How Do You Feel About Onstage Violence?

Show-Score | By Carol Rocamora | Jun 20, 2017

One Show-Score member ponders representations of violence on stage and asks the question, "Where is your personal line drawn?"

"1984" and "Sweeney Todd" are two shows with portrayals of violence that are currently running "1984" and "Sweeney Todd" are two shows with portrayals of violence that are currently running

What’s your tolerance level for violence in the theatre?  It’s a question for these turbulent times, when violence onstage is increasingly hard to avoid.
My personal limit depends on its judicious usage and artistic representation.
Take revivals of the ancient Greek tragedies. These plays feature some of the most brutal acts imaginable -- murders, self-mutilations, savage assaults -- but the Greeks made things easier on the audience because they set their violence offstage. (In fact, the word "obscene" comes from the Greek phrase ob skene,  which means "off scene.")
In other words, you don’t actually see Medea kill the kids. For me, the lack of a brutal visual increases the power of the act. In Deborah Warners 2001 Abbey Theatre production, Fiona Shaw (a marvelous Medea) chased her adorable little boys across the stage.  They exited, and a moment later, you saw blood splashed over an upstage glass wall. I gasped in horror, along with the rest of the audience. I responded not because I witnessed the act, but rather witnessed its devastating consequences. Imagining the violence was far more vivid than seeing it enacted onstage.
But what if the playwright specifically requires the violence to be seen? In the current Broadway production of "1984", a spellbinding adaptation of George Orwell's novel, we see a graphic torture scene accompanied by blinding lighting and deafening sound cues.
It's an unforgettable moment in a powerful production, and just like scenes in famously violent plays like Sarah Kane's "Blasted" and Edward Bond's "Saved", it's permanently etched in my theatergoing memory.  But at what price?  The playwrights presumably consider these acts to be essential, and many people argue that they are ultimately condemned by the stories' humanistic themes.  But what about us in the audience?  Do these ends justify the means? Show-Score audiences seem divided, at least with regard to "1984." The show's overall score is a solid 74, but while some members praise its imagery, others cite it as a reason for very low marks.
I'm always grateful when directors avoid being literal. In the dozen of productions of "King Lear" Ive seen in my lifetime, Ive never seen an actual gouging out of Gloucesters eyes, even though Shakespeare calls for it in the script. Similarly, in The Publics recent production of "Julius Caesar" in Central Park, director Oskar Eustis found the right balance in the assassination scene.  Shakespeare calls for blood, the audience anticipates it, and Eustis delivered just the right amount.  The scarlet red smeared on the hands of Brutus (Corey Stoll), Cassius (John Douglas Thompson), and other assassins is a shocking contrast against the severity of their blue business suits and starched white shirts.
Despite the political controversy surrounding this production's allusions to the Trump administration, I'd argue we should focus on Eustis's direction. At one moment, for instance, dozens of actors in the audience became a screaming throng and stormed the stage.  It was the most thrilling (and terrifying) representation of mob violence I’ve ever experienced in the theatre. Show-Score members responded to the show as well, giving it an average score of 77. (That's much higher than the critics, who gave it a 66.)
Speaking of non-literal moments, I also appreciate violence that's represented in unexpected ways. Take the recent Broadway revival of "The Crucible", in which director Ivo van Hove foreshadowed the terror to come by sending a wolf (yes, a live one) prowling across the stage at the top of Act II. In "Sweeney Todd" (now in a revival at the Barrow Street Theater that has a stellar score of 91), Stephen Sondheim evokes murder and cannibalism with his score.  You dont need to see Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett actually chopping people up and grinding them into meat pies: you can hear the violence in the music. It's a striking reminder that theater can thrive on the art of suggestion.

Have you seen the shows I'm mentioning? How did their violence affect you? How do you typically respond to brutal moments, however they're depicted? Let's use the comments to get a conversation going, particularly since violence isn't going to leave the stage any time soon.