- Theatre & Violence by Lucy Nevitt
Continuing the mission of the Theatre & series, Lucy Nevitt’s Theatre & Violence compellingly engages with a broad interdisciplinary subject through examples from theatre and performance, providing thought-provoking lines of inquiry for further discussion. Using examples ranging from the plays of Sarah Kane to the spectacle of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Nevitt argues that “it is necessary and desirable to use theatre and performance to help us to contemplate violence” (8). Importantly, her text both explores the role of violence in performance and studies the performative qualities of violent action outside the theatre space.
The book, which includes a preface by series editors Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato and a forward by Catherine Cusack, is expansive in its scope despite the standard brevity of the Theatre & series format. Nevitt begins her book by exploring case studies of theatrical violence and observes the tendency of violent action in works such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted to “overshadow spectorial responses” and even to “obscure the [work] as a whole,” reducing it to just “a violent play” (10). As she develops this argument, she expands the scope of the work, examining the performative aspects of real-world events such as hunger strikes and acts of terrorism. Ultimately, Nevitt advocates that those who stage acts of violence in performance do so not because they enjoy spectacles of violence but because “they profoundly dislike it and seek to contribute to the making of a more peaceful and less violent world” (75). [End Page 369]
The core theoretical concerns of Nevitt’s study relate to simulation, actuality, and spectatorship. She argues that spectatorship of both theatrical and actual violence has its effects and asserts the possibility that simulated violence in performance can sometimes offer a more visceral reality than actual violence, while actual violence can, in certain circumstances, feel performed or unreal. In the theatre, audiences have emotional, physical, and psychological responses to the carefully choreographed violent actions they witness onstage. Audiences may also witness performances in which an artist chooses to inflict bodily harm to him- or herself or have harm inflicted upon them, thereby blurring the line between witness and participant. Although Nevitt is vigilant not to draw too strong a boundary or to collapse the distinctions between actual and performed violence, the limitations of the short text prohibit more extensive theoretical approaches to the complexities within these divisions.
In considering the causes and effects of simulated violence, Nevitt participates in the dialogue on how representations of violence foster or cause actual material violence. She argues that these debates frequently foreground what the “performance in question shows, rather than . . . what the portrayal does, in a broader social sense” (28). By foregrounding an analysis of performativity and ideology, Nevitt deepens her commitment to the ethical considerations of violence and its effects. Her example of simulated rape in performance demonstrates the challenging terrain of showing violence to critique it without being able to control its effects on the audience and explores the more disturbing possibility of this kind of violence depicted without critique. She also reminds her readers that assumptions of violent content are deeply dependent on a variety of factors including historical context, a work’s canonical status, or the rules of the performative world in which the violence is enacted. While this argument is compelling, it could be strengthened by a lengthier discussion of other influences that contribute to this understanding, such as cultural, political, and religious norms that factor into individual and social determinations of violent actions and behaviors.
Theatre & Violence offers a significant analysis of the complexities of violence in performance as well as the performative aspects of real violence. Its high quality and reasonable cost make it an ideal text for a variety of literature, theory, and history courses in theatre and performance studies. Her discussions of violence are imperative and need to be made central to scholarship in theatre and performance. The text might easily be utilized to enhance an undergraduate dramatic analysis course examining the violence in canonical works such as Sophocles’s Oedipus...