Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Rape the Play

Claire Rice has had enough rape, thank you.

I’ve been trying all day to think about a funny way to say I’m tired of seeing rape on stage. But it’s just not coming to me.

The subject came about because the production year for me has been full of rape. The first play I directed was Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang, which I quickly followed up with You’re Going To Bleed by Melissa Fall. Both plays feature rape. In Torture the main character is drugged and violated. In Bleed the teen character has sex with her acting teacher (rape via abuse of power). Just recently I participated in the San Francisco Olympians Festival where the theme was the Trojan War. I’m sure there was a woman in that war who got out un-raped, but I can’t think of who just off the top of my head. I worked hard in my adaptation of Cassandra’s story to keep the sex consensual. It wasn’t easy. And I can tell you after sitting through 11 of the 12 nights of the San Francisco Olympian’s festival that it was difficult to impossible for many of the writers to avoid.

The point is: I’m done. I want 2014 to be a relatively rape-free year. So far, all of the projects I’ve been hired to do don’t have rape. I’m also not writing in any rape scenes into my plays. Lastly, I’m taking Law & Order: SVU out of my Netflix queue. Hooray! So, that takes care of my end. Now there’s just everyone else.

The problem is, rape storylines sneak up on you.

A friend and I walked out of a theatre this year and, over yogurt, decided that the play we had just seen, while well-acted and well written and beautifully produced, was really very “rapie.” The play focused on four young women and, as far as we could tell, all of them had been raped at least once by the end of the play. No man physically walked on stage, but if they were mentioned, they probably raped someone. Every man was an enemy, every woman was a victim. It was overwhelming, bleak, and unnecessary. Can’t a person have trauma without it being rape? Are there no other dramatic devises at all?

I just want to watch a year of plays without rape. Just one year. Is that too much to ask?

How Can I Tell There Might Be Rape In A Play?

I am at any type of festival where there are more than three plays.

There is only one woman in the whole cast and she’s an “outsider.”

There are only two women in the whole cast and one of them is way younger.

It’s an all women cast and they are talking about their pasts.

There is one woman and one man and they are working out their history.

There are two men and they are talking about their history.

There are a bunch of men and they are all talking about their history.

The play is about war and there is any number of women in it.

The play is by an edgy, emerging playwright.

There is a “dark secret.”

It is a “psychological thriller.”

It’s a “modern horror.”

It’s a “gothic horror.”

It’s a “dark musical.”

It’s a sex farce.

I want to emphasize that it’s not that I feel like rape as a topic isn’t an important one. Eve Enlser’s Vagina Monologues is an important work that discuses rape, specifically rape used as a tool in war. A Streetcar Named Desire wouldn’t be the same without Stanley raping Blanch. I’m not saying that the act shouldn’t be in storylines or anything like that. This isn’t an expression of the validity of a storyline that focuses exclusively on rape. This isn’t an argument that rape doesn’t exist as much as it does on stage. This isn’t even about how at some point a play crosses the line from having/discussing rape to being an actual rape fantasy. It’s not a protest against how women are portrayed in theatre (yet).

It’s just…ugh…so much rape. Too much rape. For me. I need a pallet cleanser.

So, just for fun this year: consensual sex.

I mean, that’s doable, right? Right?

24 comments on “Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Rape the Play

  1. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: I would just like to point out that my play, AGE OF BEAUTY, that went up this past year (and which you saw) was an all female play where they talk extensively, almost entirely, about their pasts, and out of eight characters not a single one of them had been raped. Nor did they ever talk about rape. Nor did they hate all the men in their life. It was actually a pretty well-adjusted, if fairly neurotic, group of people. Also, I get what you’re sayng, and that’s why the young actress in my play PASTORELLA, also written this year, has the following monologue:

    Yeah, well, and unlike every other young girl in theater nobody like… rapes her or tries to rape her, right? I mean, I was Wendela- raped. I was Wendela in the musical- seduced by a retard which is as good as raped, right? I was Miranda- almost raped. I was Imogen- almost raped. I was Alice- raped. I was Polyxena- raped and killed. I was Lavinia- raped and maimed. And then killed. I was in The Europeans and I got raped by the Turks. I was in a kid’s version of Les Mis and got raped by all of France. I was Agnes and I got raped by God. I was Louisa and got raped by poetry or some shit. Last year I did the Vagina Monologues and that was like Rape City, right? I bet Septimus wants to rape Thomasina. He’s definitely way too interested in her for an old guy. Mom’s dream role for me is Salome and in that play, her step dad wants to rape her until he realizes she’s too fucked up even for him. I know theater people are like, so convinced Hollywood is sleaze, but like, I’ve been in six commercials and three television shows and I’ve never once had to play a kid who got raped or might get raped. Like, you don’t sell Kashi with a raped kid, right? But I swear, every time I get a call for a stage show, it’s some creepy role in some creepy play where some creepy guy wants to molest me. And my mom says that’s just how it’s gonna be until I’m old enough to play queens.

    • Claire Rice says:

      I love this monologue. And, yeah, both plays were rape free. They shine like stars in a dark field. (I saw a lot of rape-free plays this year, just to be clear, but all in all it felt like a sexually violent year.)

      • sftheaterpub says:

        Yes, violence, rape and “evil” in general is all very hot in theater lately, it seems. And I say that as someone who loves a good tragedy, loves dark stories, loves war epics and all that… but I also love hope, and redemption and forgiveness and I’ve started to feel like it’s not that we’re seeing all these violent, rapey, the-world-is-full-of-nothing-but-crap plays because people genuinely believe that, so much as it’s somehow become hip, while being hopeful, or trying to depict the good in the world, has become totally declasse. There is a belief that seems to have emerged (at least in some circles) that “good/serious/artistic theater” always needs to be utterly scathing, utterly bleak, utterly depressing, and that even comedies somehow have to devalue or tear down anything smacking of sincerity or benevolence. I know the world we’re living in is a fucked up world- but it always has been, and in many ways it’s probably better for a larger number of people than it ever was before. So why has the art gotten so dreary?

        I also understand why you feel a need to defend what is really just your personal taste. As a gay man, I got so sick of plays where gay men died of AIDS or fag-bashing. For a while there, it was like the only gay theater out there except for camp or soft-core porn. I started to think we’d never be able to be depicted just as people, like anybody else, but only as sex fiends, fools or martyrs- and the martyrs were my least favorite of the bunch! But when I would say that, people would come back at me with accusations of self-loathing homophobia, or implying that the struggles of gay men shouldn’t be depicted. Which I wasn’t saying at all. I was just saying what I personally prefer to watch. But people love to tell you that you’re doing it wrong- especially when they’re worried they might be doing it wrong themselves.

  2. And then there were the “incest/pedophilia years.” Every young female character also had a secret. She was molested by a father/uncle/older brother. This one event was the defining fact of her life and fate. She was powerless when it happened, and usually continued to be until the end of the piece, where things ended badly and sadly. It wasn’t safe to read anything starring a young woman anymore. And, dare I say it…? It got boring. Because helpless people being victimized is pretty much the same story. The different stories are in how they cope with this victimization. Getting depressed and ending miserably is only one story.

    • Claire Rice says:

      I totally agree. I’m also tired of the missing people plays. I loved “Rabbit Hole” and I’ve even written one, but it’s just amazing how many there are out there.

  3. I won’t read John Irving or watch his movies anymore because I’ve concluded that he uses sexual violence gratuitously to make his stories seem “deep.” The rapes often have little to do with the other themes, but are just there for shock value.

  4. Rob Ready says:

    I am happy (and surprised honestly) to report that in over 6 years of producing, PianoFight has NEVER produced a play / sketch / musical number / whatever with rape. Not sure how we did that, but apparently we’re also not into rape.

    Also, GREAT POST!

    • Claire Rice says:

      Thank you! We’ll see what the next 6 years brings!

    • Claire Rice says:

      Right! I thought you had directed the play about the two older men and their mother. Yeah…the BOA play you are referring to was one of the plays that was on my mind when I wrote this piece.

  5. If you’re looking for a palate cleanser, I heartily recommend Snoopy! (currently being performed by 42nd Street Moon through December 15 at the Eureka Theatre).

  6. So… I suppose that if I follow through with my plan to self-produce PLEIADES in 2014, I can’t count on seeing any of you in the audience?

    I admit that I am still fiercely proud of being the first playwrignt in the Olympians Festival to write a play that dealt with Zeus’s rapey tendencies. The first year of the festival, its plays seemed to depict Zeus as a dirty old man who was jolly and incorrigible and basically harmless… and while that may have been the attitude that the ancient Greeks held toward Zeus, there is no reason why 21st-century playwrights should continue to hold that attitude, especially playwrights who in all other circumstances would be disgusted by the idea of a powerful older man raping a series of young women (or even a powerful man using the allure of his position to seduce a series of young women, even if he does not hold them down and rape them using physical force). Such thoughts naturally made their way into PLEIADES.

    Knowing that many people feel the way Claire (and Stuart and Annette and Rob…) do about rape in theater, I did my best to stave off some of the inevitable complaints. I tried to treat the rape with the gravity that such a heinous act deserves. I tried to make sure that my play contains moments of humor, kindness, grace, and hope, rather than promoting messages like “all men are evil / all women are victims / the world is a dark and hopeless place.” At the same time, yes, I admit that the rape storyline in PLEIADES does “sneak up on you,” and that there may be something a little queasy-making about the idea that “a play with a lot of women” = “a play about rape.”

    So, as Stuart says, it’s all a matter of personal taste, and I realize that despite my care and caution and belief in the value of my own writing, I may never convince you to change your mind. I can justify my work all I want, but it ultimately has to stand on its own, and that no piece of theater can ever please everybody. It is an honor to be on your Enemies List.

    P.S. Laodike gets out of the Trojan War un-raped because, as Troy is being sacked, she prays to the gods to be spared capture/slavery/rape/dishonor. And Persephone takes mercy on her, and the earth opens her up and swallows her whole. (And yes, because the evening of “Trojan Women” plays included many serious dramas that dealt with rape, I made sure that my “Laodike” play was a comedy that featured a consensual sex scene [she seduces HIM!] in order to balance things out.)

    • Allison says:

      I don’t think you can count on not seeing any of these people there, I think sometimes people just want a break from some of that jazz. Ya can’t live in a rape pit all the time. Or I can’t, anyway. But by the time PLEIADES comes around, maybe we’ll have come out of sad-topic hibernation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “I’ve had enough of this right now, and will focus on things without it for a while.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual pieces are unworthy of production or viewing, it’s just a sign of overload at the moment.

      • My “I guess I won’t see you there?” statement was more jocular than serious, I think.

        But to go off of your statement “It doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual pieces are unworthy of production or viewing, it’s just a sign of overload at the moment” — that’s really the heart of the conundrum, isn’t it? I can agree with Claire that “damn, there are an awful lot of rapey plays these days” and at the same time, say “I want my play about rape to get a production and an audience!” (Hey, if everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?)

        It’s rather like how everyone generally agrees that there are too many playwrights these days, far more plays being written than can actually be produced. But no one wants to be the person who says “Because there is an oversupply of playwrights, I nobly renounce this career, and, for the good of the American theater, I shall never write another play again!” We all want to keep writing, keep producing, keep discussing and criticizing theater — and to encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same!

  7. I think your play about rape makes a lot of sense, as you outlined it, Marissa. It’s a relevant take on an old myth and attitude. It’s really *about* rape, not using rape to *seem* relevant (and thus somehow at the cost of real people who really have been raped (i.e. tortured and brutalized)).

  8. sftheaterpub says:

    I won’t speak for Claire, but for me I also would say it’s not just a matter of taste, but how well something is or is not executed, and why it seems to happen in a play. To use my gay male analogy from above, I love KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, which is definitely a dead gay play (as in, one of the gays ends up dead because he’s a gay and that’s what happens to gays), but it’s a damn well-written play/musical/novel, and Puig was making a statement, one that had to have been made. He wasn’t killing Molina as a crutch, or to fulfill a trope. He wasn’t being a lazy artist and he wasn’t trying to elevate himself through being shocking or sensational either. I think that when violence or rape or anything is used to tell a good story, and to tell it well, it’s a very powerful choice the storyteller can make. The problem is, a lot of people just throw it in willy-nilly, it seems, using it as a crutch or short-cut to controversy, until it becomes so cliche it actually ceases to be affective and we just think, “ho-hum… another rape/horrific act of violence/suicide, etc.” every play ends this way these days.

  9. Nirmala says:

    I love your blog post, Claire. In general, I am squeamish when it comes to plays that deal with violence, particularly violence towards women, because I seldom find the issue is dealt with sensitively–in fact, I might argue that, as a culture, we are addicted to voyeuristic violence, and sexual assault in plays often reveals that desire to experience something awful without having to directly experience it. It’s another way we get to dismiss and objectify actual victims of violent crimes, and it’s a way playwrights can disavow empathy entirely in favor of edginess or to draw a gasp of horror from a rapt crowd.

    I’m not sure I hit the mark with my work, either, so this essay is definitely food for thought. I used rape as a trope in my SELENE play but it was less to capture a horrific moment or highlight the victimization and trauma of the character who experienced rape, than it was to emphasize the role of memory in the way we respond to trauma. The rape was really a vehicle for looking at the way we rely on not just our own memory but other people’s memories to corroborate our experiences or validate our own ideas of who we are–this is problematic, because the older female character has Alzheimer’s, so the impossibility of these two characters having any kind of reconciliation is what makes the scene strong (at least I think so). I wanted the play to examine the subjective, confusing, distressing, and amorphous nature of memory when it comes to choosing the defining moments of our lives. I also didn’t think of my main character as weak or victimized–I saw her as tender, vulnerable, boisterous, erratic, and a survivor in the best sense of that word.

    The scene was ultimately also less about the rape and more about the disintegrating relationship between a woman and her mother. I’ve had a lot of moments in my own life when I’ve thought of giving loved ones a piece of my mind (and a backlog of all the ways they’ve wronged me), but there’s a kind of absurdity and self-righteousness in believing that such a catharsis might lead to clearing and completion. The fact that I was taking two extreme situations (a woman who’d been molested when she was younger, and her mother who has absolutely zero memory of that because of her Alzheimer’s) to illustrate this absurdity is what I think made the scene poignant. I didn’t think that I was taking the easy way out by including a scene that was about sexual violence, as I believed it to be ultimately tertiary to the major themes.

    At the same time, I have to admit that, currently, my creative headspace is very much filled with horrific stories of violence against women, perhaps because some of my own volunteer work and personal experiences have made this a prevailing theme in my life–one that I can’t just ignore or shove onto the topmost shelf. I don’t like to think of my writing as being gratuitous, although I’m sure there are times when I hit the mark miles wide of the target. But I still cleave to the perhaps arcane notion that theatre has the capacity to be a healing tool for entire communities of people. I’ve always been interested in theatre as sacred ritual, the kind that can transform us indelibly–so I believe that we can address trauma directly, intelligently, and empathetically in our plays (without shying away from it just because it’s an unsavory topic) and that this intention makes all the difference.

  10. chasbelov says:

    Odd. I’ve never thought about it, but, while I have some of my characters do nasty things to other of my characters, it’s never occurred to me to have one character rape another. In fact, when I did parodies of all 28 of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies for 31 Days 31 Plays (there were 3 framing plays), I converted all of the rape scenes to having the intended victim kick the intended rapist’s butt.

    I can totally sympathize with your rape overload (if the 4-woman play you refer to is the one at Impact, my reading was that one of the women escaped that fate, but I could be wrong), and none of the women in The Chalk Boy were raped, afaik. I totally agree with Stuart on the gay=dead cliche that’s been such a trope in gay-themed movies and plays. Although I kill one of the gay men in Hemlock, it’s known from the beginning that he’s a [HIV-negative] goner.

    • Claire Rice says:

      Like many commenters say above, I think that there is a way to use rape as a devise in a play that is empathetic, interesting, motivated, and expresses something without it being either cliché or fantasy. Yes, the play I refer to above was an Impact show. I don’t begrudge Impact having done that show, I thought it was well performed and (in and of itself) a good show. If I could have chosen to see only one play full of rape this past year it would absolutely have been that one. And I have absolutely written a “rape play”, I’m just hoping that when I sit down to write again I’ll ask myself…why rape? And, really, I would go a step further and say that I’m even tired of the fear of rape in plays, books, movies, and television. A woman is alone in the house, a burglar enters, we’ve been taught what to be afraid of in the next moment. A new Tomb Raider game came out (was it this year?) and in it is a scene where she is pursued by men who insinuate they want to rape her. Was that necessary or was it a reflection of our world as it is? If the men didn’t try and rape her would that be ignoring the fact that women who tomb raid alone are in danger of being raped? And who really wants her to be raped? The writers of the game? The people playing it? Does it make motivational sense that since Laura Croft is a sexy woman running through the jungle on her own that, ultimately, lonely men who are bad guys and haven’t seen a lot of action since taking this jungle job MUST rape her on sight? And it isn’t enough that she gets to turn around and kick their asses. She supposed to kick their asses anyway. Must they also want to and try to rape her? These are all the questions I hope to ask myself as a writer and a director when I work. These are all the questions I hope audience members ask themselves. These are all the questions I hope any creator asks.

  11. Marissa, not to rain on your “fierce pride” parade, but I must repectfully take issue with your claim that you were “the first playwrignt in the Olympians Festival to write a play that dealt with Zeus’s rapey tendencies”. My play “Io” clearly went out of its way to portray Zeus as an unromanticised sexual predator. (Yes, I realize that technically your play premiered a few days before mine; but that’s a scheduling issue). After seeing your play “Pleiades”, I remember thinking: “Great, I’m not the only writer who has a problem with the misogyny of Zeus!” not “Damn, another writer beat me to the feminist punch!” You have every right to be proud of “Pleiades”. I admired it very much; I appreciated the social and psychological issues you addressed, and I look forward to seeing a full production of it in the future.Your work stands on its own; it doesn’t have to be the first out of the gate. I guess my point is that as artists, its important not to be tempted to create an atmosphere of one upmanship on addressing social issues. Otherwise, a well meaning artist can be put in the awkward poition of rejoicing when less of their “competitors” are adding voices to important issues.

  12. […] an uncanny wave-length of theater topics that happen to be populating my brain (and others), like why there were so many plays dealing with rape this year. The post I particularly enjoyed was her interview with Dave Lankford, Executive Director of The […]

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