On (stage) Violence

In April, several members of [redacted] Theater Company will perform in a production of Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley at Swarthmore College directed by me and starring Co-Artistic Director Swift Shuker as Lola, collaborator Tyler Elliott as Elliot, and collaborator Michaela Shuchman as the Duchess. I wrote this article as a reflection on the consequences of staging such an intense, unforgiving play. It was originally published in the December 2014 edition of the Swarthmore Review.


The Fall 2014 semester is an exciting time for Honors Theater majors, as we pick or finish our thesis projects. I spent the first half of the semester reading upwards of 10 plays a week to nail down what projects would be best for my Acting Thesis (a decision made by consensus with the director and three other students) and my Directing Thesis. This opportunity was the sole factor keeping me from transferring to NYU early in my freshman year when I realized I wanted to study theater. The play selection process has been long and grueling but ultimately fruitful, as I will direct one of my favorite plays of all time: Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley.

Mercury Fur was one of about a half-dozen plays which made my heart go wild on every page. They were very stylistically diverse, but l noticed a trend: in many of these plays, something horrific occurs. It wasn’t a surprising discovery, as I directed Titus Andronicus on the LPAC mainstage in Spring 2014; a great number of horrific acts occur over the course of the Shakespeare classic, and the body count is very high. Using violence as a tool in my artistic canvas is clearly something I’m interested in. But why?

I immediately dismissed the notion that I might be a closet psychopath or sadist. The Saw franchise made nearly $900 million worldwide and spanned four different directors, and surely not all of those creators and audience members were in it just to see people get hurt. Sarah Kane’s Blasted was at once called a “disgusting feast of filth” by The Daily Mail and “wonderful…controlled, meticulous, and brave” by The Independent as it played to full houses. What is it about violence and horror onstage that makes me and so many others run toward it like iron filings to a magnet?


Truth is of my biggest interests in theater. I’m fascinated by the suspension of disbelief that occurs when you enter a theater and what happens when you introduce epistemological truth – undeniable facts about reality, like an actor’s name – into the mix. What happens when you message someone on Facebook live in front of an audience? How is that experience different from watching an actor portray Willy Loman? These questions set my blood afire, but they only concern truth-as-knowable-fact.

There’s another dimension of truth that I call visceral truth. Visceral truth is pre-psychological, truer than fact. Facts are interpretable whereas visceral truth is not. Visceral truth is a feeling that occurs before you can think about it, or perhaps a bodily reaction that you are unaware of. It’s the bottom dropping out of you at the end of Frank Darabont’s The Mist. It’s the increased pitter patter of your heart when you realize you are, in fact, lost in an unfamiliar area. It’s the tingly body sensations when you watch a medical procedure that leaves little to the imagination. It’s the heightened awareness when you’re caught walking around Swarthmore’s campus holding someone’s hand for the first time. There are many other examples, but what’s striking about them is that visceral truth can be achieved through media we know is fiction as well as through real-life experiences, and it seems that the majority of the actions which reveal visceral truth are unpleasant in some way.

So, I’m drawn to some pretty nasty art because it fulfills this need for truth. Each form reaches for visceral truth via different means. Performance art keeps the violence real and often places it too close to us for comfort. Film violence’s special effects disgust us with the nearest approximation of reality money can buy. Greek stage violence remains out-of-sight offstage where our imaginations fill in the horror of the act and the revelation and reaction is more powerful than the act itself. Modern stage violence (at least in the in-yer-face theater tradition) confronts the viewer with the act – unquestionably fake or they couldn’t perform six times a week, yet the power and energy of live bodies reaches past the footlights and enters our pores.

Of course, I’m presuming that the violence onstage is performed in a semi-realistic manner. Maybe there’s no blood, maybe there’s heaps of it, maybe the movements are a little too choreographed, but the actors are humans carrying out actions as we can imagine they would look in life for the most part. One way to deal with violence in a script is to stylize its presentation. By taking the action out of the realm of our reality, it becomes easier to digest (though perhaps harder to parse). Stylization can often lead to the Brechtian estrangement effect, giving audiences sufficient distance to analyze the play/event cognitively. However, that distance denies the onstage violence its power: shaking the audience out of its everyday cloud of middling emotion and hitting it with visceral truth. Each approach is valid, but they produce dramatically different audience states.


There is a great deal of psychological literature surrounding the notion that violence begets violence. Though no causal links have ever been made (a study of that sort would undoubtedly raise ethics questions), there is near-universal agreement: exposure to media violence is correlated with the likelihood of committing acts of actual violence in both the short and long term. According to meta-analyses, the correlation between violent acts and violent television is moderate at .31, and violent acts and violent video game playing is slightly lower at .25 (for perspective, number of cigarettes smoked vs. deaths from lung cancer is .69). In longitudinal studies of children, directionality showed that consuming violent media led to increased violent behavior but violent behavior did not lead to consuming more violent media. All things equal, since consuming violent media is clearly related to committing violent acts, how can anyone justify putting more staged violence into the world?

The studies analyzed in this discussion have some limitations with regards to onstage violence. To my knowledge, theater has never been included in any study on violence, likely because the average citizen does not see enough theater for it to be coded as strongly in memory as television or video games. Whereas these studies focus overwhelmingly on children, as the effect is most strong for young people, theater audiences are much much older. In the 2010-2011 Broadway season, the average age of a theatergoer was 44, with plays specifically bringing in an average age of 53. The likelihood of committing violence decreases sharply with age, with violent crime rates approaching zero around age 65. Of course, social learning through media consumption can still have an effect, but after the teenage years, the damage has been done so-to-speak, and these individuals do not make up the theatrical audience.

Of course, violence is not presented in a vacuum. The framing of violent acts can radically influence interpretability. Research is needed to determine whether it’s the framing of violence as neutral or positive that leads to violent behavior or if the mere presence has the main effect, but we can experience the effect with contemporary media. An extreme example might be that of Wanted vs. Fruitvale Station. In both, people are shot. Many more bullets are expended in Wanted, but the more significant difference is that Wanted makes guns and casual killing look cool. One might say it glorifies violence. In Fruitvale Station, the gunshot is an instant trigger for tears – if you’ve been paying attention and you have a semblance of a heart it leaps into your mouth. In Wanted, we want to see the curved bullet trick again and again – killing anyone who stands in its way. We know the gunshot is coming in Fruitvale Station, but we wish it wouldn’t. The artistic center of these movies is at least one act of violence, but the treatment of violence in each context colors the audience’s reaction to it considerably.


Unlike television, where one can simply flip to a channel where a simulated beating is occurring, theater activates the opting-in process for violent acts. Buying a ticket, standing in line, traveling to the play’s location, and picking a seat all require a potential audience member to say, “Yes, I would like to see this.” Plot synopses, reviews, and content/trigger warnings ensure that audience members know what they’re getting into, and allowing them to opt-out if they foresee any problem arising from the content. I would argue that this opt-in process makes theater, as a whole, one of the best forms of media/art for protecting its audience members from harm.

This being said, trigger warnings have the danger of rendering onstage violence completely useless. An audience member walking into a theater with a sign that says “This performance contains depictions of sexual assault” has that phrase lingering in their head for the whole performance. The level of dramatic tension rises, and they wonder whether the assault will happen there. It’s Chekhov’s gun – we wait for it to go off. Once the act begins, though, we can simply turn off and ignore it. We catalog it as fulfilling our expectations – no shock, no surprise. All dramatic power is lost. The presence of the act onstage is superfluous and excessive; it could be replaced with a card saying “the rape happens here”.

I am not advocating for the abolition of trigger warnings; theaters should protect their patrons. And theater makers should not sacrifice their vision for a potentially diminished dramatic effect. Trigger warnings could force theater makers to work harder and put more effort into crafting their work such that the audience forgets the warning and the act of violence has the desired effect. The violence ceases to be the centerpiece, and the pathways into and out of it become critical. Taking surprise and shock out of the equation focuses the dramaturgical spotlight onto why the act needs to be depicted onstage in the first place, with answers weaving a more complex web of meaning. By protecting the audience from triggering experiences, we also protect them from hastily-thought-out theater.


With recent productions of Cleansed, Jessica, and Titus Andronicus featuring graphic and disturbing violence, Swarthmore theater audiences might expect a certain level of filth and nastiness when attending an on-campus play. Mercury Fur, which features a party in which the guest desires to torture, sexually abuse, and kill a child with a meathook, definitely fits in with the aforementioned in-yer-face productions. The violence, however, is not the point. The play is about class conflict and the extremes one must go to in order to protect the people one loves the most. It’s about amazingly intricate familial relationships and what it really means to say that blood is thicker than water. It’s about the construction of memory. It’s about all the forms that love can take. There’s something about the power of the government over the people in there too (but I haven’t been able to make that theme sound eloquent yet). The play is incredibly complex, and the violence-centric plot is merely the backdrop that enables the exploration of these themes and drives the action forward.

In my Mercury Fur, the only violence we see is a protracted fistfight – in both my version and in Ridley’s. In Greek fashion, the extreme violence is kept ob skene (offstage). We hear a lot – probably too much – but ultimately, it’s our imagination that completes the act. The depiction of violence comes directly from ourselves – guided by the auditory landscape and entrances/exits of the production. Our imaginations are a million times more horrible than anything actors can create onstage. Of course, we don’t want to see it. But, in a world of horrors, closing our eyes is searching for an escape where there is none.

Mercury Fur is loaded with opportunities to reveal visceral truth. I continue to search for what can be done with visceral truth once it’s experienced. Is it enough to simply recognize it? Should it be commented on? Does it open the door for didacticism? These questions loom large for Mercury Fur.

Neither violence nor visceral truth is necessary or sufficient for a play to be good. But, violent plays and violent stagings of plays need to be given a chance. They can be more than filth. They can be more than shock value. They can do more than glorify and promote horrible actions. In the right hands, they have the potential to create an impactful theatrical experience. Look for Mercury Fur in April to prove it. And be sure to have someone to talk to afterward.

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