Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

The quote is the antepenultimate note from Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Notes on Camp.” There’s an essential truth in the insight, but also something of the camp-enthusiast’s lapse of judgment. Camp, after all, rears its head most potently when it is not intended, and it is precisely such situations in which the line between what Sontag distinguishes as “ruthless” and “sweet” cynicism is difficult to discern. I once saw a small-cast (but lavish) “chamber” musical adaptation of Dracula that aimed to get at the “original” myth under all the “layers” of camp. The problem being that there is no original myth under the layers of camp – it’s camp all the way down. And staging the myth with deep earnestness gave the audience not a deeper emotional experience, but an experience of naive camp – the show was dreadful, and unintentionally hilarious. I almost had to leave the theatre; I couldn’t help laughing out loud in some of the most serious moments. This was a way of enjoying the show – no other way to enjoy it presented itself to me – but I most assuredly was not laughing with the show, or its creators. I was laughing at it. And the tenderness and generosity of spirit that Sontag identifies as essential to the camp sensibility depend upon that sensibility being shared.

The easiest way to ensure that this sensibility is shared is to engage in “camping” – in self-consciously creating something vulgar-yet-beautiful, something so-bad-it’s-good, something overdone yet just right – and let the audience know that you know what you’re doing, and that they should, too. But then, here comes Sontag (in her 18th note) to render a negative judgment on such efforts: “Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

I’ve been meditating on the uses and misuses of camp this morning, on account of two shows I recently saw that, in very different ways, treated of the double-vision that camp imposes – the “in-it” perspective that takes events seriously, and the “with-it” perspective that is aware of, and relishes, the artifice. I found both productions interesting, but neither entirely satisfying, and I wanted to figure out why.

*     *     *

The first production, which I saw late last month, was Jesse Berger’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at Red Bull Theatre. I am a huge fan of Berger’s work, and one reason is that he takes works – Jacobean tragedy, most prominently – that run a great risk of being turned into camp, and he seemingly effortlessly avoids that fate. I think of his production of The Dutchess of Malfi in particular, which can work exceptionally well as camp, and which can fail disastrously (and campily), if treated with operatic earnestness. Berger seemed to understand that this was a work about two very real human beings – the titular Dutchess and the cynical thug-for-hire Bosola – living in a world of campily over-the-top evil. And so he went with his wildest, most extravagant, even outright campy ideas for staging that world – the most extraordinary being the Busby-Berkeley-via-David-Lynch musical number inserted in the madhouse sequence – while demanding that those two principals remain real in their reactions to this insanity, never suggesting that they thought they were just in a play. It was a tour-de-force.

Berger approached Genet’s play in something of the same spirit. He staged it in a bedroom in a box, the audience placed just outside the walls of the room on all four sides. We become the voyeurs into this little hothouse world – and, as we see our fellow voyeurs all around, aware of ourselves as such. And the room is decorated in full camp style – blood red velvet and gladiolas everywhere. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) come on, and begin to enact their S&M drama of master and servant, until the time runs out, and they must return to the real world, in which they are both servants to the so-far absent Madame.

So far so strong, and it continues with its visceral power – until Madame (J. Smith-Cameron) enters.

Madame, in this production, is the absurd, over-the-top reality that the two servants, the two true human beings, must accommodate themselves to. The servants change immediately – Ms. Serralles in particular, her Claire physically shrinking before our eyes in the glorious shadow of Madame. Madame must be a terrible force to have this impact on these two women.

But Smith-Cameron’s performance is fundamentally campy, and self-consciously so – it’s an example of “camping.” She flounces, she primps and powders, she throws her eyes and her arms about, she underlines every word she says. It’s impossible to take her seriously. More importantly, it’s impossible to be genuinely afraid of her. And yet, Claire and Solange are, quite patently, terrified.

I’ve never seen Genet before, and no doubt he thought this play was saying something important about the sado-masochistic dynamics of the master-servant relationship. But he originally intended for the play to be performed by male actors. To me, that suggests that the performance of femininity was at least as important to him as the class dynamics. And the (male) performance of femininity is very close to the heart of camp sensibility.

Madame’s life is transparently artificial – this is what makes her a camp creature. There’s nothing real about her world, her relationship with Monsieur, the crime for which he is in prison or the crime that the servants plot against her. But she feels more real, to her own servants, than they do to themselves. They melt in her presence; and when she is gone, they play at being her, and fantasize about destroying her. This scrambling of reality and artifice, the suggestion that the artificial is more compelling, more real, even, than the real, is also close to the heart of camp. But somehow, seeing these servants desperately loving and hating this camp creature, an obviously silly woman, just felt pathetic, rather than being filled with pathos. I began to pull away, and see Genet’s contrivance as itself a piece of artifice. The drama itself started to seem campy.

And I found myself wondering how differently it would play if Solange and Claire were played by men, but Madame played by a woman; if the campy, artificial dominatrix were the real woman, the servants, hating her and yearning to be her, enacting the pathos of men yearning to be what they could only be through the artifice of camp.

*     *     *

The final act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes an almost perfect illustration of what Sontag was talking about when she praised camp. Peter Quince, Bottom and the rest of the Mechanicals have worked hard on their little production of “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” but, as you might have guessed from the absurd description, the play is awful, and Theseus, the king for whom the entertainment is intended as part of his wedding feast, is duly warned of this. But Theseus will not be warned off:

I will hear that play;
For never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it.

 And so we are treated to what in most productions is a distinct pleasure: Sontag’s generous delight in something awful. You can’t say unintentionally awful, since of course Bottom and Snug and Snout and so forth are played by professional actors, deliberately performing badly (Sontag’s camping) – but, if the production is a good one, we forget that fact, and think we are watching Bottom and Snug and Snout, characters we have come to love and think of as real, and toward whom we feel as generous as Theseus does, and we love their play because they mean it so earnestly even as it is so awful (Sontag’s naive camp).

The current production of Dream at Classic Stage – another company of which I am very fond – takes a different approach. Director Tony Speciale starts his players camping almost from the get-go, and certainly by the time Taylor Mac’s inspired Puck appears – tearing his way out of an ape costume to reveal a red-and-white striped body suit and an enormous blonde Afro, the first of a series of marvelously outrageous costumes – we know this is a production that is taking the idea of “fairies” rather literally. (“You didn’t expect that!” he declares upon emerging from the ape suit, in one of a number of non-Shakespearean asides, the best of which was, to a woman in the front row, “would you reach under your seat darling and hand me my ukelele?”) The middle of the play is filled with inspired theatrical magic, all of it campy – the veritable deluge of rose petals that buries Titania; the swollen purple love-in-idleness flower that enchants the eyes of the lovers by squirting them; Oberon (played with panache by Anthony Heald) and Puck, eager to watch the confused lovers quarrel, settling into beach chairs with popcorn provided by hands reaching out from the mirrored back wall of the stage; and on and on. It’s wonderful.

But it leaves the production with a problem: what are the Mechanicals going to do for the finale? They certainly can’t top this. So they don’t try. For once, the play-within-a-play is played (mostly) straight, the rude players all in basic black, accompanied by a tuneful if unexceptional guitar strummed by Peter Quince (a bland Rob Yang). There are various bad jokes, but both Bottom’s Pyramus (a hearty Steven Skybell, last seen as Sagredo in CSC’s production of Galileo) and Flute’s Thisbe (a sorrowfully fey David Greenspan, last seen at CSC playing Queen Elizabeth in their production of Orlando) aim for genuine emotion in their performances. The result is a play that is bad, but not, unfortunately, so bad that it’s good; and the derision of the swells in the audience comes off as nasty in consequence. They can only enjoy the play, it seems, by making it out to be even worse than it is.

The production has other problems, in particular the lack of emotional clarity in the lovers’ performances (which isn’t helped by a contemporary setting that makes Hermia’s urgent flight from Athens to escape a death sentence frankly incomprehensible). The lovers ought to be silly, but I don’t think they should be trivial, and that’s how they feel here. I not only can’t believe anything bad will happen if the lovers don’t get properly sorted – I’m not even convinced they will feel that bad. But the big problem is this structural one, which stems from the production’s relationship to camp. Dream, normally, gives us wonder in the form of the fairies, and then a camp version of that wonder in the form of the Mechanicals’ bad theatre. And when we laugh with (not really at) the rude Mechanicals it is substantially because we have already been thoroughly charmed – as have the fairies themselves – by Bottom. Because he says stuff like this:

PEASEBLOSSOM
Hail, mortal!

COBWEB
Hail!

MOTH
Hail!

MUSTARDSEED
Hail!

BOTTOM
I cry your worship’s mercy, heartily: I beseech your
worship’s name.

COBWEB
Cobweb.

BOTTOM
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with
you. Your name, honest gentleman?

PEASEBLOSSOM
Peaseblossom.

BOTTOM
I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your
mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good
Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more
acquaintance too. Your name, I beseech you, sir?

MUSTARDSEED
Mustardseed.

BOTTOM
Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well:
that same cowardly, giant-like ox-beef hath
devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise
you your kindred had made my eyes water ere now. I
desire your more acquaintance, good Master
Mustardseed.

Unless I missed something, this entire dialogue, which is all about Bottom’s winning innocence, was cut in this production. I suspect it was cut because this innocence would disarm the fairies of their camp armor. And the director was saving that moment of disarming for the end of the production.

Puck is the only fairy who doesn’t vanish with the dawn, but who stays to plague and amuse the audience as it leaves the theatre, and he is granted the honor of the epilogue. In this production, Puck is double cast with Egeus, Hermia’s frustrated father, and he begins the epilogue (which is taken up by the rest of the cast) as Egeus, the sad man behind Puck’s clown makeup, who ends his speech by thrusting his face into his slice of wedding cake, thus reapplying his makeup in a metaphorical manner that makes clear just how angry he is at having to do so.

I’m not entirely clear what the director meant by this, but that anger is what came through to me, and what it said to me was: you’ve been laughing at the antics of these fairies, but we aren’t laughing; we’re crying, even as we’re making you laugh. Because (again, I presume) we’re not invited to have our own wedding feasts.

That’s a funny message for a New York audience, and perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but if I have then I really don’t know what the ending, with its abrupt shift of tone so completely against the text, means. In any event, to me, it calls into question the entirety of the production, asking us, in effect, to question our responses to the very parts of the production that worked best. I liked it, in its sobering Brechtian way. But even after meditating on it, I didn’t come to any settled conclusion about what Speciale thinks about the role of camp, and camping, in theatre, or in love.