How do you kill off a character on stage? That’s a question best asked of prop masters and fight directors. When we see a well-staged death, we automatically assume that the death in question is fake, perhaps involving a bit of choreographed combat and some stage blood. However the death occurs, the performance will end with the victim rising from the stage, hopefully to the audience’s applause.
But the history of stage death is stranger and more complicated than the relatively tidy scenario that we’ve come to expect in mainstream Western theater. Coming into contact with death in the context of live performance offers a thrill that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere. Even today, when movie directors like Eli Roth or TV shows like The Walking Dead can depict death and dismemberment with excruciating degrees of realism, there’s still some part of us that’s distanced from what we’re seeing, that’s coldly and rationally wondering, “How did they do that?” In a way, Western theater has made a 180-degree turn from its earliest days, when death was something so powerful and difficult to depict that it almost never occurred onstage, to the present moment, where the violent spectacles in plays by writers like Sarah Kane represent one of the few artistic means still available to a playwright who wants to shock jaded audiences out of their complacency.
More recently, the business of how to portray death convincingly has taken some gruesome turns. However, even the most stomach-churning special effects used in the modern theater can’t hold a candle to the most shocking and horrifying coups de théâtre of all: the execution of Roman prisoners by means of elaborate theatrical spectacles. Throughout these gory performances runs a common thread: putting death, whether imaginary or real, on stage points to something fundamentally unique about live theater’s ability to shock us, thereby grabbing hold of our attention and imagination.
Most undergraduates in a theater survey course learn that theater developed out of religious rituals. Plays had a sacred significance to those who performed in and watched them. That also meant that onstage scenes involving death were off-limits. When someone dies in an ancient Greek play, we usually hear about it via messenger, with the body coming out onstage afterward.
There’s one notable exception: In Sophocles’s tragedy Ajax, the eponymous hero dies midway through the play, which takes place during the Trojan War. Cheated by the Greek commanders of what he feels is his proper share of the spoils of war, the proud Ajax plans to kill them. But the goddess Athena intervenes and drives him mad, leading him to slaughter a herd of livestock instead. The ashamed Ajax then throws himself upon his sword.
That moment has caused fierce debate among classical scholars. As S.P. Mills says, “The text of the hero’s last speech seems to indicate that the death took place before the eyes of the audience,” which would break the convention of not showing death on stage. This has led to endless scholarly speculation about how that moment would have been staged, with answers ranging from the traditional offstage death to the radical alternative of having Ajax’s suicide happen at center stage in full view of the audience.
Whatever the truth, the Ajax controversy points to a fact that might surprise both the students and the professor in that typical theater survey course: The supposed rule against showing death onstage in ancient Greece never actually existed. It is admittedly rare, and there were still plenty of reasons that it might not have been done, from the practical matter of getting a “dead” actor offstage for a costume change to more nebulous standards of what did or did not constitute theatrical good taste. However, a playwright like Sophocles was, so far as we know, technically free to shock his audience by showing them the death of a hero enacted before their very eyes, and throughout the play he teases his audience with little hints that they are about to see just that. Ajax gives us a peek at the playwright as a showman—someone who hopes to make his audience jump in their seats and marvel at what they’ve just seen—rather than a lofty poet writing for posterity.
If the ancient Greeks were skittish about showing death onstage, their successors in ancient Rome had no such reservations. Mimes (the blanket term that the Romans used for most performers) did many things that range from odd (such as impersonating the deceased at funerals) to downright horrifying (at their most extreme, Roman performances became violent pageants involving mythological figures, live animals, and actual death). The idea was usually to provide Romans with a spectacle that would both entertain them and demonstrate the power of the emperor to “devise ingenious methods of ridding his empire of undesirable elements,” thereby “inflating his charisma by the reincarnation of myth.” Given Romans’ tendency to denigrate the profession of performer, it also could serve as a form of humiliation for the condemned.
These deadly Roman spectacles usually involved the retelling of a familiar myth, albeit with a nasty twist at the end. For instance, when the Colosseum opened in 80 CE, rather than trying to convincingly stage the mythic musician Orpheus’s dismemberment at the hands of a group of enraged women, those responsible for the entertainment decided to end the show with a version of the real thing. According to the epigrammatist Martial, they used all of the new venue’s capacity for scenic trickery, raising elaborate sets depicting cliffs and woods from underneath the Colosseum’s floor. Among these ran a number of animals, as well as the criminal condemned to play Orpheus. The performance was premised on a sick joke: The real Orpheus could charm any beast, no matter how savage, with his music. Unfortunately for the actor, the organizers introduced a bear who, utterly unmoved by his tunes, tore him to pieces.
Martial also mentions a popular play about a bandit named Laureolus. Laureolus met his end by crucifixion. But, since that was a time-consuming way of killing someone, the organizers of this play decided that, once the prisoner had been hung on the cross, they would bring in a bear to speed things up. (Bears seem to have been an especially popular way of dispatching the performers in these pageants.) Martial was oddly celebratory about the awful sight:
His mangled limbs still lived, though the parts were dripping with blood, and in his whole body there actually was no body… [W]hether in his guilt he had stabbed his master in the throat with a sword, or in his madness robbed a temple of its golden treasure, or stealthily set you alight with blazing torches, Rome. This wicked man had outdone crimes recounted in tales of old; in his case, what had been legend became punishment.
Despite the horrors he describes, Martial appears most impressed by the fact that these pageants manage to reenact the implausible myths of classical culture. Perhaps the worst example of this appears in another epigram, in which he addresses the emperor:
You must believe that Pasiphae did couple with the bull of Dicte: we have seen it, the age-old myth has been vindicated. Don’t let the ancient tradition be astonished at itself, Caesar: whatever legend rehearses, the amphitheatre provides for you.
The implication is that a female prisoner, condemned to death, was brought into the arena to be raped by a bull. Coleman suggests that this might not have been uncommon, pointing to a similar episode in Apuleius’s comic novel The Golden Ass. In that story, a woman condemned to death for poisoning must have sex with an ass in public. The joke, such as it is, is that the ass in this case is actually a man who has been transformed into a beast.
Whereas Athenian and Roman audiences had gathered in a huge amphitheater to watch tales of gods and mythical heroes, many theatergoers at the turn of the 20th century went to fairly intimate theaters, expecting to see harshly realistic stories about modern life, many of which involved death. Out of this demand for greater realism in the theater came the horrors of the Grand Guignol. This infamous theater used death much as Sophocles had, as a way to shock its audience; but when a Grand Guignol actor “died,” he or she did so in a sickeningly believable fashion.
The Grand Guignol has become a byword for excessive gore, but it began as a respectable offshoot of one of the most important theaters in modern French history, the Théâtre-Libre. Founded by André Antoine, this theater almost singlehandedly introduced the French to naturalism, a movement that advocated for a more realistic depiction of life onstage. Antoine became notorious for his meticulous attention to believability, going so far as to incorporate actual meat into the set for a show that took place in a butcher shop.
Oscar Méténier, who wrote for the Théâtre-Libre, was known for his mastery of comédie rosse, a style of play that, because of its focus on depicting the less pleasant aspects of life, garnered a reputation for “bitter cynicism.” It was seen as “maliciously ironic and nasty,” according to Daniel Gerould. Agnes Pièrron writes that Méténier’s former day job had been a chien de commissaire, or “police commissioner’s dog,” whose tasks included tending to condemned criminals on the night before their executions. When Méténier took over a failed theater in a former convent in 1897, he used this sort of experience to inform his plays and draw crowds. As Frantisek Deák tells it, he would routinely arrive at the theater just before showtime, dressed in black and flanked by bodyguards, and loudly inform the audience of some horrible crime that had supposedly just occurred.
When it came to showmanship, however, Méténier couldn’t come close to Max Maurey, who took over the Grand Guignol after one season. Maurey ushered in the theater’s golden age, bringing on playwright André de Lorde, who soon became known as “the Prince of Terror” for his blood-curdling scenarios. Maurey also showed a flair for publicity, spreading rumors that audience members had fainted during shows and then very publicly hiring a doctor to add to the theater’s staff. Maurey stepped down in 1914, but his successor, Camille Choisy, was just as adept, drawing crowds by pulling stunts such as buying an entire hospital operating room to use as a set.
Throughout Maurey and Choisy’s tenures, the Grand Guignol still aimed for the sort of realism treasured by Antoine and Méténier, but it was increasingly focused on applying that realistic aesthetic to the awful ways in which the characters on its stage met their various ends. For instance, de Lorde’s Les Infernales involved a scene in which “the face of one of the inmates of a mental hospital is burned on a stove.”
Choisy’s purchase of the operating room set led him to commission plays that offered the audience the thrill of getting to watch surgery performed right before their eyes. Choisy’s star actor, Paula Maxa, became known as “the most assassinated woman in the world,” and the characters that she played were “shot with a rifle and with a revolver, scalped, strangled, disemboweled, raped, guillotined, hanged, quartered, burned, cut apart with surgical tools and lancets, cut into eighty-three pieces by an invisible Spanish dagger, stung by a scorpion, poisoned with arsenic, devoured by a puma, strangled by a pearl necklace, and whipped,” among other horrible fates. Her proudest achievement, involving the use of a projector and a strategically hidden body stocking, was to decompose onstage while an astonished audience watched.
Perhaps the most important figure at the Grand Guignol was stage manager Paul Ratineau, who devised many of the gruesome special effects. His stage blood recipe was a closely guarded secret, since it had the virtue of clotting as if it were real blood. He was also adept at hiding blood capsules in key locations around the set, in costumes, and on the actors themselves, which allowed for effects such as blood dribbling out of someone’s mouth after their character was shot in the back. The end result was a night of horrors, and “Maxa remembered that actors backstage used to count the number of spectators who got sick as a measure of the production’s success.” Only after further changes of ownership and World War II did the theater finally fail; as its last director, Charles Nonon, said, “We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things—and worse—are possible.”
The common thread that runs through these disparate eras of the theater is the thrill of seeing something frightening, disturbing, and shocking enacted live. In each one of these cases, the spectators might be able to look away, but they can’t completely ignore what’s happening right in front of them (even if it’s taking place in a huge amphitheater). Even when the deaths aren’t real, there’s something more immediate about witnessing and contemplating death and violence when it’s happening in your presence, rather than within the confines of a screen. It’s a lesson that more contemporary playwrights, such as the late Sarah Kane, have absorbed and used to chilling effect in works such as Blasted and Cleansed. A 2016 production of the latter at the National Theatre in London caused theatergoers to faint, just as the blood and guts of the Grand Guignol did a century earlier. Going forward, the ability of live performance to shock and transfix us may prove a valuable tool, not merely as a way to surprise audiences, but as a means to force us to confront ugly truths about our society that we might choose to avoid if we encountered them on TV.