by Matthew Falduto
(This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces about theatre. The intent is to spark conversation, so please feel free to write a comment if you’d like. If you have a theatre topic you’d like to write about, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your idea.)
|A production of Blasted by Sarah Kane|
In the 1990s, a group of playwrights started a revolution in the British theatre world with plays that challenged audiences, attacking the senses in provocative ways. One of their plays was called a “disgusting feast of filth” and another was labeled “gratuitously nasty, brutish.” After viewing one of these plays, a critic asked, “Should this sick play have been presented at all?” This movement became known as In-Yer-Face Theatre. In-Yer-Face Theatre was all about being confrontational, attacking the cultural norms, particularly those relating to sex and violence. The plays didn’t allow the audience to remain detached from the action. Rather, audiences were forced to experience the pain, and oftentimes the degradation of the characters. It wasn’t comfortable to watch these plays. Nudity, filthy language, humiliating violence, simulated sex acts on stage… the point was to make the audience squirm. To challenge them. To go on the attack. To be in their faces.
I’ve been reading a lot about In-Yer-Face Theatre lately, reflecting on its premise that art should shock, should attack, should offend. And I’m torn. I’ve always believed in pushing theatrical boundaries. I had no issues producing a show about a serial killer (The Pillowman) or one that features Jesus as a gay man (Corpus Christi) or even a show that at its heart is about incest (House of Yes). But when I think back on these plays, none of them were all that in your face when compared to Blasted by Sarah Kane, the play that earned the “disgusting feast of filth” label I mentioned earlier. Blasted features masturbation, rape and cannibalism, all of which happen onstage.
Of those three plays I mentioned earlier, Pillowman was the only one that was difficult to experience. In fact, I had to actually turn away when the child appeared on stage. I just couldn’t watch it – it touched something deep within me as a father of three daughters. But the fact is we never witnessed the murder of the child on stage. I suppose that’s why I question the need for In-Yer-Face Theatre. Is it necessary to force the audience to witness acts of depravity to provoke a reaction? Do we need to see a rape on stage to know it happened? Or is it enough to see the beginning moments, to know what is about to happen, and then …blackout? One could even argue that is more effective as our minds create a more vivid horror than any simulated act on stage. I turned away from Pillowman because my mind was creating the horror and I couldn’t stand it any longer.
The other side of the argument is that witnessing the acts in person is a more visceral experience for the audience. We can control what we think, but we cannot control what the actors show us. Perhaps that visceral experience will have a greater impact? I believe theatre should be impactful and challenge the audience’s perceptions. So I end this piece as I began, still torn. I can say for certain that I will keep pushing the boundaries, challenging myself and my company to discover new ways to impact our audiences. And as I read plays, I will have to determine if there are lines I will not cross.
I should end this piece by noting that I’m no expert on the In-Yer-Face Theatre movement. There are other aspects to it – the deconstruction of narrative, character, and setting of Kane’s later plays for instance – which are worth deeper investigation. I am focusing solely on the explicit sex and violence and the question of whether they need to be on stage. I look forward to any comments you might wish to make.