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A Tale of Two Tituses:
Julie Taymor's Vision on Stage and Screen
Two years before the september 11 tragedy, Julie Taymor attempted to make a movie that would effect in the aesthetic realm what the terrorist attacks enacted all too brutally in the material: the reassertion of the Real against the Symbolic, the depiction of the devastating effects of a violence habitually abstracted in American culture, the harrowing realization of the material body's vulnerability to capricious destruction. Indeed, appearing as Bill Moyers's guest on the PBS special "America Responds," Taymor located the principal trauma of 9/11 precisely in its horrific actualizing of apocalyptic imagery from film, its wrenching conversion of image to reality. Essentially Taymor said, as have so many others about the spectacle of the exploding towers, that it looked just like a movie, except it was real. 1
In attempting to give her treatment of Titus Andronicus the shock of the real, Taymor aimed to reawaken spectators to the visceral horror of violence, to rescue them from a benumbed dissociation from violence symptomatic of post-traumatic stress. Having herself been genuinely "shocked" by the play's staging of both trauma and post-traumatic debility, Taymor sought to re-expose her audience to the contagion of trauma, in both her acclaimed but little-seen off-Broadway production (1994) and the high-profile film it spawned (1999). 2 [End Page 487]
Trauma, in clinical terms, connotes an acute bodily injury that disables psychic defenses against the terror of physical disintegration and death, exposing the structures of self and world as empty and fraudulent, leaving a void that available, culturally constructed meanings are inadequate to fill. 3 Dissociation represents a kind of defensive self-evacuation, a protracted recoil from the terrifying discovery of the body's radical vulnerability. 4 In today's post-traumatic culture, dissociation compels psychic distance from graphic depictions of violence, even the real ones broadcast on the evening news. Such distance can engender not only numb acceptance but also excited consumption of violent imagery, empowering a sadistic gaze that takes pleasure in representations of pain and destruction. Taymor sought by contrast to activate a masochistic gaze, capable of identifying with loss and suffering and embracing the abject fragility inimical to egoistic fantasies of integrity and sufficiency.
Taymor wanted not simply to pummel her audience, however, but, in the Brechtian manner of the Verfremdungseffekt, to startle and goad them into querying their own relation to violent spectacle: "This play is as much about how the audience experiences violence as entertainment as it is about the tragedy of the endless cycle of violence itself." 5 To accomplish this, Taymor mixed brutally realistic depictions of violence (for example, Titus cutting the throats of Chiron and Demetrius) with stylized presentations (Lavinia's rape) meant to stimulate interrogation. "I wanted the audience to experience both reactions. I wanted them both inside and outside the events," she explains, "reeling with the horror in their bellies and challenged with the dilemmas in their minds." 6 In effect, Taymor posits a Brechtian [End Page 488] audience, one viscerally engaged but also critically detached—more precisely, an audience whose selective visceral distress may be channeled into examining the nature and meaning of violence. She aimed to make a violent movie that would deconstruct movie violence.
In attempting to do so, she proposed to work against the grain of the Hollywood revenge movie, in which audiences are routinely manipulated into applauding a brutalized victim's prodigies of vengeance; against a narrative pressure of the play itself, which positions Titus as one such brutalized victim; and against revenge as a legitimate mode of trauma-management. In fact, the script underwriting "America's Response" to the trauma of September 11 is essentially that of a revenge play, one startlingly parallel to the plot of Titus Andronicus. In both instances the principal trauma results from the infiltration of a vengeful, murderous barbarism into civilization, the insidious terrorism...