Mad Scenes

By Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the misogynistic Victorian view that women, the "weaker sex," were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly, the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness, exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary appears in a classic gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and Streaming). The mad lead character/anti-hero Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Hand in Hand Films' Drive (1974)

 

Arachne (played by legendary director Christopher Rage, here billed as Mary Jim Sstunning, in a script written by Rage) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”


She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD

By Josh Eliot

 

Free and easy is how I’d describe the good ole days in San Francisco (1980 - 1988). I embraced the idea of that kind of world, even though living in 1980s San Francisco was like being in a bubble, you really felt the world would be a better place if that euphoria spread outside the Bay Area’s borders. You couldn’t go anywhere in the city that wasn’t sexually charged, lust was in the air. I can’t imagine San Francisco being as free spirited today, I really hope I’m wrong.

I moved to San Francisco at 17 from Rhode Island, and after my stint at the San Francisco Art Institute and prior to starting with Catalina Video, I worked mostly as an insurance claims clerk. At age 19 or 20 I worked on the 32nd floor of the 50 California Street Building in the financial district, opening mail, typing, filing and assisting the claims adjusters. The office was 60 / 40 with the majority being gay men in their late 20s. The office did not have a general manager at the time so the person in charge was a supervisor named Jackie. Jackie loved gay boys and never passed up hiring one when they walked in the door for an interview. My first Friday, Fritz, a claims adjuster, walked up and told me: “Work is over for the week and for the last hour everyone hangs out in the break room.” Jay, the other clerk, nodded and said, “Everybody drinks vodka screwdrivers, except for me because I’m not 21 yet, but Peter will sneak us some.”

Talk about free and easy! I’m sure home office in New York would not have approved of such behavior, so I’m not mentioning this major company’s name. Sure enough, Peter and Fred, two claims adjusters, were pouring vodka and orange juice when I got into the break room where everyone drank and socialized. The gay guys would hold court while the straight ladies ate it all up! Mostly everyone took the train to and from work so there weren't issues with driving. Peter did sneak Jay and I our drinks and I’m sure Jackie knew we were lying to her when we said we were only drinking orange juice. Everyone left work for the weekend on a “high note.” This went on for weeks and only ended when a new general manager was assigned to the office. Our Fridays hit a road block.

As weeks passed, I grew closer to the guys at the office, especially Fritz and Fred. Now on Friday’s directly after work, we all went to Sutter's Mill, a gay bar in the financial district where everybody was in a suit and tie or office attire. It was fucking hot! I equate it to a uniform fetish, but it was a three piece suit fetish! Very sexy. I used my friend’s Rhode Island ID to get into bars until I was 21 and it always worked, always. Sutter’s Mill really was a site to behold, the place was packed and more often than not the adjusters would hook up and leave with some hot number. By 7:00pm the place was dead so we would normally head over to the Castro for dinner and more drinks.

 

Josh Eliot at 17, 50 California St., Sutter's Mill

Josh Eliot at 17, 50 California St., Sutter's Mill

 

Fritz was really courting me and I fell head over heels for him. We had regular dates and hook-ups for months, but it was like pulling teeth for him to ever say we were “boyfriends.” He was the ultimate free spirit with “hippy-ish” behavior, like not being able to put labels on things. It was annoying as all hell and after a while his free and easy attitude was turning me off because I wanted acknowledgment of our relationship. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was secretly still in love with his current roommate Sam, his ex-lover that he never got over.

Fred, on the other hand, was a fun party boy who lived in Marin County and commuted over the Golden Gate to work. My frustration with Fritz led me to acting out and I started doing things I never would have if Fritz had only acknowledged and nurtured our relationship. Every now and again Fred and I had occasional hook ups at a little motel on the avenues. I knew whenever he offered to drive me home from the bar on Fridays it was because he really wanted to drive something else home. I always said yes to that ginormous Italian sausage and made sure to keep it a secret from all the others at work, because everyone knew I was seeing Fritz (everyone except Fritz, evidently).

 

Josh and Fred (L) and Josh, Fred and Fritz (R)

Josh and Fred (L) and Josh, Fred and Fritz (R)

 

One summer, Fritz was back-packing across Europe and it just so happened my brother was flying me to England to watch tennis in Wimbledon with him. When Wimbledon ended, I met up with Fritz and we traveled through England and France. I imagined that this would be the turning point in our “relationship” from fuck buddies to something more. We had some great, romantic times but once we got to Nice things fell apart. The entire trip he kept disappearing into bars' back rooms and I really hadn’t said anything. This was my last night before heading back to England to fly home while he continued through Italy. I wanted to stay in but he wanted to go to Blue Boy, a gay bar. When we got there, upon entering, this really hot bouncer was staring me down. Fritz and I danced, drank, and had a good time until he disappeared into a back room. When he came back to the table I was pissed and went off to the bathroom. In line I looked over to the bouncer who again was staring at me; he motioned me over. I walked over to him and he said something to me in French. When I spoke back in English he just reached down, pulled me into him and started making out with me. He then pulled me over to the bathroom line in front of two private bathrooms. The door opened and he pushed me in with him. It was intense, he was hot and hungry and we had full on sex! People were pounding on the door and he yelled back at them in a rough streetwise tone, which made things all the more hot! Afterwards, I went back to the table and told Fritz exactly what happened to get a reaction and make him jealous. He told me he thought it was great and was happy I had that experience. That was the final straw for me, I couldn’t believe he was not upset and ended things with him there and then. We were done.

I was bitter and distraught when I took the sleeper train back to England. My heart was broken but I was determined to put him out of my thoughts. Shortly after returning to England I went to a pub for a stiff drink where I met three guys from Scotland. They were all handsome, but I particularly hit it off with the shaved headed one. They took me with them to the nightclub Heaven where we danced and drank the night away. From Heaven, we all took a taxi to their apartment in some really random part of London. I was finally free of Fritz, and because of my recent behavior and the fact I went home with three Scottish guys, some would say I was easy. Like the song says: Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD and I was back to doing just that!

 

Blue Boy in Nice, Heaven in London

Blue Boy in Nice, Heaven in London

 

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone

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William II "Rufus": Medieval King of England (and Probably Gay)

posted by Madame Bubby

The Middle Ages has been in the news lately.

As medieval scholars converge at their annual megaconvention in Kalamazoo, they carry with them recent analyses that traditional medieval studies both contains and feeds into elements of the burgeoning white supremacy movement, with its interpretation, now deemed inaccurate, of a pure white Christian Europe battling forces that wish to annihilate it (especially Jews and Muslims).

The biopic Tolkien focuses on an author many have claimed in his medieval-inspired fantasy world also equated the good and the great with the blond and the white (rather simplistically, I might add).

And on a less overtly political level, the mega hit Game of Thrones offers the viewer, I think in a playful postmodern fashion, almost every element of what we deem to be traditional medieval tropes in a complex fantasy world. The open-ended medieval and Renaissance romance with its complicated interlacing of multiple storylines lends itself well to the serial format of a television series.

My contribution to the medieval buzz this week is a brief introduction and analysis of the reign of King William II, aka “Rufus,” (1056-1100 A.C.E.; reigned 1087-1100) because of his red hair and/or ruddy complexion. He was the third son of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda.
 

King William II
King William II

William laid claim to the English throne through a supposed promise to ascend it by the Saxon king Edward the Confessor. Whatever the truth to that promise, he invaded England in 1066. After the Battle of Hastings, he set up England as one of his fiefs, using the country as part of his plan to ascend to the highest rank in the feudal hierarchy like the French king in Paris.

Note that the Normans at that time spoke French, saw themselves as French (despite their descent from Vikings), and England was but one part of their amalgamation of fiefs, the most important of which was Normandy, in France.

After William died, his eldest son, Robert Curthouse, inherited Normandy, the most important fief (more on him below).

William Rufus inherited England. He was a strong ruler politically, but he was hated, deemed a tyrant, by the Saxon population of England, as he was consolidating, often brutally, the Norman presence, not just in England, but also in Scotland, and less successfully, in Wales. In fact, he actually put down a rebellion by the barons who wanted Normandy and England under one ruler, Robert. William reduced Robert to a subordinate status and his brother then went on the First Crusade (and survived).

Several historians or chroniclers of the period seemed to have thought that “sodomy” was going on in the dissolute court of William. For example, Ordericus Vitalis in his Historia Ecclesiastica complained that at the court of William, "the effeminate predominated everywhere, and revealed [reveled?] without restraint, while filthy catamites, fit only to perish in the flames, shamelessly abounded themselves to the foulest practices of Sodom." The Normans supposedly brought this “unnatural vice” to England when they invaded in 1066, but one wonders if the Saxon chroniclers were showing a xenophobic bias here.
 

Medieval gay sex
Medieval gay sex

Was William gay? William never married (in fact, there don't seem to be any women concubines either in the picture, not uncommon, much to the chagrin of churchmen, many of whom themselves hypocritically kept women and boys) and spent much of his time, when not at war, hunting with the “guys,” and, if the report by Ordericus contains elements of truth, enjoying sex with men.

He was thus, also according to reports of the time, both “bellicose” and “flamboyant.” One could claim this combination of excessively passionate personality traits made him quite difficult to deal with. In other words, he was probably an asshole, and I use that pejorative intentionally. It reveals the condemnation of same-sex sexual relations, or more specifically, the act linked with gay sex, anal intercourse.

The famous bishop Anselm approached him, concerned about the rumors and possible scandal. William and Anselm did not get along. William had preferred to receive religious advice from a Frenchman, Lanfrac, and he found Anselm's strong Anglo-Saxon presence and overall refusal to let William make decisions in the appointment of bishops insufferable.

William died in 1100 after a hunting accident. He was shot in the back with an arrow and killed while hunting in the New Forest in Hampshire. The incident was probably an assassination, and Rufus’ alleged slayer, Walter Tirel, lord of Poix in Ponthieu, may have been acting under orders from the king’s younger brother, Henry.

The Saxon population rejoiced upon the death of the tyrant.

His brother Henry I, totally heterosexual, with a saintly wife, Matilda, popularly known as Good Queen Maud, promptly seized the throne.

But Robert Curthouse, was also accused of sodomy by Ordericus Vitalis (Robert supposedly picked up this practice from the East via the Crusades). One could claim that the above shows the “gay gene” runs in families, as even Henry's son William Atheling, who drowned in a shipwreck, was also accused of this crime.
 

Ordericus Vitalis medallion
Ordericus Vitalis medallion

One could argue all these accusations could correspond to a moral panic, which often occurs when a society is in a state of transition on many levels. Thus, one wonders if there was truth to all these allegations, given the political social disorder resulting from the uneasy relationship between Normans and Saxons. The Saxon chroniclers, mostly clerics like Anselm who hated the foreign Normans, might have been conveniently scapegoating these individuals.

One could also gather that, based on the numerous discussions of them in several texts of the period, that same-sex relationships occurred frequently in military and clerical structures.

Yet, also remember that in aristocratic circles of that time women from their girlhoods were socialized separately from men during that period. William spent most of his life hanging out with the guys. Whether his marrying a woman (which would most probably have been a political than a love match anyway) would have revealed a bisexual or heterosexual orientation one will never know. As far was we know, he was not connected with any woman or women sexually.

I think the key to the lethal tension in William's personality is reflected in the art and architecture of the period. The great 12th century renaissance that encompassed all aspects of culture from economic development, centralization of Papal power, the beginnings of more defined national identities after centuries of warring feudal factions, and a flowering of spiritual and philosophical thought, had not occurred.

William, like his famous father, was a Norman, and the architecture that bears that name, also called Romanesque, is solid, fortress-like, like the castles of the feudal barons. The churches boast thick walls, rounded arches, dark interiors. The technology that produced the elaborate vaulting and traceries, the stained glass, of Gothic was not there, yet. Each church was an like an island protecting itself from warring forces. The head of the Church, Christ is a stern king and judge who demands fealty from his vassals.
 

Christ as a stern judge in Romanesque painting

Rochester cathedral

Romanesque art - engravings in architecture

Yet the paintings of the period present a quite unusual contrast, resembling the dreamlike surrealism of a much later period. Elongated, ghostly forms float in positions that attempt to defy the rigid hierarchical space they dwell in. The body is thus but a phantom compared to the immortal soul on its way to its home in God. The world of nature offers only temporary, transitory, pleasures. Nature's role is to reproduce itself (thus, absolutely no gay sex) in order to maintain its place as the mirror of God's endless life.
 

Romanesque wall painting

As the Church in the late 12th and 13th centuries achieved temporal and spiritual dominance in Europe (despite the failure of the Crusades), the splendor of cathedrals like Notre Dame overshadowed the growing intolerance of any deviation from social and religious norms. The light that illuminated the stained glass took another form: the fires that burned copies of the Jewish Talmud, heretics, and men who loved men.
 

Illustration - burning of sodomites
Burning of sodomites

Sources: Britannica.com; a dash of Wikepedia, and, yes, believe it, my memory.

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