“Man of La Mancha,” with national touring sensation Howard Keel, was the first staged musical I remember seeing, at a ripe young age of 9 at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Music Fair’s tent-in-the-round in 1970.
Rape was not in my vernacular then, but I fell in love with the character Aldonza, a “kitchen wench” (prostitute), and somehow keenly felt her hardship, disillusionment, strength and wrung-out, twisted passion. I’d act out her part in front of the pulled drapes in my living room — including a modified take on her gang rape scene. The brutalizing effect onstage was a mesh of music, lighting and dance, but the horror and anger spoke deeply to my prepubescent self. Unwittingly, it gave me a kind of a shield, an armor to grow into, to understand that a woman’s body is not all there is to her.
They say that those things children are too young to understand go right over their heads. I have to wonder. With the advent of the Internet, which defines and exhibits our every curiosity, I cannot imagine being a child of 9 against such a backdrop today. I might have started Googling and been gobsmacked by reality and grown terrified of theater — or men. My understanding of human relations might have been skewed if drama on the Internet, uncontrolled and unfiltered, were all I’d been exposed to — overexposed, at that.
Rape is nothing new on stage and, surprisingly, is not an uncommon topic in musicals. In 1960, “The Fantasticks” made farce of the idea of a staged assault — with ringmaster El Gallo offering a menu of rapes in the thinly cloaked “It Depends On What You Pay.” Apparently, making light of sexual assault seemed ghastly to producers of the 2006 revival, who saw fit to clean up the lyrics, changing references of “rape” to “abduction” or “masquerade”:
“ … An abduction that’s emphatic.
An abduction that’s polite.
An abduction done with Indians:
A truly charming sight.
An abduction done on horseback;
They’ll all say it’s distingué.
So you see the masquerade
Depends on what you pay. …”
The original repeated variations of “rape” in place of “abductions” — an assault to the ears of a rape survivor today.
What happened between the Sixties and now to alter our view of rape in our culture? Is it merely that it has come to dominate so much of it? Or somehow it’s less shocking. Which makes it even more so.
There could be an element of commercialism at work, at least where “The Fantasticks” is concerned. Those who hold copyrights for these shows want to get them produced as often as possible, so why not tame or temper the material to dodge the censors and see them produced more often in high schools and by mass-appeal, general-audience church and community theatre troupes.
The most recent production of “Man of La Mancha” I saw was last year, by the McLean Community Players. Though Aldonza sang the pants off of her role, the assault scene was reduced to what looked like a game of Farmer in the Dell — although that might have been explained more by the portlier cast as opposed to changing sensitivities or morals (generalized portliness being another sign of the times). I’m not judging — just saying. It is, after all, a fairly operatic show, and you need some support for those big voices.
A few years back, Signature Theatre in Shirlington premiered a work composed by resident artist Matt Conner, “The Hollow,” which he and book writer Hunter Foster adapted from the classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They took liberties, certainly, with the story, inventing a climactic scene in which the object of Ichabod Crane’s affections is raped (offstage). It wasn’t until now, pondering themes of savagery in musical theatre, that it occurred to me the second half of Signature’s premiere double feature, “The Boy Detective Fails,” was also about serial kidnappings, assault and murder — albeit, our human failing to understand or confront the ultimate evil behind such acts.
To say theatre is cathartic is an understatement. Who among us has not entertained a rape fantasy?
As “The Hollow” director Matt Gardiner explained to a TBD.com reporter at the time: “As far as a female character goes, this is the worst thing that could happen. It’s so intimate. And yet it is frequently used.”
Directors are challenged to find a way to plumb the violence with care and concern, considering many in the audience, statistically, have been touched and traumatized by rape in real life.
The TBD article made the point there were a heckuva lot of rape themes in current area shows. As more rape survivors become more vocal, as well they should be encouraged to be, you wonder about the impact on our lively arts, and how we balance imagination/escapism with verisimilitude.
Signature followed up with a play by emerging talent Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Really Really,” inspired by the Duke lacrosse team assault scandal. It was supposed to be “edgy.” But, really, it was only too real.
“It’s challenging,” Gardiner told Rebecca J. Ritzel at the time. “You want the audience to feel uncomfortable — but not so uncomfortable that it takes you out of the play completely. It’s a delicate balance.”
We are all familiar with catching a show at the local high school, and, if weapons are part of the pretense, seeing a notice in the program, as required by the local governing board, vouching that the weapons used are fake. Or signs leading into the theatre that warn patrons with certain delicate conditions that strobe lights, fake fog, startling noises or cigarettes (!) will be used — much like an amusement park ride warns pregnant riders what’s at stake.
Yet I don’t recall many “trigger warnings” being applied in theatre, advisories that depictions of rape, suicide, genocide and the like lay behind the curtain. Heavens to Betsy, if staged works had to list each trigger warning ahead of every production, programs might rival the DSM. Such a practice could wring out much of the drama or shock at the core of even the shlockiest of shows, let alone master works.
Along with a suspension of disbelief, I guess, when patrons enter a theatre they must also enter into an unwritten agreement to suspend all defenses. Vulnerability, culpability, liability — all part of the communal masquerade. Theatre is therapy. Theatre is safe.
And even though it’s a “lie,” theatre is honest. More honest, at times, than real life.
Its one true mission: to spur real dialogue.