Sunday, 19 January 2014

Carnival and BDSM (NSFW)

Ah, we all knew we'd end up here eventually: the carnivalesque. The popular description of pantomime and live art (they both challenge the norms of mundane existence and more formal theatre), the carnivalesque was coined by Bakhtin in a study of Rabelais and His World. Sneaking a peek at medieval carnivals, which he saw as an inversion of the status quo, he spots an anti-authoritarian energy. Having lived in Stalin's Russia, Bakhtin was looking for fun where he could get it. There's an almost rueful nostalgia for the years of Christendom, when a man could have a good laugh at the state and church, at least on special occasions.

The most evocative description of carnival comes in the relationship between its players and spectators. 'Carnival does not know footlights,' he explains. 'Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it.' Between the banishment of official rank, the mockeries of religious ritual and degradation of the spiritual to the gross physical, the carnival insists that everyone joins out. In the words of a later anti-christ: 'I wanna destroy the passer-by.'

I probably shouldn't have been reading the chapters at the back of Richard Schechner's Between Theatre and Anthropology, because he describes a visit to a naughty New York club. Part brothel and part BDSM floor-show. At Belle de Jour, the performers (including the chap who gets nailed in the finale) are mostly audience members or volunteers. The main show is followed by private sessions with the professional cast. While Schechner is discreet about the details of the private sessions, I imagine there is a degree of pro-am sexual activity.

This struck me as the real contemporary carnivalesque. I try to locate it in festivals, but to get that authentic combination of a shattered fourth wall and an upsetting of accepted values, I had to read about a man getting a sharp instrument hammered into his sensitive parts. Looking back at the medieval carnival, it all seems like fun: having a laugh at the priesthood seems very modern and coolly subversive. However, there is no sense of real risk for a contemporary priest-baiter. The thrill of blasphemy comes from a frisson of terror, knowing that something is naughty.

That's probably why I like the Pavilion pantomime. There's always one joke I really shouldn't be enjoying quite so much.

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