Near the end of her 2019 autobiography, “Self-Portrait,” Celia Paul writes that “the nearly empty rooms” of her studio “serve the purpose of being receptacles for the light.” This is how Carolyn Gage’s “Female Nude Seated” began in a recent Counterclaim production: Mainie Jellet (played by Oliva Rose Barresi) and Evie Hone (Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood), alone in two anachronistic Zoom windows, sparse receptacles of light. The entire action is set in one room and unfolds entirely by dialog. Of course, this medium was far from ideal for a piece which follows two painters so interested in shapes and forms, especially of the body. It split them, seemingly arbitrarily, across electronic space.
“Female Nude Seated” begins one night at a student boarding house near the Westminster Technical Institute in 1917 as “half of London is going mad,” — the men returning from war, so too their mothers, daughters, and lovers awaiting. Ireland is still reeling from the effects of the Easter Rebellion the spring before, in which more than two-thousand civilians were wounded. Mainie Jellet, “the most popular girl at school,” wakes violently from a dream and throws the cover off her painting, a seated female nude. Evie Hone, the new girl, legs paralytic from polio, comes in on crutches and tries to help. But what exists between them is not the romance those familiar with their story or Carolyn Gage — praised as “one of the best lesbian playwrights in America” by the Lambda Book Report — would expect. Mainie has never noticed Evie in class. Evie has noticed never being noticed and is not shy to remark on it in sharp bouts of critique.
“What have I done?” Mainie asks.
“You needed to ask that question,” Evie replies.
“Funny as a crutch,” she adds and seems to quote her. And while there are moments of real humor in the play packed into its meager forty-minute run-time, it is horror that eventually unites the two.
Together, they are in the class of post-impressionist Walter Sickert, painting nudes. Mainie tells the story, which prompted her nightmare. In it, in real life, Sickert has criticized her paintings as “clichés” and invites her to his studio to see work “torn from the pages of the book of life.” She knows it is not in her power to refuse, so she goes along, takes a car with him to Whitechapel, and reluctantly follows him. Inside, she sees his Camden Town Nudes. Women’s yellow and purple bodies stretched out on beds.
“That’s where I paint the models,” Sickert says, referring to the studio’s bed. He jokes that the room once belonged to Jack the Ripper. “But don’t worry,” he says, “He only killed women who deserved it.”
Sometime later, Mainie returns to his class. And this prompts the nightmare which begins the play: Mainie is painting a female nude, and Sickert touches the model, revealing her throat to be split and her intestines spilling out. Mainie looks at her canvas and finds that she has painted the model exactly as she appears in the dream. In the light of her studio, awake, she sees it is just a routine practice nude.
“Why can’t painting be as pure as a song?” she asks Evie, visibly upset, visibly forming a philosophy that would determine the shape of her later work in cubism. To this, Evie prompts a challenge: that Mainie remove the canvas and start again. This time portraying her, whose body has survived violation, has been an object of curiosity, has been a medicalized fetish.
“Are you comfortable?” Mainie asks as Evie poses.
“Never,” Evie replies.
While she paints, the two discuss their histories — both Irish, both wealthy, both coming to in countries in war’s wake. Evie wants to go to a convent, to be in a community of women. Mainie remarks that there’s already a resurrection in Ireland. Evie knows that Mainie needs to get as far away from Sickert as possible, to study somewhere where her philosophy of craft can be practiced — somewhere like Paris.
When the painting is done, Mainie shows it to Evie who remarks, “but you didn’t paint my legs.”
Her legs are there, however, they are plains, geometric shapes — abstractions. This was exactly the point. By being less representational of the body’s original forms Jellet allowed Hones’ natural impression to come through. The strength of the person, the vulnerability of the body. There is in this framing a great healing between the two, who agree to go together to form the community Hones dreams of. “After all,” says Mainie, “I am the most popular girl.”
At the start, it was hard for me to see beyond the restrictions of the screen. Barresi and Gooding-Silverwood were framed in the interminable Zoom close-up. The constant angle forced sometimes awkward motions, like when Barresi handed her counterpart a white bathrobe by seeming to drop it outside the frame, but as it went along, their visceral voice-acting and Gage’s way of allowing the characters to move through time and space via speech and memory, was transporting.
For forty minutes, I was able to forget New York’s shelter-in-place order and the dim glow of my own apartment’s overhead lighting. Instead, I imagined a studio not unlike Paul’s, landscapes bombed out and canvases covered, scraped, and redone. The focus of “Female Nude Seated” is not the horror of the past nor the violent impositions men put on women and their creations, but the moment of transformation. It depicts Jellet at the very precipice of a new style, Hone at the threshold of a new community, and our own moment as it mutates slowly and nearly unnoticed into something we will see clearly soon enough.
In the very last line of the play, Evie and Mainie strip off their clothes and embrace. In their faces, I could see the catalytic moment when the two receptacles —character and actor, canvas and frame, language and motion, past and future — merge and become one light.