Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 September 2011

Sorrow for the Dead

One of the interesting things that has happened in the Violence, Ethics & Representation class – and I think I laid the foundation for this on day one by introducing pain theory before introducing anything else – is that we spend a lot of time talking about victims of violence in the class.

I have spent most of my study of violence considering how violence works as a trope, trying to parse out the ideological functions of fictional violence, but playwrights and filmmakers don't make representations of violence in order to achieve ideological effects. They make films and write plays, for the most part, because they want us to pay attention to those who are victimized by violence.

I have been writing about Howard Brenton's play The Romans in Britain (1980) for the last, oh, four years, coming back to it every once in a while and rethinking my position. I presented a talk about the play – and the male-rape that is the centerpiece to act one – at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference this past August in Chicago. And when I did I completely rethought my criticisms of the play, changing the tactic so that I was talking about the play's erotic elements and the qualities of eroticism that were components of the theatrical rape.

Anyway, I revisited the play again this Fall because I taught the play in my Violence, Ethics & Representation class. (The kids did not care for the play, I should note.) But I was struck this time by how much the play is actually about mourning. I don't think I ever really believed paid too much attention to what Brenton said about the play before, but when he says:

The greatest difficulty I had when trying to write the play is a weighty matter. It was what to do about a sense of overwhelming sorrow, a grief for the nameless dead, with which the material of the play is drenched. This is, itself, difficult to express. It was what Blake expressed in the terrifying "Proverb from Hell" – "Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead." If you do not you will go mad with grief. But cruelty is hard to dramatize. What you must never do is pretend, by stagecraft sleight of hand, that cruelty is not as bad as it is. [...] You must not sell human suffering short.

The Romans in Britain is a herculean effort that for me is an attempt to express this grief for the dead, the immeasurable sorrow that the playwright feels for all those who have been destroyed through violence throughout history. And the play has, for me, become a play about mourning now. It is still, of course, about violence. With all of its brutality how can it not be? But I think the work of the play is the work of mourning for the dead, of processing or incorporating the incomprehensible losses of history.