Torture and theater: Peas in a pod

May 16, 2012

Torture and theater always have gotten along like two peas in a pod. Take miracle plays, for example, the plays from the High Middle Ages that portray the lives of early Christian saints, with particular emphasis on the gruesome splendors of their martyrdoms. If a saint was skinned alive or spit-roasted over charcoal or vivisected, it gave the Medieval Special Effects Department a chance to shine, and the peasants loved it. From Jesus on down, where would Christianity be without torture?

Shakespeare didn't shy away from torture, either. Just consider old Gloucester having his eyes gouged out in King Lear or Richard II enjoying life in a cesspool—literally—or Lavinia being raped and maimed in Titus Andronicus. And Shakespeare showed tasteful restraint compared to some of his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries.

For these early dramatic authors, there was absolutely no moral ambiguity about torture, which was legal, accepted and understood as something the powerful could and would use if they saw the need. Besides, it made for a good show, encompassing dramatic conflict and lurid physical action as it did.

But contemporary theater also is fascinated by torture, well aware that torture still is practiced by many nations (including our own) and non-governmental forces (you know, rebels and the like) even though torture is outlawed by numerous international agreements as well as the constitutions of most nations staking claim to being "civilized." What fascinates contemporary theater is precisely what Medieval, Elizabethan and Jacobean theater didn't question: the moral ambiguity of it.

This is exactly the territory award-winning journalist-turned-playwright John Conroy has carved out for himself in My Kind of Town, a play based on the ongoing Chicago police torture scandal without actually being either a history play or a documentary drama. Fictionalized from the facts uncovered by Conroy himself more than any other individual, My Kind of Town isn't concerned with the guilt or innocence of Jon Burge or Richard M. Daley, or with the guilt or innocence of the central police torture victim. Rather, it's concerned—as is most contemporary drama about torture—with what kind of person becomes a torturer and who the tortured are, and if torture ever is justified.

In the play, the wife of the accused detective talks about the sort of person who "is basically good" and the sort of person who "is basically evil" and sometimes it isn't as easy as it should be to tell the difference. Take the ambiguity of the colonel in A Few Good Men (the role played by Jack Nicholson in the film version), who sees himself as a patriot and a frontline defender of America's freedom. The detective in Conroy's play sees himself the same way, and so does his wife for a long time.

In generally equal numbers, we have as many plays in which the torturer is vicious as plays in which the tortured is vicious. They reflect real-world situations. Answer this one yourself: Is torture acceptable if it leads to information that saves hundreds or even thousands of lives? Should we uphold statutes against torture and allow terrorism to flourish?

In the last 25 years, some of our most influential playwrights have explored the issues and personalities of torture, among them Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter (One for the Road, 1984), Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden, 1990), Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, 2003) and Sarah Kane (Cleansed, 1998). More immediately, there have been numerous theater works about real-world torture scenarios in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bosnia.

Far beyond the context of theater, torture is an issue that will not go away. Almost everywhere it exists, it happens because higher-ups actively condone it or willfully remain in ignorance about it. Torture simply is not sustainable without complicity, and even theater does not always focus on this fundamental fact, although My Kind of Town makes it a central premise.

To the best of my knowledge, other animals do not torture each other. They attack, maim and kill each other in many ways and for various reasons, but they do not instinctively use pain, or the threat of it, as an instrument of compulsion. Torture, it seems, is found only among the human species, a blessing of sentience and abstract thinking.