Apr 12 2017 12:00pm

Crime and Theatre

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.

Read an excerpt from If We Were Villains!

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If We Were Villains Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) April 12, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 11:59 a.m. ET April 25, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Gordon Bingham
1. gordonbingham
With a background in both theater and law enforcement, I can certinly appreciate this one...
Tatiana deCarillion
2. decarillion
Read the could've been a Poirot mystery!
Jane Schwarz
3. Janeschwarz
Well said. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of what looks like a great read.
James Joyce
4. JamesPatrickJoyce
I count certain Ngaio Marsh novels, taking place in a theatre, as among my favourite.
5. ksales1023
I remember in the Ft. Worth area some years ago that a high school girl, upon reading Hamlet with her class, confessing to killing her father with poison a few years before. Before that, natural causes had been the supposed manner of death. She was convicted of his murder.
Autumn Trapani
As a stage manager and lifelong fan of Shakespeare and mysteries, I can't wait to read this book. thanks for the chance to win!
John Smith
7. jsmith2jsmith
I don't think I will ever yell anything incriminating when I watch "Hamlet."
Deb Philippon
9. DebP
Wow. I've always loved theatre. This sure gives me something to think about. Wish me luck!
Todd Henson
10. thedelfrog
Sounds like a fascinating story, would love to read.
15. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
pearl berger
17. beach
Fascinating and informative. Thanks for this giveaway.
ellie lewis
18. italia
Theatre always is captivating especially Shakespeare. Wonderful.
Pearl Berger
19. Sunshine
Such an interesting feature which interests me greatly.
20. Patb
my curiosity is aroused!!
Susan Meek
21. smeek1958
I would love to win this, to read myself and then share with my theatre manager cousin.
Jackie Wisherd
25. JackieW
Interesting. Think I would enjoy reading this book.
Joanne Mielczarski
26. jtmswim
I love all things Shakespeare - I was a pre med major in college who took an amazing Shakespearean course. The professor was awesome - his classes were always packed. He acted out scenes and had crowds auditing his lectures.
27. lindawwww
Interesting points arguments! I'm looking forward to reading your book.
Seana Graham
28. seana
I'm reminded by this essay of something a screenwriting teacher says, which is that an audience wants to go on a journey with the main character. They want to invest themselves.
Seana Graham
29. seana
I'm reminded by this essay of something a screenwriting teacher says, which is that an audience wants to go on a journey with the main character. They want to invest themselves.
Gwen Ellington
31. mamadonie02
Shakepearian plot! I'm sold. Hope I win!!
Sally Schmidt
32. bigcootie
Great excerpt. And while I haven't shouted out my sins yet, I must admit I am obsessed with (reading about) crime.
Barbara Bibel
43. bbibel
Sounds wonderful! I want to read it.
44. Linda A
Aren't all criminals theatrical? Prentending to be something they are not. Smarter, better, stronger in their minds.
Angie Stormer
45. ReadaholicZone
Yelling out your sins during Shakespearean times at plays reminds me in a way of participating from the crowd while at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Terry Pearson
47. hippiechick1955
Is there anythng better than Shakespeare ! Oh, Romeo, I would die to win.
Louis Burklow
48. Nash62
I'd enjoy reading a mystery where words mean so much.
Michael Carter
52. rubydog
Looks great!
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks ---
Theresa Clarke
54. Luminous Angel
"Crime and Punishment" by Dostoyevsky - just fascinating!
55. LStirling
I know that I watch many movies, just as I read many books, to live vicariously through them. This book should be interesting.
Andrew Beck
57. queerbec
Just look at how many authors decide to introduce a gun to their pl0t or play to heighten interest and suspense. That changes the rules and ups the drama and helps maintain interest.
Jean Feingold
59. dusksunset
Not sure how I would react if I were at a play and an audience member confessed to a crime.
Jean Feingold
59. dusksunset
Not sure how I would react if I were at a play and an audience member confessed to a crime.
63. Patrice
Sounds really great.
65. John meixner
sounds like a geed read
Karen Hester
68. rosalba
Interesting combination for a mystery
susan beamon
69. susanbeamon
All interesting. Learned most of it in drama class. Still, want the book.
Vicki Andrew
70. vandrew
sounds like a good read for on the train into work
Jeanine Wiater
71. jeaninewiater
I can't wait to read this book - thanks for the chance to win a copy.
72. Polly Barlow
This sounds like a great read. I enjoy the theater ever so much and I especially like to read and see Shakespeare's plays.
73. pegkeohane
I was so looking for a new author...and the combo of mystery and theatre is very appealing.
Jerry Marquardt
84. versatileer
Thnanks for throwing the Crime and Theatre Sweepstakes!
Linda Peters
85. linnett
sounds interesting, thanks for the chance
Linda Peters
85. linnett
sounds interesting, thanks for the chance
87. jacqueline garcia
sounds like an awesome read!
Angela Sanford
91. acsanford
I read the excerpt and cannot wait to read the entire book :) It is going to be an exciting read :)
Beth Talmage
93. wordygirl
A very thought-provoking introduction to this book. I'll be discussing this premise with my brother, a police officer, who spends a lot less time reading about crime than I do.
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