Lucy Weir explores the gendered nature of critical responses to on-stage violence
I am an art historian by training, though my expertise lies in performance, from dance and theatre to live art. Throughout my research, I endeavour to highlight the ways in which performance holds up a mirror to contemporary society. It is not solely the body on stage that has a story to tell – critical and theoretical responses to performance also reveal deeper truths about how we engage with issues of personal identity and of collective experience. In recent years, my scholarly attention has increasingly focused on images of violence in performance. However, it is not necessarily the omnipresence of violent acts that has captured my interest; rather, I am curious about the ways in which audiences respond to on-stage violence and, in particular, the gendered nature of critical responses to violence. As I wade through a combination of theatrical reviews and theoretical texts, I find myself continually questioning who has permission to perform violence, and what conditions lie behind granting this legitimacy.
These questions first arose during my doctoral studies, and continued into the research period for my first book. I have now spent more than a decade studying the dance theatre of German choreographer Pina Bausch. Her durational, non-linear productions sit somewhere in the margins of dance and theatre, refusing the conventions of either form. There is no single aesthetic, style or method that characterises her style, and her choreography is often comprised of everyday actions. Throughout the years I have spent immersed in Bausch’s oeuvre, the works which have left the most profound impression are those which locate humanity’s capacity for destruction at their heart.
The pieces Bausch produced throughout the mid-1980s are notable for their candid depiction of cruelty and suffering. Her dancers continually mistreat one another, with attempts to form intimate connection regularly degenerating into spitefulness or brutality. Repressed unconscious desire and taboo behaviours are central motifs in the works Bausch produced between the late 1970s and mid-1980s; this would be a difficult period in Bausch’s career, a phase in which her productions often garnered poor reviews for their dark and despairing content. Her company’s first tour of the United States in 1984 resulted in some fairly vicious commentary, including observations such as Alan Kriegsman’s that “It’s a … specifically Teutonic attraction to the powers of darkness, to an alliance of art, disease and malevolence”; Arlene Croce’s now infamous remark that “She keeps referring us to the act of brutalization and humiliation – to the pornography of pain” and that, “[Bausch is] an entrepreneuse who fills theatres with projections of herself and her self-pity”; and finally Donna Perlmutter’s dismissal of the whole form as “obsessive, mindless self-flagellation [that] takes over in this psychiatric back ward.”
On first encountering these reviews as a PhD student, I was struck by the layers of prejudice embedded within them. In addition to the xenophobic overtones, derogatory metaphors of mental illness are repeatedly invoked, with the artist’s intentions for creating these works called into question. There is a recurring sense of disbelief that a young, female choreographer would choose to focus on images of violence and suffering, and thus a presumption of emotional instability begins to emerge. Yet this reactive response continues to raise questions for me, as Bausch’s work is neither gory nor explicit – her creative approach is more closely aligned with Samuel Beckett’s absurdism than the confrontational style of so-called ‘in-yer-face’ British theatre-makers of the 1990s, for example.
Indeed, one can detect in the language of Bausch’s detractors commonalities with the histrionic criticism levelled at British playwright Sarah Kane. Kane’s 1995 play Blasted launched her career, but immediately stoked the abject disgust of tabloids and broadsheets alike, with the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker infamously labelling it “a disgusting feast of filth.” While Graham Saunders (2002) has questioned the authenticity of this journalistic outrage, such memorable soundbites have nonetheless left an indelible mark on any subsequent discussion of Kane’s work. Kane herself was continually frustrated by the sensationalist press coverage, which she felt prevented audiences from experiencing her work in a “fresh” manner, without preconceived expectations already in place (Saunders 2002). When asked in a 1998 interview why she was subjected to such personal attacks from the press, Kane suggested that her critics “didn’t know what else to say,” and referenced a remark from the Daily Mail that recommended the funding for Blasted ought to have been spent on psychotherapy instead. Viewed in hindsight, the negative reviews that fixated upon Kane’s psyche read especially cruelly in light of her struggles with depression. Her death by suicide continues to haunt critical discussion of her work; distressingly, shortly after Kane’s death, her brother was forced to issue a press release, refuting allegations that her final play, 4.48 Psychosis (2000), constituted a theatrical suicide note. (Sierz 2001)
Kane’s dramaturgy is, at times, explicit in its depiction of violence. However, fixating upon this aspect of her practice overshadows her sharp wit – her plays are often unexpectedly humorous – and her deeply innovative approach. Like Bausch, Kane rewrote the language and structure of her medium, pushing the boundaries of theatrical narrative and structure. Again, however, this pioneering mentality was misunderstood by many contemporary critics. Christopher Wixson (2005) contrasts Guardian critic Michael Billington’s assessment of Blasted to his far more favourable reading of Harold Pinter’s Partytime (1991), highlighting that the same experimental devices Billington critiqued in Kane’s work, he lauded in the case of Pinter. There is far more to be said about the gendered nature of comparative critical analysis than the limitations of this space permit, but there is obviously still important work to be done here.
In their respective bodies of work, both Bausch and Kane used interpersonal relationships as a microcosm for larger patterns of societal, structural, and systemic violence. However, they are not unusual in doing so. They are part of a continuum within performance practice that engages on a visceral, often unmediated level with the topic of violence. Endurance, suffering, and injury are recurring motifs across the global history of live art. Indeed, for many undergraduate students, the introduction to performance is usually illustrated by controversy, with unsimulated acts of violence a popular primary reference point. Take, for example, Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971), a work in which the artist was shot with live ammunition before a small crowd of invited guests. The piece has come to dominate discussion of Burden’s wider oeuvre. It is cited relentlessly in academic literature, but it has also been heavily mythologised in popular culture. Shoot seductively combines the notion of heroic masculinity with the embodiment of physical strength and resilience, alongside a dose of serious risk – while Burden’s accomplice was a trained marksman, the potential for grievous harm was integral to this piece.
Shoot is often presented as the defining work both of its era and of ‘extreme’ performance practice more generally. Burden’s oeuvre extended across a whole range of injurious practices, from crawling over broken glass to being crucified against the bonnet of a Volkswagen Beetle. Yet, despite this emphasis on bodily mortification, I have yet to come across a single account of Burden’s practice which interprets his work through a lens of personal posttraumatic distress, or which seriously questioned his mental health. What is it in Bausch and Kane’s work that so deeply polarises audiences, then? And why are their respective exploration of violence and cruelty so readily interpreted as emblematic of some kind of emotional or psychiatric trauma?
Violence, whether it is invoked literally or figuratively, is invariably difficult to watch. I suggest that the difficulty of this kind of spectatorship (Doyle 2013), coupled with the gendered coding of these bodies, often leads to somewhat simplistic or monolithic analysis of violent acts within performance. This reflects a wider trend within my discipline: despite the omnipresence of figurative and literal self-harm in modern and contemporary visual culture, art historical analysis has largely eschewed rigorous analysis of the multifaceted applications of self-injury. This is a striking lacuna in a field that purports to reflect the realities of the world around us.
In recent years, the negative reviews that characterised Bausch’s early career have given way to critical acclaim, and the critical derision that accompanied her earlier, more experimental works have been consigned to history. Similarly, in the years following Kane’s death, she has effectively been inducted into the canon of contemporary playwrights, with even her arch critics largely recanting their initial readings of her work. (Billington 2001) Nonetheless, I am continually frustrated that these gendered tropes endure. In my teaching, I have made Bausch, Burden and Kane key case studies for my students to understand the diversity of approaches to violence in performance, yet I am struck by the divergences in critical writing when we delve into analysis of violent content. Burden’s Shoot is almost inevitably situated against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, or the ubiquity of gun violence in the United States. Yet, with both Bausch and Kane, the personal (and, at times, the biographical) so often takes precedence against what their productions might be telling us about broader social issues – the aftermath of the Second World War in German society, as just one example, or Kane’s reflections upon television coverage of the conflict in Yugoslavia, on the other. I suggest that we must break away from increasingly ingrained narratives that equate suffering with endurance and stamina on the masculine side, and psychological damage on the feminine. The spectacle of suffering has much still to teach us, if we can learn to look critically and sensitively at such difficult content.
Lucy Weir is a specialist in dance and performance studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Pina Bausch’s Dance Theatre: Tracing the Evolution of Tanztheater (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). Her current research explores masculinity and self-injury in postwar performance. She tweets at @lucygweir
Billington, Michael, ‘Review: Blasted’, Guardian, (5 April 2001) https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2001/apr/05/theatre.artsfeatures
Croce, Arlene, Jowitt, Deborah, Kisselgoff, Anna, Bernheimer, Martin and Kriegsman, Alan, ‘Pina Bausch in America,’ Ballett International/Tanz Aktuell, vol. 7, no. 11 (November 1984), pp. 14-18
Croce, Arlene, ‘Dancing: Bad Smells,’ The New Yorker (16 July 1984), pp. 81-84
Doyle, Jennifer, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013)
Kane, Sarah, interviewed by Rebellato, Dan, Royal Holloway, University of London (3 November 1998) https://intranet.royalholloway.ac.uk/dramaandtheatre/documents/pdf/skane1998.pdf
Stephenson, Heidi [ed.], Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)
O’Dell, Kathy, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)
Perlmutter, Donna, ‘Reviews: Café Müller,’ Dance Magazine, vol. 58, no. 9 (1984), pp. 34-35
Saunders, Graham, ‘Love me or kill me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)
Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)
Wixson, Christopher, ‘“In Better Places”: Space, Identity, and Alienation in Sarah Kane’s “Blasted”’, Comparative Drama, volume 39, no, 1 (Spring 2005), pp.75-91