Chalk it up to a wandering mind: Several years ago, playwright Craig Jessen
was at a lecture about sodomy laws in the U.S., and he got to thinking about lab animals. Rabbits, specifically. And rabbits that—contrary to what you’d expect—weren’t having sex. From there, it took him just a few days to develop the idea for his new play The End of Sex
, which opens this weekend at Theatre Vertigo
. The play, which Vertigo describes as a provocative comedy, centers on a scientist who inadvertently develops a drug that remaps sexual sensation, allowing patients to experience satisfaction through a topical cream alone.
Jessen, 30, grew up in Portland and graduated from Wilson High School in 2001. He studied theater at Southern Oregon University (where he met Theatre Vertigo’s Brooke Calcagno, who helped bring The End of Sex to Portland) and completed an MFA in playwriting at UCLA in 2010. Jessen spoke with WW by phone about nymphomania, the genesis of his play and how science has supplanted magic in the popular imagination.
Willamette Week: OK, first off: What’s with this sex cream?
It’s a topical cream that the scientists in the play are developing, and it plays with the idea of phantom limb syndrome. When someone loses a part of the body, there are all these nerves that don’t exist anymore, but all the receptors still exist in the brain. Sometimes those receptors can get remapped to different parts of the body. That was the science fiction-y concept that went into it. At the beginning of the play, there are three teams trying to make a drug to enhance sexual sensation. They’re trying to make a male and female Viagra-type drug. In order to enhance the sensation, this particular scientist has been studying the neural pathology of phantom limb syndrome and it inadvertently has this effect that it remaps the sexual sensation
What are the implications of that?
The play explores a quote-unquote “normal” couple that is not pleased with their sex life and how this might help them come closer together. It also looks at people who can’t have sex. In this case, there’s a character who has vaginismus, which is a condition where the muscles in the pelvis contract anytime sex is attempted. Among the patients trying to get into this drug trial are someone who can’t have sex, someone who by societal standards is having too much sex and then someone who’s having taboo sex.
Had you spent time in research labs? What sort of research went into this play?
I’ve spent time very cursorily. I’ve walked by labs and seen their layout. I did some research into the dynamics of how lab animals are used, but more of the research had to do with sexuality and looking into cases that were outside of the norm. One book that was influential was Nymphomania by Carol Groneman. It’s really not a book about nymphomania so much as it is a book about the horrible ways in which women’s sexuality has been defined by men for centuries. The term nymphomania—I didn’t know this before I read this book—refers only to women. The book is about how there was a time when women were believed to be too strong sexually, so they had to be tamed and put in their place. There’s also the idea that women were too frail and when they were infused with the male seed they became hellcats. Whatever it was, it was something that existed to put sexuality in a context that was beneficial to men and also to put women in a context where they were subjugated to men.
I was also working with a friend who’s a sex therapist and a psychologist, and she had all of this fascinating research about a variety of sexual fetishes that don’t particularly have to do with the act of sex. And that works its way into the play as well.
Does the play's title suggest that this cream would obliterate the need for anything but procreative sex?
The title is a double entendre. It refers to that, as well as to le petit mort. The title basically asks: What do you do in a world where you can have sex without sex? The end of sex here is the end of normative sex. A theatergoing crowd in general tends to not be homophobic, and so I was trying to see if there were ways that we could push things even further to make people think about things other than gay sex or straight sex—precluding, of course, areas where violence or children or anything along those lines is involved.
What other facets of human relationships does the play explore?
A basic piece is something that’s a struggle for all of us, and that’s the balance between your passions at home and your passions at work. There is also an element of rivalry in the play. The main character is a woman in a place that’s basically a boys’ club, and she’s surrounded by all these men who have these little ways of telling her that she’s down there and they’re up here.
Tell me more about the genesis of the play.
It came from three places creatively. I got the concrete door into the world in the summer of 2010, when I was in a lecture about sodomy laws in the U.S. My mind started to wander, and I settled in this dark, dingy laboratory with these two scientists hovering over the cages of some rabbits, and these rabbits are doing the thing you would least expect them to do, which is not having sex. I knew immediately this was going to be the home for an older idea that had been floating around for a couple of years about a cream that could remap sexual sensation. The third thing is that I love science fiction and I love the theater, and these things don’t mix all that well all that often.
You really have to choose your elements with science fiction. Rules are so important. In science-fiction films, particularly in some of the great cheesy ones, you often get that giant scrolling of exposition. The limitations of theater are such that you don’t really get to push it much farther than one element. In the case of this play, there’s this one element with has very specific rules, and audiences see the effect take place. You see it and you understand it—it doesn’t have to be over-explained.
What drew you to the science-fiction elements?
I was reading quite a bit of Joe Haldeman at the time. A lot of his work deals with sexuality and people moving away from or experiencing something outside their normative state. When I was at UCLA, I availed myself of their very generous library of science fiction. There was some stuff from the ‘50s, when the genre was really starting, and I read this really interesting essay about how stories used to have magic in them. If you look at Shakespeare, there’s magic all throughout—magic and ghosts and wizardry. At the time those stories were written, these things were all believed as possible. As we moved into the atomic age, those dreams died, and the “what ifs?” gave way to science. It used to be, maybe that could happen with magic. Now it’s, maybe that could happen with science. With this play, the basic “what if” is, what if there were a product that could allow you to experience sex without the sex? The greatest science fiction takes the strange and makes it familiar. We gravitate toward seeing the way people behave—the dynamics between human beings—and science fiction introduces something new for these familiar elements.
GO: The End of Sex
is at the Shoebox Theater, 2110 SE 10th Ave., 306-0870. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays through Feb. 15. $20. Tickets here