When you learn about the old literary legends from the mundane pages of history books, you very well might perceive their lives as the same sort of mundanity. It’s all too easy to forget that these were people who ate, slept, drank, and lived. Perhaps most shocking of all, the people you learned about in school really enjoyed getting it on.
Rachel Mars has made quite a splash in her own right. She has had commissions at Cambridge Royal Court Tottenham, Fuel Theatre, Home Live Art and Ovalhouse. She is also a fellow at the Birkbeck Centre of Contemporary Theatre and a regular contributor to ‘Pause for Thought’ on BBC Radio 2. She also is repsonsible for the previous month’s Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters show at Camden People’s theatre, London. In this play, her cast reads aloud about the sexual longings, idiosyncrasies, and habits, of some the worlds most famous thinkers. From Frida Kahlo, to Georgia O'Keefe, all the way to James Joyce, they all enjoyed a good erotic letter. The letters stand in sharp contrast to the immediate and thoughtless sexts of the post “hey bby u up?” era of digital-age-romanticism. Fortunately we had an opportunity to have Rachel answer some questions, and take a peek at some of the letters themselves.
How did you first discover these letters and what was it about them that spoke to you?
It was a few days after the Brexit result and I was on an artist residency in upstate New York. I was sitting on a porch drinking away the maudlin and constantly refreshing the news on my phone. An American artist asked if I’d ever heard the James Joyce letters to Nora Barnacle, and proceeded to read them out loud. They were the first thing that had given me pleasure since the mess at home . I loved how specific they were, how expressive he was being about all things anal, how turned on he was in writing them and how her replies were clearly as explicit (although sadly we don’t have copies of them, because… of the patriarchy).
What do you think can be learned from such renowned authors also being total Super Freaks in their private life?
It’s a great reminder that people have been expressing their desires for particular practices - practices that are still deemed 'non-normative’- for centuries.
Sexting is too immediate, totally agreed, do you think that we as humans are growing to be less sexually imaginative? Many people of today’s digital world might scoff at the notion of text on a page turning them on, do you think this has an effect on us?
I mean Sexting has its function, it’s fast. We are so used to instant gratification. When you send a whatsapp you can see the two little blue ticks and you know it has been received and you wait for the reply… 'So and So is typing’. In letter writing the whole time line is different - did my letter even get there? When will they read it? Did it turn them on? Will they write back? Will someone intercept it? How long will it take to reach me? Will their reply even arrive? There is a long period of being in suspense. I think that not-knowing is really hot.
Also, we are much more about images now,- sending a pic of your body is very different to describing it in words. The space for imagination and interpretation is shut down. I think if we allowed ourself more time to imagine what is hot for us, and to express it in text we might find much wilder and freakier answers.
What is it about the sex lives of these people that draws us in?
Well, I’m interested in other people’s sex lives anyway, famous or not… but with these people we are holding their private desires up against what we think we know about them from their public persona. Mozart’s genius up against his fart fixation, the visual images in Frida Kahlo’s work and the way she uses phrases about penetration, blood, fingertips so sensuously in her writing. A lot of the relationships featured in the show continued for decades, so you aren’t sure if it’s the sex they are having that is keeping things fiery or the writing about the sex. That’s a ticklish question.
If you had to name an effect you desire your previous show to have on an audience, what might it be? Is a goal destigmatization of sexuality, or might it be about how much these drives serve as equalizers?
In my work I’m often trying to take the power out of shame, to return the power in pleasure, to be together to share things that are normally experienced as solo and taboo. It’s so delightful to be in a room of people getting kicks out of words about arses, cunts, orgasms. It is this communal space but there is also personal reflection. You can’t help but compare yourself - would that sort of letter turn me on? Might I be into that? How might I write about my desires? People talk about these questions afterwards.
Alongside the likes of Joyce and Bukowski, I’ve deliberately chosen a lot of queer writers - Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Brother Augustine (a 19th century English Monk). These are more hidden histories and they deserve to be heard.
What is your most favorite discovery when visiting these letters?
I was thrilled to find Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters to her lover Lorena Hickok. During the 30 years they knew each other, they wrote nearly 4,000 letters. Whilst they are not the most explicit, the context of them I find really illicit and sexy. For example, Roosevelt is writing from the White House in 1933 on the night of her husband’s inauguration, talking about the ring which Lorena gave her. There are pictures of Roosevelt at the inauguration wearing that ring, so it’s like a wink, a queer dogwhistle.
What show are you working on now that you are excited about?
I’m starting a new show called ROLLER with my company Mars.tarrab. It’s an investigation into roller derby, female bodies, ageing and aggression. It’s going to be at the Barbican Pit, London from November 23rd to December 2nd.
Rachel was also able to provide some of the choice letters used in her play, along with a scan of one of the letters themselves. The language is pretty raunchy so be forewarned about your eyebrows getting blown off.
JAMES JOYCE TO NORA BARNACLE, DUBLIN, 1909
I wish I could hear your lips spluttering those heavenly exciting filthy words, see your mouth making dirty sounds and noises, feel your body wriggling under me, hear and smell the dirty fat girlish farts going pop pop out of your pretty bare girlish bum and fuck fuck fuck fuck my naughty little hot fuckbird’s cunt for ever.
Write the dirty words big and underline them and kiss them and hold them for a moment to your sweet hot cunt, darling, and also pull up your dress a moment and hold them in under your dear little farting bum. Do more if you wish and send the letter then to me, my darling brown-arsed fuckbird.
GEORGIA O’KEEFE TO ALFRED STIEGLITZ FROM YORK BEACH, MAINE, MAY 1922
“…Dearest I love you.
I am on my back – waiting to be spread wide apart – waiting for you to die with the sense of you – the pleasure of you – the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me – all my body – all of me is waiting for you to touch the center of me with the center of you –
MOZART TO HIS COUSIN (AND LOVE INTEREST) MARIANNE, 1777
Oh my ass burns like fire! what on earth is the meaning of this!—maybe muck wants to come out? yes, yes, muck, I know you, see you, taste you—and—what’s this—is it possible? Ye Gods!—Oh ear of mine, are you deceiving me?—No, it’s true—what a long and melancholic sound!…
FRIDA KAHLO TO DIEGO RIVERIA (ESTIMATED 1933)
The green miracle of the landscape of my body becomes in your the whole of nature. I fly through it to caress the rounded hills with my fingertips, my hands sink into the shadowy valleys in an urge to possess and I’m enveloped in the embrace of gentle branches, green and cool. I penetrate the sex of the whole earth, her heat chars me and my entire body is rubbed by the freshness of the tender leaves.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO LORENA HICKOK, 1933
Hick darling, All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday [when] I will be with you, & yet to-night you sounded so far away & formal, oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort, I look at it & think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!
GETRUDE STEIN TO ALICE B TOKLAS A NOTE, LEFT TO ALICE IN THE HOUSE THEY SHARED, 1909
[Note: Stein scholars suggest that a ‘cow’ was the couple’s code for orgasm]
My baby precious, you feel all treated
treated to have a complete and an entire
cow, yes sweeties you will bless you I
am so full of tenderness and delight in
my blessed wifie that it must overflow
in a cow out of she, there is no
other was to be, oh my blessed
I love you so I love you so from
top to toe, blessed baby