(the post which is about to follow acknowledges the existence of sex, and of premature ejaculation. If you haven't been through a sixth grade sex ed course yet, you should go read that before this post. Otherwise, I'm sure it won't be offensive.)
It wasn’t just a play about premature ejaculation, obviously, in the same way that Waiting for Godot isn’t just a play about standing around.
In 2008, while I was in the Czech Republic, I had a wonderfully miserable experience where, in a journalism class, I was pulled out of the audience at random and told to improvise a scene about sex with a fellow classmate I barely knew. The tension in the room, the discomfort and horror, was palpable – not just between me and my impromptu scene partner, but even among the people watching on our behalf.
The scene that we mumbled out looked something like this:
Should we have sex?
We could do a… sixty nine?
…I don’t think so.
And at that point, the guest lecturer realized that we weren’t going to get into third-wave feminism or the dynamics of gender politics, and released us from our misery.
Once I was liberated from that dangerous space, and had returned to a safe spot where I can explore ideas, I realized that I was actually curious about that deeply palpable feeling of horror. After all, there was absolutely nothing dangerous about what we were doing. And what about the actual scene that was created? Who were these people who looked on sex with such deep probing horror, and what would their relationship be like?
So I spent the next six months writing, then exploring as an actor, this piece, which eventually became Performance Anxiety! (or: this has never happened to me before). The blunt, cheap title and the sexual comedy (Harry Potter Role Play! A man in a cage! Rick Astley impressions!) were really a cover, a way to entice people to examine this horror without themselves being shut down and horrified themselves.
Enter the married couple who are the protagonists, and who are not given names because I don’t think they need them (do you need names for three characters, all of whom are onstage almost the entire show?). Their marriage has reached its fifth year, and they haven’t borne any children yet. In fact, they haven’t had sex yet.
Although the conflict of the play is an attempt to move forward into the future, the issue at the center of the play is in the past: what happened on their wedding night that ended their sex life?
A moment of premature ejaculation.
It shouldn’t be that important. Sex is a notoriously complicated thing and people have problems with it all the time – many of which are more complex than premature ejaculation.
Even once I knew that this was the root of the problem, I still kept sitting and wondering – why does this not get better? Why is this one moment such a trauma for him?
The limitations of sex are sometimes limitations of the human body. This is why hopeless love can be so compelling – the knowledge that something can’t be changed is a truly heart-breaking and impossible to escape idea. When a man’s penis fails him, doubt sets in: is this what I am? Is this all I can be? Is there no way I can fix this?
As a point of comparison, take my previous play, The End. The comedy in that play springs from the fact that after an apocalypse that destroys everything except a detective and his assistant, the assistant can only think of one thing: how much he loves the detective. But there’s one cruel joke the universe has played on them: the assistant may be a gay man, but the detective isn’t.
Your sexual orientations and attractions are, just as much as the biology with which you enact them, not your choice. And in a way, that leaves you helpless to them. You can act or react according to them, but you cannot define them (not without an insane strength of will to suppress your deepest self). And without surgeries or medications, your body is the only body you’ll ever know. It can be tweaked – pounds added or removed – but where you are in conflict with your biology, you will probably not win.
This fear is linked to a deep neurosis I have: how much of the rest of us is unchangeable? Those parts of me that I resent – my fears, my dependencies, my inabilities – how many of them are unchangeable? To what extent will I be saddled with the worst parts of myself for the rest of my life?
Obviously, the point is not to encourage or excuse helplessness. Some people who proclaim helplessness are proven wrong by others who can accomplish. But then, there’s no way to prove that just because one person can do something it means all other people can do that. Certainly Youssain Bolt disproves that theory.
That’s the question. I don’t have an answer. It’s a deep problem rooted with deep fears. Every play I write seems to touch deep into that vein: I wrote one where an ex-boyfriend uses the twelve steps of Chinese re-education to work his way back into his girlfriend’s life; my next play is based on a Greek myth where a man is willing to trade everything – even his love – to escape death.
If you have any thoughts of your own, I’d love to hear them.