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The culture of violence

Depictions of violence in theater: Revelation, not nihilism

Critic's Notebook: Disturbing actions can awake an audience's empathy, but lines blur if events tip into a mere celebration of destruction.

February 15, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

In one of the most infamous scenes in modern drama, a group of young men in a London park stone a baby to death in its carriage. What begins as roughhousing escalates to all-out sadism until a rock is thrown at point blank range, ending the child's pitiful cries for good.

Edward Bond's "Saved" provoked outrage when it was produced in 1965 by the Royal Court Theatre as a private club offering, a designation used to slip past the Lord Chamberlain's Office. Although "Saved" isn't revived often, it's considered a modern classic, and not just because it was instrumental in overturning Britain's strict theater censorship laws.

The play had a formative influence on playwrights Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and it's hard to imagine the flamboyant thuggery of Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh, two of contemporary theater's sharpest stylists, without Bond's path-clearing example.

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Even by today's standards, "Saved" is shocking. Bond, who once acknowledged that he writes "about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners," captures the murder in all its bleak sociological detail. Against a seedy urban background of utter futility, the young mother's temporary abandonment of her baby is made chillingly plausible, as is the pack-like behavior of the men who torture the baby for perverse distraction from their aimless lives.

While seeing the play off-Broadway in a production directed by Robert Woodruff in 2001, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to withstand the spectacle of a baby being smeared with its own excrement and nakedly throttled. I had barely survived an earlier scene in which the child's intensifying cries went unanswered in a London household too bogged down in its own misery to respond.

The real world being sufficiently generous when it comes to doling out violence, I don't intentionally seek it out in drama. Additionally, I have found it harder in my middle years to detach blows from the physical and mental suffering they entail. (Sadly, the unreality of youth doesn't last forever.) Yet I would have been in solidarity with those who stood up for "Saved" against those who were loudly condemning the work as obscene when it was first done.

What is the line between acceptable and unacceptable violence in art? If gruesomeness is the criterion, much of Jacobean drama would have to be banned, including Shakespeare's "King Lear," with its graphic scene of Gloucester's eyes being mercilessly plucked out. Some may believe they can identify pornography at a glance, but violence places keener demands on our sensibilities. Its artistic validity isn't a function of how many liters of blood are spilled or how many limbs are dismembered. The question is one of gratuitousness. Or to put it another way: How does the brutality fit into a work's larger vision?

The task is uniquely challenged. Make-believe violence is a tool that all too easily becomes an indiscriminate weapon. It is a form of knowledge — of the body's vulnerability, of the aggression that lurks in the hearts of men — but it can also be a pernicious seduction, luring artists and audiences toward a nihilistic celebration of the destruction of meaning itself.

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The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has spoken of the "inured, detached horror" that comes as a result of being glutted with images of human suffering. "The sadomasochistic solution to this is to find it all incredibly exciting and gripping and to want more and more of it," he explained in Bomb Magazine. "That is a catastrophe created by a culture that makes suffering and exploitation bearable by making or cultivating a sadomasochistic pleasure."

In the "Poetics," Aristotle takes up the question of why human beings delight in contemplating objects that in reality bring them pain. His answer is that man is essentially an imitative animal who learns by copying the world around him. Yet Aristotle doesn't claim that this instinct alone justifies the portrayal of any kind of atrocity. The crux of his argument is that the dramatization of certain types of calamity can have a positive moral effect. In fact, rather than feeding the unruly passions (one of Plato's big beefs with poetry), these depictions have the power to calm the emotional waters by stirring them up.

Like Freud, Aristotle thought that repression carries more dangers than representation. Yet his theory of catharsis — for him, the raison d'être of tragedy — isn't unlimited. There are experiences better left undramatized. The test of an action's moral suitability, however, lies in its artistic ends, not in its inherent balefulness.

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