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?

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Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Greet Me with Cries of Hate

Marissa Skudlarek ponders the idea that if a bad review is a good sign that good art is going on, does this mean Dan Brown is a genius?

“Melissa Fall has such an interesting perspective on things,” Megan Briggs said to me the other night. (Megan is currently starring in DIVAfest’s production of Melissa’s play You’re Going to Bleed.) “When she was here for the premiere, do you know what she told me? She said, ‘I hope that at least one critic hates this show — really hates it — because that’d mean that the play was effective. We’re trying to do something controversial here, and not everyone should like it.’ Isn’t that an interesting way of looking at things?”

It is, but it’s not a completely unique viewpoint. I’ve heard other artists make that claim; I’ve even thought it myself. In our culture, there’s an idea that great art should shock or unsettle its audiences, rather than appealing to their sense of contentment and complacency. I also think it this has something to do with the idea of the artist being a lonely prophet, a Cassandra, a teller of inconvenient truths. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong,” or Groucho Marx saying “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Or Meursault, at the end of The Stranger, wishing for the crowd on the day of his execution to “greet me with cries of hate.” If you started making art because you felt like a misfit or an outcast, and then people actually like and accept what you make, you must not be doing it right. You must’ve betrayed yourself; you must’ve sold out. At least, that’s how the thinking goes.

But one of the problems with the idea that “great art arouses controversy and gets negative reviews” is that badartists can lay claim to this as a convenient excuse to justify their own mediocrity. This week, I heard a BBC radio news item about Dan Brown’s reaction to the bad reviews for Inferno, his latest potboiler novel. “All you’re hoping to do, as a writer, when you put something out, is make people care about it, make people react to it. I kind of believe if there aren’t people angry, then you really haven’t said much. So, you know what, on some level, I guess I need to welcome those sorts of comments,” Brown said in a clip.

But reviewers are angry at Brown precisely because they think that he hasn’t said much; they think that his novels are trashy, the literary equivalent of empty calories or worse. Still, how can Melissa Fall (a writer I respect, and know to have serious ambitions) and Dan Brown (a writer of airport thrillers who finds himself in a place of undeserved cultural prominence) both say the same thing about their art? How can they both claim that a negative review is the greatest proof of the value of their writing?

I’m also tired of the related idea that art that wallows in nihilistic or degrading sentiments — what is traditionally meant by the term “shock value” — is more valuable than art that expresses something more positive or uplifting. (Perhaps Allison Page and I are on the same wavelength here.) To that end, I was fascinated and intrigued to learn that the most controversial play in New York this past season was The Flick, by Annie Baker. From what I gather,The Flick is a quiet, slow-paced, three-hour drama about three disappointed people who work at a small-town movie theater. Sounds innocuous enough, but evidently droves of people walked out of the play, wrote angry letters to Playwrights Horizons (the producer), and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Playwrights Horizons eventually published an open letter defending their decision to produce The Flick and explaining why they supported Baker’s artistic vision.

So The Flick was controversial, but not for the usual reasons of sex or violence or political content or other forms of shock value. It made people uncomfortable because it was too quiet, too subtle, dare I say, too feminine. I hope that Annie Baker took a perverse pride in the controversy she raised. While I haven’t seen or read The Flick, I have to feel that Baker is doing something right.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you wish to give her bad reviews (or good ones) you can see more of her writing at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.