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Violence on Stage: Healing or Titillating?


Posted June 25, 2015
by Jonathan Mandell

http://howlround.com/violence-on-stage-healing-or-titillating

Posted June 25, 2015

Jonathan Mandell

5 Comments

See also: aesthetics, criticism, new york

In the same week of yet another mass shooting, I saw a couple of plays that used a burst of violence as a plot device. One featured a mass shooting. They both
disturbed me, as have several other plays recently.

Guards at the Tajby Rajiv Joseph. Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Why would I be uncomfortable watching Branden Jacob-Jenkins play Gloria (http://newyorktheater.me/2015/06/17/gloria-review-branden-jacobs-jenkins-play-


of-warped-ambition-and-trauma/) currently running at the Vineyard Theatre (http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/) , or Rajiv Josephs Guards at the Taj
(http://newyorktheater.me/2015/06/18/guards-at-the-taj-review-do-beauty-and-banter-mix-well-with-blood/) at the Atlantic Theater Company
(https://atlantictheater.org/) , or last seasons Punk Rock (http://newyorktheater.me/2014/11/17/punk-rock-review-darker-tale-by-curious-incident-
playwright/) by Simon Stephens (which also climaxed in a mass shooting) at MCC Theater (http://mcctheater.org/) , or John Pollanos Small Engine
(http://newyorktheater.me/2013/11/20/small-engine-repair-review-a-shockingly-inept-play-off-broadway/)

Repair (http://newyorktheater.me/2013/11/20/small-engine-repair-review-a-shockingly-inept-play-off-broadway/) the season before by the same theatre


company? After all, acts of violence are such routine daily occurrences in the TV shows and movies I watch that they barely register; by the end of its run, the
critically beloved series The Sopranos had a body count (killings shown on screen) of eighty-four, which some might consider low. Besides, violence is a
theatrical tradition dating back to the Greek tragedies.

The answers that Ive come up with are that works on stage are (or should be) different from works on screen, and that much of the violence Ive been seeing on
stage is of a different quality and purpose than existed at the birth of Western theatre.

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Theater of Warbook cover.

Weve lost touch with the Greek model, says director Bryan Doerries. The violence in Greek tragedies is about helping the community come to terms with the
violence theyve experienced, and the violence theyve perpetuated. Doerries is the author of a book that will be published this fall entitled The Theater of War:
What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. It chronicles his work with his company Outside The Wire (http://www.outsidethewirellc.com) presenting
plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violencesoldiers, prison
guards, survivors of domestic violence, and of torture.

Doerries has seen how consistently these mostly inexperienced theatregoers have connected emotionally to these 2,500-year-old plays. The violence in Greek
tragedies is a form of therapy and education for the audiences both then and now, Doerries argues, a communal response to suffering. The violence in many of the
contemporary American plays Ive been seeing, by contrast, is intended as a form of entertainment, a thrill ride.

A debate over violence on stage might be framed differently. Is the violence in a play simply titillating, or does it
interrogate our relationship with violence?

Clues to the difference are that the violence in the Greek tragedies is most often off-stage, described in monologues, and that the ancient Greek audiences knew
the stories in advance; these were something akin to sacred communal rites that the audience and actors relived. Contemporary American plays most often use
violence as an opportunity to show off some impressive stagecraft, and as a surprise, a plot twist. The publicists sometimes even issue critics advisories against
revealing the violence.

Now, to be fair, the use of violence on stage to boost audience adrenaline is not something new, nor is it necessarily pernicious. Shakespeare begins Romeo and
Juliet with a fight between members of the Capulet and Montague clans that, as fight director J. Allen Suddeth has pointed out, serves to open the play with
energy and a bit of spectacle. However, at the same time, it also sets up the central conflict between the two families. Subsequent acts of violence in the play
Tybalts killing of Mercutio and Romeos killing of Tybalt in act 3; Romeos murder of Juliets suitor Paris in act 5help turn it into a tragedy. One comes away
from Romeo and Juliet lamenting the waste and the foolishness of the violence, even if momentarily swept up by the staging of it.

Now, to be fair, the use of violence on stage to boost audience adrenaline is not something new, nor is it necessarily
pernicious.

The argument over the depiction of violence these days most often plays out in debates over video games (http://videogames.procon.org) : Do they perpetuate
violence outside their virtual worlds, or, by providing an outlet for aggression and release, lessen it?

A debate over violence on stage might be framed differently. Is the violence in a play simply titillating, or does it interrogate our relationship with violence? If you
are going to put a mass shooting on stage, Doerries believes, you better be doing both.

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Jennifer Kim and Ryan Spahn inGloria. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Its a question worth asking of playslike Guards at the Taj andGloria.(What follows contains what would be considered spoilers for two shows that are still
running.)

Guards at the Taj is a two-character play that begins the night in 1648 before the Taj Mahal will be unveiled to the public. Rajiv Joseph (who is best known for
Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, which was produced on Broadway starring Robin Williams) tells the story of twoimperial guards standing watch, who are largely
comic figures thrust into an existential dilemmathink Laurel in Hardy in Waiting for Godot.But instead of any uncertain, dreaded fate, they face a concrete and
bloody task: The emperor orders them to chop off the hands of all 20,000 artisans who built the Taj Mahal, on the insane reasoning that this will assure that it will
remain the most beautiful structure ever built. So, in the second scene, we see them dazed and despairing in a cave with a deep pool of bloody water, having just
finished their chopping.

Perhaps Joseph is exploring some deep themes; he does seem to be suggesting that beauty and brutality are often paired. But the violence discourages us from
engaging, for two reasons. First, this never happened; its a fabrication not based on history. Second, it doesnt even feel real; its so over-the-top as to approach
cartoonish. Its hard to call the effect titillating, but there is a touch of surreal comedy to it, calling to mind the plays by Martin McDonagh (such as A Behanding in
Spokane) who often uses violence for comedic effect.

Gloria, too, can be seen as a comedy that takes a jolting turn. In the first act of the play, we meet backbiting, frustrated, and defeated editorial staff members in the
cubicle-filled office of an unnamed national magazine (Jacob-Jenkins worked for three years for the New Yorker magazine). The central conflict seems to be
between Dean and Kendra. Dean arrives late and hung over because he attended a so so so awfuland sad housewarming party given by Gloria; even though
Gloria has been with the magazine for fifteen years, Dean was one of the few people to attend. (Because Gloria is the office freak and no one wants to hang with
the office freak outside of the office, Kendra says unkindly.)

As the scene comes to a close, suddenly we hear gunshots, and then we see Gloria shoot her colleagues before killing herself.

In the second act, taking place eight months later, we learn that Gloria shot ten people to death, that both Dean and Kendra survived, and that they each have
contracts to write competing books about it, as does a third surviving colleague.

So Gloria is, in part, a cynical look at the corruption of our culture, the commercialization of our traumas. That the incident they are competing to write about is a
berserk mass shooting seems to exist primarily to heighten the absurdity of the characters competition. It could have worked almost as well if one of their
colleagues had suddenly become a big movie star. Violence per se doesnt feel to be the central investigation of the play.

But Jacob-Jenkins is also subtly exploring our casual attitude towards violence. Before the shooting, a colleague of Glorias calls her an emotional terrorist. (We
realize how lame and meaningless a phrase like that is when she actually terrorizes.) Another character, a fact checker named Lorin, complains about his career at
the magazine by saying, I was supposed to be a lawyer. Someone shoot me. By the end of Gloria, however, Lorina seemingly minor character initially, almost
comic reliefbecomes something of the conscience of the play. Hes the only survivor we see that isnt trying to make a buck off of the experience (why dont
you just make up your own story. Like why do you have to use Glorias story?), and doesnt need to hype it (If Gloria worked hereyou probably wouldnt even
notice her), andmost significantlyreaches out to a co-worker, to try to make a connection, in what feels like part of his process of grieving.

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In this oblique look at grief, the play maintains its intellectual integrity. But will it help any theatregoers with their own grieftheir own baffled response to
violence?

Thats something that theatre can, and should, do more.

A few days after nine people were shot dead on June 17 at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of New York-based theatre artists who call themselves
Willing Participant (http://willingparticipant.org/) called a meeting to come up with an urgent poetic response.

We had a very lively and important discussion, where people were looking for space to question, to heal, to think about how to move forward, says Niegel Smith,
one of the four ringleaders of the group, and the new artistic director of The Flea Theater (http://www.theflea.org/) .

Three and a half hours of sometimes angry and vengeful discussion about the Charleston shooting yielded a realization: A single response is not enough for what
happened, says Smith, who is one of those searching for something longer-term. Over the next few days, Willing Participant is hoping to come up with a series of
gatherings with music and song and dance and conversation and experts involved. They are going to look more like a spiritual rituala lot less polished than
traditional theatre. But no less theatrical. I agree that theatre should be responding.

That Smith is involved seems fitting. The Flea, the Off-Off Broadway theatre that he took over last month, has a history of urgent response. Not long after
September 11, it produced The Guys, by Ann Nelson, a two-character play about an editor helping a fire captain to prepare the eulogies for the fire fighters who
died at the World Trade Center. Featuring a different starry cast every six weeks,The Guysran for a year, helping the community to deal with a traumatic act of
violence without depicting any violence on the stage.

***
Jonathan Mandell's NewCrit piece usually appears the firstThursdayof every month. Find his previous pieces here (http://howlround.com/authors/jonathan-
mandell) .

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ToddBackus2yearsago
So...whileidisagreewiththeideathatviolenceonstagemusteitherhealorhurt,myselfandafewotherswereinvolvedinthehowlroundchattoday
aboutthisarticle(seethestorifyhere:https://storify.com/howlround/...andthenwecontinuedpastthecutoffofthechatandJonathanaskedthat
Ipostsomeofthathereforposterity.

Thethingweweretalkingaboutneartheendwaswhethertheatercouldbeareactiontotragedy(ietheCharlestonShooting)andthenwhetherit
should,becausethosereallyaretwodifferenttopics.Iwholeheartedlybelievethattheatercanbeusedtofindsolace,meaning,understanding,etcin
timesoftragedyandstrife.Idon'tthinkitalwaysdoes,Ithinkthattheatreartistslikeanyoneelsearecapableofmissteps.Thenwegotintothe
questionofshould.

@javprojectsbelievesthatTheatershouldwaitandreflect,andnotpatronize/pander.Idon'twanttomisrepresenthisviewssocheckouthistweets
around23pmon6/25/15ifyou'reinterested.Iraisedthattheatrehasalwaysbeenreactionary,acommentaryonthings.TrojanWomenwasan
advisementtotheGreekstonotentertaintheideaofcivilwarShakespeare'shistoriesareoftenentrenchedinthepoliticalgoingsonsofEnglandat
theirtimeofwritingandTheCruciblebyMillerisastridentattackonMcCarthyism.Thisishowweastheatreartistsmakeastandandcopeand
process.Wedoitbymakingart,notforcommercialreasonsbutforart'ssakeandIthinkthat'simportant.Iabsolutelybelievetherearepeoplewho
shouldbecreatingartinthiswaveofracialtensionthroughoutthecountry.InfactIknowthatthereareartistsdoingjustthat.AndIthinkthey
should.Andnotallofitwillbegood,notallofitwillbetestamentstothestagekeptthroughtheages,butitwillhelpcommunitiesdiscuss,andfeel,
andprocess.Andthat'swhatwedothisfor,right?Nottopresentanswersbuttopresentideas.
1 Reply Share

JeffWolfZinn2yearsago
I'm"uncomfortable"withtheideathattheatermustfunctionas"therapyandeducation"or"byprovidinganoutletforaggressionandrelease,
lessenit..."orthatit"betterbedoing..."anything.Theater,inmyview,holdsupthemirrorandwhatweseetheremightbenasty.There'san
underlyingassumptioninthearticle,andinthehandwringingthatpermeatesmuchofthediscussion,thattheatermuststrivetohealthenastiness
orbejudged"pernicious."Theaterthatisdisturbing?Hellyes!
1 Reply Share

JLMandell>JeffWolfZinn2yearsago
Youaremischaracterizingthetoneofmyinquiryassomekindofabsolutistdecree,takingwordsoutofcontext.Hereishow"pernicious,"for
example,isusedinthearticle:"...theuseofviolenceonstagetoboostaudienceadrenalineisnotsomethingnew,norisitnecessarily
pernicious."
Theproblemofviolenceinoursocietyisreal.Someofusareaskingwhatparttheatercanandshouldplayinaddressingit.
1 Reply Share

ShaunHall>JLMandellayearago
Iwasbroughttothisarticleb/cofyourcommentsonRobOnorato's"Shot,Shocked,Saved"postandhavebeenexploringmyown
artisticresponsetotragediesrangingfromColumbinetoSanBernardinoandwhateverelsemaybeawaitingusinthecomingweeks,
days,orhours.AsIexplorewhatthetheater'sroleshouldbeineducatingouraudienceonthehistoryofviolenceandsometimesmore
specificallyamassshootingIcometoseeitasnecessarytofaceafearandattempttounderstandwhythesetragedieshappenorin
thecaseofGloriashowuswhatitmeanstobeAmericanandcopewithtragedy.
ThoughIagreewithJeffthattheaterisamirrorandshouldbewhateveritneedstobeorwhateveranartistdecides.Ibelievethat
whendealingwithsomethingashorribleasaschoolshooting,theatershouldbeheldtoahigherstandard.Thepointshouldnotbeto
merelyterrorizetheaudiencebuttoeducatethem.
Reply Share

JLMandell>ShaunHallayearago
Iappreciateyourcomment,Shaun.I'mnotsureyouDOagreewithJeffWolfZinn,atleastthewayIunderstandhiscomment
i.e."disturbing?Hellyes."It'stoosimplistictosaythattheatershouldbedisturbingthat'saclichethat,likemanysayings
inthetheater,haslostitsprecisemeaningorneverhadone.
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