By Corrie Tan
(2043 words, 15-minute read)
It was January 26, 1907, a Saturday night in Dublin, Ireland. Audience members, rowdy and revolted, were pouring out of the Abbey Theatre after the premiere of playwright J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. These riots would continue throughout the play’s week-long run, with the police called in to maintain some semblance of order (not very successfully).
In the days following the play’s opening, Ireland’s nationalist newspapers, such as the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, would run horrified headlines about the “offensive” play, one that was an “unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood”. The audience hissed and booed and created a din “so great” that the performance was forced to stop on several nights, or to be acted out in “dumb show”. That Monday night, there were cries of “kill the author”, and Synge was forced to leave the auditorium.
Two years later, Synge was dead, at age 37, of Hodgkin’s disease – then untreatable. But his sharp, well-observed play lived on, and was gradually recognized as a masterpiece, a seminal modernist text which would be adapted, re-staged, revived, dissected, reconstructed, and studied in schools.
Reading the play now, it’s a little harder to sieve through the heavy socio-political context of the early 1900s to see what exactly was so offensive about this play. Playboy features a simple-minded anti-hero, Christy Mahon, a farmer’s son who believes he has killed his father after smacking him with a spade. He flees several miles to the west coast of Ireland, to the county of Mayo, where he becomes an unexpected celebrity despite the fact that he’s a alleged murderer. The girls flock to him, hoping they’ll get to marry him, but he has his eye set on the pub owner’s daughter, Pegeen. Then his father – wounded but very much alive – arrives in town, much to his dismay, and Christy attacks him again. It seems that his father has truly died this time (spoiler: he hasn’t), and despite a near-lynching by the townsfolk, Christy insists that he must marry Pegeen.
Then he says the crucial line: “It’s Pegeen I’m seeking only, and what’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World.”
At this point, the previously quiet audience, which had sat without incident through the first two acts, revolted. Dramatist and theatre manager Lady Gregory sent an urgent and upset telegram to the poet and playwright W. B. Yeats: “Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift.”
The term “shift”, or the female undergarment, has since drifted out of popular usage. But it fired the imagination of the predominantly male audience that Saturday evening. How dare Synge sully the uncorrupt virtue of the Irish woman on stage? Not a single woman stood in their underwear on stage, but simply by speaking that line, by imagining that there was a line of women in their underwear parading themselves before the snivelling Christy Mahon, seemed to this mostly male audience a vulgarity, a betrayal of intimacy, something near-pornographic.
But when The Playboy of the Western World was eventually performed in west Ireland decades later, it barely fazed its audience. The Guardian quotes an unimpressed audience member: “You could see the like of that carry-on any day in the pub.” What a difference time makes. The imagined body, once so offensive in the audience’s mind, had shifted in meaning.
What is it about the body that might incite a 1907 Irish audience to riot over something seemingly so insignificant – and in 2016, an anonymous person to write an upset open letter to the authorities, followed by the proscription of the two productions in their existing form at the 2017 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival*?
It’s interesting to note that in 1907, the body was never revealed on stage, simply imagined. And in 2016, the body is – similarly – imagined. The productions Undressing Room (by Ming Poon, Singapore/Germany) and Naked Ladies (by Thea Fitz-James, Canada) have not yet been staged in Singapore. All a censor or an individual can do is imagine what these productions might involve.
But the body is a potent symbol, because when we imagine a body, we subconsciously map it to our own bodies, the bodies that we cover with clothes, that we only reveal, fully, to a select few. Each of us has a different idea of the body, and when we see a body in performance, on stage, we superimpose our personal ideas of the body onto that body. We imagine what is done to that body as what might be done to our own bodies, and we react accordingly. The nude body on stage may be non-sexual; but if our only relationship with the body is one that emphasizes sex, that is the conclusion we will draw.
Undressing Room was meant for an audience of one. One audience-participant, fully aware of what the performance entails, in a single, private encounter with a performer. There were a total of 18 individuals who had signed up, willingly, for this performance, before it was deemed to have “exceeded” the R18 rating under Singapore’s Arts Entertainment Classification Code. A statement from the Infocomm Media Development Authority released to the press on November 24 said that the productions contained “excessive nudity which included scenes of audience-participants stripping naked, and graphic depictions of exposed genitalia”.
The artist, Ming Poon, wrote in a public Facebook post: “I am truly disappointed and saddened by the decision. Safety measures have been put into this performance, with the sole purpose of ensuring the well-being of the audience. They are explicitly informed about the nature and the content of this performance, and about their participation in it. They have to give their explicit consent to be part of this performance, so there is no way they will take part uninformed or unknowingly. Furthermore, the audience are in control of how they want to participate in this work. Being naked is only an option. If they are uncomfortable or not ready for it, they can say ‘no’ or terminate it at any point of the performance.”
But Singapore has not had a history of regarding the body as private, or as subject to an individual’s consent and control. Could we perhaps interpret our over-successful “Stop At Two” policy of the 1960s, where families were encouraged to stop at two children, as an implicit statement that the female body is one that can and should be subject to public, state control? Then, in a turnaround 20 years later, as Singapore’s fertility rate began to plummet, the Graduate Mothers Scheme once again emphasized the machinery of the state, where benefits were bestowed, controversially, on mothers who had a university degree in order to encourage them to procreate. An assumption is perpetuated that the individual’s body can be policed by the public, even in a non-public setting that does not contravene any public obscenity laws.
This conflation of the private body with the public body, and the imagined “obscene” body, is perhaps most visible in Singapore performance art. The riots of Dublin in 1907, where even those who had not seen The Playboy of the Western World were writing in to complain about it, brings to mind Singapore artist Josef Ng’s performance work Brother Cane (1993), an artistic response to gay entrapment in Singapore. It was presented at 5th Passage Gallery in Parkway Parade on December 31, 1993.
A condensed account of Brother Cane goes: For about 15 minutes, Ng, who was dressed in a black robe and black underwear, placed 12 tiles on the floor in a semi-circle, as well as the Straits Times newspaper clipping titled “12 Men Nabbed in Anti-Gay Operation at Tanjong Rhu”. He then placed a block of tofu and a small bag of red dye on each tile. After reading selected text from the newspaper article, and performing a short movement section with a rotan (a rattan cane), he began to “whip” the 12 sacs of dye and tofu on the tiles, sending the mixture spattering. What happened next is what the performance is most remembered for, and what was ostensibly “offensive” about the work. Ng walked to the far end of the gallery and faced the wall. With his back to the audience, he disrobed, lowered his underwear slightly, and performed an action that the audience could not see – he was presumed to have cut off a portion of his pubic hair. Then he returned to the tiles, tofu, and dye, and scattered a small amount of hair on the centre tile. While smoking a cigarette that he had requested from the audience, Ng said: “Sometimes silent protest is not enough.” He then stubbed the cigarette out on his arm, and put his robe back on.
The New Paper ran its lurid headline on January 3, 1994: “Pub(l)ic Protest”, featuring Ng’s back splashed across the tabloid cover. It was a cover story that sparked a frenzy of media coverage and some public complaints, even though the work itself had only been seen by a limited group of people. Susie Lingham wrote in Arts Asia Pacific magazine in 2011 that “the artists’ initiative was charged for breaching the conditions of the Public Entertainment License it had lawfully applied for, the only type of license available for any performance genre at the time. And this despite the group having taken its own initiative to put up a clearly visible advisory and a disclaimer, as co-organizers of a ticketed event in a designated art space.” State funding for performance art in Singapore was proscribed for about 10 years. Ng was charged for committing an “obscene act in public” and was fined and banned for the performance. 5th Passage was eventually told to vacate their premises at Parkway Parade.
In January 2012, Singapore artist Loo Zihan re-enacted Brother Cane under the title Cane – aptly enough, at the currently-contested M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Cane was bookended by significant media coverage. The production ran for a single night to a small group of audience members in The Substation Theatre and had a rating of R18: Nudity. In an interview with the Asia Art Archive in April 2012, Loo said of his re-enactment, which he had staged earlier in Chicago: “The main motivation for re-enacting Brother Cane in Chicago was to raise awareness about the state of the arts and censorship in Singapore. At the same time, I wanted to allow myself the opportunity to physicalize the memory of Josef’s performance, recuperating it via my performing body.”
Over time, and within a different socio-political context, it might be argued that Cane could be presented without the same heights of moral panic and reactionary public sentiment that had smothered the original Brother Cane. Yet there is still a wariness that persists in Singapore, a buried suspicion about the sexualized image of the body that rears its head because of a national confusion as to how the body is at once public and private, how it is sacred and profane. In Brother Cane, which was presented during a time where homophobia and anti-gay sentiment was sanctioned, the private acts of the body – an individual’s sexual orientation – was assumed to be public turf and that the public had a right to dictate and control what happened in private. In the public reaction to The Playboy of the Western World, the same was true. Irish audience members, so accustomed to associating the image of the woman on stage with a symbol for a virginal, pure Ireland, recoiled when this desexualized, idealized woman became an earthy, sexualized one.
The body will always be a terrain of contestation because it is so bound up with personal, visceral interpretations of the role in the private body in the public sphere. A shift in context, to recall Synge’s use of the word, might take years, even decades. How long will it take for the public’s interpretation of the body to evolve? It’s hard to predict. But there’s no doubt that the private body is currently a battleground in a very public arena in Singapore, and there’s no telling what wounds might be inflicted, and how long they will take to heal.
UPDATE: On Monday 5th December M1 Singapore Fringe Festival released a statement announcing the withdrawal of Undressing Room and Naked Ladies from the festival, saying that “While the artists have expressed their willingness to amend their performances to meet IMDA’s classification requirements, the Festival believes that any adjustments and abridgments to the art works to fit these guidelines will result in significant changes that will affect the original artistic intent. “
NB. This article was edited on 3 Dec to correct a number of inaccuracies concerning the Brother Cane incident. Our thanks to Dr Ray Langenbach for calling our attention to them.
Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, negotiations are ongoing between the authorities and the Fringe.
Guest Contributor Corrie Tan was, for six years, the arts correspondent for the Straits Times, Singapore. She is currently pursuing her MA in Performance & Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London as a recipient of both the National Arts Council Arts Scholarship (Postgraduate) and the Goldsmiths International Scholarship.