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"Too far gone in disgust": Mirror Neurons and the Manipulation of Embodied Responses in The Libertine

From: Configurations
Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 399-426 | 10.1353/con.0.0060



Stephen Jeffreys' play The Libertine (1994) dramatizes the life of the notorious seventeenth-century poet and libertine, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. Jeffreys' antipathy to his protagonist is conveyed to his audiences through a masterful manipulation of their in-born disgust reflexes. In the 2004 film of The Libertine, directed by Lawrence Dunmore, playwright and director collaborate to create an overwhelming onslaught upon the viewers' senses, which results in the audience almost invariably experiencing unmitigated aversion toward Rochester. Placing both play and film in the context of recent research into mirror neurons, simulation, and disgust-mechanisms and their potential resonance among theater and cinema viewers, this essay considers how preconscious neurological, visual, auditory, and motor circuits may be accessed and influenced in order to provoke both the sensation of physical disgust and the moral judgments of indignation and rejection.

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