Violence on Stage, and Responding to the Latest Mass Shooting

The mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C. church occurred on the same day that a play opened Off-Broadway featuring a mass shooting. This provoked a number of questions, which I attempt to address today in an essay for Howlround about stage violence, and ask as well in an online chat.

My essay touches on the history of theatrical violence — in the Greek tragedies, in Shakespeare — to frame a question that I then apply to currently running shows with pivotal scenes of violence: Is the violence in a play simply titillating, or does it interrogate our relationship with violence?  (Should it do both?)

Here is a selection of the questions, with answers, all edited, that we debated on the Howlround chat:

Why am I more uncomfortable watching stage violence than film violence? How do they differ? 

Eric Pfeffinger: Movie violence is often less affecting, even though more realistic, because you don’t share the same space or breathe the same air.

Why do so many of us find violence so entertaining?

J Adrian Verkouteren: I’m not sure I do. (A VERY little–or an allusion– goes a long way.)

Rick Stemm: The entertainment and excitement of balletic movement. Ever seen a really good sword fight onstage?

Stephen Near: I don’t find onstage violence entertaining. It reinforces brutality. Short + sharp = effective. Too much = overkill

Are there obvious examples of “good” stage violence vs. “bad” stage violence?

Meg Taintor: I’ve been in tiny theatres where actors brandished guns in the direction of audience

Stephen Near: I’ve almost never seen effective firearm use onstage. Gunplay is stronger when it’s implied, heard offstage or out of sight.

Hope Baugh:  I agree: Never point a gun at the audience because all it does it take them out of the story.

Eric Pfeffinger: Violence at the end of Lanford Wilson’s short play Eukiah is affecting because it’s intimate, sudden, unshowy, inevitable.

J Adrian Verkouteren: The end of Hamilton is effective and not over-the-top. The end of fun Home is more abstracted and works in that way without undue horror,

 Is there a danger state-of-the-art stagecraft + film envy will push productions to overdo violence? Is this happening? Is there a danger even in the stylized/choreographed violence on stage of adding to our culture’s desensitization?

Todd Backus thought just the opposite, paraphrasing Jhonen Vasquez:  When you suppress thoughts because of society you actually deaden a part of yourself, refuse to acknowledge your animal nature…Think back on your life to when someone wronged you. Instead of just taking it, imagine you got violent. Allow yourself to have that moment of violence in your head. Now put it away. Qllow yourself to feel these emotions. Otherwise you might actually become violent from suppressing.

Can theater serve as communal response to suffering from violence?

For example, a group of artists calling themselves Willing Participant is trying to find “an urgent poetic response” to the Charleston shootings. Is theater good at this?

Dolore Quintana: I don’t have examples, but I believe so, yes. It can also help actors/audience process suffering/fear.

J Adrian Verkouteren: Too soon. The community needs to form its own reaction to its tragedy.

Todd Backus: Do you feel like theatre must inform and cannot have a dialogue?

J Adrian Verkouteren: Dialogue need not be immediate (rushed — sometimes even exploitative).

Eric Pfeffinger: Theater’s value is limited if it’s not relevant to immediate community concerns. That said, theater’s also good at metaphor and subtext; ways to respond to violence other than dramatizing violence.

J Adrian Verkouteren: Metaphor is effective: would Shakespeare have dealt with the Charleston shootings with a play about the flag?. Rapid response is not always informed or helpful.

Todd Backus: Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the Greeks, had ties to the current events. Should Arthur Miller have waited until after McCarthyism to write The Crucible?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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