Thursday, May 04, 2006

Violence and Obscenity

Just when I think about either returning to this subject or putting it to bed, Pete sends me this article in Slate by Zachary Pincus-Roth pleading for more on-stage violence. It hits the nail on the head.

When describing scenes of on-stage violence in plays of yesteryear, Mr. Pincus-Roth writes:

“When do you ever see this stuff onstage? Plays can be emotional, intellectual, uplifting, depressing, titillating, romantic, or cathartic. But...rarely are they exciting, thrilling, or scary. Rarely do audiences witness a moment in which a person could either live or die. Such scenes typically take place behind closed doors or are staged as if the outcome is symbolic or inevitable.”

Now, this practice of violent scenes taking place “behind closed doors” goes back to ancient Greek theatre. The word obscene comes from the phrase ob skene, which literally means “off-stage.” The sexual violence, murders and eye gouging in Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles’ plays took place off-stage (off the proscenium).

This practice of making all sex and violence — the ob skene acts — taking place exclusively off-stage was eschewed by the English dramatists of the 16th and 17th Century (sure, I’m thinking of Shakespeare, but more particularly the revenge tragedians of the 17th Century like John Webster and Thomas Middleton, whose plays were the equivalent of modern-day slasher flicks). Also, as Mr. Pincus-Roth points out, Parisians in the 1890s and early 20th century enjoyed the Grand Guignol tradition of stage horror. However, both of these traditions of on-stage violence have faded out of favor in theatre of late, possibly because, as Mr. Pincus-Roth suggests, “most attempts at suspense are too stylized to be genuinely scary.”

For the longest time, I’ve been very much under the impression that my opinion that theatre should offer a visceral response has been a minority opinion. Yes, many people in the theatre world have said that theatre should offer a visceral response and many theatre bloggers have written that theatre should offer a visceral response. If I got a nickel for every time I heard or read someone in the theatre world say or write the word “edgy” when describing theatre I would have $6.75. However, I get the impression that most of it is all lip service, empty rhetoric, since if I got a nickel for every time I heard or read that onstage nudity should never be attempted because “that’s the only thing the audience will pay attention to” (which begs the question, “Yeah, and so what?”), for every time I heard or read that onstage violence should be conveyed with moody lighting or artfully performed behind a scrim, for every time I heard or read “You can’t stage that!” when I sent someone one of my scripts, I could buy a studio apartment on the Upper East Side.

Because, let’s face it…we’re all friends here...despite the liberal attitudes and the abuse of the word “edgy” and “daring” inherent to the world of self-produced Off-off Broadway theatre, theatre people — with some exceptions, of course — are generally the most uptight and conservative folks around.

(In all fairness, in addition to Qui’s Trial By Water, I recently saw a reading of Dan Trujillo’s very fun Conference With the Bull, which, like Qui’s show, featured on-stage mutilation and cannibalism. That makes me smile. In fact, there does seem to be a rising trend in the Off-off scene of trying to make use of on-stage violence, which receives no complaint from me.)

Mr. Pincus-Roth offers us the money-shot in the penultimate paragraph: “For all the talk of attracting young people to the theater, producers have completely ignored the escapist thrills of action and horror that send kids flocking to the multiplex and turning on their TV sets.”

I’m not talking about shamelessly pandering to the youth demographic (okay, I'll admit it: I really don't know what to think about the video game Grand Theft Auto, although I'm pretty sure any parent who let's their pre-teen play it is an imbecile), nor am I unaware of the difficulties in staging violent scenes onstage without them looking cheesy (although hell, with Mr. Trujillo’s play — which was a staged reading — the actor only pantomimed cutting out his flesh and eating it and the audience groaned in disgust, which goes to show you don’t need a lot — or any — money for effects). I am, however, saying that yes, theatre not only can offer visceral thrills, but should.

If only to remind people that yes, dammit, this shit is fun!

Violent and obscene,

James “PG-13” Comtois


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