily meant to be Jack the Ripper, but he is a murderer of prostitutes in Victorian Whitechapel so y'know) is pure dirtball. He haggles over the price of a night with Lulu and cuts an absurdly skinflint bargain; it comes across as low-grade sadism. Lulu gives in to this loser because poverty, prostitution, and life on the lam have left her bereft of hope and resources. No more power games; she just wants someone to hold her through the cold night, and without her wiles she's unprotected against the male rottenness she's always fended off before. In the filmed opera production starring the luminous Christine Schafer, it's suggested that Jack's haggling is motivated by anxiety rather than sadism, as if he's half hoping she'll throw him out and he won't give in to the demons driving him, which is a sensible (and probably realistic) compromise between the tortured representation of the movie and Wedekind's utterly non-romanticized Ripper. Still, as I read it, Jack's chiseling is motivated by nothing more than dull-witted sadism, and if I were directing a production, I'd want Jack to be pure garbage person; after all, he was.

I have a sweet tooth for shows like Chris Carter's Millennium, a corny post-Lecter dollop of risible serial killer chic. Its villains are the logical descendants of the baddies in Thomas Harris's novels; they are motivated by absurdly rococo Rosicrucian schemes. Wedekind's Ripper is the antidote to all that claptrap; the dumb, reeking, jizz-stained banality of evil.

Other nasty nuggets from Wedekind's plays:

One act takes place in Paris, where we find that the upper crust men of Paree are all blatant predatory pedophiles, begging a mother they know to let them debauch her young daughter. Mom demures but keeps hanging out with these guys, who apparently debauched her when she was her daughter's age. Their subplot does not end happily.

At one point Dr. Schon's son, who grew up as stepbrother to Lulu, is lying in her lap and boo-hooing to her about how he's always yearned for her. She tersely confesses that she poisoned his mother (while Lulu was still quite young, but already in love with Dr. Schon). They are immediately interrupted by the Doctor. Despite plenty of opportunity, neither of them ever raises the issue again.

Countess Geschwitz, a wealthy lesbian, proves that a woman can do anything a man can do, including ruin her life for Lulu. She dies (of cholera in some versions/translations, but of Ripper slaying in others) after witnessing Lulu's murder, and gets the last words of the play. In the original German the last words are actually a repeated nonsense syllable, "Sch... sch..." A chilling end to a mournful play. English translators insist on rendering this as "Shit!" or variations thereon, with the exception of Edward Bond, who changes the word to "Submit..." Mr Bond is known for his angry leftist politics, and perhaps this "submit" was intended as some kind of sociopolitical protest against exploitation of women/the working class. Or maybe he was drunk that year. Anyway, the poor Countess is the only one of Lulu's circle who never betrays Lulu, even though Lulu repeatedly exploits her and tosses her aside. Apparently the masochistic lesbian is a cliche that modern lesbians are done with, but perhaps it wasn't so musty a hundred-plus years ago.

Oh, there's loads more nastiness where that came from. The Lulu plays by Franz Wedekind. Gobble 'em up. They're delicious. I named my cat Lulu.

Also, if you're not convinced that these depictions of fin de siecle decadence are relevant to today, there's a subplot about overhyped tech stocks ruining peoples' fortunes.