Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Nude Woman Question

The title is stolen from an 1870 article by Olive Logan. Less than a decade after what Wolf Mankowitz called 'the first public striptease ever witnessed in a theatre' (cited in Foley, 2005), the trend for nudity on stage had led to an energetic discussion of what could, appropriately, be shown and for how long. 

Mankowitz, writing about the play Mazeppa, describes the first theatrical striptease in a play which, according to Rachel Shetir was a hack job that needed something spectacular to distract from a trite script. Usually, it involved getting a horse to descend from the stage: Adah Issacs Menken, who was already notorious for hanging out with Walt Whitman and generally not caring about conservative social values, gave it an added edge. 

Predictably, this first theatrical striptease led to the first moral panic. Shetir quotes one reviewer's remark: 'parts of the body of this actress were exposed that God never intended to be seen by any eye other than her mother's'.

The naked body - male or female - is usually a good sales pitch for theatre. A British ballet company were once sued by audience members on the grounds that their advert promised nude dancers (and the choreography did not fulfil). Audiences raced to see a revival of Equus hoping to see Daniel Radcliffe go full-frontal.

Fortunately, this usually stimulates energetic social discussion: in 1980, Brenton's Romans in Britain  led to a change in the law, after Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the production on the grounds that it was likely to 'deprave or corrupt'. 

If contemporary culture appears more relaxed about nudity - Shetir's critic's comments are amusingly old-fashioned - the representation of bodies in theatre can expose hypocrisy and double standards. Brenda Foley's Undressed for Success looks at the laws and discussions about striptease in the last century or so - comparing it with beauty contests - and unearths how striptease provokes condemnation, and control, of the female body. 

In recent years, there has been a rash of theatre shows that use the strip-club, or strippers, as a locus for drama. While many have come from the personal experience of the writers and performers, they all trade on the illicit thrill of the exposed body, plugging into the anxieties expressed throughout Foley's study. 


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