Hello Bazites! How’s it going? Or rather, Arroooo’s it going?! (yes it is nearly Halloween, yes this clever wordplay will keep happening) We have some fresh blood/blog for you (twice in one month, you are lucky!) as the planets aligned, the dates fit, the theme is ready and Monster Mash is cued up on the stereo - we’re going to talk about gore onstage and the division it causes in certain situations. So sit down, get comfy (keep your ankles out the way of grabby ghouls under the chair, muahaha, etc) and let’s get started.
In all seriousness, though - why not? The censorship of theatre maintained until the 1960s which is why we are able to have such classics as Edward Bond’s Saved just after - a play that features a very nasty, disturbing and controversial scene, yet remains the standard of great writership (is that a word? Well we’ve coined it now, soz) and a key text in mid-century drama. The point being that art was restrained for many decades due only to its political content - there wasn’t much Will Shakespeare could get past Queen Bess if he didn’t want his head on a spike - it was clear in that era they had no problem with gore; public execution, anyone? For the Tudor society, which lest we forget still had one foot in the Middle Ages violence, actual violence was fun. As the years have advanced and society has changed, are we now more prudish then ever?
There’s a difference between controversial and sensationalist - violence for violence sake has little artistic value - but our accepted thought on extreme violence had to grow up with the decades. For example, take Oedipus, that hilarious, fun for all the family Ancient Greek romp where poor Oedipus self-mutilates because of actions he could never have avoided committing. Did Sophocles indend to show us this onstage? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, as no copy of the text exists. Indeed, productions since usually have the event occurring offstage but one can safely assume those blood-hungry Greek audience weren’t afforded such babying. The era itself was bloodsoaked in constant war, capital punishment and extreme family, er. ‘quarrel ‘that could get out of hand very quickly. I mean, matricide, regicide, um, brothercide? Is that one? Either way, the dramas of Ancient times pulled all the punches. And the entrails.
As we’ve discussed - Will Shakespeare liked a murder or two, in fact, here’s all the victims of his oeuvre in a helpful list:
King Duncan: Done in by Macbeths
Macbeth: Stabbed by Macduff
Julius Ceasar: Set upon by his ‘mates’
Desdemona: Smothered by Othello
Othello: Killed himself
Emilia: Killed by Iago
Rodrigo: Killed by Iago
Romeo and Juliet: Killed by teenage angst and bad timing
Timon of Athens: All kinds of stuff goes on there, woah
And the list goes on and on - and it wasn’t just Will who liked a splash - John Ford, Ben Johnson, etc liked a mutilation quite literally in the audience faces so we can safely say that this era hadn’t yet grown an intolerance for the red stuff. The Regency period (the one with all the Georges) was fairly eventful too - a lot of reprisals from the Renaissance in your more typical Proscenium Arch theatre - but the violence was silly, almost comic in this form. From then until the dawn of the 20th Century there was little new writing that called for gory set pieces, despite the wars, the fact that capital punishment was still lawful and exercised regularly. Amamzingly, laws on censorship first implemented in the 1500s were lifted in the 1960s, and…nothing really happened. Oh yes, you could say what you liked about the Queen, use inflammatory language, really push the envelope, but we all suddenly seemed squeamish about showing blood and guts.
We here at Baz are playing devils advocate (t’is the season) with this viewpoint - we are neither encouraging or discouraging disturbing or uncomfortable scenes of violence, ‘live’ -for want of a better word - but we have noticed a lack of it, and delving into why - in our mission statements we seek to bring something truly live and boundless to our audiences to connect with them - and as such, not much for us is off the table, as long as it supports and is warranted within the story we wish to tell. The same can’t be said, in our opinion for horror movies - that, if the graph of horror and gore for the arts went down for theatre, skyrocketed for cinema; all of Hitchcock’s cinematic output pretty much smelled and dry blood and fear, and American Werewolf in Paris, Hammer films started to come along, bringing with it gallons of red-dyed syrup. Instead, the theatre turned to psychology, not psychos to un-nerve- Pinter for example is the master of thinly-veiled threat, and tension, causing pulses to jump faster and a pit in the stomach for over fifty years.
That is not to say, however, that Pinter didn’t publicly rejoice at the 90s theatre movement of In Yer Face Theatre - and more specifically, Sarah Kane’s Blasted - the playwright was vastly effected by the then current Bosnian war and the atrocities it brought with it - things usually kept as many miles away from audiences as the real events. Pinter applauded her talent and boldness for bringing that conflict into a modern hotel room, and showing us acts of extreme violence, both physical and sexual to make a valid point about human nature, and war. It was met of course, with cries of ‘filth’ and ‘depravity’ to critics - our last remaining bastion of a form of censorship in the wrong hands - and Blasted is still considered, like its title, a massive explosion of a new kind of theatre, a new kind of point.
Here at Baz we always seek to see new theatre, whether it be with student casts, new writing, or West End favourites - we like a variety in our theatre diet, us. We saw a version of Phillip Ridley’s Mercury Fur performed brilliantly and adeptly (seriously, we were left shaking) by Guildhall Students - a fairly recent play of 2005, which even now garnered screaming headlines not unlike Kane’s of ten years earlier - outraged at the harrowing, very-much-onstage violent content (we can confirm, it was grisly) it was reported to have ten walk-outs a night, fainting audience members, throwing up, even Ridley’s publishers, Faber & Faber refused to print it, the works. When watching it, we instead saw a challenge; to look beyond what was happening to see the point - showing us the worst of humanity to fully understand it, set in this near dystopian future Ridley had made sure that we recognise. To ask to be longsighted in such harrowing circumstances is a massive risk - but in the theatre community at least Mercury Fur has inspired some of our more fearless modern writers like Polly Stenham and Neil LaBute. In a nice circular return to the start of this blog, Ridley said of critics yelling their disgust and their personal attacks on Ridley’s own ‘diseased mind’; “Why is it fine for the classic plays to discuss - even show these things - but outraged when contemporary playwrights do it?…/because it is set on an East London housing estate it is seen as too dangerous to talk about.”
For us here at Baz, theatre shouldn’t emulate its cousin of the cinema for cheap thrills and scares - the craft of theatre; that of plot, character, location, decade must lend themselves to the extreme on the stage, whatever form it may take. In our work, we seek connection, immersion - our version of dreamplay for example had our audiences briefly shouted at in the pitch dark, our talented cast weaving and whispering their way through the crowd - anything to break the mould of what we have become used to. Perhaps our views on things that are uncomfortable and extreme could do with being pushed further. We are too grown up now for simple bumps in the night and werewolves - sometimes we are the monsters, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
Phew, that all got a bit serious didn’t it? Boo, raaagh, etc. Halloweeeen. There. That should do it, right?
No but seriously, play safe and have a good night- it might be your last, woooooghh!
Big loveland talk soon you spooky lot,