Entertaining Violence

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[This show will record early (at 5:00 pm Eastern) so that David Gammons can make it to an evening rehearsal for his next show.]

Like Shakespeare’s own audience, I was initially drawn to Titus Andronicus for the promise of spectacular, violent bloodshed. In his day it was his most popular play, bespeaking an Elizabethan taste for the gruesome and gory. We are all compelled to witness man’s capacity for cruelty; we are shocked but perversely satisfied to see that which is meant to stay inside come out into the light. We alleviate our own darkest fears and desires by seeing them played out on stage.

David R. Gammons, Director’s Notes on Titus Andronicus

So writes the seriously wild and wildly serious David Gammons, who has directed the current Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Titus Andronicus just around the corner from our Harvard Square office. We last heard from the Actor’s Shakespeare Project when they had Alvin Epstein do King Lear. Lear has bluster and gore, but it’s no match for Titus. When the first act of this production ends, this is the familial misery parade we see: A young woman who has been raped, and whose hands and tongue have been cut off, holds her father’s lopped-off hand in her mute mouth. Her father marches along, carrying — with his good hand — the head of one of his murdered sons in a burlap sack. Her uncle has a head-filled sack of his own. And that’s all before the mayhem, suffocation, and cannibalism of the second half. (As Chris joked the morning after, “‘And what do you call this act?’ ‘The aristocrats!'”)

All of which begs the question: why are we compelled, as Gammons himself puts it, “to witness man’s capacity for cruelty?” Shakespeare didn’t invent cruelty as spectacle — or “entertaining violence,” in the phrase of an Actors’ Shakespeare Project symposium tonight — and it certainly didn’t end with him. Instead of gladiatorial contests (or, in some cases, in addition to their contemporary incarnations), we amuse ourselves with boxing and WWF, with video games and slasher films and torture scenes in 24.

We’re hoping to avoid the sanctimonious (and tired) conversation about the morality of violence as entertainment. We’re less interested in the societal implications of, say, graphic video games as they might be enumerated before a concerned Senate subcommittee. Instead, how about the interplay of voyeurism and catharsis, fantasy and blood lust, guilt and thrill?

We don’t want to hear the reasons you don’t like to watch; what are the reasons you do?

Update, 4/17 12:35pm

“Does the news make tonight’s show ghoulish?” Katherine asked in a staff e-mail this morning, echoing something Lumi&#232re wrote yesterday.

I figured I’d post my reply publicly:

My immediate reaction is: no. Would we have said this about the 289 Iraqis that were killed this past Saturday? Or after the bombs in Algeria last week? Did millions of people not watch 24 last night? We live in a terribly violent world, a truly violent world, and that has to be part of the reason that watching staged violence in different forms is a perennial form of our entertainment.

Now, having said all of that, does doing this show tonight make me a little nervous? Yes. I think the only way to do it right tonight is to acknowledge the horror and catastrophe that happens all the time — including yesterday morning, as a particularly shocking example — and then to say: so why, why do we willingly, sometimes eagerly, watch more?

David Gammons

Director, Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Titus Andronicus

Director of the theatre program, Concord Academy

Eric Lichtenfeld

Author, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie

Phillip Freeman

Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Institute

Extra Credit Reading

The Movie Chick, 300 Review, The Movie Chick’s blog on Myspace.com, April 16, 2007: “But then a movie like 300 comes out and it reminds you why you really do like violent movies! 300 is a masterpiece of severed limbs, digital blood spewing, and manly cries of ‘THIS…IS…SPARTAAAAAAA! It is a visual feast for the eyes.”

Penny Larson, A whole new perspective on rape, Penny’s Story, April 15, 2007: “As I mentioned above, all of the characters were played by male actors. This created an interesting dynamic during the rape scene. Jennifer and I were talking about it, and she said that the rape scene was less intense for her because Lavinia was portrayed by a man. I, however, as a transwoman seemed to have the opposite reaction. Seeing a man portraying a woman suffering a rape connected very strongly with me.”

David Boyles, Batshit Crazy, Stratford to QC, April 11, 2007: “Which leads us into the big question about Titus: is it simply A) morally repugnant violence for the sake of entertainment on the scale of pro wrestling or pseudo-snuff films like “Saw”, or is it B) a more knowing comment on the culture of violence, and violence as entertainment, such as the work of Tarantino or “The Sopranos”?”

ryan, Blood & Violence in Video Games: GDC 2007, Massively Online Gamer, March 12, 2007: “Often most player’s don’t give a rats-ass what they’re decapitating as long as it gives experience or harms an opposing player. Morality never enters the picture because a players’ struggle is virtual. Typically players don’t roll-play; they grind, lore hardly factors in beyond character generation. If a player were to face choices & consequences in the same way the heroes of the film did most combat would be a rare commodity indeed. And subsequently the game would be boring.”

Ken Brosky, On Mortality, Violence, and Consequences, An Author’s Journey, March 19, 2007: “That wimpy lawyer in “Jurassic Park” who got eaten on the john by a T-rex? Probably had a family. The psycho family in “The Devil’s Rejects” killed a lot of people, people who begged and screamed and yet even movie critics were rooting for the bad guys to “win.””

Adrienswords, The Path of the Righteous, Adrienswords, March 1, 2007: “This is the standard take on Tarantino. He’s the visual gangsta rapper. Riffing off cool lines and spectacular kills for the blood-hungry. The thing is whilst that’s true, the idea that the whole thing is a pointless exercise in visceral thrill is untrue.”

Gale Edwards, View from the director’s chair…Gale Edwards on TITUS, Digital Shakespeare, March 19, 2007: “I think the play is extremely relevant to our times. If you can access the right internet site, you can witness live beheadings. Turn on the evening news, and you can watch a blood bath that leaves this play looking conservative.”

Bobo, in a comment on Open Source, April 16, 2007: “I also like real life violence. I don’t mean like stopping to see a car crash, I count that in the same despicable category as TV News. I mean I like to engage and be engaged in violence. Admittedly, I’m a pretty big guy, and I’m not afraid to use my physical strength when it is useful. But I would never get any enjoyment out of violence where either myself or ‘the other guy’ was a victim.”

zeke, in a comment on Open Source, April 17, 2007: “Linking back to a show from last week: I wonder if our brains respond differently depending on the representation and context in which we view violence. Presumably they do; violence on stage is different from violence on film. Both, obviously, are different from seeing someone beaten in front of you.”

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