About the author:
Behind David Ives’ mild-mannered exterior is a dramatist who loves to take on seemingly impossible challenges. Since penning the 1993 smash-hit collection of one-act comedies All in the Timing, Ives has tackled history (the acclaimed drama New Jerusalem), channeled Mark Twain (the hilarious Broadway romp Is He Dead?) and given fresh life to Moliere (The School for Lies), with a stage adaptation of White Christmas thrown in. Now one of Ives’ most unusual plays, Venus in Fur, is headed to Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, in a production starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy. Below, Ives explains how he took an 1870 novel that spawned the term “sado-masochism” and turned it into a sexy comedy set to open on Broadway November 8.
My play Venus in Fur began with a very powerful, very bad idea.
A few years ago I re-read Histoire d’O, the notorious erotic French novel of the 1950s. Story of O (as it’s known in English) is the tale of a woman identified only as “O” who from the very first page accedes to her lover’s demands for various kinds of sexual submission. O masochistically submits for two hundred more pages, the classical severity of the book’s style and the odd purity of the main character’s commitment lending the novel an air of spirituality, of larger meaning and metaphor. By the end, O, who has willingly passed through stations of sometimes gruesome erotic engagement, approaches a state of near personal extinction.
Somehow I got the idea that all this would make for a terrific play. I envisioned an evening that crossed over into performance art. Kabuki! Robert Wilson! High pretension! Well, luckily for me the rights to the book were unavailable because I’m apparently not the only fool who ever dreamt of putting O onstage. Understand, my idea wasn’t bad because of the nature of the material. It was bad because the story is fundamentally undramatic. If your main character submits on page one, where’s the drama? So, yes, it might have been theatrical. But dramatic? Never.
Having x’d O, I was led by process of association to re-read Venus im Pelz, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s notorious 1870 novelization of his own submissive erotic entanglement. Venus in Fur has never been considered a “great” novel (its prose is as Teutonically leaden as velvet sandbags) but it is enough of a milestone that Sacher-Masoch put the M in S&M, lending his name, because of the book, to the term “masochism.”
Never mind the prose: I found myself electrified. Dramaturgically electrified, I mean, because the relationship between Severin and Vanda, the two lovers of the plot, seemed to dramatize itself without the intervention of a playwright’s hands. Unlike Story of O, Venus in Fur sparks with the friction of two buttoned-up people in an erotic power play who challenge, resist and disagree with each other even while bound by mutual sexual attraction. That sure sounded dramatic to me.
So I set about adapting the book for four actors—two to play Severin and Vanda, two for the side roles, all straightforwardly in period and period dress. By the way, for anyone wondering about the title (“Why Venus in Fur? Isn’t it Venus in FURS?”) Venus in FUR has always sounded better, and more natural to me, than the uglier Venus in FURS. And these days, we don’t say that a woman is wearing furs, we say she’s wearing fur or a fur. Nuff, or muff, said.
Having finished my adaptation, I sent it to my friend and longtime collaborator the actor/director/wonder Walter Bobbie, whose taste and judgment I trust absolutely. Walter didn’t know the Sacher-Masoch novel but quickly read the script and told me essentially this: that the relationship between Severin and Vanda was fascinating, but that the play I’d made out of them seemed both uncontemporary and too literal. For what is erotic and suggestive on a page (e.g., whips and chains) can be stunningly unstageable if not ridiculous under lights. And what does this relationship of 1870, however complex, have to do with us in the early 21st century? Walter apologized, I remember, for not being more specific than that. As always, I took his opinion very seriously indeed.
I pondered the matter for some weeks or months with no real idea how to use Walter’s thoughts to readdress or reshape what I’d written, but during this time the story of Venus in Fur, the relationship of Severin and Vanda, was still very present to me. Since their plight wouldn’t let me go, I felt certain that I was bound (so to speak) to go back to it. And then one day I did, though I don’t know what spurred me to take the route I took, which was to strip away everything but my two lovers and create a frame story set today in an audition room where a playwright seeks an actress to play Vanda in his adaptation of, what else, Venus in Fur. In fact, the writing went quite swiftly and I finished a new draft in 10 days or so.
I sent the revision to Walter, and Walter said, “Let’s do it”—the Cole Porterish music to every playwright’s ears. From those words, it was but an apparent picosecond to a production downtown at Classic Stage and yet another picosecond to the Friedman on 47th Street. And as we proceeded deeper and deeper into Sacher-Masoch’s erotic Black Forest, we met up with Nina Arianda on our way, an actress who not only seemed created to play Vanda, but whose name actually rhymed with that of our heroine…
But that’s another tale entirely.