Read this exclusive guest post from M. L. Rio about theatre and crime, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of her stunning debut, If We Were Villains!
In Shakespeare’s day, live theatre was believed to be so emotionally affective that people watching a play might uncontrollably holler out their own sins if they saw something similar performed onstage. “I have heard,” Hamlet says, “That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, / Have by the very cunning of the scene / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaim'd their malefactions.” So the idea for the infamous play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap, is conceived.
We, as a culture, are obsessed with crime. In the age of cop dramas, legal thrillers, and murder documentaries, it can be difficult to tell where violence ends and entertainment begins. In this way, we’re not so different from early modern theatregoers; the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London were populated by robbers, killers, and cannibals, and if that wasn’t gruesome enough, you could always come back for some good old-fashioned bear-baiting. Theatre has always been a bloodsport.
But why? I think the answer is buried even deeper in our history, in the Greek theatre and the concept of κάθαρσις—or catharsis: the idea that cleansing or purification may be achieved through art. A modern cognate might be “getting it out of your system,” whatever “it” may be.
Theatre is inherently voyeuristic; we buy popcorn and settle into our seats to revel in the private love and grief and shame of other human beings. It’s a little despicable when you think about it. But it might also be what keeps us all from turning into Charlie Manson. Here’s where catharsis comes in: when we see all our morbid curiosities—or, equally possible but rather more frightening, what Macbeth might call our “black and deep desires”—played out onstage, it’s like scratching a moral itch. We experience the crime vicariously, especially in a play like Macbeth where the audience is, from start to finish, party to and complicit in the characters’ bloody deeds (whether they want to be or not). Theatre satisfies our strange human appetite for physical and emotional violence. Theatre invites us inside a criminal mind. Theatre lets us get away with murder.
To me, this odd marriage of theatre and crime actually makes perfect sense; art and violence are both acts of passion. In the interest of real-world self-preservation, we spend a lot of time and energy hiding our emotions, trying not to look vulnerable, playing it cool. All the same, we crave passionate action. So we turn to the theatre where we can live vicariously through the prince of Denmark, the king of Scotland, or the citizens of Rome. We witness their murders and regicides and assassinations, we feel their ambition and envy and outrage, and when all the “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” are done, we get up and go home, satisfied.
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M. L. Rio has worked in bookstores and theatres for years, and is currently pursuing her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London. If We Were Villains is her debut novel.