First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee explores how Australian plays portray violence against women
I regretted choosing to write about this topic. During my research, I buried myself in some heavy content. It just made me feel sad about the state of the world, about how these staged stories reflect horrors we see the news or in our social media feeds. I found myself wondering if theatre is really supposed to be an escape from this stuff.
But no, that’s too easy. If things are to change, we need to hear the stories, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.
Recently, I’ve been wondering if the white Eurocentric traditions of representing violence against women on stage, even with the best of intentions, give this topic the integrity, respect and seriousness it deserves. Are theatre makers trying to educate us, exploring what can happen to women at the hands of entitled, violent men, or are they choosing to use dead women as kind of shock aesthetic for their stories?
Crimes against women have been used as a way to indicate men’s brutality since the Greek tragedies. Crime novelists like Patricia Cornwell and Mo Hayder are no strangers to projecting images of dead and mutilated women onto our brains. We see it constantly in our films, leading feminist critic like So Mayer to declare that “Cinema is a rape machine”[i].
Shakespeare’s a big fan of violence against women: Ophelia takes her own life as response to Hamlet’s torments; Desdemona dies at the hands of the man she loves, because a white bloke injected her black lover with some serious imposter syndrome; and let’s not forget Imogen from Cymbeline and Hero from Much Ado about Nothing, shunned and threatened with death because of something some other guy said to their partners.
This trope is a constant in patriarchal traditions, and is a close companion to colonialism. The men invading foreign countries for centuries also invaded women’s bodies. And these colonial traits have shaped our societies, our way of life, and, naturally, the way we tell stories. If our entertainments represent women primarily as objects of rape and murder, are people left more woke? Or are they desensitized?
This year, because of working with Witness, I have been thinking about theatre in a new way. I’m seeing more of it, and I’m becoming aware of things I wouldn’t normally notice. Women are absolutely dominating stages this year. And seeing their work at a time of some high profile crimes, when many Melburnian women are feeling vulnerable, is empowering. Seeing strong female characters refusing to be victims reminds me that we can be stronger, that we are more than just prey, that violence against us isn’t our fault.
But here’s the rub. We don’t live in those theatres. Real women still die in the real world. Female performers, as the #metoo movement shows, aren’t even safe in their workplace. Does showing this violence on stage really really help women to feel a little more sure, does it make men more woke about the state of this fucked-up world we’re living in?
“..Violence tells us things about the culture that produced it: the kinds of power relationships on which it is built, the attitudes and values that it takes for granted. A representation of violence can reiterate or it can challenge existing social structures.”[ii]
Recently I saw OpticNerve’s production of Polygraph by Robert Lepage and Marie Brassard. It’s a story about two men haunted by the memories of dead women (it’s never explicitly stated whether either of them were responsible for their deaths). One of these dead women is based on a real-life murder case in Quebec City in which a local actor was raped and killed. Those who knew her (including Lepage) were subjected to polygraph tests.[iii]
The dead women are the main device for the character development of the men, but they also project their obsessions onto their mutual female friend. Throughout the play, all that we see of this woman is the roles that men demand she play: sexual partner, dead girl, victim. All the woman wants is to be taken seriously. The trope of the dead women existing only to illuminate aspects of male characters is a tedious cliche. The play was saved by the actor who played the only female character: she railed against the text, reminding me that although characters might be written a certain way, creators and interpreters can shift these cautionary tales of brutality into something beyond the simple idea of woman as victim.
Gordon Graham’s 1991 play The Boys is another example of a show that revolves around a woman’s murder. The brutal 1986 rape and murder of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby was still fresh in people’s minds, and the similarities to her murder made The Boys a controversial production. Cobby was killed by five men, including three brothers, who raped, tortured and murdered her, then dumped her body in a farmer’s field, where she was found two days later, while The Boys is a play about three brothers who commit a rape and murder.
Graham initially denied that he was writing about Cobby, but finally admitted that the play was prompted by the murder. “[It draws] not so much from the details of the murder but the public reaction to it,” he said. ‘I was fascinated by the way it gripped people who wanted to understand how and why this could happen.’[iv] This questioning is expressed by the women characters, the boys’ mother, and their partners, who wonder about the men’s secrecy and are shocked when they find out what they’ve done. The Boys is a well-written play, and it certainly does illustrate the aftershocks that senseless crimes like these can leave behind, and this creates the unique view from the perpetrator’s families, as opposed to the victim’s. However, it feels as though this domestic lens into the lives of these men potentially detracts from the big picture itself: the woman whose right to her own body, and her life, have been taken away.
Another play that looks at the pack mentality of toxic masculinity is Patricia Cornelius’ Savages, in which a group of men on holiday drug and gangrape a woman on a cruise ship. This play is far less sympathetic to the perpetrators, and much more matter-of-fact in how it portrays the way men reinforce each other’s entitlement and egg each other on. There is no woman on stage as illustration, and the violence is suggested by the relationships between the men.
Like The Boys, Patricia Cornelius’s Slut borrows from a real-life incident in a masterful way. Cornelius was inspired to write it after the 2007 Melbourne CBD shootings where a bystander went to assist a woman who was being assaulted. In Slut, we meet a character named Lolita and view her at various stages of her life. Alongside a chorus of women who guide us through her experiences, we witness all that happens to her, including a gang rape at a party. An all-female cast tells the story of an ill-fated woman, revealing the ways her friends could have helped her, but didn’t, culminating in the events in the Melbourne CBD.
Cornelius’ motivations for writing this story were more than just a voyeuristic fascination at a world outraged and alarmed by crime: she wanted to humanise a woman who was being demeaned by the media which erased the fact that she was also a victim. “The media talked about her as if she was complicit in the crime, and I was struck by how backward it was,” Cornelius says. “Instead of calling her a ‘slut’, they called her a ‘party girl’, the inference being that she sort of asked for it.”[v]
Representation of Violence Against Female Sex Workers in Theatre
Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs begins in a morgue. A coroner (Steve Le Marquand) inspects the corpse of a sex worker on a steel gurney (played by Peta Brady) who was murdered by a client. The ghost of the worker rises and starts to talk.[vi]
was a controversial production, not because of the white middle-class clutching their pearls at the thought of sex workers being human beings, but because Brady had potentially compromised a confidential source of safety for sex workers, a closed publication called Ugly Mugs, by describing how it worked and even naming the play after it. The “Ugly Mugs List” is created by the former Prostitutes Collective of Victoria in 1986 to inform sex workers about abusive clients.[vii]
In an interview with Jane Green, an advocate for sex workers, academic Leslie Barns said the representation of sex workers in the play was problematic, exploiting a voyeuristic grief porn narrative. Sex workers in Sydney felt this way as well. In the final days Ugly Mugs at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney, patrons leaving the theatre encountered protesting sex workers, who handed them leaflets headlined “We Hope Our ‘Lives’ Entertained You”.[viii]
“Sex workers themselves have taken a different stance, raising important questions about the play’s appropriation of authentic narratives and, in turn, the double victimisation of an already marginalised community.”[ix]
This is something I can definitely relate to, because this has been something I’ve found in my research about the representations of First Nations stories. Too often there needs to be some kind of death or trauma happening to us on stages before some audiences can find a way to empathise with us. The mistake that people make is to define First Nations people by the actions of white men. The brutality of this colonial other becomes constitutive of who we are, a representation that’s just another extension of the initial invasion.
When asked if she would have gone about creating Ugly Mugs differently, director Marion Potts said that she would. “I would have done more to encourage these particular members of Vixens Collective and the Scarlet Alliance to see the show and contribute, in the hope that we could make a coordinated approach,” she says. “It feels like an opportunity has been missed to work together for what I see, after all, as a common goal.”[x]
It’s a shame that Ugly Mugs was written and received the way it was, because it was clearly made with the best intentions. However, the story ended up violating the people it represented. A story of an almost as ill-fated sex worker by Patricia Cornelius, the character of Annie in the play Love, was insightful without delving into victimization or adhering to stereotypes. Annie is a queer sex worker who works to support a drug habit for herself and her two abusive lovers, Tanya and Lorenzo.
This representation was complex and in no way undermined the autonomy of the women: it illustrated that women can be as culpable as men when it comes to accountability of abuse of the ones they love. The fact that Annie was strong enough to leave spoke volumes, too. We need to remember that stories like these are illustrating extreme circumstances. That sex workers aren’t victims needing to be saved, these are women working in a job like any other, and they’re not needing to be saved, or are working for a doomed existence. They are entitled to the same respect as any other woman, and we’re needing more stories on stages to reflect this fact.
Representations of Assault and Abuse Against Indigenous Women
The common misconception that sexual abuse is the fault of the victim is called into questions by plays like Love. Likewise, Nora in Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day lets a customer Goundry have sex with her for free, in order to avoid the rape of her Aboriginal daughter Obedience. Her chilling monologue afterwards suggests that taking what he wanted will result in an eventual revenge that he didn’t bargain for:
NORA: You might think that you’ve had your way, mister. But when you take a piece of Nora you get more than you bargained for. A little something that will one day make you scream in the night.[xi]
Unfortunately, later in the play Holy Day, Obedience is eventually found and raped by the play’s villain, but not before she delivers a gut-wrenching monologue. She paints a picture of the needless murder of her people at the hands of the race who would snatch her up, assault her and cut out her tongue, silencing her as they have done all of us.
The violence against Indigenous women in Holy Day is not without problems, and some blackfellas I’ve spoken to have had issue with it because the only Indigenous characters in the play are women who are doomed to mistreatment. Linda, an older Aboriginal woman, is captured, beaten, chained to a tree, and eventually hangs herself, and the oppressed Obedience spends the whole play dodging rape attempts from a savage white man, only to end up a broken, personification of the Great Australian Silence[xii] at the close of the play.
The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table by Wesley Enoch is a turbulent family drama that illustrates the tension between Annie and her son Nathan when he tries to discover the identity of his father. It‘s revealed that Nathan is the product of a rape when Annie was 13 by her own uncle, which resulted in her being shunned by her own mother. At the end of the play, Annie and Nathan make the conscious decision to hang onto their heritage, their family’s Dreaming from before this crime: they decide to rebuild their family together, to allow themselves a place of belonging.
Tammy Anderson’s I Don’t Wanna Play House is an act of taking back her story and her identity, through telling how she overcame childhood traumas and domestic abusive relationships, and becoming successful despite the struggles she has endured. These are stories we need. As Indigenous women in this world, faced with the intersection of racial discrimination and gender-based discrimination and violence, we have no use for stories of women without some kind of scar on their soul, because we all have them. We don’t need stories of women who have fallen at the hands of men because they were beaten down: we need stories of women who were able to get up and fight, no matter how small or big the battle, despite these acts.
A more recent example of a harrowing tale of an Indigenous woman overcoming adversity at the hands of violent men is Leah Purcell’s Drover’s Wife, a reimagining of The Drover’s Wife. The Drover’s Wife, Molly, is a character in denial about her Aboriginality. In a devastating scene, two white men – her absent husband’s friends – try to capture her Indigenous friend and protector Yadaka. The Drover’s Wife is knocked unconscious during the scuffle, and is raped in front of her friend. After hanging Yadaka, the men exit.
The Drover’s Wife comes to, wipes semen from her body, and then addresses the body of Yadaka. She tells him that her husband beats her because he always suspected her Aboriginality. Her son Danny enters and tells her that her other children have been taken by the authorities. The Drover’s Wife takes her son to get her children back, and this is where the play ends. However, before the end of the play, Danny reveals he knows what really happened to his father, and it’s here that the Drover’s Wife’s bitter victory as mother and survivor is revealed:
DANNY: He was comin’ to kill ya. ‘For shamin’ me manhood in front of a whore!’
Not a very happy night for me birthday …
You wanted somethin’ special … family together … before Da left for the drove …
The shard comin’ for ya, at ya throat.
Single shot, straight between the eyes, small trickle of blood … dropped … dead.
Like the bullock …
You forgot to sweep that night, saw the tracks to the woodheap …
She can’t look at him.
She still can’t look at him.
DROVER’S WIFE: Yes, son.
DANNY: Ma, I won’t ever go a’drovin’.
She looks at him
He hugs his mum; they fight back their emotion. They hold each other like this is all they have in the world, and it is.[xiii]
What purpose do these stories serve on Australian stages? Are we learning anything?
When it comes to presenting violence of any kind on a stage, we need to ask ourselves as artists if we are the ones who should be telling this story. It shouldn’t be at the expense of the people the play is representing. Cornelius consistently writes characters who the middle class might never encounter, but still illustrates the humanity in them without compromising their integrity as human beings.
“Sex workers who saw the play (Ugly Mugs) in Melbourne were disturbed by the scene where “Working Girl” attends her own autopsy. They were also outraged to see a character read from the “Ugly Mugs” on stage. One sex worker from Sydney described it as “just another dead hooker on a slab” and was “glad to be near an exit”. Many have complained that the autopsy scene in particular caused them a great deal of distress.”[xiv] – Leslie Barns
Yes, plays can inform and spread awareness. But are we glorifying these acts of violence with a “boys will be boys” mentality, or even falling into the trap of indirect victim-blaming? Although I was hoping to have a definitive answer at the end of writing this, I’m still wondering how we can tell stories of violence against women in a way that has integrity and honesty, and which genuinely results in audiences reassessing how they conduct themselves. How do we get people to think again about their subconscious judgments?
In a country where women of many ethnicities are murdered, why does the media only offer up the death of white middle-class women like a blood sacrifice to begin the conversations about male violence that we need to have right now? The fact remains that these huge outpourings of public outrage seldom happen when the woman who dies is not white. When a woman of another ethnicity is killed, it becomes about her race or socio-economic background, an excuse to further marginalise her.
That’s if her death is acknowledged at all.
[i]Mourning and Mannahatta by So Mayer, 24 October 2017 https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3455-mourning-and-mannahatta
[ii] Lucy Nevitt, Theatre and Violence, Theatre& Series, Palgrave, 2013
[v]PATRICIA CORNELIUS ON SLUT-SHAMING AND GENDER INEQUITY IN THEATRE: ‘IT’S PATHETIC’, by Ben Neutze
October 5, 2016 https://dailyreview.com.au/patricia-cornelius-slut-shaming-gender-inequity-theatre-pathetic/50034/
[vi]Review: Ugly Mugs explores harrowing realities of sex work by Cameron Woodhead, 21 May 2014
Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/review-ugly-mugs-explores-harrowing-realities-of-sex-work-20140522-zrkc4.html
[vii] Ugly Mugs: ‘an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy’ by Leslie Barns. August 19, 2014, The ConversationUgly Mugs: ‘an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy’ by Leslie Barns. August 19, 2014, The Conversation
[ix] Ugly Mugs: ‘an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy’ by Leslie Barns. August 19, 2014, The ConversationUgly Mugs: ‘an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy’ by Leslie Barns. August 19, 2014, The Conversation
[x] Sex workers and theatre community remain at odds over Ugly Mugs
Alison Croggon and Jane Green, ABC
[xi] Scene 3, Page 12, Holy Day, Andrew Bovell, Currency Press, 2001
[xii] “It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”
– Excerpt from 1968 Broadcasting Commission’s Boyer Lecture The Great Australian Silence by W.E.H Stanner
[xiii] Excerpt from The Drover’s Wife, by Leah Purcell, Currency Press, 2016. Page 52 -53
[xiv] Ugly Mugs: ‘an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy’ by Leslie Barns. August 19, 2014, The Conversation