This is a guest post by Dr. Caitlin McDonald, author of ‘Global Moves:Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World’. Caitlin blogs at http://www.caitlinmcdonald.com/ and can be found on twitter @caitiewrites
One of the glimpses of revels in Edward II at the National Theatre caught my imagination: the pianist is blindfolded.
Sam Cable provides onstage music throughout the production, sometimes visible and sometimes concealed. In one scene the king (John Heffernan), seduced by flatterers, allows his new sycophant Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) to arrange an orgiastic revel for him in the inner sanctum designed by Lizzie Clachan. A box upstage behind the throne is closed off to the audience, visible through a few tantalising windows but mainly through video feeds projected either side of the stage. The revels are something we see in flashes through quickly moving cameras, now covered, now flashing with blurred images of moving bodies.
In the midst of this exposure to flesh and desire, of the fleshly desires of royalty, the pianist is blindfolded.
It could just be part of the game: a sexy blindfold raucously placed there to see if he can still play when faced with distractions that he cannot see. Or it could be that the hired help isn’t meant to see the excesses of his betters.
It calls to mind a passage from Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour in which he describes cajoling the dancer Kuchuk Hanem to dance the Bee for him, which she initially refuses to do. Eventually she complies, on the condition that certain people be sent out of the room and that as far as the musicians are concerned “a black veil is tied around the eyes of the child, and a fold of his blue turban is lowered over that of the old man.” She then proceeds to dance: “Kuchuk shed her clothing as she danced. Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and behind which she pretends to hide, and at the end she threw down the fichu. That was the Bee. She danced it very briefly and said she does not like to dance that dance.” Later she dresses and “The musicians were unblindfolded” (117).
Now, there is a lot of unpacking to do here: how accurate are Flaubert’s recollections and descriptions? Who is he trying to impress and what has he exaggerated? How precise are his translations of her, how deep is his understanding of her and what she says? And equally why doesn’t she like to dance that dance? Is that the truth, or is it something she says to create a heightened sense of its significance? Are her words and her insistence on binding the eyes of the musicians part of the performance?
It might all be a lie. But it is still raises interesting questions about who is allowed to see what, and what that means about status and power–perhaps in surprising ways. One possibility is that her setting apart of this dance–this dance she does not like to perform–is a shrewd ploy to use the sensibilities of Flaubert and his companions, their desire for authenticity, in order to put herself in a position of being able to demand more of them. Binding the musician’s eyes may be part of this performance. Or it may be a need to retain the respect of those she will see again, to maintain modesty in front of people who are a part of her daily life. By contrast the foreign men are such transitory visitors, such alien creatures, that their opinion of her modesty is worth nothing.
Edward II and his companions are not dancing girls, of course. They are much more like the lascivious Flaubert, able to buy any pleasures they choose and damn the consequences for those who must submit to them. But the musician is still blindfolded.