Montreal stories reverberate in The History of Sexuality

Erika Rosenbaum Photography

Erika Rosenbaum Photography

It doesn’t matter if it’s a classroom or a strip club or a bus stop or a Mile End apartment—you can think about sex wherever you are. And not just sex as an act or a symbol but sex as sexuality, as its ascriptions and prescriptions. You can think about sexuality in relation to yourself, you can wonder about it in relation to another. The fictionalized verbatim play The History of Sexuality commands that you think about it, theoretically, relationally and personally, for its duration.

Writer, director and producer Dane Stewart is a Montreal-based, multidisciplinary queer artist and academic. Stewart’s method stemmed in part from his question, “How do you ethically write someone outside of your own life experience?” He interviewed queer folks in Montreal, transcribed their discussions, and worked their words, experiences and edit suggestions into the fictional narrative that is The History of Sexuality, shown at MainLine Theatre this September. The result is an ensemble of dynamic and dimensional characters that appear to possess real histories. Stewart’s well-timed punches through the fourth wall of theatre are facilitated by these respectful stand-ins for real experience.

The ‘quirky lesbian professor’ figure of Marie guides five on-stage students and the audience, Greek-chorus-like, through Michel Foucault’s three-volume tome charting sexuality in the western world. Between drags on her vape and jokes about Cinéma l’Amour, Marie asks her class of Concordia Master’s students to define sex, to explain power, to critique the French philosopher. They do so through the spotlight’s sudden flicker onto their own scenes of interiority.

Marie (Renée Hodgins) and Gayle (Annette Marmen) experiment with their relationship following a challenge to Gayle's physical ability. Photo: Peter Ryaux-Larsen.

Marie (Renée Hodgins) and Gayle (Annette Marmen) experiment with their relationship following a challenge to Gayle’s physical ability. Photo: Peter Ryaux-Larsen.

It is the knowledge of Stewart’s innovation that makes the production. Reminding ourselves that the characters are based on people we live with in this city (and, for some of us, on people we live with in this city’s queer community), the stories gain a heaviness. Knowledge of ‘the real’ legitimizes, and without it the characters may be read as simplified clichés: the submissive twink, the hot virgin, the ignorant straight white male who wears white button-downs and confusing shoes (compliments to the costume designer; straight white men often wear confusing shoes). The characters’ ridges and bumps of individuality protrude in the important conversations they hold between themselves. A crash course on stripping is narrated in synchronicity with an exposition of escorting. The multiple, distinctly individual modes of sexuality and approach are made visible, as are the points of intersection. While these interactions play out under the spotlight, it feels as though the characters stilled in darkness are listening in, just like us. Acknowledging that nothing happens in a vacuum is rare for theatre. Why shouldn’t the painful, pacing anxiety attack of Madeleine impact the refusal of definition made by ‘boy-girl’ Darr? And then there is the collective orgasm, characters alone and coupled in their corners of pleasure on stage, to capture that feeling of ‘everyone is fucking on a Friday night.’

While a range of lived experiences is made visible (to our voyeuristic delight and pedagogical benefit), what is unfortunately invisibilized is racial difference. Save for one character, who must carry the impossible weight of racialized sexuality all on her own back, the cast is white. This is not representative of the queer experience. Representation is a widespread problem in the Montreal arts, but The History of Sexuality is another reminder that we are not changing, or not changing enough. In Foucault’s words, revolution does not always lead to social upheaval.

But it is also Foucauldian to say that a challenge to power comes from detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural. The play possesses an academic bent that is ultimately humorous (“Don’t try to second-wave me, Alissa,” mocks Darr). In such a context, The History of Sexuality is productive because it imbues the conversation with lived experience. Lived experience is not hegemonic.

“Think about all of the people in your life,” requests Madeleine (or actor Natalie Liconti, or an anonymous interview Liconti represents—here these lines are unclear and interwoven) before the second act. “Who do you think is the happiest?” Foucault didn’t think happiness existed; it is not truly thinkable. But sometimes Marie steps off her professorial podium and offers her students tequila, and sometimes we revel in a time, or a person, or ourselves, and we see that experience as happy.

Talia (Katharine King) drags the mattress off stage after describing her experience of sexual assault. Photo: Peter Ryaux-Larsen.

Talia (Katharine King) drags the mattress off stage after describing her experience of sexual assault. Photo: Peter Ryaux-Larsen.

Watching the interplay of stories in The History of Sexuality, the individual empathizes with some more than others. Recognizing the points of puncture elucidates something about one’s own sexuality. Ask, ‘What am I focusing on the most in this kaleidoscope?’ It could be Craig’s request to see more of his polyamorous, dominant partner whom he calls ‘Sir,’ or Talia’s account of her rape. The latter is particularly powerful. Overhead audio of the interviewee echoes the words she gave Talia, and Talia drags the mattress from the bed to off-stage (a nod to Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance at Columbia University?)

The play is an echo not only during Talia’s account or Marie’s libidinous recitations of Foucault’s name (“Foo-CAULT…Fooooo-cault”). It echoes us.

Stewart acknowledges that, “antithetical to its title, the play by no means offers a comprehensive history of sexuality.” If an echo, The History of Sexuality is a story anthology carrying the voices of a few real, queer lives, reverberating off the walls and hitting us so we understand.