Fitzpatrick, Lisa, Rape on the Contemporary Stage

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Rape on the Contemporary Stage, by Lisa Fitzpatrick. Cham, Switzerland

María Estrada-Fuentes. Guest Lecturer, University of Amsterdam


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Rape on the Contemporary Stage, by Lisa Fitzpatrick. Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, Series: Contemporary Performance InterActions, 2018, 281pp, ISBN 978-3-319-70845-4 (e-book); ISBN 978-3-319-70844-7 (hardcover)Rape on the Contemporary Stage examines a broad range of cultural representations of sexual and gendered violence, with a focus ‘on the Western Anglophone stage over the past three decades’.1 Using the representation of rape on stage as point of departure, Lisa Fitzpatrick conducts an impressive and thorough analysis of the role of theatrical strategies in developing a better understanding of the interplay among rape-myths, the materialisation of the gendered body, and social and cultural constructions of victimhood in relation to sexual and gendered violence. In this study, the representation of rape on stage is explored in its metaphorical, allegorical and explicit forms. The benefits and limitations of the strategies employed by playwrights and directors are discussed against theoretical frameworks of systemic and symbolic violence, eroticism and vulnerability, international law, semiotics and social activism. Drawing heavily on Sharon Marcus’ notion of ‘rape script’,2 Fitzpatrick builds a persuasive argument that places theatre at the centre of legal, theoretical and political discussions around subjectivity, rape prevention, witness credibility and the difficulties of expressing bodily experiences in verbal language. These are all critical elements in the examination of gendered and sexual violence on a global scale.3

Fitzpatrick’s discussion of violence is heavily informed by Slavoj Žižek’s and Simone Weil’s theorisations of violence and force, respectively.4 Throughout the book the violence of rape is examined as subjective—‘recognizable, interpersonal actions performed by an agent against another or others’5—and systemic, therefore drawing attention to gendered relationships and power structures that shape everyday life.6 Building on feminist analyses of rape, Fitzpatrick emphasises the importance of understanding rape as a form of symbolic violence as well, one that manifests in the use of language and determines ways of being. The author highlights how theatrical strategies make visible the symbolic violence that makes rape possible.

Fitzpatrick argues that historically, the conflation of female sexuality and desire with physical vulnerability, and cultural beliefs of female masochism and sexual passivity have presented significant challenges when signifying sexual violence on stage. These elements are carefully explored by the author in an impressive range of case studies, alongside recurring concerns among playwrights, directors and actors about the risks of eroticizing violence, and the broad range of strategies that they employ to tackle this challenge. Fitzpatrick conducts a thorough historical survey of feminist approaches to representations of rape on stage, and departs from the existing scholarship, addressing gendered and sexual violence in performance by focusing on the contemporary stage. Her detailed analysis advances a broad theorisation of the representation of violence through performance and its relation to social activism. Her case studies range from contemporary theatre and film adaptations of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888), Eve Lewis’ Ficky Stingers (1986) to Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl (2006). Besides European and British examples, Fitzpatrick includes a few works from non-European artists such as Maya Rao’s Walk (2012) and Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya (2013).

Fitzpatrick provides a detailed examination of the relationship between rape on stage and rape myths, and the broad plurality of responses to rape. She discusses these issues both in terms of the subjects who are victimised, and in relation to their social and political contexts. In this respect she explores the ways in which theatrical strategies foreground issues of consent, witness character and credibility, acquaintance rape7 and its discrepancies with widely held cultural beliefs and legal understandings of rape as a violent attack by a stranger. She also tackles normative conceptions of gender and power, scientific discourses on mental health and sexuality, victim blaming and accountability, and the interplay between language (or the lack thereof) and embodiment in survivors’ narratives. Additionally, Fitzpatrick engages with various conflict and post-conflict contexts (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, South Africa) to discuss the implications of the metaphorical uses of rape both on stage and as a war strategy. She examines the physical and emotional legacies of rape, and illuminates the gendered codes and cultural underpinnings that give violence sustained impetus.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Fitzpatrick’s study is her discussion of vulnerability and affect in relation to representations of sexual violence. Fitzpatrick builds on conceptualisations of vulnerability as an ontological quality of human existence8 to establish links between a politics of recognition of shared vulnerability, and its implications for an affective approach to audience reception of representations and real-life experiences of sexual violence. She argues that normative understandings of vulnerability, especially in relationship to the encoding of gendered bodies, frame certain bodies ‘as less valuable and more disposable than others’, and therefore available to harm.9 By discussing strategies that explore violence through the explicit representation of corporeal vulnerability to pain and suffering, and drawing on theatrical strategies which employ dance and choreography or objects to illustrate the dehumanisation of the victimised bodies, Fitzpatrick demonstrates how an emphasis on vulnerability produces an affective engagement in the audience that demands recognition. In this regard, the author discusses explicit representations of male rape in order to advance her discussion of vulnerability and affective audience-engagement. She conducts a detailed analysis of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain (1980), Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995), and Cleansed (1998). In terms of choreography and the use of objects to depict the dehumanising dimensions of violence, Fitzpatrick draws on Fabulous Beast’s adaptation of Giselle (2003) and Lara Foot Newton’s Tshepang (2005) among others. She outlines productive ways in which theatre could actively engage with anti-rape activism, and address the necessary critical departure from focusing on the victims and survivors of sexual violence, in order to respond to the broader structural dimensions that enable violence, and thus advance new mechanisms to prevent and recognise its effects.

In conclusion, Rape on the Contemporary Stage provides an impressive analysis of the strategies employed by a broad range of playwrights and directors to address the cultural, political and social dimensions of sexual and gendered violence. Fitzpatrick’s analysis provides a nuanced and sophisticated approach to the ethical considerations of representation of sexual violence, and refuses to place the embodied and emotional legacies of these experiences within specific bodies. Instead, she proposes a substantial shift in how we engage with the pain of others.

1. Lisa Fitzpatrick, Rape on the Contemporary Stage, Contemporary Performance Interactions (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 2.

2. Fitzpatrick writes on Marcus: ‘Her argument particularly identifies discourses that demand submission and an eagerness to please on the part of women, which can impede attempts at self-defence. She argues that both victim and aggressor perform variants of traditional gender roles, which are socially scripted, and that these “scripts” render up vignettes of male–female interactions and the power relationships that are often invisible beneath them.’ ibid., 12.

3. Sharon Marcus, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and J.W. Scott (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

4. Slavoj Žižek’s, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008); Simone Weil, The Iliad or the Poem of Force, trans. James P. Holoka (New York: Peter Lang, 2003).

5. Fitzpatrick, Rape on the Contemporary Stage, 29.

6. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will (London: Penguin, 1975); Fitzpatrick, Rape on the Contemporary Stage, 3.

7. Rape conducted by someone known to the victim, such as a close relative or a friend.

8. She draws heavily on Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable (London ; New York: Verso, 2010), Erinn Gilson, “Vulnerability, Ignorance and Oppression,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011), Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), Ann V. Murphy, Violence and the Philosophical Imaginary (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

9. Fitzpatrick, Rape on the Contemporary Stage, 181.

Work cited

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will.  London: Penguin, 1975.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable.  London and New York: Verso, 2010.

Cavarero, Adriana. Horrorism.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Fitzpatrick, Lisa. Rape on the Contemporary Stage. Contemporary Performance Interactions.  Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Gilson, Erinn. “Vulnerability, Ignorance and Oppression.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 308-32.

Marcus, Sharon. “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention.” In Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and J.W. Scott, 385-403. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Murphy, Ann V. Violence and the Philosophical Imaginary.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.

Solga, Kim. Violence against Women in Early Modern Performance : Invisible Acts.  Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Translated by James P. Holoka.  New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence.  London: Profile Books, 2008.