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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Bodies in Pain: Medieval and Post-Modern Martyrs, Mystics, and Artists
  • Barbara Ellen Logan (bio)
Marla Carlson. Performing Bodies in Pain: Medieval and Post-Modern Martyrs, Mystics, and Artists. Palgrave Studies in Theater and Performance History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp. xi + 227. $80.00.

Marla Carlson’s fascinating comparison of civic, hagiographic, and devotional pain in late medieval France with twenty-first-century presentations of pain in drama and performance art is both haunting and haunted. Begun as a dissertation at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, the completed work was scheduled to be presented to her committee on 11 September 2001. Carlson includes this information in her introduction as part of her discussion of suffering (7). Thus the events of that day exist as a specter behind the spectacles of suffering that the text addresses in their late medieval and postmodern forms.

The introduction begins with a description of Paris during the Hundred Years’ War: Prisoners are stripped and beheaded while their leader is dismembered and then has his body parts displayed at the city gates. Carlson notes that “[p]opular culture has taken up the medieval as a short-cut reference to brutality” (2). While this contemporary effort to label violence as a relic of an othered Middle Ages [End Page 303] is consistently shown to be a fantasy, Carlson’s references to events reported in the Parisian Journal make clear that fifteenth-century France was a location of widespread and casual violence and that the saints’ plays, altar images, and flagellant processions of the day were part and parcel of the presence of suffering.

Carlson proposes that “aestheticized physical suffering plays a vital role in creating communities of sentiment” (2) based on four possible viewer responses: compassion, sympathy, empathy, and pity. After a brief summary of compassion and pity in their classically influenced uses in the Middle Ages, Carlson focuses on empathy and sympathy as her main tools of analysis. She defines empathy as “the preconscious activation of a matching emotional state” (8), which serves to involve the audience with the events presented. Sympathy goes even further, as it “means imagining the pain of another and includes the judgment that the suffering is not justified” (8).

Reading the political implications of a “community of sentiment” is where Carlson begins her discussion of the first part of the book, “Pain in the State’s Power.” In the first chapter, “Feeling Torture,” Athol Fugard’s play The Island is addressed. The play presents two political prisoners, John and Winston, sentenced to Robben Island under South African apartheid laws. The prisoners are reading Sophocles’ Antigone, while their own community of two is about to be destroyed by the early release of John and the life sentence of Winston. The play was a revival presented in 2003 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featuring the original actors and collaborators in the 1973 production, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Their “pain behavior” is compared to the elaborate torments staged in the medieval Le Geu Saint Denis. Whereas The Island served as a powerful call to the international community to pressure the South African government to change its laws, the medieval audience of Le Geu Saint Denis had a tendency to laugh and otherwise thoroughly enjoy the spectacle of the saint’s dismemberment. Carlson suggests that medieval audiences were not more bloodthirsty but rather that they “did not need theatre to create bonds through empathy, because daily life occurred face-to-face in a dense mesh of relationship” (45).

Differing notions of sympathy are discussed in chapter 2, “Imagining Death,” which continues the analysis of Le Geu Saint Denis and compares it with a 2005 taped staging of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. In the medieval play the death of the saint enables the gathering of relics, which can then become the focus of communal devotion and miraculous intercessions. The contemporary play is about legal execution in a totalitarian state. Two brothers, Karturian and Michel, are arrested on suspicion of murdering children in a reenactment of macabre retellings of fairytales that Michel has written. Karturian kills his brother and claims the manuscript as his own...