Although a self-proclaimed feminist play, The Mistress Contract is reductive and driven by stereotypes, finds Shoshana Devora
He and She, who first met at graduate school, embark on an affair twenty years later. There’s just one problem: She does not like performing oral sex on him, while He does not like taking long walks with her. However, this is only the first of my many problems with Abi Morgan’s new play, The Mistress Contract. The whole play is premised on the supposition that men enjoy sex and women don’t, that men want sex all the time (with any woman, of any kind) whereas women are only infrequently desirous of or satisfied by sex and instead value other elements of a relationship more. This basic stereotyping continues throughout the play.
The natural solution for She and He, is a contract. Mr will provide “tasteful accommodations” and reasonable expenses and Ms will provide “mistress services”. We find out this means that She becomes the sexual property of He. She is obliged to engage in all sexual acts as requested by He, unless she is otherwise disposed or travelling. This line is played for a laugh – there is no deeper analysis of what it might mean to be another’s sexual property, whether consent to individual sexual acts needs to be obtained or whether there is a mutual understanding of what constitutes these sexual acts. Either partner can break the contract at any time, which seems to be safety enough for She.
This disregard for a woman’s safety is continued throughout the play, as emphasised in an exchange relating to prostitution. Once again, the dialogue asserts that men are sexually voracious, requiring sex five times a day and that the combination of men’s sexual appetite and women’s natural “celibacy” is the “paradigm of male-female conflict”. He suggests that prostitution, which She initially finds degrading, is in fact a way for society to protect women. I found the imagery of women requiring protection distasteful, as it suggests that men cannot be expected to moderate their own sexual behaviour. The quick treatment of prostitution as a comedy cure for oversexualised men also brushes over the many problems inherent in the idea of economically powerless women exchanging their bodies for money while lacking equal sexual power or desire. It also suggests that women working in prostitution do not deserve the same degree of protection as their apparently more respectable peers.
The justification given for the mistress contract is twofold. Firstly, that it is an exchange of services. Secondly, that it is an experiment. In exploring the idea of the contract as a simple exchange, Morgan’s presentation is damaging to the perception of women as multifaceted human beings. He asks She, “You perceive sex as your only bargaining chip – not your wit, your charm, your conversation?” However, when She turns this question back onto He, pressing four times to be told whether he values her wit or sex more, He avoids answering. This seems to suggest that the only reason men are interested in women is for their sexual organs. He is quite happy to pay She off, to rid himself of the obligation to wine and dine and romance her, now that he can get his sexual thrills without having to sit through breakfast afterwards.
One of the play’s biggest stumbling blocks is its attempt to explain why the contract is so different from a traditional marriage. Marriage includes vows and is considered a contract. The failure of either partner to deliver on certain expectations can be considered grounds for divorce. Later in their relationship, She decides that she is more free than if she were married, simply because she can break the contract at any time. To me, this feels like a justification for any number of policies or forms of relationship – the use of pre-nups, an increased ease and speed of divorce, civil marriage separated from religion or indeed no marriage at all – not simply an endorsement for new methods of formalising gender relations.
The second justification for the contract, that it is an experiment, is wrapped up with the near constant use of tapes recording the time that She and He spend together. For the duration of their decades-long relationship, the two document their thoughts on their relationship and its significance. Their ultimate ambition is to publish a book chronicling their relationship (Morgan’s play was constructed with the use of the eventual memoir). While the pair undoubtedly debate and discuss themes relating to feminism and gender relations, combining the personal with the political, it doesn’t seem to me that this is a result of their contract, but rather the result of two open and inquisitive individuals who are curious enough to share thoughts and self-analyse. So this justification for the contract falls flat.
Overall, I find this play distasteful. It is simplistic, often aimed for cheap laughs and does nothing to convince me that the relationship between She and He is at all changed by their contract. We learn that He keeps track of the number of days the pair spend together a year – often around 180. When She wants to break the contract after 20 years, He is distraught. They pretty much seem to have a typical relationship, insofar as any romantic relationship between two consenting adults is typical, enjoying each other’s company, holidaying together, occasionally arguing, discussing their children and bickering over the garden. I am not convinced that their relationship would have been different had He not paid She for her sexual favours.
At the end of the play, She says that the reason she created the contract was because her feminism had saved her from being screwed around by the men in her life, but her feminism also then prevented her from loving men. The contract enabled her to love again. I want to know if She would still love He if He could not afford such expensive lodgings for She, or whether He would still love She if She said she was not in the mood for sex? This seems like a strange way of regulating love to me. Either their relationship has not been impacted on by the contract, in which case the contract is irrelevant and unnecessary, or they did not love each other in the first place, in which case their relationship was not romantic and so would be better compared to prostitution rather than marriage, which is not how She and He interpret their arrangement.
While Morgan is no doubt limited by her material, she is wholly uncritical in her treatment of the relationship. Although She and He argue some points of feminism, Morgan moves too quickly from topic to topic to engage in any real debate, and I am often left with the impression that She moderates her views to fit with those of He. Their relationship seems only to reinforce stereotypical gender roles, with He being the wealthy non-monogamous provider who swoops in when he feels like it and She being the mostly housebound recipient of He’s financial provision and sexual advances, uninterested in pursuing alternative relationships and seen cooking for He. Anything remotely controversial is immediately used for comedy purposes, with the whole feminist movement being given particularly ungenerous treatment – its most radical elements seem to have been selected to be subjected to mockery, including one scene where He recalls the writings of one of She’s friends about heterosexual sex being unnatural and the true order of things being lesbian sex due to the bond between a mother and her daughter.
Morgan is due to speak at the Royal Court Theatre on why you should write a feminist play. It seems to me that she could do with some lessons on how to do so herself. There is the crude one-dimensional stereotyping of men and women, the portrayal of sex as a gendered battleground, the idea that women are inherently unable to vocalise their dislike of certain sexual acts (unless given permission to communicate) and the shallow and problematic representation of the “sisterhood” as “crazy” and “angry”. Then there is the neglecting of consent, the oblivion towards the unequal power relationship that exchanging sex for money creates and why it’s necessarily problematic that a man is able to pay for a woman’s body with a currency less critical to his own sense of self. On top of this, we have the weak attempt at analysis on why this contract differs from a marriage, what the problems with marriage really are and whether this contract suffers from the exact same downsides. All this suggests to me that Morgan is uninterested in delving more deeply into the feminist questions that She and He’s relationship raises. She is instead only interested in satisfying an audience who buy into the men are from Mars and women are from Venus mentality.
The moral of this play? Women: you don’t like sex? That’s ok – get a man to pay for access to your bodily orifices and you’ll be on an equal footing then. Let’s hope no young women see this play and are persuaded that in signing away their bodily autonomy and sexual consent they’re going to be more free as a result.
The Mistress Contract is showing at the Royal Court Theatre until 22 March.
Photos are by Manuel Harlan.
Photo 1: A man and woman sit on a step, looking at each other. The man is leaning in. The woman holds a cigarette.
Photo 2: A man in the foreground is talking, a finger raised in emphasis; a woman stands in the background, out of focus.
Photo 3: A woman leans against a glass wall, smoking. There are cacti at her feet and in the background.