Monday, November 22, 2010

Monsters and Murderers


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.



  1. Since you've so generously opened up the conversation... What about that other maligned and totally related genre called Thriller?

    It seems as if thrillers have been relegated to the shelves of the nearest Duane Reade just like some more commercial horror, although some of the most provocatively horrifying things I've ever seen really fall into that category.

    Fer instance... Wait Until Dark plays at some of the deepest fears of a woman, i.e., living alone, being at the mercy of others... and at some of the deepest fears of humanity in general, i.e., not being strong enough, good enough, loved enough... Some scary sh#t there, I think. And it gets you there without needing a plethora of stage blood or latex guts.

    Not that there's anything inherently wrong with blood and guts, but it seems like, just as in the film industry, folks are more interested in making something gross and maybe a bit silly over something that really scares the crap out of us. I say, bring back the thriller!

  2. Drama is all about conflict. For instance: ghost shows up, tells you that your dad was murdered by your uncle. Instant conflict.
    Or: a bunch of witches tell you that you're going to become king, and all of a sudden you're killing people to become king. There's some conflict!
    In a way, the horror genre is almost not a genre. What I mean by that is this: take a look at a random zombie movie/play.
    When you go see a zombie picture you know that there will be some conflict -- the undead vs the living -- but what you don't know is what the movie will be about exactly.
    Will it be about a man trying to connect with his family (The Walking Dead)? Will it be about rampant consumption and capitalism (Dawn of the Dead)? Will it be a comedy about a man who needs to grow up and have a mature relationship with a woman (Shaun of the Dead)?
    In fact, almost all stories can be made better by the addition of zombies. Say you have a story about two brothers - one who became a doctor and the other who got busted in college for selling pot. The first brother is the star of the family, while the second brother is the black sheep.
    Now they have to reconcile and the black sheep has to earn the respect of his dad.
    That's OK, but I'm feeling that the story is a bit of a snooze as it is so far.
    But add a zombie apocalypse where the "good" brother works night and day for a cure while the "bad" brother turns out to have a knack for killing scores of zombies and protecting everyone -- and you have a recipe for some strong drama.
    With zombies, you have an instantly compelling story.
    Sure, the personal relationships of the characters are important. But we're not going to be interested in those relationships until they're put to a stress test. Zombies are great for that. So is a murder mystery (who did it, who's next?) So are the addition of werewolves, ghosts, and vampires. Why? It gives the characters real stakes -- life-or-death stakes.
    Can you trust the "bad" brother in the hypothetical play above? Did the "good" brother actually create the zombie virus for the military? Maybe there's a bigger secret -- like the "bad" brother wasn't selling dope out of his dorm room at all but it was the "good" brother who was and the "bad" brother just took the fall for him. Now the good brother lives with the guilt of destroying the other's career and making him look bad in his parents' eyes? And in the meantime they're holed up in an abandoned warehouse with food running low and ten thousand of the undead outside moaning and clawing at the steel doors lusting for their flesh.
    THAT sounds like a story I want to hear.
    If it were just two brothers talking about their problems in a room... well I just don't care as much.
    So in a nutshell, if you have a play with dramatic issues: just add zombies.

  3. I blogged my above comment in more detail -- and with cartoons!

  4. I lived in London for a short spell, and one of the first shows I saw in the West End was WOMAN IN BLACK. I was stunned that such a taunt, unsettling, genre-riffic story was being told in a live theatre, and was just as stunned to learn that this show has been playing in the same venue for about thirty years. And it wasn't alone: The Brits love their blood.

    Flash forward a bit, and I found myself working on a new adaptation of Dracula at a well-regarding regional theatre here in the States, and the director/playwright made a fascinating statement: Ours was not a romantic or campy production, but was to be firmly grounded in the pulse-pounding ethos of nightmares and primal anxieties. "Horror," our leader said, "Has been under-represented by the theatre."

    I suppose the reason why the American theatre has tended to shy away from blood and bone, while our compatriots across the pond all but wallow in it, stems from our radically different cultural appreciations for live theatre, the sources of our funding, and the primary demographics courted as subscribers.

    Theatre in the U.K. may be high art, or it may be low camp, but what it seems universally to be is an enjoyed element of life. Everyone goes, everyone partakes. Here, unfortunately, theatre has been generally regarded as the place to raise one's nose and champagne flute in reverence, or as foppish ornamentation; this is especially striking, since the American theatre has its roots in vaudville, burlesque, and traveling stages where cows and armed men made up the groundlings. We invented the modern musical, for Dawkin's sake!

    Which brings us to: Funding, and the fact that we don't have any. The arts in general and the theatre in particular is not a financial winner on this side of the Atlantic; though I may get dinged for saying this, and I would love to be proven incorrect, there is not one long surviving theatrical company or production house or standing venue that survives on ticket sales alone. This is not necessarily the case in socialist, communist, Stallinist England, where theatrical artists occasionally -- GASP! -- make their living on the boards, and not at lame temp jobs and behind barrista aprons.

    So, why does funding matter? Because: If a ticket costs ten pounds, you're less likely to feel the need to experience Emotional Sliced Bread and A Bag of Chips. Four hundred dollars to watch the lions and elephants dance around, and we literally must stage THE CIRCLE OF LIFE.

    Demographics: Who goes to see theatre in the UK? Everyone. Who are the assumed demographics in the US? The old, the rich, and the gay. Now...This is NOT true, this is NOT accurate, and this is NOT how regional theatres and Broadway houses should be building their houses, yet it is. It should neither be assumed that any of the three non-descript breakdowns previously mentioned wouldn't like a good scare or a pulpy romp, nor that a good play won't bring to the theatre a poorish twenty year old young man and his lady friend. However, there is a reason that the American theatre has so fervently embraced traditionalism, and the reason is based in self-fulfilling nihilistic assumptions about who "will" go the theatre and who "won't." Don't get me wrong: I love me some Arsenic and Old Lace, but it's time for that Rob Zombie remake.

    This is not to say we are without hope. Here in the off-off B'way world, Comtois, Rogers, Cassidy, and the like of the Vampire Cowboys give me great hope. Regionally, we're seeing more Frankensteins and Count Vlads every year. To embrace and to expand upon what has already been said by others in response to this post, the way forward is to neither assume horror courts a specific demographic, nor that horror is a demographic unto itself. Elements of terror and the macabre may be found all over the place, from Larry Krammer to Elevator Repairs Service to that ol' upstart crow with his mopey Danish monarch.

  5. I dream of a world in which genre doesn't matter. After all, a good story is a good story. You're always going to find audience members prejudiced toward a particular plot element or genre, just as you're going to find artists who can't help but stick to cliches within a given genre.

    But with all the mashups we're exposed to within modern media, I think people are generally more open to non-traditional elements in their traditional artforms. It's chocolate in our peanut butter instead of fly in our soup.

    So, the answer to your question is the same one you give for that old joke about where a giant flesh-eating monster sits: Where does horror fit into theater? Anywhere it damn well pleases.

  6. Well, there is an argument to be made that virtually all of Beckett's plays are "horror" plays (they convey soul-deep dread about the horrific futility of existence). And Aristotle defined tragedy as arousing "pity and fear." So, hey. The classics and Shakespeare are even in on the horror game.

    The best works of horror don't just deploy the cheap "boo!" moments; they linger with us long after we experience them (be it though a film, book, short story or play). They often affirm what we feel in our gut: that things aren't necessarily okay, but are indeed rotten.

    I love the horror genre and the different types of horror the genre provides. As quick, simple examples, John Carpenter's "Halloween" and George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," two films that came out the same year, are almost polar opposite films in terms of form and content. "Halloween" is all about deploying technique to scare the hell out of its audience, with minimal gore, and isn't really saying a whole lot (aside from the message that there are indefinable malevolent forces out in the world). "Dawn of the Dead," which is incredibly bloody and has TONS to say about our culture and our behavior, isn't particularly scary (though I wouldn't recommend it to the super-squeamish).

    Likewise with theatre. I enjoy shows that primarily use language/stories to evoke horror (The Pumpkin Pie Show), stage effects (Bug), or both (Clive Barker's early plays are masterful at this, being both visually and aurally horrific). I have no real preference: I dig all the angles.

  7. I actually believe that horror as a genre works best in the theatre when it goes unidentified until one's had the experience of the play. That is, when we go to see a play about something or other, only to be surprised that it has some horrific effect. That for me was part of why "Pillowman" worked so effectively. It's funny, too, because horror movies have a tradition of being highly allegorical, and so does theatre. I also think they are both tied in to fairy tales in an interesting, similar sense.

    All this is just to say: Yes. I think new horror plays could do great things for theatre at large. It certainly has contemporary appeal. The trick I think is in NOT allowing folks to dismiss it before experiencing it.

  8. I've written a few works of horror, and have really enjoyed the process. I'm a fan of Burke's ON THE SUBLIME, and the various off-shoots of horror fiction, and later, horror theatre that can be traced back to The Romantics.

    One of my favorite experiences was producing a night of student-written-and-directed one-act horror plays at Louisiana State University. It was genuinely creepy, and because it was Halloween, there was plenty of eye-gauging, face-ripping-off, six-inch-drill-gorging, bucket-of-blood shedding madness, and a lot of humor and choreography (without being outright camp; not that there's anything wrong with camp; there was certainly self-awareness!)

    A number of students needed to see the show for an intro class, and it was a treat hearing them say "I never knew you could do that with theatre!", etc. Horror helps us realize the full visceral (theatrical?) potential of live-stage performance; I would hate to see it written off (the way comedies and adaptations are often dismissed).

    My first published full-length, HOUND, is a work of horror; it mixes aspects of Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES with elements of the first-wave avant-garde. It was a hoot to write; I also had two wonderful directors who worked on two productions that were realized in incredibly different ways; my wife, Danielle, directed the first production with an eye toward the designs of Edward Gorey; the second production was directed by Rachel Klein, who is downtown's auteur of the macabre.

    Anyway, thank you for championing horror as a genre, and the plurality of plays that can fall under that glorious (gorey-ous?) heading!

    John P. Bray