It’s commonly believed the notion that women should be considered equal to men began about a century ago, with feminism’s first wave. But in European letters this idea originated in the 1400s, when French aristocrat Christine de Pisan – the first woman to make her living through writing – wrote her polemic Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies).
De Pisan took arms against the misogynies of a popular 13th-century poem about romantic love, Roman de la Rose: “This book … made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express … so many wicked insults about women and their behaviour.” Her text sparked the literary debate known as the “woman question” – an argument about the intellectual and social status of women – which was continued, often by men, over the next few centuries.
It’s salutary to remember how far back these arguments reach, because it’s often hard to grasp how profoundly Western conventions about the subjectivity of women are shaped by men. The most celebrated female characters in the Western canon, from Medea to Lady Macbeth, from Blanche DuBois to Anna Karenina, from Phèdre to Madame Bovary, are – almost without exception – written by men. There is only an occasional protest:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy,” says Anne, the heroine of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. “Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
Seven centuries after de Pisan, Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch enters this argument with sly potency in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, now a Melbourne Theatre Company production beautifully directed by Petra Kalive. At first glance, it appears to be an all-too-common story – a charismatic professor has an affair with a young female student. Indeed, as I walked out of the theatre, I met a friend who was furious: she was tired, she said, of always hearing the same story, from the same point of view.
But Moscovitch is doing something much more interesting – and much more active – than merely recounting a bunch of arguments we already know. It’s certainly familiar territory, and not only from a thousand novels by creative writing professors. David Mamet’s Oleanna portrays a professor persecuted by a manipulative student, whose dubious claims of sexual harassment deprive him of tenure and eventually drive him to violence. In 2004, Guardian critic Michael Billington said Oleanna attacks “the lunatic excesses of political correctness”, although it’s a set-up: we know from the beginning that the student’s claim of rape – stemming from the professor putting his hands on her shoulder when they’re alone – is bogus, driven by the student’s feminist “group”.
Also a two-person show, Moscovitch’s play might be, at least in part, an answer to Mamet: but her approach is much more subtle and complex. Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes enters difficult territory, a consensual affair between a starstruck student and her teacher. Jon (Dan Spielman) is the rockstar professor and best-selling author – “Brooding. Tweedy, but with style. On the right side of attractive” – whose third marriage has just broken up. Nineteen-year-old Annie (Izabella Yena) is his talented student, who is drawn into a semester-long affair that ends abruptly when Jon’s wife returns to him. The action then plays out into the future in two brief scenes that occur years later.
The first clue this isn’t simply an apologia is that, from the beginning, Jon is speaking of himself in the third person, as if he were a character in a book. Initially, in Spielman’s assured performance, Jon is utterly beguiling, the picture of ironic self-awareness: a decent man who’s confused by his sudden obsession with a young woman in a red coat who sits in the front row of his lectures.
Jon knows his attraction is both unethical and against university regulations, and tells Annie so, implicating her in his transgression. “Do you know you’re coming on to me?” he asks, although it’s Jon who makes the move. Anna is both flustered and flattered by his attention. She is, of course, a writer: eventually, after they sleep together, he reads one of her stories and discovers, to his evident surprise, that she’s talented. He’ll mentor her, he says, correcting the story with a red pen. But already there are signs he is consuming her. Their affair is making his novel easier to write, he tells her; there are even hints that he appropriates from her work. In the choreography of the production she vanishes in his embrace, disappearing from the stage.
Annie’s youthful inarticulacy and confusion become more and more painful to watch. Jon’s charm, his intelligence, his fame, his authority, entirely colonise her experience. Part of her knows she’s being manipulated, but she doesn’t know how to express it, as Jon has all the language. Surely she agreed to this pact? How can she sort out what happened? How can she name her pain?
This play is a deeply intelligent and ultimately devastating picture of erasure. “Once the person you looked up to makes a pass at you, every good thing they’ve ever said to you is reduced to nil,” a woman wrote in the anonymous essay “Bitter Fruit”, published by The Lifted Brow in 2016. “It doesn’t matter how much of his professional encouragement was genuine, and not just an extended exercise in grooming me for sex; the two are indistinguishable, so it all means nothing.” After experiences like these, many women give up their professions altogether, their self-confidence destroyed.
Under Kalive’s direction, both Yena and Spielman give thoughtful, emotionally detailed performances. Annie is perhaps the more difficult role, as for much of the play – as a shy, shrinking teen pretending to have the autonomy of an adult even as it’s taken from her – Yena has to livingly inhabit an absence. She does so, stroke by stroke, until her absence becomes palpable and, finally, flips into an undeniable presence.
Spielman’s performance gave me flashes of his work with The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project in the 1990s: it has the same emotional freedom, here tempered by the skill and detailing of years of experience. Jon’s self-deception registers as an increasing physical diminution, a kind of coarsening: he begins to stoop, as if bowed beneath his own unacknowledged dishonesty. The more he says, the more we doubt his account of himself.
The twist at the end, which reveals whose subjectivity we are actually watching, comes with the inevitability of classical tragedy. By then I knew this wasn’t about Jon: this is Annie’s story, in which she has finally authorised herself to imagine boldly and unapologetically, as men have for centuries. It’s a particularly writerly form of restitution that pushes against two millennia of masculine literary privilege. And no, it’s not at all the same story.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes runs at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until April 1.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 20, 2021 as "Another story".
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