Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that Ram’s Head Theatrical Society has recently wrapped up its latest production, “The Wild Party,” a 1999 musical based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name. A recipient of rave reviews, the show chronicles the budding romance (if one can use such a word) between the beautiful, blonde Queenie and her vaudevillian clown of a lover, Burrs, as they navigate the boundaries between pleasure and pain — or, consent and a staggering lack thereof.
But this is not another review of this specific production. Indeed, despite the best efforts of those involved to address the show’s heavier topics with care and nuance, there is little any ensemble could do in the face of such an irredeemable script — the content of which left me grappling with whether I was more offended by the blatant rape apologism or the quality of the show’s writing.
Beginning with an ode to the length of her legs (built, as we are told, to drive men mad), Queenie’s character is marked primarily by a ravenous sexual appetite, satisfied only by the violence of men. Burrs, presumably her sexual match, is introduced to us through a stunningly abrupt scene of assault against her — though among audiences of the theater, as well as the courtroom, it’s almost impossible to find a universal consensus on matters of consent. The aftermath of this moment of violence leaves Queenie with a desire to rekindle their flame by throwing a party, which ends up delivering more than she’s bargained for.
The main storyline of the show is continually interrupted by a number of other characters, each presenting us with whatever manifestation of moral degeneracy has brought them to the party. One of the most notable guests is, perhaps, Madeline the lesbian — the irony of whose biographical details are not lost on me. Her moment in the spotlight is marked by a predatory pursuit of the other women at the party (“She’s a very clever beaver, with a quality I like – she’s alive!”) and seems to explore the ways in which, to a 1920s crowd as well as to a modern one, queerness and violence are perceived as two sides of the same sexual debauchery coin.
But the guests whose presence really shakes things up are the exuberant Kate and her lover Mr. Black, who quickly becomes an object of interest to the insatiable Queenie. Quick to cast himself in the role of paternalistic savior, he confronts Queenie about the abuse she suffers at Burrs’ hands, all the while crooning about her broken life and broken soul — that cloak of trauma that drapes Queenie’s irresistible beauty in a seductive layer of pity. Mr. Black is infatuated with an image of Queenie that is “beautiful and bruised,” “virginal and used” — in other words, the cake that’ll let you have her and eat her, too.
Though the politics of victimhood are complex, Queenie’s attraction — like a moth to a flame — to the excitement of Burrs’ glorified brutality is hard to read as anything other than victim-blaming. The show purports to examine the twists and turns of the couple’s abusive relationship, but this exploration of abuse is, at best, immensely superficial and, at worst, nauseating in its fetishization of intimate partner violence — an issue which, for so many, is wrought with intense emotional dependency and psychological turmoil (neither of which is adequately addressed in this script).
Intended, perhaps, to highlight the gray area in a political issue around which victims have historically fought an uphill battle to draw sharper boundaries, the most magical quality of the show is its ability to conjure ambiguity towards the question of consent from thin air. The program addresses this ambiguity briefly: “All actions are the products of internalized voices of instinct and reason,” it reads. “Rarely do these voices agree, and the result of this disagreement is psychological turmoil that, in some cases … leads to acts that many consider to be repulsive and near inhuman.”
But rape is not an inexplicable act of instinct that gnaws its way through a thin layer of human rationality to an underworld of unbridled patriarchal fantasies. It does not occur in a vacuum, and its prevalence cannot be explained away by the mystical dance between good and evil. Rape is reinforced by a series of social and institutional structures that cater to toxic masculinity – romanticize the darkest and most misunderstood corners of the souls of men, and then teach those same men to see “dark and misunderstood” as prime real estate in the game of escaping accountability.
Don’t get me wrong — for many, the simple act of representation itself may be a force of healing. On Facebook, members of the cast shared a touching account of one person’s experience with sexual violence, and the ways in which they found this show helpful in their recovery process. But survivors are not a monolith, and I’ve reached a place in my personal processing where I’ve found that representation is no longer enough for me, where I’ve spent too long being consumed by voyeurs to not notice when a narrative is being stolen from our hands.
I struggle to place a finger on exactly what it was about the show that left me so vexed. Perhaps, at some level, I knew that there was a part of me that has yearned to be Queenie in a world where “beautiful and bruised” is what it takes to make people care about your scars. Perhaps, like Queenie, I’ve seen my own violence marred by accounts of long legs and blonde hair — seen enough about sexual trauma in the media to know that my best hope would be to perform the role of “broken girl” for any charming fool who promised to save me. Perhaps I, too, have a voice in my head telling me I did want it this way — that rape is a flame that might have ignited my soul, had I only learned to let its warmth in.
Or perhaps “The Wild Party” isn’t an exercise in presenting a nuanced portrayal of assault after all. Perhaps, like the party in the story, it is a façade for something different altogether — that is, an attempt on the part of corporate artists to use the trauma of marginalized communities as fodder for a passable plot. But even by “trauma porn” standards, the story lacks sex appeal — and indeed, I’ve encountered actual porn which has featured more compelling dialogue.
In the wake of this, and so many other musicals attempting to transform sexual violence into currency, I’m left reeling at the shallowness of an industry that is incentivized to sacrifice complexity in favor of spectacle. What will it take to hold such productions accountable? What will it take to engage with these experiences in a way which doesn’t involve recreating them using bodies that have already carried these burdens all their lives?
Frankly, I haven’t heard this much fanfare for rapist tears since the Brock Turner case — and in both instances, the line between the performance of solidarity with survivors and just plain performance is hard to spot. To members of theater communities both at Stanford and beyond: There is a difference between addressing a topic in a way that is meaningful and simply propping it up on a stage for the world to see. Visibility and empathy do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and in cases where a script does not leave room for both, it is crucial to know when to let a show die.
After all, it’s better to bury a text than to bury the voices of those for whom, once the music fades, this issue remains a literal question of life or death.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.