The Worst Play I Ever Saw was well-written and cannily acted. It concerned a grown woman and her father, who sat (I think the woman stood) on opposite sides of the stage. They never spoke to each other, but each spoke to the audience. Although the writing was unusually sharp and natural, I don’t remember anything either of them said. I remember a great deal, however, about the two molestation scenes.

The woman, you see, was a victim of her father’s pedophilia. She and her father, in graphic detail, relive the first time he raped her. His is more of a reflective memory – I don’t think he even rises from his chair – but hers is visceral. She drops to the floor, her voice becomes high and child-like, and she cries and screams as she narrates, with great detail, what is happening to her. The scene finally stops, she becomes a woman again, they each deliver a few more monologues…and then another painful, extended molestation scene. Then the father exits, the woman sums it all up, fade to black, curtain.

Some audience members thought it was powerful drama. Some walked out in disgust. I’m proud to say I did not walk out, but it was certainly one of the most unpleasant and maddening theatre-going experiences of my life. I felt violated. I resented the author, who also directed, for imposing those scenes on me. But then I reflected a bit. Was I just putting up a wall? Here is a play about a father raping his child – of course it’s unpleasant and difficult to watch! And I understood that this play was hugely therapeutic for the author, which made me feel guilty for resisting it. Was I being hypocritical for hating it? Why did it inspire so much hatred?

I asked my good friend Jeff Williams, who also saw the play. He hated it too, and he knew exactly why. “It had no drama,” he said. “Just a couple of nasty rape scenes. I don’t need to see a father molest his daughter on stage to know that it’s wrong.”

The play had fallen into a very simple dramatic pitfall: it confused cruelty and shock with drama. It was a play about a woman who had been raped by her father, but that’s all it was. That it was so eerily effective in depicting two on-stage rapes only deepened its nasty effect and justified my suspicion that the playwright intended the rape scenes to be the dramatic climaxes of the play. There were opportunities for real character development, genuine storytelling, even honest moralizing, but we didn’t get any of that. It wasn’t even a story about child molestation – the molestation WAS the story.

I found that play disgusting and exploitive, an empty exercise in theatrical shock. But recently I’ve noticed how many plays, including some of my own, look to the darkest sides of human nature and cruelty for their stories. For example, in the past year, I’ve seen readings and/or performances of:

  • Richard Gaw’s “Mary Catherine,” in which two grown brothers have a late dinner following their mother’s funeral. During the course of the conversation, we learn that their father, simply named “The Bastard,” was a miserable alcoholic who beat the oldest boy and the mother mercilessly;
  • Brian Turner’s “Love and a Hard Place,” which tells the story, mostly through monologues, of a self-hating man who beats his wife, then murders a young woman at random;
  • Kristyn Leigh Robinson’s short work “Killing Schroedinger’s Cat,” in which a young woman must confront both the memories of her abusive, alcoholic stepfather and her mother, who allowed the abuse to continue;
  • Peter Hedges’ one-act “Imagining Brad,” an odd tale of two women – one who escaped spousal abuse by marrying a man physically unable to beat her, and another who is suffering increasingly brutal attacks by her husband;
  • A work-in-progress by my friend Gary Bundy with the wonderful title “Welcome to the Age of Aquarius,” in which one of the college-aged women is in love with a jerk who beats her and damages her self-esteem;
  • My own “The Boy Who was Born With a Tail,” in which a little girl discovers one of the results of the abuse she’s suffered at the hand of her father: she can no longer find a happy ending to the fairy tale she’s trying to write.

So the question is – why is abuse such a common theme in theatre? Does a play get deeper when it starts dealing with issues of cruelty, particularly parent to child and husband to wife? Is there really anything new or interesting to say about abuse?

Wow, I sound like Carrie Bradshaw. Anyway, it’s an interesting question. In the worst cases, abuse is simply a substitute for real story-telling. Sometimes the big dramatic revelation is that a character is or was an abuser, or a victim of abuse. You see this from new playwrights a lot, and it’s a lazy deus ex machina, a way to add a little spice to a failing story. And while I strongly feel that any subject is ripe for the plucking when it comes to creating drama, it’s crucial that playwrights recognize their responsibility to be true to said subjects. In other words, you shouldn’t go slinging around sensational subjects just for effect, or because you think they add depth to your story.

But in the best cases, abuse can be the catalyst for some amazing character tales and stories of redemption. I’m not a traditionalist, but I do believe that by the end of a play, we should feel like an arc has been completed. That arc can be anywhere – in a character’s progression (or regression), in the story, in the exploration of a theme. Most of the plays I mentioned are written by people I know, and they all have something in common – none of them are about abuse. Abuse is a subject, but each play takes it in very different directions, and they all have sound dramatic arcs. “Mary Catherine” is a riveting character study; “Killing Schroedinger’s Cat” explores some deep family ties and deeper psychological boundaries; “Love and a Hard Place” is deeply interested in its characters and their motivations and fears; “Imagining Brad” is almost satirical at times (if deeply cynical) as it redefines sexual roles; “Aquarius” is a portrait of four young women, and their struggle with understanding how to relate to the men in their lives; my own “The Boy” is really about the struggle of a child to retain her innocence. Each play has a story and characters that are specific and real, and each one has an urgency that gives the play structure and drama.

In comparison, The Worst Play I Ever Saw, despite its strong writing and excellent performances, isn’t a drama, but an exercise. It has no urgency, no purpose for being, except to present disquieting scenes. Instead of building to a climax, it just continues, substituting cruelty for drama, ultimately romanticizing the inhuman actions of the father character. Is it enough that the play is controversial, causing tension and disgust in much of the audience? Maybe, for those grateful that the message “pedophilia and incest are horrible and have lasting effects” allows them the opportunity to nod in solemn agreement. The rest of us, though, want to see theatre, which implies some kind of growth and progression. And while we’re prepared to witness any subject tackled with any degree of bluntness, we want assurance that the author is taking us somewhere, teaching us something – or, at the very least, concerned that we’re being entertained.

I wouldn’t mind if we called a temporary moratorium on the theme of abuse. I know I’m going to try to stay away from it for a while. It has an innate dramatic flaw – it’s too easy. It’s too easy to confuse abuse with drama. It’s too easy to force sympathy on a character by making him or her a victim of abuse. And it’s too easy to announce “this is a deep, serious play” by introducing abuse as a theme. I’ll say it again – every theme, every subject, everything that happens in the world is a legitimate subject for drama. Some of the best pieces of fiction and theatre document what which we find difficult and uncomfortable to talk about (see Albee, Edward). But when it comes to documenting the pain and trauma of rape and abuse, the author must utilize tremendous tact and responsibility. Using abuse as a catalyst for a riveting story or character background is one thing; using it simply as sensationalism or to throw some turmoil into your play is exploitive and dishonest.

By the way, I would love to see another play by the author of that piece I despised so much. Anyone who can inspire that much contempt with an honest attempt at theatre is someone I want to keep a close eye on. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she turned out to be brilliant.