Keeping the Violence Out of Sight: Representing Systems of Oppression with Offstage Violence


Richard Gilbert


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Sometimes what we don't see with our own eyes can hit harder than what we do, and for those who create theatre that challenges the potent imbedded systems of violence by which our society oppresses so many of its people, hitting hard is crucial. Contemporary theatremakers are often deeply interested in telling stories that thematize institutional or systemic violence. Many contemporary plays thematize the violent structures under which we live in an attempt to come to terms with them, while many older plays are re-imagined by directors and producers in ways that inject the theme of systemic violence where it might have been only latent in or even absent from the source text. In drama, it is hard to directly represent mass violence. Generally a play will focus on a few characters, some of whom will represent systems of oppression by enacting violence on others who represent the oppressed. When violence is represented mimetically on stage in this way, there is always the danger that the audience will receive it as specific violence against a specific character rather than as part of a broader societal issue.1


1. Of course old-school Brechtians might say that all representation of systemic issues in dramatic theatre suffers this risk, and that the solution is Epic Theater. As a Brecht fan myself, I am sympathetic to that argument, and echoes of Brecht will no doubt he heard in all my analyses. That said, even the most realist theatremakers seem to recognize the challenge and seek a mode of representation which can represent systemic violence while remaining realistic.

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