Violence In Art
“Conflict, conflict, conflict!” This is the cry of every playwriting professor, dramaturg, and editor I have ever worked with. But why is conflict―and its brother violence―necessary to make good art? I have dealt with the how of confronting violence and conflict in theater. How to stage it effectively, what kind it is, when and where to include it in plays, who should do it, and on whom it should be done.
Getting to the root of the why is tricky. No analyzing characters or plots or themes allowed. No tearing apart a piece of theater for its logical coherence. I want to get to the heart of the issue: Why is conflict necessary in the first place? Why do we seek it out as theater makers and audience members alike? These questions stem from a place of innocence, of naïveté, but why not begin there? These are important, fundamental questions which we often ignore. The Futurists believed that art could “be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” If it bleeds, it leads. Fluff pieces are for the willfully duped. However, I am brought back again and again to a quote from Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas:”
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
Yet even Ursula Le Guin’s story is not without conflict. It is rife with violence, evil, and pain. Can we make theater and art without showing people at their worst? Can we show people happy? Happy, and nothing more, or perhaps more importantly, nothing less? Just as we reflect the world with theater, the theater we make is a reflection of ourselves. In Jonathan Mandell’s article “The N-Word on Stage,” playwright Kelley Nicole Girod notes that “whatever you’re presenting on stage you have to take responsibility for.” We as theater makers must take the responsibility for the conflict in our art. We must justify its existence, each and every time.
“Violence is a theatrical tradition dating back to the Greek tragedies,” Mandell writes in another article titled “Violence on Stage: Healing or Titillating?” He cites director Bryan Doerries, who argues that “the violence in Greek tragedies is about helping the community come to terms with the violence they’ve experienced, and the violence they’ve perpetuated.” Our world is violent and people are violent, so our theater and characters must also be violent, right? Conflict in theater is a way to grapple with the reality of conflict in life.
I am a playwright witnessing a violent world. If I did not at least acknowledge that very real truth in my writing, I would find myself at fault. In the New York Times article “3 Playwrights on How Mass Shootings Forced Them to Write,” playwright Eric Ulloa reveals that he was inspired to write after the Sandy Hook tragedy because “I was tired of my own complacency whenever something horrific happens that I can’t understand, this being a traumatic one because it was 6- and 7-year old children. I was tired of doing Facebook posts with my personal comments about how angry I am and sending it into the void. I wanted to see if I could offer anything as a writer.”
My writing is my purpose here. Through it I hope to serve my audience well; not only to entertain, but also to cultivate empathy. Our world brims with incredible sorrow. Like a couple taking their vows together, however, I wish to “share my sorrows and my joys.” Another path to empathy is through happiness, celebration, humor, and joy. These are not insipid, empty wishes (“the power of positive thinking”), these are genuine aspirations and, some of the time, actual psychological conditions. Contrary to Ursula Le Guin, evil may not be so banal and pain is still quite interesting, but to her credit, happiness isn't so stupid either.
August Wilson ends his 1996 speech at Princeton with this same call for happiness. Artists “should challenge the melancholy and barbaric, to bring the light of angelic grace, peace, prosperity and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to the ground on which we all stand.” Here evil and pain are not “banal” or “boring,” or tossed away as “just part of life.” They are monsters to be fought. And if defeated, new grace, peace, prosperity, and happiness will be brought down to earth. If we as theater makers can fight and slay these monsters in our art, have we shown a path to serenity?