Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Theater of the Men: The Violence Men Do

I've spent a couple of weeks now trying to figure out why one particular work at Edinburgh did not work for me.  And it's my "job" to do that. Well ok it's not my day-to-day job...but if I fancy myself a critic than I have a responsibility to go beyond a knee-jerk reaction to a work and really explore what the artist was trying to do and say and give perspective on how that work either succeeds or fails in my opinion. 

We can't escape ourselves when reviewing and we shouldn't entirely.   Perspective, our own cultural backgrounds, our own experiences can inform how a work is read and hopefully illuminate from time to time how a work can strike one person when it doesn't strike another. 

I'm afraid despite examining my feelings, my reactions, what I saw, and how I mentally investigated this show, I did not succeed in really getting to my core issues with it.  And I think because it hit me in a place that was too close to the bone on first view and I could not get any perspective on it after that.

And maybe because of that I should not write something about it.  But it continues to nag and haunt me and not in a "oh great art makes you think" kind of way.  But in an irritating ex-boyfriend way, where he just keeps liking everything you post on Facebook to remind you that he still exists. 

And the fact that it received a tremendous amount of acclaim, without anyone mentioning what I experienced, has also made me feel like I have to provide a dissent.  And my feelings are my feelings.  Even if it's not criticism. And this is not criticism. 

So here's my dissent. 


As an initial premise, I've never seen Chris Goode's work before.  I had heard his name frequently mentioned by many people I respect so I was excited to see a piece by him at Fringe.  He created an intersecting monologue about men dealing with homophobia, suicide, terrorism, anger, and pedophilia called Men in the Cities.  Using his own voice and those of several men around London he builds this monologue about the violence men do to each other and the world, into a final explosive frenzy.

And I walked away feeling nothing.  I think it turns out I was a bit emotionally frozen after seeing it.  I had never felt so isolated and unwelcome in a theater space before.  It was as if I'd stumbled into some boys' club.  I almost looked for a sign on the outside of the Traverse Theatre that said:  GIRLS KEEP OUT.

And this is a bit laughable to me because it feels like every day of my life I've lived inside a boy's club knowing I wasn't wholly welcome.  I went to film school where women were decidedly the minority.  I worked in a New York law firm where women leave the field year after year so that we have to have momentous "ladies lunches" to celebrate making ANOTHER female partner--in the 100 year history of the firm, at that point there were 6.  

But Goode's piece was a boys' club of a different sort.  As Goode's piece went on, the build up of male confusion, frustration, and predation just flicked a switch for me.  It was not a switch of rage, but of massive disconnection. 

When I left, I had a visceral reaction of "I don't care about your problems, men" which is probably the most misandrist reaction I've ever had to any piece of theater before.  I just wanted to shove my way out of the theater and never have to go back to a place like that again.  I was startled by my own feelings and as you do in Edinburgh I raced to a number of other shows, and filed my feelings away in the "wow that was a poor choice of shows to see" file and moved on.  Except everyone kept asking me, "What did you think of Men in the Cities?"  Finally I had to admit I did not like it. 

And I'm still struggling through my feelings as to why. 

Maybe the issue was I was not invited to the table.

There were moments I should have been able to connect to in this play.  I relate to the struggles between fathers and sons, and the destructive forces of parents' expectations and gendered stereotypes and what violence that can do to children.  I had an uber-masculine father with clear ideas of gender roles and he imparted a very strict regime of what he thought was acceptable male behavior and what was not. And those ideas were outrageous and homophobic and destructive and unacceptable.  Yet for all that experience, the work made me feel like I was being shamed for even being there.  That this was UNKNOWABLE to women.  That this was the secret realm of men.  And that this was using a language or a dialect that was intentionally meant for me not to be able to understand. Each time I attempted to connect, the work seemed determined to push me out again.

Not every play has to be something you connect to.  I've started to feel like we try too hard to argue for universality in giving work validity.  Not every play should in fact be tagged with the label, "oh it's the universal human experience, the character just happens to be gay...black...Asian...a woman."  Sometimes those works should in fact be very specific stories of very specific experiences and to sweep it all under the "universal" rug does a disservice to our culture and to conversation.  And your personal relation to it is not necessarily a measure of that work's worth.  

I want to be taken to places and stories and experiences that are outside my realm.  I heard an openly gay African-American writer-director at a talkback say that gay men are not taught how to handle rejection.  Men aren't taught how to handle rejection and that informed the character he was writing and the violent fantasy the character had dreamed up in revenge having been rejected by another man.  I appreciated hearing that perspective (albeit outside the script of the play) because it did shed light on something outside my personal experience and not something "universal" (putting aside the idea that we all get rejected but how men emotionally process rejection might be something very different and how they process it with each other might be something else entirely).  But in that play, I felt invited to look in on the character as he made these choices.  The writer was anxious to surprise the audience with a world that was not their own.  But the whole endeavor was open.  Men in the Cities never felt that open. 

Maybe the issue was male violence.

Maybe a show about how men are a destructive force in society isn't something I need to be reminded of.  As a woman existing in a patriarchal society, this feels like my everyday life.  We're the victims of male violence.  We're the objects of the male gaze.  We're the ones men expose themselves to in the subway.  We're the ones fondled and touched against our wishes.  Our lives are dictated by men in ways we cannot even fathom sometimes.  And men dictate the behavior of other men.  And we keep fighting to exist, to just use our voices, to protest, complain, disagree, and exist on terms that are equal with men, and in this work it felt as if you don't want me to exist at all.  Am I merely the doll's head you crush, the vixen fox screaming as she's being fucked?  These were the "female" representations offered in the play. What place do I have in this world of yours?  I'm not even human in this story.   

I'm not sure any of the victims of violence got a place in the story. Maybe they all felt like objects to me--even the men who had been hurt, attacked, and violated by other men.   

I wish I had grabbed a copy of the script so I could tell you exactly how the violence, victims, and violent characters were portrayed and at what point and in what way that portrayal was a problem for me, but I did not want to spend another minute in that space, in that world.  I'm seriously lacking in critical "evidence" here and I'm painfully aware of that.  

But I will say, seeing a show about Ted Bundy was 2000% less disturbing and problematic in its approach, subject matter, and perspective. 

After hearing there had been some controversy in London over the musical Dogfight and the work was being labeled with a misogynistic brush (which I wholeheartedly do not believe the underlying work does--though I can't comment on the London production which I have not seen), I found it interesting that a critic went back to see it again to give it another look with that concern in mind.  We should be open to examination our biases and our blindness to things.  And there's a part of me that wishes I could stomach going to see Men in the Cities again to figure out why this felt the way it did to me. But I'll tell you, this show felt like an assault to me and I don't want to relive that.

I don't know what Chris Goode's intent was.  But somehow this show made me feel less than.  It made me feel invisible.   I wondered if it was just me.  But after talking with some other women who disliked the work (with claims of being either really bored because they didn't relate to it or feeling outright misogyny and hatred in the material) I don't think it's just me.  

I did not need to see this show.  And that's the first time I have ever said that.

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