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Watching black comedy after 9-11

By Richard Stanton - posted Friday, 24 June 2005

Theatre is no longer a popular form of entertainment. Fewer people attended plays in the whole of the Western world than attended the cinematic opening night of Star Wars, Episode Three. Cinema has changed the nature of entertainment to the extent that we pay to become a movie audience so that we can avoid reality. We go to the theatre also to be entertained, but less frequently (ticket price differentials aside) and with additional personal requirements. Cinema provides us with a distraction. Theatre provides us with a connection.

Going to a play is today, all about the play, rather than both the play and the audience as it was in Marlowe’s England. So I was surprised to find myself observing the audiences of plays in Sydney and New York recently as keenly as I observed the content. During a performance of Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers in Sydney, I was surprised by the reaction of a couple of 30-something women sitting next to me who loudly claimed shock and disbelief that the actors, Gary McDonald and Nick Eadie, were “demeaning” Muslims. They were offended by the political incorrectness (but not the frequent use of the f-word) of it all and failed to return for the second act and its perfectly clever ending.

A week later I attended a performance of Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman in New York, when two 40-something women sitting in the row in front of me mouthed disgust at each other as actors Zeljko Ivanek and Jeff Goldblum offended them with vividly politically incorrect f and c-word descriptions of Jews and Catholics.


The intersection of audience reactions was thought-provoking. What was the expectation of these members of the audience? Have they been glazed by their unattached relationship with cinema? Have they never experienced the reality of actors on stage, close by? A Jewish friend who lives in the Bronx provided part of the answer.

Audiences since 9-11, she said, no longer seek stimulation through “trauma entertainment”. Life is now perceived as being too difficult for us to want to engage with reality theatre because there is the ever present possibility that trauma will one day visit each one of us. Audiences have grown comfortable with the distance between them and the medium of cinema. The closeness of a play’s content is publicly more confronting. And it is in the public space of the theatre, connected directly to a traumatic event or issue through the actors in front of us, that we are forced to confront reality. Public discourse shapes opinion and action but public plays about trauma that have their origins in real events appear to be unpalatable even in cities such as New York and Sydney where the shock of the new is ho hum.

Australian writer David Foster once told me he believed now is not the time (historically) for humour in writing, or for irony. He made this prescient statement well before 9-11. So a brief look at both plays is valuable to see if there is an underlying reason for their audiences to exhibit irritation rather than to laugh out loud at the irony.

Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers follows her equally ironic but less confronting Life After George (after all, everyone is usually happy to laugh at academics), providing a sketch of political masculinity in all its naked truthfulness. The play is all about two brothers (naturally) one of whom is a neo-conservative politician intent upon higher duties, while his younger brother is portrayed as a socio-humanist intent upon finding the best in his fellow beings and working (at relatively low pay) on behalf of refugees.

The politician brother appears to be capable of living by the Richardson manifesto “whatever it takes” as he reveals himself to be capable of pragmatism that embraces all possibilities from adultery to murder. The over-arching frame is the international issue of refugee status narrowed down to an Australian perspective and a revisiting of the Australian Government’s 2002 policy on “asylum seekers”. There is nothing in the play (beyond the notion of covering up senior ministerial murder) that one could not read in a national newspaper, or indeed in numerous books on the topic.

Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman, a play that also focuses on two brothers in a similar relationship to Rayson’s characters, is about one brother (the ingenious Billy Crudup) defending the other (Michael Stuhlbarg) against a totalitarian police state in which a number of murders have been committed. Crudup plays a writer named Katurian Katurian Katurian (thank you Joseph Heller) who writes about murdered and tortured children and upon discovering that his brother has been acting out his fictional writing, does what he can to protect him from the police, played by Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek.


In Two Brothers the politician is both the centre of attention and the character requiring protection and support from his brother. It is also he who provides the greatest level of “offence” to the audience. In Pillowman the offending characters are the policemen but they are not the centre of attention.

Both plays take contemporary politically incorrect images - anti-Semitism, racism, child abuse - and fling them at their audiences in the hope that they will hit home and that as stakeholders, audiences will take a hard look at what is really going on around them. There is an expectation that they will break with their self absorption and begin to make sense of the reality of political and cultural existence.

Our self-absorption decreased marginally in the aftermath of 9-11 but we are again moving to higher levels the further we travel in time from that date. This provides part of the answer to the question of why audiences are shocked and offended by these plays. As individual citizens we are moving quietly away from the trauma of 9-11, the trauma of having to be confronted by asylum seekers and the possibility that totalitarian states in which freedom of speech through novel writing could be grounds for persecution.

Both plays bring us back to the reality of events that we would rather leave in the past. The cinema does this too, but with less connection: witness the reactions to two recent films, The Passion of the Christ and Downfall. But characters in movies are on big screens presented as images that are larger than life; we are confronted but in a disconnected way. Theatre is personal; actors are real rather than imagined so we engage with them in real time.

Both Rayson and McDonagh have found a way past the barrier that Foster alludes to. They have written provocative works brimming with cleavage rather than consensus, the latter being the position of choice in a politically correct western world.

Or maybe the members of the audiences who were disappointed by the contents, thought they were buying a completely different commodity.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

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All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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