Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Makes A Play "Disturbing?"

So. Looks like the media has latched on to Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui's "profoundly disturbing writing" as the predominant reason/motivation for his decision to murder his fellow students.

English faculty are coming forward to admit that they urged the "troubled" student to get counseling -- advice which Cho Seung-Hui did not accept.

There are copies of Cho Seung-Hui's writings available on the web at The Smoking Gun. I suppose technically they can't be verified at this time, although TSG is usually good about authenticity.

Here's a link to Cho Seung-Hui's play Richard McBeef. I've read it. I would urge you to read it as well.

And here, in no particular order, are my thoughts. Keep in mind that I am evaluating this play as a piece of writing only.

1. It's not very good. In fact, it's outright terrible.

2. The "disturbing violence" only occurs in the final moments of the play, and the "death blow" that everyone is all hung up over is intended to occur after a final blackout -- that is, it's meant to be shielded from the audience's view. That's pretty much par for the course in plays. In fact, Aristotle preferred it that way.

3. The play's dialogue is fairly crass, vulgar, and full of references to murder, rape, and sodomy -- and yet there's a sort of unpremeditated abandon to it, as if the author threw in as many "shock words" as he could into his play simply because he could, or because he was testing them out to see how they sounded. In fact, he may have been encouraged to do so. When I took a playwriting course in undergrad, the professor urged us to explore "the dark side of life," and most of the plays that resulted from that assignment were a lot like Richard McBeef -- loosely-strung episodes of unmotivated violence for violence's sake.

4. If I were a faculty member reading this play, my first instinct would not be to send the student for counseling, but to send him to the on-campus Writing Center. Seriously. Is it crass? Read Pinter. Is it violent and gratuitously sexual? Read Shepard. Is it obscene? Read Mamet. Does it deal with familial dysfunction? Read Shakespeare, read Guare, read Henley, read anyone you like!

The only disturbing thing about this play is its quality of writing, and the fact that fully-grown adults with more than fifteen years of schooling (and a large majority of them, too!) produce writing of this "caliber," and that a play that mentions sodomy and murder is enough to get a student referred to a counselor's office.

I wrote a story once, in high school, which included a grisly death. Luckily my teacher responded in a way which helped me become a better writer. I suppose I couldn't write that story anymore, if I were a high school -- or university -- student right now.

I truly hope that the shootings at Virginia Tech are not causally linked to a handful of poorly-written plays and stories. That would be a disservice to the students and the community, and it would be a disservice -- and worse, a threat -- to writers.

What Cho Seung-Hui did was reprehensible, disgusting, and unfathomable. He didn't do it because he wrote a bad play.


Abi said...

Cho may not have killed "because he wrote a bad play". But it is possible that he wrote those plays and became a mass murderer. If so, isn't it worthwhile trying to figure out if there are any connections?

I agree that one poorly written play may not tell us much about the mental health of its writer. But, presumably a whole lot of his writings may?

A big part of the business of literary criticism is about figuring out the mental states of the writer, no? If so, isn't it worthwhile trying to figure out if the VT mass murderer's writings betrayed any evidence of lack of mental balance?

I am fully aware of (and am disturbed by) the 'slippery slope' nature of this line of thinking. I'm just curious about the certainty in your last paragraph.

Blue said...

My certainty is based on the idea that Cho didn't murder "because he was a writer," as the press has simplified it out to be.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if we found a plethora of violent stories or plays Cho wrote.

But he still wouldn't have opened fire on campus "because he was a writer."

We've got to find the reason or motivation (or mental instability) behind those writings.

He was probably, if anything, using writing as outlet. What did he need to let out? Why? And why wasn't it enough to let it out in writing?

Those are the questions I wish people were focusing on, and perhaps they may, in time.

Blue said...

Edit: Checked NYT and they're starting to ask the questions mentioned in my above comment.

Also -- the other point I was trying to make in my post was that this particular piece of writing, floating around the web as an example of something "disturbingly violent," isn't actually all that violent, especially when compared to a lot of dramatic literature. It's got one moment of stage combat, and one death (which occurs out of sight of the audience).

Which, of course, you probably understood, and which is part of the slippery slope thing we both fear.

And, as you've noted, I've only read one of Cho's plays.

The others will probably surface pretty soon, and then we'll see if there are any patterns.

Chimera said...

well-meaning pschyriatists have testified that the plays have nothing to do with the killings.
One renowned doctor went to the extent of saying 'Stephen King writes graphic violence and he is successful' and does not imply anything at all.

on another note, I'm from Hyderabad and would be glad to be of any assistance.

The Great Ganesha said...

notwithstanding the connection between lunacy and play-writing, i actually thought the play was funny. i mean, it's so absurdly violent and crass (she grabs a chainsaw?) that you can't help but laugh.

of course, then you realize the reality of the situation and its undoubtedly sobering (to put it mildly).

it is scary when you think that a teacher would recommend counseling after reading the play, but then again, perhaps it also has to do with the fact that he never spoke in class and there were possibly other signals that triggered something in the teacher's mind. i don't think we're at "1984" levels... yet.

as for the press, they love to sensationalize. and people always need something/someone to blame after a tragedy like this.

interesting post.

Falstaff said...

I'm not sure what the point of all the name dropping (Pinter, Shakespeare, etc.) you do here is. By no stretch of definition are these plays (I've read both) works of art. They are disturbing not because they talk about violence or use profanity per se, but because they do so in the absence of any literary merit and in a way that is incoherent and arbitrary. This is not someone who is trying to push the boundaries of dramatic art, this is someone who seems obsessed with physical / sexual violence to the point where he blithers about it in writing that can only be described as chaotic. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that they are the products of a troubled / disturbed mind.

Notice also that as a teacher reading this you'd probably want to err on the side of caution. Let's say this is just someone who is trying to be clever / creative and is perfectly well-balanced otherwise - what harm is a session with a counsellor going to do? On the other hand, if you ignore the play and the person ends up harming himself / other people, you'd have to live with the knowledge that you may have been able to intervene to help.

On the whole, I'd say the faculty who urged the student to get counselling made a good call. What amazes me is that someone who writes this badly was allowed to stay in college at all, and didn't flunk out of the program.

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