Rape, tra-la-la, a chorus of make-believers of them

Picture 3“Man of La Mancha,” with national touring sensation Howard Keel, was the first staged musical I remember seeing, at a ripe young age of 9 at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Music Fair’s tent-in-the-round in 1970.

Rape was not in my vernacular then, but I fell in love with the character Aldonza, a “kitchen wench” (prostitute), and somehow keenly felt her hardship, disillusionment, strength and wrung-out, twisted passion. I’d act out her part in front of the pulled drapes in my living room — including a modified take on her gang rape scene. The brutalizing effect onstage was a mesh of music, lighting and dance, but the horror and anger spoke deeply to my prepubescent self. Unwittingly, it gave me a kind of a shield, an armor to grow into, to understand that a woman’s body is not all there is to her.

They say that those things children are too young to understand go right over their heads. I have to wonder. With the advent of the Internet, which defines and exhibits our every curiosity, I cannot imagine being a child of 9 against such a backdrop today. I might have started Googling and been gobsmacked by reality and grown terrified of theater — or men. My understanding of human relations might have been skewed if drama on the Internet, uncontrolled and unfiltered, were all I’d been exposed to — overexposed, at that.

Rape is nothing new on stage and, surprisingly, is not an uncommon topic in musicals. In 1960, “The Fantasticks” made farce of the idea of a staged assault — with ringmaster El Gallo offering a menu of rapes in the thinly cloaked “It Depends On What You Pay.” Apparently, making light of sexual assault seemed ghastly to producers of the 2006 revival, who saw fit to clean up the lyrics, changing references of “rape” to “abduction” or “masquerade”:

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El Gallo snatches his innocent young “victim,” who follows him willingly.

“ … An abduction that’s emphatic.

An abduction that’s polite.

An abduction done with Indians:

A truly charming sight.

An abduction done on horseback;

They’ll all say it’s distingué.

So you see the masquerade

Depends on what you pay. …”

The original repeated variations of “rape” in place of “abductions” — an assault to the ears of a rape survivor today.

What happened between the Sixties and now to alter our view of rape in our culture? Is it merely that it has come to dominate so much of it? Or somehow it’s less shocking. Which makes it even more so.

There could be an element of commercialism at work, at least where “The Fantasticks” is concerned. Those who hold copyrights for these shows want to get them produced as often as possible, so why not tame or temper the material to dodge the censors and see them produced more often in high schools and by mass-appeal, general-audience church and community theatre troupes.

The most recent production of “Man of La Mancha” I saw was last year, by the McLean Community Players. Though Aldonza sang the pants off of her role, the assault scene was reduced to what looked like a game of Farmer in the Dell — although that might have been explained more by the portlier cast as opposed to changing sensitivities or morals (generalized portliness being another sign of the times). I’m not judging — just saying. It is, after all, a fairly operatic show, and you need some support for those big voices.

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The 2012 production of “Man of La Mancha,” by McLean Community Players.

A few years back, Signature Theatre in Shirlington premiered a work composed by resident artist Matt Conner, “The Hollow,” which he and book writer Hunter Foster adapted from the classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They took liberties, certainly, with the story, inventing a climactic scene in which the object of Ichabod Crane’s affections is raped (offstage). It wasn’t until now, pondering themes of savagery in musical theatre, that it occurred to me the second half of Signature’s premiere double feature, “The Boy Detective Fails,” was also about serial kidnappings, assault and murder — albeit, our human failing to understand or confront the ultimate evil behind such acts.

To say theatre is cathartic is an understatement. Who among us has not entertained a rape fantasy?

As “The Hollow” director Matt Gardiner explained to a TBD.com reporter at the time: “As far as a female character goes, this is the worst thing that could happen. It’s so intimate. And yet it is frequently used.”

Directors are challenged to find a way to plumb the violence with care and concern, considering many in the audience, statistically, have been touched and traumatized by rape in real life.

The TBD article made the point there were a heckuva lot of rape themes in current area shows. As more rape survivors become more vocal, as well they should be encouraged to be, you wonder about the impact on our lively arts, and how we balance imagination/escapism with verisimilitude.

Signature followed up with a play by emerging talent Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Really Really,” inspired by the Duke lacrosse team assault scandal. It was supposed to be “edgy.” But, really, it was only too real.

“It’s challenging,” Gardiner told Rebecca J. Ritzel at the time. “You want the audience to feel uncomfortable — but not so uncomfortable that it takes you out of the play completely. It’s a delicate balance.”

We are all familiar with catching a show at the local high school, and, if weapons are part of the pretense, seeing a notice in the program, as required by the local governing board, vouching that the weapons used are fake. Or signs leading into the theatre that warn patrons with certain delicate conditions that strobe lights, fake fog, startling noises or cigarettes (!) will be used — much like an amusement park ride warns pregnant riders what’s at stake.

Yet I don’t recall many “trigger warnings” being applied in theatre, advisories that depictions of rape, suicide, genocide and the like lay behind the curtain. Heavens to Betsy, if staged works had to list each trigger warning ahead of every production, programs might rival the DSM. Such a practice could wring out much of the drama or shock at the core of even the shlockiest of shows, let alone master works.

Along with a suspension of disbelief, I guess, when patrons enter a theatre they must also enter into an unwritten agreement to suspend all defenses. Vulnerability, culpability, liability — all part of the communal masquerade. Theatre is therapy. Theatre is safe.

And even though it’s a “lie,” theatre is honest. More honest, at times, than real life. Its one true mission: to spur real dialogue.

Rape is no rite

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Despite our highly evolved brains and planetary dominance, humans sure could learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.

On the subject of rape, for instance. Rapists are often labeled “animals,” and yet — just for the sake of discussion, leaving aside the fact that all humans are technically animals — forcible sex doesn’t exist as much among non-humans as within our so-called civilized society.

I say “as much” because scientists have seen signs of coercive sex and even gang rape in animals from ducks to dolphins. But in general, calling rapists “animals” does a disservice to animals. (UPDATE: The anti-rape design of duck vaginas notwithstanding — perhaps they are just more highly evolved and this is where we’re all headed?)

The thing about animals. They stick to pretty predictable patterns of courtship and mating. Watch Nat Geo Wild for any length of time — I personally go to great lengths to — and you’ll get quite the peep show. What appear to be extravagant dances to us are probably blasé to members of the species depicted. There’s no novelty in it for them, not for several millennia, and they seem OK with that.

For example, we observe nothing short of regal in the clownish blue-footed booby’s routine mating rite.

He whistles at her to get her attention. She doesn’t seem impressed, spewing excrement at him. If, eventually, she gets in the mood — and male boobies know they must be very, very patient — she will make a grunting sound in response to his whistling. The male booby waits for her consent. Often, consent is denied.

Then, the male knows to move on. Not to force the issue. (They also seem not to mind an audience.)

Compare the come-on of the Temminck’s tragopan, an irresistibly eager pheasant, below:

… to your garden-variety harassment by Hoboken, N.J., construction workers. (Picture it in your mind — I’m sure you’ve had the experience once or twice — or peruse this LONG, 8-minute video; they are actors, as is the woman being harassed. An interesting social experiment conducted to see how passersby might react and whether they would intervene.)

In the animal world, the males typically display and it is left for the females to decide whether any “action” ensues. That’d be a pretty awesome world to live in.

Humans, too, have courtship rituals. Yet we often feel above such predictability, exercising instead our vague notion of “free will,” which we assume other animals don’t possess. Or, we malevolently exert our wills over one another — something most other animals are simply too dignified to do.

Humans are forever reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with vast reasoning skills, striving for a unique experience in all things, including sexual conquest. Sexual culture today seems somehow infested with callous extremes. And the gang mentality — even crueler and harder to crack.

Whether or not they receive sexual education, humans come to sex in their own time, acting on urges that fit the norms of society — or not. Human drives may fit within accepted values or may veer far afield of what seems moral or right. But where a lot of bad behavior is present, you have to wonder: Is it somehow condoned?

I am at a loss to understand why any human being would rape another. How violence and sex intermingle, without analyzing any rapist’s motives or malfunctions, is beyond my ability to reason through. It is a brutal perversion. Can’t quite call it an aberration, though, because sexual harassment and assault — crimes, both — have become horrifically prevalent in modern society. We have become inoculated to news of it.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman, during his funeral in New Delhi.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman who had been trying to control the protests over last week’s gang rape, during his funeral in New Delhi.

The sorrowful story in India this week has now ended in death for the 23-year-old medical student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, with her boyfriend present, also a victim of the barbarous attack. In a way, I feel it’s a relief she died — spared from having to relive the hell that would have become the rest of her life. The news galvanized that nation, with both women and men blaming the government and police for doing too little to protect women from vile and violent acts. But the protesters were also beaten back by powers that be — and even a police constable was killed in the melee. Violence heaped upon violence, making any one of us feel utterly powerless.

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The grim statistics, from CNN.com:

“Reported rape cases in India — where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime — have increased drastically over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported last year and more than 600 in 2012.”

India is no island. There are merely a lot more people. Things are just as bad in our hemisphere. I was groped twice by strangers in public — once in Montreal at the Expo 67 World’s Fair when I was 6, and once in Puerto Rico, by a mere child, a boy younger than my 12 years, who was encouraged to do it by his father, and was praised afterward for it. I’m not sure how scarred I was — but I was scared and will never forget either experience, nor my shock, my indignation and suppressed rage.

india-rape-protest-afp-670As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, in a 1975 speech: “Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake — it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it. As long as these definitions remain intact — that is, as long as men are defined as sexual aggressors and women are defined as passive receptors lacking integrity — men who are exemplars of the norm will rape women.”

I have learned far too much about rape this year — from my daughter, who is a rape survivor and now a shining advocate for women’s rights. I am unsure how any one of us might change the ferocity of this world, but I know if anyone could, she can.

Still, I pine for a quiet, peaceful life, perhaps on an actual island, like the Galapagos, where I might watch majestic giant tortoises — once driven nearly to extinction by humans’ uncontrolled desire for their meat — do a slow, predictable, respectful mating dance, kinda like old people. And there I’d contemplate where we as humans fit in, in the grand scheme of things.

There will always be sex. And there likely will always be violence.

And perhaps always, not animals, but beasts — monsters — who would co-mangle the two.