‘When a famous theatre critic arrives in the bedroom of a forgotten movie star whose performance as a femme fatale has spurred his sexual fantasies of spanking girls, you hope it’s not too late for the odd erotic spark to fly.’ So wrote the Evening Standard theater critic Nicholas de Jongh about Canadian playwright Janet Munsil’s Smoking with Lulu. First produced in 1997, the play was inspired by a meeting between the theater journalist Kenneth Tynan and the silent movie actress Louise Brooks, who had starred in Pandora’s Box (1928).
Her character, Lulu, became the central figure in Tynan’s sexual imagination. A quarter of a century after he first saw the film, he paid a call on its ageing star to research a piece he was writing in The New Yorker, and found her to be, like himself, a chronic smoker destined to die from its effects. Hence Smoking with Lulu – or, as the play was originally entitled, Emphysema: A Love Story.
The play is a three-hander featuring Tynan and two avatars of Louise Brooks: the real-life actress he met in 1978 and the Lulu of his dreams. Of the latter, he says, ‘She’s mine. She is bound to every fantasy, to every erotic notion, to the very idea of sex, bound hand and foot to the bedpost with a silk stocking. The heathen idol in my religion.’ Steaming with Lulu, perhaps?
The London critics mostly damned the play as dull, and in The Observer Michael Billington stood up for Tynan in the way that people are learning to stand up for Philip Larkin. With devastating accuracy, he pointed out that an excessive attention to a writer’s sexual idiosyncrasies can lead you to underestimate his cultural importance and literary greatness, which is what Janet Munsil does to Kenneth Tynan: ‘she sees him as a Wildean hero who put his genius into his life and his talent into his work. I would argue the exact opposite: what really matters, in the end, is not his prosaic spanking but his spanking prose.’
But, prosaic or not, spanking plays an important part in what the play really does rather well: its acute analysis of what it means to be in love with a fictional character, and how that love copes with the challenge of an encounter with the real person who created and embodied that character. And so we witness the way the imagined figure of Lulu changes as Ken’s relationship with the real Louise develops: as the play goes on, Lulu starts to become just a little like Louise, whereas right at the beginning she is just a lay figure onto whom Ken projects his fantasies. Early on, as he watches Pandora’s Box, Lulu steps out of the film and joins him for a drink… whereupon little time is lost in getting to his favorite fantasy of all.
KEN: Was someone here? Before me?
LULU: Just the man who reads the meter. Bottoms up, darling.
LULU: The delivery boy.
LULU: The milkman, the cameraman, the stuntman…
KEN: Rapacious harlot.
LULU: Oh, darling, I’m a tramp, not a whore.
KEN: You have been a very naughty little girl, Lulu. You’ll have to be punished.
LULU: No! No!
KEN: A wicked little vixen.
KEN: Take that off.
LULU: I won’t!
She drops her robe. Underneath, she is wearing complicated erotic underwear, garters etc.
LULU: I won’t! I won’t!
She throws herself down and he spanks her while she shrieks.
LULU: No! Help! Have mercy on me! Pity me! You… you…
Lulu pounds the pillow with her fist, shakes her head from side to side and kicks her legs in a very erotically charged and self-conscious temper tantrum, looking up occasionally to see what effect she’s having.
KEN: Oh, but I do, you despicable hoyden.
Shortly afterwards, Ken is preparing for his first meeting with Louise, and he imagines their first conversation – only it’s a conversation with sexy Lulu, not her real-life crone counterpart whom he hasn’t yet seen. And at that stage, he still has ideas about how their relationship is going to pan out.
KEN: I should tell you that I have unusual sexual tastes.
KEN: I like to spank girls. Are you terribly shocked?
LULU: Why no, darling.
KEN: Then you must worship me plainly.
(Incidentally, that middle line from Ken comes more or less word for word from an early conversation he had with his second wife, Kathleen, which she recounted in her 1987 biography of him.) But that’s it for Ken’s famous fetish: as Lulu starts to merge with Louise, there’s more eroticism and more fantasy, but he never again thinks about spanking her, not even when she turns up carrying a Charlie Chaplin cane and tries to vamp him out of writing his article…
The play was first produced in February 1997 at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Calgary. David Schurmann was Ken and Ravonna Dow was Lulu. Here she is:
In November 2000, it came to West Yorkshire Playhouse, which had previously staged the 1992 Stephen Wyatt version of L’Assommoir. Peter Eyre was Ken, Sophie Millett was Lulu, and they later repeated their roles when the production was remounted at London’s Soho Theatre in 2003. ‘Sophie Millett,’ wrote Nicholas de Jongh in his review of the production, ‘plays a petulant, flirting Lulu in a variety of underdressed poses and propositions. Sadly, she cannot conceal the fact that these wet-dream fantasies are boring and irrelevant.’
Here’s Sophie, not playing Lulu:
And here’s Sophie, not only playing Lulu but also being spanked:
And you can judge for yourselves whether that’s boring and irrelevant!
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Valdor of the Spank Statement for the final photograph.