Thursday, December 4, 2008

Briefly, Blasted

This production left me with, appropriately, aggressive feelings. To be blunt: I hated it. But to be brief, I left more apathetic than assaulted, and it was the hypocritical arrogance of the critics that has sent me into an almost uncontrollable fury.

Simon Kane, in Mark Blankenship’s preview article of Blasted, alluded to The Dark Knight as an example of the modern mindless violence that we are all over-exposed to. Not Hostile, not Saw I – V, not the evening news. BATMAN. Blasted, according to Simon Kane, is the work of art that is intended to “resensitize” us to the violence of the world that Batman has so frivolously stolen from us. But I question this notion of “resensitization,” as I do not believe cramming horrific violence without any discernible thread of a plot down our throats in a space associated with high art and intellectualism is helping the matter in the slightest – especially as I sit in the back row watching the entire audience lurch forward each time the lights pop up again in a frantic search for the next graphic atrocity. What does this play really say about our cravings as a culture? I suggest a look at Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues, where a dilapidated country uses the world's lust for violence to pull themselves out of third-world status. I am equally put to an alarming state of unease when Ben Brantley admits to empathizing with these abominable characters. There is an abundance of plays with rich plot and relatable characters by excellent and important writers today that some people, like Charles Isherwood in his review of Blasted, seem to want to gloss over (like Martin McDonah or Tracey Letts – whom, Isherwood seems to have forgotten, wrote August: Osage County) in favor of out-and-out violence that they can defend because it is in the high-class locale of the theater – a place not yet squelched by gobs of buttery popcorn or easily expended as background noise to making dinner.

And then, in that same article, Isherwood went on to claim Beverly Hills Chihuahua as worthwhile “escapism.” Of course, I could perhaps be speaking too soon – I admit I have not seen Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But have you?

(However, despite all my feelings here, it needs must be said - because all the articles I have read, for some strange reason, managed to bypass this little tidbit: GO SARAH BENSON, BROOKLYN COLLEGE ALUM!)


Joshua said...

Firstly, I find it wrong to misconstrue Simon's statement as such. To criticize him for naming Batman as an example of society's de-sensitivity in one sentence of a full-page article in which he is attributed five sentences (that were probably lifted from an entire interview) is categorically unfair. We can all agree that Hostel, Saw, and every movie that Quentin Tarantino has made, are all legitimate examples. There is something to be said for naming Batman though, given its long-standing and worldwide following that has watched its portrayal of violence degenerate from "POW" and "BANG" to an incredible marathon of ever-more realistic violence.

Secondly, you have done the work for me and disproved your own point. The mere fact that the audience was "lurch[ing] forward [...] in a frantic search for the next graphic atrocity" proves that in some way the play achieves its goal of re-sensitizing the audience. When was the last time you were in a movie theater and someone reacted that way? Or the last time someone was genuinely disgusted by yet another news story relaying the horrible death of an 8-year old child hit by a stray bullet or (more applicable to this play) the atrocities perpetrated on a daily basis as part of any one of the dozens of wars that are being fought this very second all over the world? I cannot recall the last time I heard of someone passing out or throwing up from watching the news, can you?

Next, how can you say that ‘Blasted’ is nothing more than wanton violence and in the same sentence praise the artistic merit of McDonagh? McDonagh is akin to the Tarantino of theatre in that while artistic merit can be attributed to both of them, a mainstay of everything they make is massive amounts of blood. The difference between something like ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ and ‘Blasted’ is that, while in the latter the violence seeks a higher purpose, the gore in the former serves only to enhance the dark humour that McDonagh possesses. If anything your assertion should be reversed unless you can explain to me how the closing scene of ‘Inishmore’ (in which the stage and actors are literally bathed in blood and the two main characters, one of whom is a teenage boy, are sawing into pieces the bodies of the three men (one of whom has a makeshift cross staked through his head) that were just shot in the preceding scene) demonstrates a “rich plot and relatable characters.”

The mere fact that you are still so incensed by the play a month after you saw it aids its cause. I saw ‘August: Osage County’ and ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ and they were both good plays, but I talked about them for only a couple days afterwards. They left me with nothing to think about, nothing to get upset about. In short, while both are incredibly well written and were staged impeccably, they are entertainment. They posit no social commentary nor do they illuminate any fatal flaw in our society as a whole. McDonagh uses violence and gore for little more than a vehicle with which to deliver his humour. One only need watch ‘In Bruges’ for further illustration of my point.

You accuse the critics that praised ‘Blasted’ (of which the list is a veritable Who’s-who of theatre criticism) of being hypocritically arrogant but have provided no proof save for a quote in which Isherwood calls ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ “escapism.” I hate to be the one to tell you, but a movie like ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ is the epitome of escapism. Escapism is defined as “The tendency to seek, or the practice of seeking, distraction from what normally has to be endured (OED)”. A movie in which the spectator can do nothing but be entertained, without having to think about their everyday problems is escapism, and you cannot say that movies like ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ have any alternate or higher purpose.

Clearly you are not a fan of the ‘Theatre of Brutality’/’Sperm and Blood’ movement, which is fine, it is not for everyone. However, I feel that to accuse ‘Blasted’ of being nothing more than “horrific violence without any discernible thread of a plot” is nothing more than a case of fearing that which is unknown and different. If anything, the play is classical in the explication of its plot in that there is a clear exposition (the scenes in the hotel room), followed by an inciting incident (the entrance of the soldier or the rape of Kate depending on your opinion), followed by a series of complications (war breaking out, explosion, Ian’s rape and blinding, Kate’s return, etc.), then the climax (Ian crawling into the hole to die), then the denouement (Kate’s second return with food, etc.). The play was written in relation to the conflict in Bosnia, but that only serves to provide context. The play centers around the parallel between an isolated domestic horror (the rape of Kate by Ian) and the unseen horrors of war and the idea that violence begets violence. The soldier enters and tells Ian how an anonymous ‘they’ raped his girlfriend, sodomized her with a gun, ate out her eyeballs, and killed her. This act, while still horrific, is distant and unrelatable, which is further reinforced by the soldier’s generic and nonspecific accent and ethnicity. When the soldier then recreates these same acts in front of the audience, they suddenly take on a new immediacy that can no longer be ignored. The subsequent break down of the play into a series of vignettes depicting the most basic human actions (laughing, crying, defecating, sleeping, etc.) serves to illustrate the point that war is not a nameless, faceless autonomous event. It involves real human beings with the same needs as you or I. In the end when Kate, after all that she has endured (from Ian and the war) shares the food that she traded her body for with Ian is a shining example of the kindness and compassion that exists within everyone. This final moment of hope is achieved, not through ignoring what has happened or, in the specific case of the play, covering ones eyes or leaving early, but through acknowledging and overcoming all that which has been endured and still finding that goodness is possible in the face of terrible evil.

My final thought on the issue is that, regardless of artistic merit (because the “What is art?” question can be debated indefinitely), SoHo Rep and ‘Blasted’ have brought attention to downtown theatre on a scale that has not existed in recent memory. People, who would otherwise have never set foot in a theater south of 40th Street, have ventured to a nondescript building somewhere in the vague boundary between SoHo and TriBeCa. Money that would otherwise have gone elsewhere is now being poured into the downtown theatre scene. Despite your feelings on the play, isn’t that a good thing?

Collin said...


While I did not get to this point explicitly, one of the problems I see with the critics in their own comparison between Kane and McDonah / Letts is that they are working in two different veins. Isherwood glosses over this fact by claiming Kane, with 'Blasted', is working in "the realm of the real" while never attributing a "style" to McDonah and/or Letts, but merely saying the reality of their violence is glossed over through humor. I find this "style" far more frightening, and the ideas their plays present (because they do present ideas) hit a bit harder because I have a personal connection and investment in the characters. And is not the classically coined (albeit lacking title) "tragicomedy" the most real of all? The beauty of the work they do in the theater is their humanity - no matter how starkly atrocious. I found no grappling with the human condition in 'Blasted;' the scenarios were contrived, none of which I could connect or relate to, and therefore it spoke nothing to me of my own humanity or morality. That is why the critic's reactions upset me, and even, in the case of Ben Brantley, scared me.

Now, Simon Kane's comment. I mentioned it because Batman, or more specifically "the latest batman film," is filled with rich insight into notions of what morality means. To insinuate that this film was a "marathon of ever-more realistic violence" and nothing more is exactly why I take up issue with 'Blasted' and thus Simon Kane's comment.

As far as the reactions I witnessed, I have indeed seen them elsewhere, constantly, in numerous settings. The problem, though, is that same one of comparing Kane's work to that of Letts or McDonah: different situations illicit different reactions. So because this play is garnering major, very specific reactions, it is obviously "doing" something, and in this day and age, "doing" something is generally construed as a good thing (no matter what those reactions may be). But considering the context, as I said before, we may want to reconsider calling this "resensitization."

You call my list of critics I here assessed “a veritable Who’s-who of theater criticism,” which drags out something I was subtly scrutinizing. All three of those I commented on write for the New York Times. Every other article on ‘Blasted’ I read either heavily quoted or blatantly plagiarized one of the three. I feel very strongly that this should not be our only source of theatrical commentary (let alone influential theatrical commentary).

And this, of course, goes back to the very reason The Monthly Manifesto was started, which I cannot thank you enough for reading and participating in discussion and debate. No matter what we may think, as long as we are thinking and willing to engage, we are fostering a healthier theatrical community. Thank You.