Why don’t we see one-on-one violence in scripts much these days? I submit that it is the “suburban white-girl” setting and subject matter that is restricting violence in modern theatre. Qui Nguyen’s plays, Living Dead in Denmark, and She Kills Monsters are examples of what can be done to bring “acceptable” violence back to the stage by making the settings and subject matter supernatural and having strong female protagonists.
Let’s go over the premises of these three plays. First, we have Living Dead in Denmark: an apocalyptic zombie war with Shakespearean protagonists Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Fortinbras as the last line of defense for humanity. Second, She Kills Monsters: Agnes Evans comes across the old Dungeons and Dragons books left behind by her recently deceased sister and gets pulled into a fantasy world that includes, among other things, a quest to save her sister’s soul as well as some psychopathic faeries.
It seems to be taken for granted in modern society that the more a piece of media veers toward fantasy, the likelihood of “acceptable” violence appearing in the text or on the screen increases. It’s when we get into violence that takes place in our time and our modern world that people start getting upset.
Like a variant of the Uncanny Valley, the closer a setting gets to a real-life place, the more we as a society decry violence being depicted in said setting. This would explain all the bad press that video games have been getting since the Columbine shooting. Video games like Grand Theft Auto often take place in either real cities (see, San Andreas) or what are very close facsimiles. It’s really no wonder that parents get upset when a murder takes place in what appears to be a video game version of a street that’s only a block from their own house. It’s too close to reality and people want to keep violence out of their reality as much as possible.
She Kills Monsters is a perfect example of a fantasy setting dictating the tone and expectation of the violence. Since it takes place partially in a Dungeons and Dragons world where weapons are commonplace and gold coins are the most basic form of currency, it becomes perfectly acceptable for the violence to show up. You’d almost be disappointed if it didn’t. The violence is there to communicate the tragically short life of the protagonist’s sister. There’s also something to be said for Nguyen’s writing style taking a slightly more mature, toned down approach. This could be either because of his own life or because of the more tender nature of the play as a whole.
Nguyen is inspired heavily by Joss Whedon’s work, especially Buffy, and especially in Living Dead in Denmark where a couple lines and catchphrases were lifted in such a way as to be an inside joke with the audience. He’s basically the live theatre version of Whedon anyway and it’s evident in his writing style. He also follows Whedon’s example of having very strong female protagonists in most, if not all, of his works. Whedon himself famously replied to several interviewer’s questions of, “Why do you write such strong women characters?” with, “Because you keep asking me that question.” This is yet another example of a condition of acceptable violence as viewed by a modern audience.
In a patriarchal society, women are the underdog. We love to see women succeeding in any form of media, providing they’re not complete bitches, and apparently the greatest victory a woman can have is over a man. I suppose it makes sense, though it seems that even our anti-sexist media is a tad sexist, but I digress. Buffy was notorious for its borderline ridiculous fight sequences, usually pitting the titular Buffy against numerous large male opponents. Living Dead in Denmark, being an homage to Buffy along with a fair few martial arts action films, continues this trend. Juliet, Ophelia, and Lady Macbeth at one point have to team up against their former ally, Fortinbras, who has managed to induce a Hulk-like state of physical prowess in himself, and in a spectacularly long sequence they defeat him, ending the whole thing with an almost gratuitous beheading which causes Fortinbras’ neck to spout blood “for exactly forty-five seconds.” Certainly tells a story, doesn’t it? And the audience goes along with it because they’ve been rooting for the girls the entire time.
So, why do these plays get away with their violence and good reviews? All they’ve got to do is fulfill a couple of conditions. The first, remove the setting from present day reality. Second, make the circumstances and plot supernatural. Finally, we find sympathetic female protagonists in Ophelia, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Agnes. Perfect recipe for violence that will not only avoid bad press, but actually get the audience to support it.
Nguyen, Qui. She Kills Monsters. New York: Samuel French, 2012. Print.
Nguyen, Qui, and William Shakespeare. Living Dead in Denmark. NY NY: Broadway Play, 2008. Print.