Toward a theatre of empathy : violence in the plays of Timberlake Wertenbaker, Sarah Kane, and Marina Carr
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“How and why do we represent violence onstage? This question perennially resurfaces for theatre practitioners and scholars alike. The choices that production teams make when staging violence reflect those teams’ ideological investments and affect spectators’ reception of a given performance. Various Western theatrical forms, from Greek tragedy to Jacobean revenge drama to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, adhere to specific conventions that telegraph the intent and desired impact of their attendant traditions’ representations of violence. In more recent years, as contemporary playwrights have engaged with these traditions, they have adapted or revised their predecessors’ methods of representing violence. This dissertation examines representations of violence in works by three such playwrights: Timberlake Wertenbaker, Sarah Kane, and Marina Carr. These three dramatists—all women and all active on the London stage in the final two decades of the twentieth century—stage violence unflinchingly yet thoughtfully, in ways that merit contemplation of the dramaturgical purposes and implications of such representations. Extant criticism discusses how Wertenbaker, Kane, and Carr each stage violence, but rarely do scholars discuss the three playwrights together. Placing Wertenbaker, Kane, and Carr in conversation, this dissertation argues, reveals common dramaturgical goals that underpin their representations of violence. Each playwright adapts classical source material for contemporary purposes, and in doing so, calls attention to systemic social problems that enable the violence their plays depict. Though the playwrights’ methods of staging violence are unique, they all aim to enable spectator recognition of those systemic social issues through their representations of violence. Moreover, that recognition, as well as the processes of spectatorship that facilitate it, allows spectators to develop empathy for those harmed by systemic injustice—including victims of violence. Reading these playwrights’ works through theories of gender, spectatorship, and empathy, this dissertation articulates a theatrical practice designed to unsettle spectators, yet to do so within a controlled environment that allows for reflection on the circumstances that produce that unsettlement. These processes of unsettlement and reflection create space for the development of an empathy born from the recognition of difference.