October 21, 2012
On October 9, a small group of Yale Dramat and audience members sat in the Women’s Center, a space of warmth, for a reflection on the frightening but essential piece of theatre we had shared. The Center was hosting a talkback to discuss the themes and implications of A Lie of the Mind, which ran as the Yale Dramatic Association’s Fall Exhibition from October 4th to 6th. Lie, written by Sam Shepard, recounts the aftermath of Beth’s severe beating at the hands of her husband Jake. Beth (Bonnie Antosh PC ’13) is hospitalized and suffers brain damage; she moves back in with her parents (Jacob Osborne DC ’16 and Anya Richkind TD ’16) and brother (Cambrian Thomas-Adams BR ’13) to heal, while Jake (James Dieffenbach BR ’13), too, returns to his childhood home. The two families are forced together again after Jake’s brother Frankie (Jeremy Lloyd SM ’13) drives to Montana to find out if Beth is alive.
The story’s backdrop is already hard to comprehend: the unimaginable violence committed by a person toward someone he supposedly loves. Yet it occurs before the play even begins. More truly, Lie is the story of the trauma that follows abuse itself. For Beth, the physical functions of speech are slow to return, as are her thoughts, memories, and logic. Yet every person in the two families struggles to form memories and connections. In dialogue, the characters’ disconnect is very often surreal. Near the beginning of the play, when Frankie breaks the news to his mother Lorraine (Stephanie Brandon MC ’13) that Jake has hurt Beth, she replies, “Who?” In Beth’s house, a parallel event takes place; her mother Meg does not remember Jake or the couple’s wedding.
The production’s set design brilliantly highlighted the unreality and spontaneity of memories, featuring a backdrop strung with family photos and even a photo of a hunted doe; a photo would glow with soft backlights in subtle conversation with the experience or memory of a character onstage. Throughout the play, remembrance and forgetfulness repeat as the things that matter to characters fluctuate and shift. Connection and disconnect repeat, as at times characters seem not to notice each other’s existence.
After the play, many who watched wanted nothing more than to be with each other, to talk and to listen. I had a long coffee with the friend I had gone to the show with, analyzing symbols and dialogue: What did it mean that Jake kept insisting about Beth after his abuse, “She’s dead,” and why did Beth begin to believe that Jake was dead? The next day, two friends were talking about it when I arrived to watch a different movie with them: What is it that Lorraine says her ex-husband put into her, and is it for a similar reason that Meg says of her daughter, “Beth’s got male in her”? Halfway through the film, we took a break and analyzed the movie through the lens of Lie. The conversations were comfortable, because they were analytical, but emotions surged beneath, and we were all aware that what the play drove at – violence, love, and abuse – were realities beyond the scope of the intellect. I had not anticipated these conversations, and I drank them in; yet, still parched, I sought out the talkback.
In the Women’s Center discussion, a topic arose that, through its scope and relevance, worked toward quenching my thirst: the role and acceptability of the arts in portraying violence. Antosh, who played Beth, said that this issue had been at the forefront of her thoughts as an actor. She mused hypothetically, when theatre depicts an abusive relationship, “do you show full violence?” In the script, physically violent moments exist: Jake grabs his sister’s (Marina Horiates, DC ’15) wrists and threatens her, and Mike grabs Beth to take her outside. Yet Shepard does not script the staging of the most brutal event at the heart of the show, Beth’s beating. Like the playwright, Antosh too questions where the line lies between graphic displays as a means to accurately portray versus “fetishize” violence. Kate Heaney, SM ’13, Lie’s director, said that for her the salient question in a portrayal of violence is, “What function does it serve?”
In high school I acted in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers, which speaks, chillingly, of familial abuse. In that play, I believe, stage violence served a necessary function. My role was that of a teenager that had internalized childhood abuse and, in one scene, violently retaliates. As I acted in the scene each night, pins and needles would overtake my body and smother all feeling in it; so that after the fight my stage fall was an honest collapse. Being a part of that show was essential to my emotional growth and ability to process grief. Watching Lie three years later brings a hum of nostalgia to my limbs, the mixture of pleasure and pain that can yield understanding and healing. Theatre such as this, if you are to connect with it, is a personal journey. The characters’ struggles become, for those watching the play, opportunities to triumph.
Beyond this personal journey, theatre holds an important social function. If any connections are formed between the audience member and a character onstage, there is at least some human culture shared between the two. From these recognitions there follows a responsibility. If realism of characters is assumed, then it means that some people in an audience member’s culture could behave as those onstage to; that is, to return to Lie, there exist the conditions for abuse. It is the audience member’s responsibility as a participant in the art to acknowledge this reality. For this purpose—exposing truths of life—much of art exists.
As participants in the performance of A Lie of the Mind, then, we must acknowledge the realities of familial abuse and intimate-partner violence in our own culture, perhaps close to our own lives. We must actively engage with these realities. After Jake’s abuse, the characters are unable to connect and remember, to provide the connections and memories to help each other to heal. They have few words to describe the horrors of violence on home life. They have no shared vocabulary, no basis for communication.
In contrast, we as watchers have gained valuable tools. We have the vocabulary of art, the basis of the play itself to serve in our conversations. We have glimpsed ourselves in theatre, and we can speak in warmth, holding coffee and forming connections meanwhile. Horrible, incomprehensible things sometimes take place, but the least we can do is to notice each other’s existence. There’s no solution outside of togetherness, no solution that leaves out communication. The play has been, for me, as a small warm comfort in the unimaginability of abuse. I am hopeful that art will continue to serve this purpose on campus: creating collective memories and forging connections. We can create the art that begins these conversations.
A. Grace Steig is a sophomore in Yale College. She is the copy editor for Broad Recognition.