Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Nat Cassidy.
This Sunday, I found myself, as I often do, thinking about horrific things. This time around, it was, “How should I get this old man in the park to stab his already-dead best friend with a tree branch?”
I’m working on a new playscript, you see, and I was sitting on my couch, Rob Zombie’s lamentable Halloween remake playing unnoticed in the background, trying to think of an effectively theatrical, but still psychologically honest, method of solving my problem. This thought was interrupted by another: “I should spend some time this afternoon getting off-book for Dance of Death.” Dance of Death is a Strindberg play written around 1900 in which a caustic married couple psychologically tortures a visiting relative, quite possibly because they are, as the text implies, psychic vampires feeding off of misery.
Now, I ain’t saying I’m a Strindberg here, but there is a connection. The theatrical landscape is littered with the macabre. Since time immemorial, the stage has hosted ghosts, murder, insanity, torture, vampires, demons . . . it’s all pretty deliciously dramatic fare.
So, let’s talk horror, eh?
I know, this seems like a more appropriate conversation to have had a couple of weeks ago, towards the end of October (that one time of year we’re actively encouraged to turn up the heat underneath that covered pot of nastiness we keep on the backburner of our consciousness), but hey, with so many of us staring at that looming, awkward family gathering towards the end of this week, now seems as good a time as any to talk about what scares us, doesn’t it?
And, frankly, it’s always a good time for me. I’m a bit of a horror junkie, to put it mildly, and anyone who’s read any of my scripts can probably attest to that. Growing up, if there was a book in my hand (which there always was), it was an incredibly safe bet to guess that it was authored by either Stephen King or William Shakespeare. I read both authors equally voraciously, although for some reason, when adults saw what I was reading, I would get an approving nod or a condescending sniff, depending. Ghost drives young man to brink of madness and causes him to incite the deaths of everyone around him? Enriching and edifying classic. Ghost drives middle-aged man to brink of madness and causes him to chase his family around a deserted hotel with a Roque mallet? Pop trash at worst, a morbid phase at best.
When you call something “horror,” it seems, you’re just dismissing it as genre—that dreadful diminishing epithet reserved for the things that apparently must squirm underfoot of critical esteem—it’s not high art. If something expresses a desire to disturb, especially with any sort of supernatural or supernormal catalyst, even if it’s asking probing questions about the human condition, it has to take two steps back in the Respectability Roll-Call.
However, theatre seems to be, at least somewhat, an exception to this bias. As I already mentioned, there’s a longstanding tradition of ostensibly horrific works in the theatre. And, even though the term “horror” is still kept at a distance, these days, thanks especially to the independent theatre community, there is no shortage of legitimate theatrical works that explore the realities of monsters and murderers and darkness.
This excites me to no end. As much as I love a good horror novel or movie, nothing strikes harder and cuts deeper than a good play.
So, for this first post, here’s a question for you: what do you think the role horror plays, should play, and is to play in the theatre? After all, it’s one of the—if not the the—most bankable genres of movies and literature (and now TV, what with Walking Dead and True Blood). Can commercial theatre be rejuvenated by embracing a darker, more objectively monstrous side? Or, on the other hand, given the ubiquity of productions by playwrights ranging from Aeschelus, Shakespeare, and Webster, to Pinter, McDonaugh, and McPherson, is that maybe what’s helping keep theatre alive?
I’ve got loads of theories and could talk about ‘em ad nauseum (theatre is ritual and thus more in touch with the primordial; humans are psychologically pretty scary and plays are inherently probing), but I wanna hear yours. Then maybe we can delve into more specifics as the week goes on.
Because who says we need to limit our journalistic love of horror to just a few weeks in October? And because Lord knows it’ll get us all in the right mindset for dealing with our loved ones come Turkey Day.