The Art of the Embrace

My brain’s been looping back around to the screen-shown production of Merrily We Roll Along again. Which I suppose could just be interpreted as my own obsessiveness, but which I prefer to think is a good sign about the meat for chewing in the show.

In any case, I spent a fair chunk of the show noticing how physically close Frank (Mark Umbers) and Charley (Damian Humbley) are. The forceful hugs, one man holding the face of the other, heads on shoulders. And because my brain goes there, I added in Charley’s nearly-invisible wife and Frank’s clear inability to stay with a wife, and part of me started finding subtext and wondering about it.

Of course, a lot of Frank’s physical intimacy / comfort with Charley happens with Mary (Jenna Russell) just as often. There’s specifically this bit Mark Umbers does with both Humbley and Russell, where he hugs the other from behind and rests his chin on his / her shoulder. We see it in the context of Frank / Mary first, but later with Frank / Charley. And while my memory may be fuzzy, I don’t believe we ever see it with Frank and his first or second wife. It’s this very close, intimate physicality. It speaks of comfort and connection and I totally understand where Mary could turn that into romantic feelings for Frank.

And I accept that. I feel heartbreak for Mary during Frank’s first wedding, when it’s clear Frank isn’t on the same romantic track. What they have is … something else. So, I think it’s fair to turn that around and–much as I might have slash tendencies in my reading–acknowledge that Frank’s physical intimacy and comfort with Charley may be much the same.

It does, however, point up something I find really interesting about the ways that physical and emotional human interaction interconnect.

Look, I’m the last person to say anyone should put away the gay (or bi, or any of the other letters in the ever-expanding acronym of “alternate lifestyles”1), whether in text or subtext. This isn’t about that specifically, but about the kind of shorthand we use to express them.

Intimacy is often expressed by physical proximity. The more intimate, the more physically close. And using that specific spectrum, sexual intimacy is the pinnacle of emotional intimacy.

Only, of course, we know that’s not true. Sometimes sex is sex, and it doesn’t matter how often you have it; in the end you’re no closer to your partner(s) than before bodily fluids got involved.

So of course, it seems reasonable to assume the opposite. That there are people who are emotionally intimate on a level of which romantic partners might be forever jealous, but who nonetheless aren’t romantically or sexually linked. Their intimacy isn’t about that.

In the case of Frank and Charley, I think that ultimately boils down to their writing partnership. Their intimacy is deep and abiding, and is expressed in a physical proximity which might suggest romance out of context, but which in context is about the fact that their writing partnership2 leaves them wrapped up in each other, emotionally intimate in that way which is so often associated with romance, but which is something else altogether.

It’s why, too, Mary-the-writer is a part of this intimate threesome, I think, and how she gets wrapped up in it. It’s art-as-romance, I suppose. Or maybe the other way around. Or possibly just tangled up every which way. In any case, if I’m cheer-leading for relationship diversity, then, I’m not sure that I can really complain about the results.

1. Just wanted to clarify: the scare quotes are meant to cast aspersions on the way that phrase other-izes people by classifying them as both not-normal and suggesting that sexual preference or gender identity are styles at all. It’s not meant to suggest anything about the folks who fall into what is a questionably-named category.
2. It seems unlikely “Musical Husbands” was chosen by accident as the title of the Frank / Charley musical-within-a-musical. That observation in and of itself is probably obvious, but since when has that stopped me?

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2 thoughts on “The Art of the Embrace

  1. If you’re curious about artistic and sexual threesomes, you may want to hunt down the 1933 (!) movie Design for Living, with Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Frederic March as an artist, painter, and playwright (respectively) who attempt to juggle relationships.

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