The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias – a discussion between Ned Moore & Dan O’Neil

(c) Daniel J. Vasquez

Editor: Ned Moore and Dan O’Neil both attended the Playwright’s Realm production of The Rape of The Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias on different nights. The following conversation ensued.

Dan: Let’s try starting by jumping right into the central issue that The Rape of the Sabine Women engages with. The play’s big question seemed to be some version of: “How is it possible that our society hasn’t corrected itself over the course of recorded history?  How is it possible that rape still happens so frequently?”  And then, its follow-up question might be, “And what can we do to make things better?”  

Which are extremely important questions. But also, there was a lot going on in this play on a dramaturgical level; so much so that I’m not totally sure that those questions are the questions it was actually asking.

Ned, is this similar to your experience of it?  Or way off-base?

Ned: There was A LOT going on in this play. My understanding of the big questions was slightly different: How is it possible that society hasn’t corrected *men* over the course of recorded history? Why do men rape so frequently, and so frequently receive forgiveness? How do we change this?

What I love most about the piece is its unflinching portrayal of a young woman processing trauma. In that light, I thought the storytelling felt super coherent. I loved the non-linear nature of time. It really made me feel trapped inside Grace’s head, reckoning with her memories alongside her.

But I still can’t figure out whether I think the satirical framework is one of the play’s many strengths, or a mark of stylistic confusion. Sometimes I thought the jokes really served Grace’s story. Sometimes I thought they got in the way, temporarily turning characters into talking posts for society’s differing points of view. Does any of that ring true for you? What was your experience of the humor?

Dan: I generally prefer laughs over no laughs, especially when a work delves into sensitive material.  After all, we often laugh when we’re uncomfortable, and by slathering a generous number of jokes throughout, playwright Michael Yates Crowley certainly takes advantage of that discomfort.

But there are two ways this can work.  One way is a more Brechtian approach; less satirical and more world-worn.  The tragic hero bearing life’s shit in a matter-of-fact way can be very funny. (To some extent, Crowley achieved this with his main character, Grace B. Matthias – we felt for and with her, and so what was funny through her eyes could both make us laugh and also deepen our ability to empathize.) But with the rest of the characters, the tone felt different – they’re presented as flatly as possible, and the flatness is what makes them “funny,” but it also makes them non-entities in what should also be functioning as a drama.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what to call that type of humor… reminiscent of the nihilism of a movie like HEATHERS, with the added stiltedness of Diablo Cody-esque dialogue quirks (the word kiss is substituted by “mouth kiss,” the word car replaced by “sweet ride.”)

Maybe “mocking”?  To some extent, the humor is deployed to mock the other characters and their inadequate response to Grace’s rape.  The school counselor can’t even say the word, spelling it out instead.  The lawyer assigned to the case only cares about getting the story right, as opposed to true. The football players are straight out of an 80’s movie.  Maybe I shouldn’t say straight though, because there’s a bunch of low-lying “that’s gay, dude” jokes that are mined whenever possible.  

What I’m saying is the satirical framework bothered me too.  That it bothered me doesn’t necessarily make it a bad choice – but I wasn’t sure what to make of it, or how it helped the play find its way to something less surface-level and more subterranean.

Returning to your restatement of the big question – Yes, to be sure.  Men are indicted here. There is a seething sense of loathing directed toward most of the male characters in the play, who are generally portrayed as ineffective, insensitive, and self-interested.  (With the exception of the school guidance counselor, played by the excellent Andy Lucien, who is capable of delivering jokes that land like truth bombs, and elicit the deepest laughs in the second, more serious half of the play.)  

Wading deeper: So what should we make,  if anything at all, about the fact that this play – which is told through the sympathetic lens of a high-school age woman who is raped by the guy she wants to make her boyfriend and is then (essentially) punished for talking about it, which culminates in her last-minute decision to take action against her town and fight back – is written by a man?

Ned: I think that is precisely the question that Michael Yates Crowely wants us to be grappling with.

“Who gets to tell whose story?” is a big question for theater artists at the moment. Some — Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Young Jean Lee, Taylor Mac — have built entire careers on asking it. It takes guts for a man to write this story. He (the playwright) shows us that he is willing to examine the most toxic elements of his own male desire in an attempt to exorcise them.

To me, Grace’s last-minute decision to fight back against her town feels like a call to action: for men to question the mysterious and terrifying part of our nature which the playwright calls “the fire.”  I think that by writing this play, Crowley models one way for other men to start to take ownership over the demons of history: write about it! Whether or not the result is worth the ticket and two hours of your life is another question, to which my answer is a firm “yes.” Why?

I’m still not totally sure. I agree that every character but Grace feels paper thin, and that much of the comedy belongs to an icky humor of mockery. There’s a strong holier-than-thou tone to the dialogue, as though the author sees himself as being somehow above his characters, which makes them feel more like caricatures. I longed for more moments where those caricatures break open to reveal their damaged, human insides. Jeff — Grace’s rapist, the thick-headed football star whom she also loves — comes close. None of the others change in any significant way; they are stereotypes reduced to their lowest common denominators. But, as you said, that’s also where most of the laughs reside.

Which makes me wonder: to what extent, if any, does laughing at reductive stereotypical depictions of rape culture actually perpetuate rape culture? If the men in the audience can only identify with the men in the play from a position of comedic distance (“I’m not a meathead football jock, so I’ll NEVER be a rapist!”), then aren’t we letting most men off the hook? I think the characters that the author has chosen to satirize are tricky folks to mock, because to do so is to reinforce our popular biases. But whoever said writing about this subject was easy?

And why did I still walk away feeling like this was such an important night of theatre?

Well, it’s brilliantly directed, and the cast is stellar. Susannah Perkins as Grace (whom some might recognize from Sarah DeLappe’s recent hit “The Wolves”) is mesmerizing. Her relationship to her sweater–sometimes she hides in it, claws at it, or uses it for self defense–is more dynamic than her relationships with any of the characters. The clarity and rhythm Tyne Rafaeli brings to the work makes the humor pop just the way it’s supposed to, regardless of whether it serves the story. But the most interesting thing about it to me is that it is an example of a male writer doing really risky work–the kind that all men must do if we truly hope to change the narrative.

So that was a long answer to your question. But I really think it’s the right question, and I want to keep poking at it.  If you were the playwright, how might you address the issues we’ve been raising? Do you think that Crowley, being a man, should have opted not to touch the subject?

Dan: You hit on something very interesting in bringing up the question of whether the comedic distance creates a mental hiding place for audience members – male audience members – who aren’t as willing to contemplate the degree to which they are part of the problem. It’s pretty easy to watch this play and think, “Well, I’m not like that.”  

Yet, we are, more so than we’d like to admit. In particular, maybe we’re like Jeff – the guy who Grace likes, and who is depicted in the play as a pretty-much-regular guy who just doesn’t have the gumption to stand up to his friend (or, society).  Despite his being a little dopey, the play (and Doug Harris’s sensitive portrayal) keeps him über-likeable right up until the point he rapes Grace, and then continues to set us up for a follow-up scene between the two of them.

Without giving away too much plot, I felt a large part of the play’s momentum was tied to what would happen between Jeff and Grace after the rape. After all, the first half is told in flash-back mode, to an invisible jury (us), and it’s not until the trial ends that the play can find a dramatic set-up to work through in real time.  It’s curious, then, that the play mostly avoids that moment.  There’s a brief encounter at a school dance, with Jeff behaving (for me anyway) out of character in his action – as though to make sure that we understand that Grace shouldn’t forgive him – and then, the play eliminates him.  

And THAT – for me – is what let me off the hook. The play’s pivot to being a call to action for Grace was justified and totally warranted, yet I wanted to be pulled out of what felt like a complacent space and thrust into a confrontation. If I was Jeff, what would I do?

And maybe that’s also why I wonder about Crowley’s gender and how he ended up telling this story and whether or not his gender affected the telling. In some ways, he veered away from confronting the most terrifying question for a man who tries to co-exist thoughtfully and respectfully – what if I fail? What if, in some state of heightened inebriation, my judgement abandons me, leaving only that “fire” in its stead, and I do something truly egregious? What happens, then, if I get away with it?

That’s a dangerous question, with difficult ramifications that come with asking it.  It would be easy for a writer to be accused of sympathizing with a sexual assaulter, for example, if one dug deeper into the nuances of Jeff’s experience.  So, while Crowley has built a structure that would allow him to go there, he pivots instead.  His ending point, for those who agree with him (which hopefully is everyone who comes to see this play), might be described as populist – it empowers Grace, but does it non-confrontationally.  She makes the “right” choice (and given the range of choices she’s been given by the play at the moment she makes it, standing on a chair holding a gas can over her head, well thank God).  

But the right choice for her might not have been the right choice for the play.  And I wonder if Crowley’s intuitive need to leave Grace in a place of power, whether or not he was conscious of the politics of representation while writing it, prevented him in some way from painting an even darker picture than he does.

That’s the long answer.  The short answer is, I’m still glad he wrote this play and that it was produced. And I think male writers should do all they can to confront how they tell stories, and who they tell stories about. Even if it’s joining our voices with the chorus of activists who are all shouting the same question at the same time – and most certainly we shouldn’t try to know the answer, because that, correct me if I’m wrong, is the most terrible thing about white-guy plays that tread outside of white-guy stories.

Final thoughts?  I also am glad you mentioned the top-notch-ness of the production and agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly.

Ned: Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out: the end. Why did it feel so undeserved? “Didactic” isn’t the right word, but it’s close.  You’re absolutely right: Crowley pivots. He pulls the focus away from Jeff, and does so right at the moment when he could instead choose to unmask him (so to speak) and confront the audience with the messiest parts of the character. Instead, the playwright makes a hard turn away from that potentially dangerous road, and steers the play toward a place of empowerment. He plays it safe.  This production has received a lot of hype for it’s dark comedy, yet I think there is room for more tragedy to live alongside the laughs. Without it, I felt shorted. I kept waiting for my superficial notions of masculinity to be eviscerated. Alas, I left unscathed, with a smile on my face and all of my previously formed beliefs still in tact.

One BIG thing that we somehow left out–and which I adore–is the way that Grace, over the course of her arc, reclaims an iconic painting from the dead-white-male canon: The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jaques-Louis David. When her school teacher introduces the painting early on, we know that Grace is going to investigate this painting and attempt to answer the unanswerable question: “Why did the Sabines forgive the Romans after they raped them?” Which is her way of asking “Why do we so often expect women to forgive their rapists?” Grace wrestles head-on with the legacy of rape culture. She shows us that we need look no further than a painting to learn why men rape, and why they usually get away with it. By asking the questions she asks, she gives us tools to break that pattern.

And just think: if we male artists were to spend the rest of our lives critiquing–as directly as this play critiques–the patriarchal authority of the Western canon, we would never run out of material. That is a cause I can get behind.

So, while I totally agree that the writer could have taken a different and possibly more interesting route toward the end, it did still leave me with something to chew on. More than that: it reminded me that no matter how sensitive I, a good-hearted liberal white guy, think I am, I have work to do. I still have so much to learn, and perhaps even more to unlearn, about what it means to be a man.

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