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My love for Shakespeare's true hero of the Henry IV plays continues to be the irrepressible Falstaff. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so fond of the fat knight that she requested - or demanded? Shakespeare pen a sequel, in which Falstaff fell in love. Thus was born The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I always thought ended badly.

There are lots more Falstaff images where this came from, but it's late, and so for now you may enjoy this sketch of Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet by the English painter of uncanny scenes, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825.) (Somewhere deep inside I have been brewing a slightly naughty fiction of how Doll Tearsheet acquired her name ...)

While Fuseli did eventually paint a scene from Merry Wives, it looked nothing like this. If a painting was ever made from this early draft, it has been lost.

Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, NSFW )

men_in_full: (de vos bacchus)
[livejournal.com profile] jennie_jay has managed to combine my two loves in one, as she introduced me to Bryn Terfel as "that huge hill of flesh" Falstaff in Verdi's eponymous opera. She also passed on a blog entry from The Anchoress (who also shares the Bryn love.) In this production, Terfel wears a fat suit to show Sir John's impressive girth.

I understand that most bass-baritones aren't as massively fat as Verdi's Falstaff is meant to be. This might be one of the few instances where a fat suit really is dramatically "necessary." Also, people come to hear a "superstar" like Terfel, not see an "accurate" portrayal of the character. It's opera, after all - very little is "real" or "accurate." However, opera singers aren't immune from the pressure to be slender either - soprano Deborah Voight was fired from a 2004 Covent Garden performance of Ariadne auf Naxos for being "too fat," and has since had gastric bypass surgery. But Sir John's rubber bulk got me thinking once again about the fat suit in general.

One consequence of an ubiquity of fat suits is that if a fat suit is all people ever see, then they won't be able to tell the difference. It white people who'd never seen African-Americans thought they all looked like the old stereotyped 'blackface' portrayals. At least one person actually got confused. The Anchoress mentions:
The NY Times posted a glowing review of Terfel’s performance in Falstaff and then found itself being accused by one letter-writer of lacking respect and decency toward Bryn by “displaying his deplorable physical condition” or somesuch (I’m paraphrasing). The Times then pointed out that the picture is of Terfel in a wonderfully realistic prosthetic “fat suit.”

To me, Terfel's fat suit isn't all that "wonderfully realistic," especially if it's the same as the one shown this video.

I'd be curious to know what the opera audience's reaction was, when they first saw Terfel in his suit. Did they gasp, laugh, feel shock? Would a genuinely fat body have shocked them more, and perhaps this was a way to "distance" themselves from such a thing? It's possible to imagine that in some parts of the country that outside of doctors, there are people who genuinely have never really looked at someone that fat and that undressed up close - or perhaps have never really "seen" them - in the sense of genuinely looking, or perhaps looked at them only with horror.

We used to have the same idea with regard to black people in the USA. Before the Civil War (1861-1865), black performers almost never appeared before white audiences. Instead, white male troupes dressed up as blacks, usually acting out skits and songs that presented a grossly caricatured, distorted view of slave life. The graphic images that accompanied the advertisements, song books, and joke books (with regrettable names like the "Al-Ma-Nig" book of jokes) formed the basis for what the Wikipedia Blackface article calls "darky iconography," the stereotyped image of African-Americans that persisted into the 1970s.

Like the antics of "Jim Crow" (shown at left) or his eye-rolling, lip-smacking successors, the sudden appearance of a nearly-naked fat-suited body on screen or stage has the same aim: to get a laugh at the sight of someone perceived as ridiculous, grotesque, and thus amusing.

As if they understand the physical unreality of most fat suits, movie directors have taken them high-tech, as in Click. Adam Sandler (with the aid of a magical remote) fast-forwards himself into the future, and "wakes up" to find himself extremely large - goes to the mirror, screams in horror, etc. In this film, his face is "morphed" onto the genuinely fat body of a body double. In a sense that's even more insulting, because the fat actor is robbed of his own face, his own identity, to serve as a "living fat suit" for the star.

I haven't seen Norbit, where Eddie Murphy dons a female "fat-face" made of a latex suit enhanced with computer special effects. Even with the most realistic computerized rendition, though, the principle is still the same. Fat suits keep us from "seeing" fat bodies, by implying that the real thing is too horrific to really see. And if the "real thing" is too awful to even look at, then don't even think about an embrace. Or living in one.

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September 2013

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