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Of Pleasure and Pain: The Inspiration for Venus in Fur
When Leopold Sacher-Masoch first published his 1870 novella, Venus in Furs, it quickly caused a stir throughout Austria. Yet his frank depictions of men and women deriving sexual pleasure from suffering, pain, and humiliation gained a devoted following of readers. The psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing soon took Sacher-Masoch’s name and coined the term “masochism.”
To share his philosophies with the world, Sacher-Masoch conceived of a series of short stories under the collective title Legacy of Cain. Of the six planned volumes, only the first two were completed and by the mid-1880s, Masoch abandoned the Legacy of Cain altogether. Nevertheless, the two published volumes include Masoch's best-known stories, and of them, Venus in Furs is the most famous today.
Venus in Furs was inspired by events from Sacher-Masoch’s own life. His paternal aunt, who lived with the family during his childhood, was the Countess Zenobia. Sacher-Masoch adored her , enraptured by the beatings she gave him. These experiences with the Countess Zenobia attributed to his lifelong fascination with being dominated by women. In Venus in Furs, the story’s protagonist is also introduced to physical domination by women from his aunt.
Wanda von Dunajew (the novel's central female character) was modeled after Fanny Pistor, a young writer who became Sacher-Masoch’s lover. Like the characters in Venus in Fur, Sacher-Masoch and Pistor signed a contract delineating the power dynamics of their relationship. It stated, in part:
Herr Leopold von Sacher-Masoch gives his word of honor to Frau Pistor to become her slave and to comply unreservedly, for six months, with every one of her desires and commands.... The mistress (Fanny Pistor) has the right to punish her slave (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) in any way she thinks fit for all errors, carelessness or crimes of lese-majeste on his part.
In Venus in Fur, David Ives’s completely reimagines Sacher-Masoch’s novella, shifting the action to a contemporary rehearsal room, and turning the characters into an actress and a playwright/director. Sacher-Masoch’s own words come to life in the play-within-a-play, a theatrical adaptation of the 1870 story. Though Ives makes the story entirely his own, the spirit of the original story remains intact.
David Ives on Auditioning and Venus in Fur
Ask any actor and they will tell you that auditions are notoriously fraught with unforgiving power dynamics – the director, producer, or playwright who has all the power and the actor who has all the need. Most actors come equipped with their own personal audition horror stories. From overly authoritarian directors to casting directors more interested in eating lunch than hearing another monologue, auditions can be a brutal experience even for the most seasoned professional.
In Venus in Fur, playwright David Ives sets his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella in a contemporary Manhattan audition room. As a playwright, Ives delights in the audition process. Explaining the “a-ha moment,” when the perfect actor enters the room, he says,
I love auditions. Audition rooms are joyful when the right person walks into the
room, and you hear somebody else's voice fill out a character, a different voice
you had in your head, but one that’s absolutely right. The funny thing about
audition rooms, is that moment—I haven’t tried to name it until right now—that
moment when actors have walked in, and read their piece, and then turn to look
at you and they know, they always know, if they've gotten the job.
Ives admits, however, that the process is not all fun and games for those on the other side of the table. He admires actors and their ability to face an often-unfriendly panel of people whose sole purpose it is to judge and critique every aspect of their looks and talent.
The courage it takes at that moment to shake your hand. Auditions are a series of
little Chekhovian heartbreaks that walk in and out of that room. Or a series of little
joys. Again, it's the gallantry of actors—that they're willing to walk into the room
and put themselves on the line and say, “Here I am.”
In setting Venus in Fur within an audition room, David Ives turns the process on its head giving power to the usually powerless (a choice that would delight any actor).
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“A smart scoopful of fun, a delectably compressed
actors’ pas-de-deux.”—The Washington Post
“Outstanding performances... this intelligent
comedy hurts so good!”—Washingtonian
“A wickedly ingenious dark comedy–
a knockout!”—Washington City Paper
“Venus in Fur is a completely hilarious...utterly brilliant play...
A darkly comic and engrossing exploration of power, sexuality, and love.”
—Brightest Young Things
“A Highly Theatrical Comedy.”—We Love DC
“The best performances I have seen this year!”—DC TheatreScene
I would have sent for the maid but I also found this rather provocative bookmark inside… Is it a Raphael?
It’s a Titian. “Venus With Mirror.” A favorite painting of mine.
Yes, Your Venus is as well-thumbed as your Faust. Is she faithful?
To the original?
To my mind, that woman is Venus. It’s a faithful copy of the painting, if that’s what you mean.
I can certainly understand your fascination. The plush red velvet. The dark fur outlining her naked body. The bracelets cuffing her wrists. The opulent hair. The pretty little Cupid holding the mirror. The picture’s ravishing. But is Venus covering herself with the fur – or is she opening the fur to reveal her glories?
We’ll never know. Both, I suppose. Well, thank you for returning it.
In Venus in Fur’s play-within-a-play, a man and women flirt and seduce each other, in ways that would make most within their Victorian society blush. They and taunt each other innocently enough at first, but their relationship soon takes a dark and yes, masochistic turn. At the start, however, their conversations revolve around the seemingly innocent topic of a painting – Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror”.
Titian was the leading member of the 16th century Venetian school of painting. Born in approximately 1490 in the town of Cadore in the Dolomite Mountains, Titian quickly rose to prominence as one of the most diverse and versatile painters of his time. He was equally skilled at landscape backgrounds, mythology, and religious subjects. His patrons included German Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III and his contemporaries referred to him as “The Sun Amidst the Stars,” taken from a line in Dante’s Paradiso. After a consistently successful career, Titian died in 1576, and would influence generations of artists.
“Venus with a Mirror” was likely one of Titian’s personal favorite paintings. He kept it in his private collection until his death and it is believed that he created the entire piece himself, without assistance from one of the painters in his studio. The painting depicts the goddess Venus, adorned in fur and staring at her reflection in a mirror held by Cupid. According to the National Gallery of Art, which holds the painting, Titian’s masterwork “celebrates the ideal beauty of the female form.”
To learn more about the arresting painting that inspired Venus in Fur or the work of Titian’s contemporaries such as Raphael and Giorgione, visit The Collection at The National Gallery of Art.
Christian Conn (Thomas) was most recently seen in Washington playing the title role in David Ives’ The Liar at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Other theatre credits include Desire Under the Elms on Broadway; The Beaux’ Stratagem and Love’s Labor’s Lost at The Shakespeare Theatre Company; Angels in America and All My Sons at PlayMakers Repertory Company; The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Bug at Syracuse Stage; The Grapes of Wrath, The Comedy of Errors, The Rivals, Scapin, The Merchant of Venice, and Antony & Cleopatra at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey; The Playboy of the Western World at Hangar Theatre; Pudd’nhead Wilson and Taming of the Shrew with The Acting Company; and Carthage and The Woodpecker at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. His film and television credits include The (718), As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and Tough Crowd on Comedy Central. Mr. Conn received his B.F.A. from Rutgers University.
Erica Sullivan (Vanda) is making her Studio Theatre debut. Most recently she was seen as Puck in new theatre house’s A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her New York theatre credits include In the Next Room or the vibrator play (understudy) at Lincoln Center; Christopher Bayes’ Commedia dell'Arte show Even Maybe Tammy at The Flea Theatre; and Bully at Soho Rep. Regional credits include Sylvia at Long Wharf Theatre (Connecticut Critics Circle Award nomination for lead actress); A Woman Of No Importance and Lulu at Yale Repertory Theatre; and Amy Herzog’s Trouble Tales for Boys and Girls and Hungry at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Her film and television credits include There Will Be Blood, A Coat of Snow, For the People, Strong Medicine, 10-8, and Crossing Jordan. Ms. Sullivan is a 2009 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, where she was the recipient of the Jerome L. Greene Foundation Scholarship and the Herschel Williams Acting Award.
David Muse (Director) has been the Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre since September 2010. He has directed five shows at The Studio Theatre, most recently Circle Mirror Transformation and Reasons to Be Pretty. His Studio and 2ndstage productions of Blackbird, Frozen, and The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow earned ten Helen Hayes Award nominations and received four. Muse is a former student of The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory and performed on the Milton stage in Blue Heart in the 1999-2000 season. He was the Associate Artistic Director at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he directed six productions, including last season’s Henry V, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Other recent directing projects include Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Arena Stage, The Bluest Eye at Theatre Alliance, and Swansong for the New York Summer Play Festival. He has helped to develop new work at numerous theatres, including New York Theatre Workshop, Ford’s Theatre, Arena Stage, Geva Theatre, and The Kennedy Center. Mr. Muse has taught acting and directing at Georgetown University, Yale University, and The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting. A three-time Helen Hayes Award nominee for Outstanding Direction, he is a recent recipient of the DC Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding Emerging Artist and the National Theatre Conference Emerging Artist Award. Mr. Muse is a graduate of Yale University and the Yale School of Drama.
Blythe Quinlan (Set Designer) returns to The Studio Theatre where she designed The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, directed by David Muse for The Studio 2ndStage. Her theatre credits include Antony and Cleopatra at Hartford Stage; The Cure at Troy at The Seattle Repertory Theatre; Iphigenia 2.0 at Signature Theatre in New York; Syncopation at Triad Stage; The Greeks at The Juilliard School; Lobby Hero at Portland Stage Company; and King Lear at Yale Repertory Theatre, among others. Recent film and television credits include Arthur, The Tempest, Tower Heist, Boardwalk Empire, Julie & Julia, Sex and the City (the movie), The Nanny Diaries, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Ms. Quinlan holds an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama.
Michael Lincoln (Lighting Designer) returns to The Studio Theatre, where he designed Adding Machine: A Musical, The History Boys, Grey Gardens, Privates on Parade, Take Me Out, and Topdog/Underdog among others. Mr. Lincoln also designed all of the architectural and theatrical lighting for The Studio Theatre’s 2004 expansion. His work in New York City includes Copenhagen, Skylight, and More to Love on Broadway, and Off Broadway productions of Mr. Goldwyn, The Bubbly Black Girl…, If Love Were All, Defying Gravity, and Bunny Bunny. Mr. Lincoln was the Associate Designer for Broadway’s Guys and Dolls, Six Degrees of Separation, and City of Angels. He has designed over 250 productions with long associations at Indiana Repertory Theatre, Alley Theatre, and Cleveland Playhouse. He currently heads the Production Design and Technology program at Ohio University.
Jennifer Moeller (Costume Designer) has designed costumes for Richard II, Romeo & Juliet, Antony & Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Tamburlaine, and Richard III at The Shakespeare Theatre Company; The How & the Why at McCarter Theatre Center; Six Degrees of Separation at Williamstown Theatre Festival; Happy Now? at Primary Stages; Crooked (sets) and Aliens with Extraordinary Skills at Women's Project; Circle Mirror Transformation and The Seafarer at George Street Playhouse; The Sacrifices at Summer Play Festival; Dance of the Holy Ghost at Yale Repertory Theatre; Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage Company; Waiting for Godot at Berkshire Theatre Festival; and The Winter's Tale at Chautauqua Theatre Company. Ms. Moeller holds an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama.
Matt Nielson (Sound Designer) makes his Studio Theatre debut with Venus in Fur. Regional design and composition credits include work at Round House Theatre (2007 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Sound Design, Resident Play, A Prayer for Owen Meany), Catalyst Theater Company (2009 Helen Hayes Award, 1984), Signature Theatre ( Washington DC and New York), Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Olney Theatre Center, Franklin Park Arts Center, The Kennedy Center, Rorschach Theatre, The Washington Revels, Imagination Stage, Discovery Theatre, The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington Shakespeare Company, Barrington Stage Theatre Company, Very Special Arts, Theatre of the First Amendment, ArtStream, and Philadelphia Theatre Company. Off Broadway sound design credits include work at The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival