It is the stuff of theatre lore: in 1965 in the terrifying production of MARAT/SADE at the Martin Beck, directed by Peter Brook the moment at the end arrives. The cast, safely ensconced behind chain link fence that covers the proscenium, rushes the fence as pandemonium breaks out, trying to break free and assault the audience (and of course, as the performance goes on, the chain link becomes invisible until the end; at which time we watch in panic as the cast members climb and rattle the metal of the fence: will it break? We ask as the one-second blackout descends.)
I do not know if the story is true that I heard as an entranced theatre student; during previews in New York, an audience member in the front row, it is said, suffered a heart attack. And that after that, there were trigger messages in large print on posters in the lobby. Decades later, a critic would report:
Watching the new production of “Marat/Sade” that opened on Thursday night at the Classical Theater of Harlem was a harrowing experience, a reminder that theater is not always a safe place.
I thought of MARAT/SADE as I left the Public theatre, having seen Julia Cho’s OFFICE HOUR. Of course, by the time I saw the play, some of the almost hysteric reviews worked as effectively as the trigger warnings (note: because of the origins of the word hysteric I only use that word when men are in the mix). I expected the stage effects, and therefore I was braced for the impact on my heart. But it did have an impact; how could it not?
It had the impact on my heart that the news of successive massacres no longer have as I read the papers and watch the news. Repetition deadens the impact.
What is interesting is that no reviewers mentioned “Theatre of Cruelty,” the genre espoused by Artaud that has been so influential (particularly in Great Britain in the 20th century: MARAT/SADE, Edward Bond’s SAVED and for me, CHRISTY IN LOVE by Howard Brenton)
I believe that all playwrights must write at least one play in this genre in order to stretch our muscles and expand our voices (my play was HOT ‘N’ THROBBING). Theatre of Cruelty believes that theatre must forcibly assault an audience, which has grown complacent in its reception. Only by overwhelming the senses can a play expose us to our subconscious animal impulses (think Poor Theatre and AKROPOLIS Think 1984--which, like a member of the Tony nominating committee, I also did not see)
It is a perilous strategy for a playwright to pursue: one is asking critics, whose job is to quickly process the highly emotive evening into cognitive, rational discourse, to accept the underlying aesthetic principle of Cruelty.
As a woman playwright, is one inviting hostility? I am somewhat tortured by the critical reception of Sarah Kane’s work, a playwright whose canon has been the most successful example of Cruelty. Do we resist the assault according to the writer’s gender and race?
None of this can be proven, of course. But I note that we receive the muscular works by men according to their underlying aesthetics. We are a bit more queasy when women display a similar muscularity: the tactics of sound, the devastating visuals of violence, the sense of entrapment, the moment when the play world forces claustrophobia on those watching the play, and the audience/stage relationship is reversed in its power: the play is watching us.
Because OFFICE HOUR does accomplish its assault on the soft underbelly of my subconscious, it is difficult for me to capture what I may see as flaws (which all plays have...all plays written by writers of any gender). My memory is as unreliable as the narrator of OFFICE HOUR. I need to read the script, as I needed to read the script after seeing MARAT/SADE.
My questions actually pertain to production choices, rather than script in the Public Theatre production. It seems to me that in Julia Cho’s choice of repetition (a fantastic choice for assault which forces us to look at the repetition of gun violence) the production uses the blackout to fragment linear time. Shouldn’t linear time be fragmented by the actress and director in the stage light before the teacher enacts each scenario? To show us that she is running through the game plans of a teacher who is Cassandra and sees it coming? What if she uses tough love and throws his script out the window? What if he commits suicide in front of her? What if she turns her back? Tries role-playing? Confessional bonding? And of course, the always bad idea of touch.
I wondered as I watched if there was a “jump cut” or other distortion before each scenario so that it becomes clear that these choices are not based in “reality,” but rather a desperate no-win mental exercise in which we watch the performer twist her own persona to try to encounter the shooter whose persona has died.
But of course, what I am really seeking is a critical response that accepts the premise of Julia Cho’s play world. That we recognize a work by a gifted and tough-minded playwright with a broad spectrum of voice. It is difficult to spend 80 minutes under assault. Yes, it is. But let’s rejoice that a writer has spent years living, reenacting, reading under the assault of Virginia Tech, and who has the courage to create the play. Let’s live up to her courage.