Theater and Drama
It is no surprise that dramatists throughout history have drawn such creative inspiration from the subject of death and dying. Because of the difficulty of confronting this topic on a personal level, death as portrayed on the stage remains a powerful magnet for theater audiences. Aesthetic theory suggests that art is a major tool in humanity's quest for self-understanding. Humankind's perennial preoccupation with its mortality and identification with the characters who are metaphorically standing in for us in this once-removed space of the stage allow for the collective exploration of this most difficult of subjects.
Since Aristotle, the motif of death has permeated drama. The life and death of the hero of Greek drama was inextricably bound up with his or her sense of honor. This concept of dying for one's honor was carried through the Renaissance, particularly in Spain. In early medieval drama, liturgical plays ritualized death and dying with elaborate sets that depicted versions of the afterlife and the fires of hell. In these dramas, death was often seen as the great equalizer. In Greek and Elizabethan tragedies, the tragic flaw leading to the eventual demise of the hero was eagerly anticipated by audiences. There were the murders in Oresteia or Oedipus, and violent clashes in all of William Shakespeare's history plays.
In modern theater, there has often been a psychological as well as a real violence explored in dramatic literature. To Antonin Artaud, for instance, desire and death were a form of cruelty. His play The Cenci is about a girl who murdered her father to avenge her rape by him. Hélène Cixous claimed that "with even more violence than fiction, theater, which is built according to the dictates of male fantasy, repeats and intensifies the horror of the murder scene which is at the origin of all cultural productions" (1969, p.133). Modern drama has undoubtedly sustained this fascination with representations of death and dying on stage, where it exploits the components of both narrative and symbol.
Some scholars have suggested that death depicted on the modern stage was an attempt to transcend the fear of death and deny its finality by experiencing it fully or empathetically in the safety of the once-removed. The symbolic death in the theater acts as a double of our real lives and thus provides a cathartic experience. Even in some modern theatrical styles that seek to distance the audience from conventional identification with characters, there may be, nonetheless, a purgative experience for audiences. The plays and productions of Bertolt Brecht, for example, attempted to distance the audience from the narrative to enable viewers to maintain a critical perspective on the action on stage. But even in these distancing traditions, the audience is, in the end, at a sufficiently safe distance from the fiction of the play so that their actual lives triumph over the compressed and finite fiction of the stage. There may, therefore, still be a symbolic immortality possible through the semiotics of the stage.
Some suggest that the representations of death on stage offer one a kind of practice for one's own death, while others hold that the persistent theme of death on stage is a form of denial or avoidance. In her study of seventeenth-century drama, theater scholar Deborah Dogherty found that heroic characters enabled audiences to envision their own quest for immortality. Dramas of the Golden Age often involved a quest to overcome death a means of symbolic immortality, even if physical death was not overcome. This theatric development appears to be predicated upon Plato's insistence on a system of immortality wherein the soul exists before the body is born and is not, therefore, subject to death. Dogherty concludes, "As characters lived out their brief dramatic roles, the audience was reminded of the brevity of each individual's appearance in the ongoing drama of life, yet envisioned their own lives as somehow eternal" (1999, p. 2). In modern times, too, the conception of the immutability of the soul has persisted.
Although a character's death in theater may leave a void in the world, that absence is sometimes represented by a presence on stage. Since the ghost of Hamlet's father appeared to him, many plays have represented death with such ghostly apparitions. Isobel, in Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets (1992), appears throughout the play and is visible to the audience although she is often invisible to other characters on stage. Raped and murdered before the story of the play begins, the prepubescent Isobel finally understands that she has died and become a ghost.
Even in children's theater, the convention of the ghostly apparition is common. Stage adaptations of Dickens's A Christmas Carol have featured characters from traditional white, ethereal garments to vaporous projections on a scrim. Ghost Train, written by Betty Quan and based on the book by Paul Yee, recognizes the hundreds of Chinese workers who died building the Canadian Pacific Railway; the play presents a fourteen-year-old peasant girl who gives an account of her own father's death. After the father is killed, he returns to his daughter Choon-Yi as a ghost. Theatrically, the father is realized by a shadow/silhouette projected onto the scrim upstage:
CHOON-YI: What magic is this?
FATHER: The magic is yours.
CHOON-YI: ( running forward ) It is you!
FATHER holds his hands up, shakes his head, stopping CHOON-YI.
FATHER: No. You mustn't come closer.
CHOON-YI: What is it? Are you ill? Where have you been? I searched all over Salt Lake City, looking for you.
FATHER: I have left your world. I am no longer flesh and blood, but spirit.
CHOON-YI: No. It can't be. Nooooo. (2000, p. 38)
Disease and dying have also become topics of contemporary theater, given the pandemic of modern diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Tony Kushner's Angels in America is one example of the terror of AIDS realized theatrically. Margaret Edson's award-winning Wit explores the complex of emotions yielded by a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. In this play, Vivian Bearing's journey is a redemptive one. Her experience of cancer and death leads her, paradoxically, to the light.
War and death in drama remain intricately entwined as well. Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children is an example of life imitating art. This play about a canteen-woman serving with the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) was written in 1939 but was not performed until 1949 because of Nazi suppression and thus came too late to serve as the warning Brecht had intended: In the course of the play, Mother Courage witnesses the deaths of all three of her children. Howard Barker's play The Europeans, another example of a war drama, is set in the aftermath of the climactic struggle between Christianity and Islam in the seventeenth century.
Many contemporary playwrights have explored the great massacres of the twentieth century. John McGrath's Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun concludes with a scene that has a soldier, caught in the futility of war, falling upon his own rifle and bayonet. John Murrell's Waiting for the Parade explores the lives of five women who attempt to survive World War II at home. Death is omnipresent.
Drama critic Martin Esslin asserts that drama has become one of the principal vehicles of information, one of the prevailing methods of thinking about life and its quandaries. He maintains that drama is a mirror of real life: "The theater is a simulacrum—at its highest level, ordered and elevated to the status of art—of the real world and real life" (1987, p. 176). If, as Esslin believes, humans crave the collective artistic experience that theater can provide, these works also compel one to face the inescapable certainty of his or her own mortality. Paradoxically, of course, theater also reminds people of their great potential as living, sentient beings.
Artaud, Antonin. The Cenci, translated by Simon Watson-Taylor. London: Calder & Boyars, 1969.
Barker, Howard. "The Europeans." Collected Plays, Vol. 3. London: Calder Publications, 1996.
Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children, translated by Stefan F. Brecht. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.
Cixous, Helene. "Aller a la Mer." In Richard Drain ed., Twentieth Century Theater: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1995.
Dogherty, Deborah. Heroes: Death Denied in Selected Dramas of the Golden Age. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1999.
Edson, Margaret. Wit: A Play. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999.
Esslin, Martin. The Field of Drama: How the Signs of Drama Create Meaning on Stage and Screen. London: Methuen, 1987.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1993.
McGrath, John. Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. London: Methuen and Co., 1966.
Murrell, John. Waiting for the Parade. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1980.
Paller, Michael. A Christmas Carol: Based on the Book by Charles Dickens. New York: Samuel French, 1980.
Quan, Betty. Ghost Train. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2000.
Thompson, Judith. Lion in the Streets. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1992.