Books and Culture

Nicole Gelinas
All the World’s Not a Stage
London’s recent theater offerings have sickened audiences—and that’s a good thing.
14 August 2014
Photo by AJ Leon

London theatergoers who took in a play or two during the spring and summer theater season may have felt afterward like Lady Macbeth trying futilely to wash the blood out. This season’s stagecraft was so violent that audience members fainted and the company that makes the fake red stuff reaped record profits. “Business has never been better” for the blood manufacturer, reported the Independent. “They’ve had to replace their 30-litre vats with a 150-litre catering vessel.” The veins didn’t open in vain, though, if the gore spurred viewers to feel sickened by brutality, which they rarely do while watching bloodless violence on television or at the movies.

Though several shows—including Macbeth, King Lear, and 1984—went hyper-realistic, Titus Andronicus, at Shakespeare’s Globe on the Thames’s South Bank, drenched them all. London’s newspapers gleefully ran story after story of grown men fainting, vomiting, or running out of the theater. The play even carried a video trigger warning about “graphic imagery which some may find distressing.” In her relentless hacking of limbs, director Lucy Bailey stayed true to the play. Titus isn’t performed that often, in part because it was one of Shakespeare’s weakest works. As Isaac Asimov wrote in his 1970 Guide to Shakespeare, the early play is so unpleasant that “most critics would be delighted to be able to believe it was not written by Shakespeare.” Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Titus is not rooted in history. Other than being vaguely Roman, the play is “utter fiction,” Asimov wrote. The story offers no relevant historical lessons, and the characters, including Titus himself, have few redeeming features or lessons to offer.

Throughout Titus Andronicus, the title character, a conquering Roman general turned emperor-maker, reveals no capacity for doubt or self-reflection. He refuses to show mercy to the three Goth brothers he brings backs as prisoners of war to his homeland. He murders the oldest in front of Tamora, their mother. This act unleashes mayhem in the form of vengeful rape, mutilation, amputation, and murder, most of it directed by Tamora, who marries the new emperor, Saturninus, in order to carry out her plans. Yet Titus seems oblivious to his role in all this, and as his family members fall, one by one, he thinks that it’s all about him. Even the conniving and murderous Richard III has his sympathetic moments. King Lear, too, shows some capacity for change—or at least regret—in the end. But even the “good” people in Titus—his virtuous daughter, Lavinia, and her husband, Bassianus—show no flashes of personality or insight. They don’t have much to do or say before being murdered (Bassianus) and raped, de-limbed, and de-tongued (Lavinia) at the hands of Tamora’s two surviving sons.

Violence thus defines Titus Andronicus. A dozen characters die on stage, expiring from causes ranging from beheading to gruesome sexual violation. The injured who survive—at least for a while— stumble about, displaying their bright red wounds to the audience. Titus is “the bloodiest and most gruesome of Shakespeare’s plays, and the one in which the horror seems present entirely for the sake of horror,” Asimov concluded. The only possible redeeming lesson here, as Bailey puts it, is rather obvious: “the culture of revenge . . . can only head to brutalization.” But none of the characters ever figures this out. Only the audience gets it.

The most nausea-inducing moment in Titus is not even bloody. It comes in a dinner scene. Titus, playing the solicitous chef, rubs his hands together as he watches Tamora eat the flesh of her two sons—baked in a pie. Not even corpses have dignity in this play. Tamora is hardly an audience favorite, but it’s difficult not to feel physically sick for her as she obliviously munches.

And yet the violence, performed for a modern audience, has a point. It reminds us that sensational death is not bloodless, though it is often portrayed as such in the movies and on television. As This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a 2006 documentary about America’s film-ratings system, discovered, movies that opt for cartoonish shootings (a man gets shot and falls to the ground) fare better in the ratings system than do films that show what really happens (the bullet blows out the man’s insides and he dies in agony). Hollywood’s gatekeepers don’t mind death and destruction. They just want the sanitized version.

Consider how many people have died grotesque deaths on House of Cards, Netflix’s popular online series about politics. In season one, aspiring Oval Office occupant Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, murders Congressman Peter Russo by leaving him passed-out in a running car inside a garage, the exhaust seeping into his lungs. In season two, Underwood throws reporter Zoe Barnes in front of a Metro train. Both are horrific murders—and Barnes’s is horrifically violent, too, as anyone who has ever seen a body run over by a train knows. But all viewers see is Barnes disappearing off the screen, just as Russo goes to sleep and never wakes up. The closest House of Cards gets to a realistic depiction of death is when prostitute-turned-sweet-religious-girl Rachel Posner beats Underwood lackey Doug Stamper to death with a rock. But even Stamper’s off-screen killing is not terribly traumatic. We don’t see him suffer, and his body remains recognizable even after his brutal death.

It’s doubtful that anyone felt physically sick while watching these scenes. Disposable characters are antiseptically disposed of. In Titus Andronicus, the characters themselves are similarly two-dimensional. But their injuries and deaths are indelible. In making the audience a vicarious victim, the London production of Titus shows that brutality—even against villains—has consequences. That’s not a bad message to impart to theatergoers who have seen tens of thousands of fictional people suffer or die in their own living rooms or bedrooms—and probably remember almost none of them.

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