*Please be advised this article contains explicit information about the plot and staging of The Duchess of Malfi and Girls & Boys, and (oddly enough) spoilers about the Scream film franchise.*
“Tabula Rasa”: The Duchess of Malfi, Girls & Boys, and Toxic Masculinity
Björk’s most recent album, Utopia, is in her own words ‘about a love that’s even greater’. It is beautiful and hopeful, ascending (as one reviewer puts it) to ‘a paradise of her own design’, and yet it exists in relation to loss, to the wound of her previous album Vulnicura, now healing – maybe healed. As with Vulnicura, Utopia is concerned with the disintegration of a relationship and a family. The song “Tabula Rasa” holds much of the numb fury that seethed throughout Vulnicura; yet it is the most intensely hopeful track on the album. What seems like cutting passive aggression directed at her ex is a warning and a mantra: ‘clean plate: / tabula rasa for my children / let’s clean up: / break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers’. Björk mourns the loss not of the man but of the model image, replaced instead with the reality of a man who ‘led two lives’, who ‘steal[s] our light’, and she longs to see her children lead better lives. But, personal though this album and Björk’s work often are, there are greater stakes in this song. (I will refrain from going off on one just yet, but Sophie Collins’ stellar poetry collection Who Is Mary Sue? considers sharply how women’s writing is often perceived as too personal and thus supposedly of lesser merit…) Björk, definite article in hand, takes on our patriarchal world: “the fuckups of the fathers”. This song is a battle-cry for us all to escape the sins of the past, for women to rise up and resist, for children to grow better. It is an apology for the mistakes of an older generation, in particular the men; she is ‘embarrassed to pass this mess over’ to her children, to us.
This is not about Björk (or Sophie Collins) but it is about a moment of junction just the same, a moment in theatre, shared between famed Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster, newly directed by Maria Aberg at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Girls & Boys, written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. These are plays written four-hundred years apart, directed over a hundred miles away from one another, in completely separate institutions with completely separate aims, and they are seeing the same “fuckups of the fathers” as Björk. They are considering the women who, to quote Björk, ‘rise’, and to somewhat paraphrase Björk, those who ‘just take it lying down’. This is about toxic masculinity and the women who orbit it, consciously or no, and the blood that they are steeped in.
Macbeth tells us that ‘blood will have blood’ and he is right; the play, of course, begins and ends in bloodshed, with the promise of further bloodshed to come for Fleance to install his line on the Scottish throne. There is a cycle of violence, biblical, “eye for an eye”. Somewhere, somehow, someone must break the cycle. Who has the power and authority to break the cycle? We do.
The funny thing is that neither play begins with blood. But both plays begin with toxic masculinity; where one is overt, the other is discrete, insidious. Toxic masculinity has, by its nature, existed pretty much perpetually; it has been written about, if not by name then by theme, since at the very least in a 1996 article by Ronald F. Levant. By name, a cursory search shows it is referenced directly – in the title – in a 2005 article by Terry A. Kupers. But it is now in the public consciousness in a new way. This is easily visible from looking at Google Trends information on the popularity of the search term; the peak of its popularity was in mid-February 2018, where it was over six times more “of interest” than in the corresponding part of February 2017.
But what is toxic masculinity? As a term since the 1990s, it has actively evolved, beginning as a descriptor for the effect of repressing masculinity, or the type of masculinity that is fostered without a male role model, always at the fault of women. Now, it is defined as a type of masculinity that is entrenched in old-world values, and harmful to those who exhibit it and to those in its radius; men as strong “alphas”, as breadwinners, sexually promiscuous and dominant, entirely self-dependent.
It is worth seeing how people differentiate between toxic masculinity and general masculinity or maleness. The two are not necessarily synonymous, and yet many refuse to see that. If you find yourself in the deeper (depressing) pits of reddit, you’ll see that the term is scoffed at by the sort of men who are themselves victims of toxic masculinity. We live in a world where men are so entrenched in a mythic past, an ideal of manhood vastly out-dated and evolutionarily surpassed, that they refuse to help even themselves. They would rather a hundred more mass shootings, a thousand more murders of ex-girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters… no death outweighing the meme.
The problem of toxic masculinity begins with men, and so do both of these plays. In The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess, played by Joan Iyiola, drags a bull carcass on stage; the stage is designed by Naomi Dawson to look like a brutalist gymnasium from your worst nightmares, a bare and restrictive environment that screams hypermasculinity. The Duchess is watched by her brothers, Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal (Chris New), as she single-handedly outmans the pair of them, dressed as they are in a salmon-pink suit for Ferdinand and something resembling a golfing outfit for the Cardinal (topped off with white shoes, white tight gloves and an easily-missed clerical dog-collar. These are not archetypal manly-men; Ferdinand, in the “girly” colour, is smartly dressed in a casual way, not quite a dandy but what some might call metropolitan. Meanwhile the Cardinal, a golf-player, does not exactly ooze athleticism, playing what is widely thought to be a more leisurely sport. His physical prowess is only ever situational; when the “chorus”, a group of muscle-men in work-out clothes, perform a charged movement routine to pulsing music beneath bright lights, the contrast could not be more clear.
Throughout the play these muscle men will transform as the Duchess’ position alters; performing for her as the muscle men, they stand around her as one panting mass. Then, as things begin to sour and her status is called into question, they take on an appearance akin to storm ninjas, pseudo-military, a reassuring presence when it seems that the Duchess is in control and then an increasingly imposing force as Ferdinand’s conspiracy closes in around her. When they come for her, Orlando Gough’s intense score once again swelling frantically, she squares up to them, forearms out in a bodybuilder’s gesture, shouting in a deep pitch in their faces, able to hold her own, an equal to them.
Their final form is as the madmen who sing and scream and try to drive the Duchess crazy – again, however, she identifies with them, their misery and insanity suited to the insanity of her current situation. As ever, these are dangerous men who watch her, and though she does not fear them, they are a harbinger of her imminent demise, a sign that things have gone too far. Perhaps a comment is being made here, that toxic masculinity unchecked is a ticket to lunacy and a danger to society. Indeed, when her executioners are summoned, they are madmen too, dressed the same, acting the same. In their faces, they do not appear out of the ordinary at all.
The other men serve as noteworthy contrasts. Antonio (Paul Woodson), whom the Duchess falls in love with, never attempts any kind of masculine energy; he is geeky, professional in a shirt and tie, spectacled, softly-spoken. Perhaps this also angers Ferdinand, who tries and fails to “be a man”. Antonio’s friend Delio (Greg Barnett) is another outlier; he too is more gentle in nature and is never seen in relation to a woman, only to Antonio; but during a rare moment of shared male intimacy, a hug between the two of them, they punctuate the hug with the well-known triple-slap of the “man-hug”. The only other moment of male intimacy, between the brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, is undercut by the clear unease between the two of them, by Ferdinand’s simultaneous resistance and need to be treated with gentle affection. And then there is Bosola (Nicolas Tennant), the play’s conniver, whom we instantly see as a man’s man, a “bloke”, and yet inevitably one who is past his prime, out of shape, out of favour, and more often than not out of breath. Bosola is a relic of what masculinity might have been, and he drives almost all of the murderous action of the play and, ultimately, is briefly rendered the final survivor – but more on this later.
There are, technically speaking, no men in Girls & Boys – just Carey Mulligan, billed as “Performer”, telling the story of her life, or more specifically how she met her husband, what led her to that moment and what followed, everything that has brought her here, onto this stage, talking to us. But this does not mean that men are absent. Her narration of past events paints a beautiful and clear picture of her husband, someone ambiguous at first who becomes likeable and then, ultimately, deplorable. Part of this is found and bound in the text, in Kelly’s hilarious description of this man, the Performer’s yet-to-be-husband, who she meets when he insults two female models, the pair of them having feigned interest in him to cut a queue. The Performer is amazed by his wit and his awareness of what these women are doing; at the same time she is unaware that she is complicit in a misogynistic response. Though the women are selfish and spoiled, it is an old trick that he deploys, alienating the women from those around them, drawing attention to their appearances, and then insulting them, likening having sex with them to an ‘act of necrophilia’. Funny stuff in the moment, mostly in the way Mulligan tells it; but by the end of the play you are guilty, kicking yourself because you didn’t see it coming.
Elsewhere, Mulligan’s descriptions and impersonations of her husband are responsible for how we see men; when she tells him about her first pregnancy, she describes his reaction: ‘the stuff that his muscles were made of suddenly became liquid. He started… wobbling, just gently wobbling. And then he sort of… folded down, he just concertinaed down onto the sofa, collapsing in on himself. Crumbling. And then he starts… to shake’. Put aside her reaction for the time being, the terror, how she shifts in a second from wanting this baby ‘badly’ to deciding ‘there and then to have an abortion’. She hinges so greatly on his wishes that she would compromise this newfound need in herself for him – but put that aside. Her description of his “crumbling” is stunning in its composition and its delivery, the constant restating and the interspersed ellipses, trying to articulate a weakness in a man that she does not have the vocabulary for. When Mulligan describes this “concertina”, something in her body bends ever so slightly one way that you can envisage it, this man bending under the slightest pressure. That she can communicate so much about this man in her own physicality is testament not just to her skill, but to the dynamism of gender, the fact that the human body can understand what the mind does not, man or woman.
Later, when things have gone ‘properly wrong’, she is going to divorce him and take her children; at this point he has ‘spiralled’ from losing his job, become ‘disgusting… this talking, moving dirty-puddle of a man’, no longer a ‘doer’. She approaches him, hoping he will fight for her to stay, and asks for the divorce; his response is blood-chilling. ‘I want you to listen to me – there will never be a time when you have my kids and I don’t. You are not taking them from me as well, that will never happen, I will never let that happen, do you understand that?’ The tone shifts, yes, but so does Mulligan’s physicality, suddenly imposing, violent in its stillness, stood at full height, tone clipped, face all but snarling with menace. If you have been through or around a messy divorce you might recognise this sort of behaviour, and that makes it all the more horrifying. The unreality of this man, often endearing but now seemingly irredeemable, is finally cemented when he says to his wife, the Performer, a newly-accomplished producer of documentary films, ‘don’t you have an award speech to prepare?’ She sees this as ‘the truth’ about ‘the reason he was destroying [their] life together’, a terrifying predisposition to self-destruction founded on feelings of inferiority, his inability to be the breadwinner, out-earned and out-shined by his wife. Mulligan physicalises this transformation to horrifying effect as her Performer prepares us for what is to come.
These men do not exist in a vacuum. What matters most in unpacking this problem is how women are positioned both in opposition and in apposition to these men. Indeed both productions present nuanced female characters who do not exist solely for the benefit, love, or gratification of men. The Duchess, following her strong first appearance, is clad in gloriously chic outfits and owns the space, constantly commanding those around her – verbally dispatching her controlling brothers, commanding her waiting-woman Cariola (Amanda Hadingue), and then both verbally and physically seducing her steward Antonio. The Duchess is a self-possessed woman who gets what she wants without ever seeming spoiled or – perish the thought – unlikeable. Indeed the moments between her and Cariola are some of the most compelling in this production; there is a natural tenderness, an intimacy almost entirely out of place. None of the heterosexual relationships that we see involve such honest closeness; even for the Duchess and Antonio, when they are intimate, it is always rushed, verging on paranoid. The Cardinal does not show an iota of warmth to Julia. But the Duchess and Cariola are often alone together, and talk together as equals despite their different statuses, and hold each other as family should, comforting and loving each other. In the moments before their separate deaths, they cling to one another despite themselves. There are few examples of moving, three-dimensional female friendships in much of the popular early modern dramatic canon, but Aberg teases everything out of this one to beautiful effect. There are few moments more harrowing in this play than when Cariola pleads to die with her mistress, and the Duchess wildly protests such a thing. That neither can live without the other; that the Duchess knows there is no hope for her but some for her waiting-woman, and dies holding on to that hope.
Cariola is an anomaly in herself – dressed stylishly, but never enough to upstage the Duchess, her role is also combined with that of the Old Woman (in Webster’s original text), so that she is the one who has an exchange with Bosola in which she charges him: ‘you are still abusing women’. This one line, prescient as it is, seems incongruous to the play and will certainly prompt some viewers – even those familiar with the play – to dig out their copies of the text and check if this is textually verbatim. It is. And with a line that can be said to no less effect four-hundred years later, in a production that is overtly concerned with the female struggle in a world consumed by toxic masculinity, it is a crucial line. To give it to Cariola, who dies pleading for her life and lying about being betrothed and pregnant to sway her executioners, and who lives entirely in service of her mistress, the woman of the lowest social class of the three women who appear in the production, the only woman we do not see in any romantic or sexual relationship, a woman who is even derided – casually, but derided just the same – by the Duchess and Antonio… it is no accident that Cariola takes this line. When the women are dead and their bodies removed, and there are no more women to abuse, the four men will abuse each other, until there is nothing left at all.
Julia (Aretha Ayeh) is no less fascinating – we see her first as youthful, denim-clad and idealistic having snuck away from her husband to be with the Cardinal. The audience is not asked to pass any judgement on this adulterer; our first impression of her husband is of some old fool, while we can see very clearly that the Cardinal is a manipulative and angry little man who has ensnared Julia and lashes out at her for being so ensnared. Only a few moments into their first on-stage meeting, he rapes her, taking one white glove off (with his teeth) to do so, Julia crying the while. She is another product of violence, who later staggers onstage like a bewildered Blanche Dubois, powerfully singing ‘I Put A Spell On You’ upstage, to the accompaniment of crashing drums, as the Duchess and Antonio dance downstage, blissfully unaware. The song is about control, about having control over another person; the song is also about witchcraft, and numerous people accuse the Duchess of such. But the song, sung by Julia, seemingly about the Duchess, is a jarring moment, highlighting if anything the delusion of ownership, establishing the tragic stakes for when – after discovering that the Cardinal had the Duchess, Cariola, and two of the Duchess’ children murdered – Julia herself is murdered, by a poisoned bible no less. Julia, perhaps the most deluded, is the last to go. I will consider this triptych of murders further; first, I return to the Performer, and her performance of independent womanhood.
Girls & Boys is a one-woman show; it doesn’t get more independent than that. There are scenes – many of them – about her relationship with her husband, and just as many scenes about her children, domestic scenes that when they first begin are initially uncomfortable and unexpected, the domestic scene hidden behind a panel for the first ten minutes of the play. But from the moment Mulligan appears, dressed in red flowy trousers and a dark yellow top, hair scraped back out of her face, feet bare and a shoulder’s length apart, there is something inherently “masculine” (or at least what we would call masculine) about the Performer and how she carries herself. As if she is used to not being taken seriously. Few female characters come up in the story of the Performer’s past, but one is particularly prevalent and, in some ways, reminiscent of the Cariola-Duchess bond; the Performer’s boss, Veronica.
The Performer looks up to Veronica, and describes her admiration for the ‘legend’ Veronica at each opportunity when Veronica comes up. She is praised for her work and her demeanour: the Performer says of her ‘I thought you are now and always will be my hero’. A relation built on mutual respect amongst women and not quid-pro-quo, not in any way impacted by men. But Veronica leaves the business in time; ‘fifty-two years old and she adopts this beautiful, beautiful little girl and gets the hell out’, to much derision from the Performer’s colleagues, who ‘snide’ about her toughness, and then her childlessness, and then for getting a child. No matter what she does she is openly disparaged by her staff. The key detail is almost buried: ‘the judging – men and women, by the way – the judging’. Men and women are complicit in the cruelty that Veronica faces, just as the Performer is complicit in the casual misogyny her future husband exhibits when she first meets him at the airport.
It is no coincidence either that she has two children, a boy and a girl (Danny and Leanne). Leanne is the other female character in the play and though she is not portrayed by an actor, she comes to life, endearing in her smart-ass insistence that she be allowed to build a Shard out of mud in her bedroom. In this first domestic scene we see that she is smart, rebellious, funny, and interested in creating. In other scenes she is sensitive and aware that she is treated differently from her brother, that more is expected from her. She is described as caring and protective, and in so many other ways that are evocative of classic femininity and, in particular, motherhood. A mini-me, perhaps, which explains the obvious fondness that the Performer has whenever she mentions Leanne, her firstborn.
Danny, on the other hand, is a different case – as an infant in the first scene he has made a mess of his food and at one point even hits his mother. In later scenes, he destroys his sister’s ceramic chicken and laughs about it, and then in a pretend game insists on destroying an imaginary tower created in Leanne’s pretend game, with bombs and guns, and then insists on going to war and blowing everybody up. You can almost see Leanne being made to feel smaller beneath Danny’s vindictive streak, embodying these violent “male impulses”. In that very first scene, when the Performer upsets Danny by being strict after he hits her, she tries to soothe him, rocking him back and forth, saying softly ‘I know, mummy’s terrible… I’m a terrible mother, I’m evil, I am, I’m the worst mother in the world, I know’. The blame is not placed on the father or the malicious little shit but on her. In A Doll’s House Torvald tells Nora that ‘almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother’, who has poisoned the home and the very breath her children draw in. It seems that this meme – that the mother is solely responsible for the faults of the child – is alive and kicking in a barely evolved iteration. And so the Performer’s two children, the play’s title, its themes, all illuminate the central point, which is that the battle at hand is everyone’s, girls and boys alike. We must all acknowledge that men and women both tread a nervous tightrope as they try to keep themselves above the toxic flood.
In The Duchess of Malfi, the flood is made manifest in blood. Macbeth warned us that “blood will have blood”, while in Webster’s play, Ferdinand says that the Duchess’ ‘witch-craft lies in her rank blood’, an echo of Vittoria’s statement in The White Devil, ‘my greatest sin lay in my blood’. There is in this, to a modern ear, a sense of how religion has systematically denigrated women; there is also the allusion to female blood, especially menstrual blood, and how that is used to oppress and dismiss women today and always. The Duchess’ blood is never spilled, so when she defiantly proclaims ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’, this and any sin she may have – but more importantly the witchcraft and strength that sets her apart – remains in her body. Strangulation, like smothering, is an oppressive death, confining the victim, unlike the wound which opens them up. But perhaps there is some strength in how she dies with her power still inside her – a greatness that allows her to transcend the final bloodbath like an angel-avenger, that reminds us also of the arbitrariness of her murder, that though she is denigrated for her blood there is no attempt to actually shed it.
The central expression of toxic masculinity in Aberg’s production is blood, and the aforementioned progression from Duchess to Cariola to Julia’s death, a progression both expedient and terrible, is very much wrapped up in that expression. Each death serves as a moment of anagnorisis; the Duchess is aware of what is to come, has come to terms with the misogyny which she is ensconced in. More than that, she kneels in a pool of blood that has been slowly pooling on-stage after Ferdinand, surrounded by a chorus of howling men, stabs the bull-carcass the Duchess had dragged on-stage at the beginning, penetrating and opening a wound between its upheld legs. This blood is slowly soaking the Duchess’ dress; though stoic and prepared, there is a moment of hesitation. Then the strangulation begins, and the Duchess is dragged through the blood, gasping and gesturing wildly. Though her death is technically bloodless, the blood here becomes the symbol of female struggle and misogynistic oppression, a direct consequence of toxic masculinity, the thing that was promised by the blood that had been shed before. It is the logical beginning and end of the cycle, which soaks and covers her as knowledge, awareness of what the world is and what it means.
Cariola is more resistant: she pleads for her life, sure, but she also attacks the executioner, biting one of them, in her bid to escape from them, crawling (and sliding) through the same blood that her mistress struggled through moments earlier. There is no luck, and she dies fighting, having greatly bloodied and exhausted her executioners in the process. Julia, meanwhile, is the most surprising; poisoned by the Cardinal’s bible and thrown to the ground, bloodied, she attacks the Cardinal, who until this point had for the most part avoided the blood, only stepping in it when necessity called. But she pulls him down with her and – unlike Cariola, fighting the men to escape them – pursues the Cardinal, crawling after him like some bloody horror, and he is left skittering away desperately. Perhaps this is a sign of her desperation and dependence on him, that even in death she seems to cling to him. Or maybe, more likely, she has simply had enough, and wants her final actions to be of resistance, and more than that to expose the Cardinal to the bloody truth, the horror of the world that he thrives and murders in, that he will – in due time – himself fall victim to; after all, he will soon be coated thickly in that very same blood, in much the same spot where Julia herself dies.
There is no visible blood Girls & Boys; the set is completely off-white, perhaps a slight blue-tinge from the lights, with occasional bits of colour – an orange, a toy, smashed ceramic – interspersed throughout the domestic scenes. But there is blood, a lot of it, bubbling in the narrative and you don’t even realise. There is a real powerful cruelty to this play that I wasn’t expecting, and it comes at the end of the sixth “flashback” scene where the Performer is interacting with her children, the same scene mentioned above where Danny bombs his sister’s skyscraper. In the midst of a sibling argument the Performer very unexpectedly turns to the audience – she has never done this during these scenes, only in the direct “chats” that intersperse the scenes – and says unprompted ‘I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead’. It’s a punch in the gut for sure, vertiginous; and things begin to click into place. In that moment you realise she is not telling the story of how she met her husband but of how her children died. And you understand that she is alone, that her past is buried, like the domestic set itself, behind the same blank stage-wall that she stands in front of. The next chat begins some thirty seconds later with a confession: ‘I don’t remember exactly when things with us started to go properly wrong – I just remember suddenly finding myself in it’. The audience is propelled helplessly in her situation, overwhelmed, burdened by the knowledge that her husband is increasingly toxic and her children are dead and their father has not appeared in a single memory.
Several scenes and chats later the Performer is facing the audience, hesitant for the first time, and says ‘this is the hard bit. This is the bit that’s been coming and I think maybe you’ve known it’s been coming, but it is here now’. Suppressing the emotion, strong in the face of hundreds of strangers, peering out through the box of the stage, through the frame of lights surrounding her stage, she confirms our fears: ‘my children were stabbed to death’. Their father – her now ex-husband – comes to her new home, convinces the babysitter to leave, and kills his young son first in his bedroom, and then his daughter, who according to the Performer and her understanding of the crime-scene analysis, was pursued from the bedroom and killed at the front door. The death is measured in blood, and described in such meticulous detail that it is hard to fully focus (and it is still hard now to write about). The father cuts his son’s heart: ‘the wound to the heart was enormous, especially for a heart of that size, leading to a catastrophic loss of blood… The blood would have been shocking… I think it would’ve shocked him even as he did it.’ (Incidentally, when Ferdinand stabs the bull-carcass in Duchess and the blood begins to ooze, his initial reaction is shock.) His movement in killing his daughter is then tracked by ‘a bloody hand-mark, a smear on the bedroom door-frame consistent with someone moving at speed’; now the Performer lists the eight stab wounds to her daughter, pointing absently at each one… ‘and then he slit her throat to make sure’. The blood of her daughter is not described but in the visceral description of these nine separate wounds – especially the slit throat – the blood seeps in through the gaps in the imagination. All that’s left is for the man to shower the blood off of him, and then get dressed back into his bloody clothes. He throws himself off the roof after twenty-three minutes alone with those bloody bodies, and survives the fall, more broken than bloodied.
Ferdinand observes that Bosola has an ‘inclination to shed blood’, unaware even when it happens that he too has the same, that this is what the Performer calls ‘a thing that we do, this… incomprehensible violence thing… [a] male impulse’. This observation angers her husband, as surely it angers many men today; every “campaigner” claiming #NotAllMen, and the “Meninist” movement in general, will scream blindly, interspersed with threats of rape and murder, that not every man is violent and saying “that is sexist, you stupid cunt”. This is the world that we live in. A world founded on male bloodshed, predicated on its own renewal. The Performer muses on the constitution of society, on an academic’s supposition that society is created to enable and empower men; after everything she concludes that ‘we didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop them’. Part of toxic masculinity is the belief in the subservience of women, that women should be controlled by men. It is present in Duchess, as you have already seen; in Girls & Boys, the Performer analyses the phenomenon of ‘family annihilation’, perpetrated mostly by men (‘that’s not an opinion or a viewpoint or a controversial statement for you to ponder, it is just a cold, hard fact – 95% of the people who do this are men’), and determines that the ultimate root cause is control: losing control… exerting control… denying control to others’. Toxic masculinity insists on a mythical superiority – and by many today it is claimed to be biological, psychological, sociological, biblical, universal – but it is none of these things. It is a romanticised version of something that never even was. And it is destroying people, families, social orders, and fundamental societal conventions closely mirrored by the sorts of theatrical conventions broken by the dead Duchess, soaked in blood and still roaming, and the uncomfortable lapse (or collapse?) that happens when Carey Mulligan, still holding an imaginary child, turns to an audience that contextually she should not be acknowledging at this moment, and tells them that her children are dead.
Writing this, the horror film franchise Scream, by Wes Craven, has seemed especially relevant. There are thematic and formal similarities between revenge tragedies such as Duchess, and horror films such as Scream. But Scream, from the 90s onwards, has been speaking to our current age. It is a film about toxic masculinity, about a young man named Billy Loomis who, angry at his father for failing as a role model and cheating on his mother (leading to the disintegration of his family), kills the woman his father was cheating with: Maureen Roberts Prescott. Fast-forward, and he is dating Sidney, Maureen’s daughter, and begins a mass-murder rampage that he intends to culminate with Sidney, her father, and a number of other people caught in the crosshairs. His response to the wrongs of his father is to annihilate someone else’s family. Sidney also must pay for the sins of her mother, as women throughout history must. (In later films, she is paying for those sins, as well as the sins of Billy, and so many other men in her life.) Billy’s intention to justify his crimes by blaming them on the movies that inspired him is also relevant, in that men do as they have learnt but also never take the blame. The Performer’s son, Danny, is destructive like his father. “Blood will have blood”. Of course there is no shortage of blood in Scream, and the fake blood that Billy uses to convince Sidney, momentarily, of his innocence, in order to torture her with brief guilt, is a sign of the absolute remove he has from the awareness present in Duchess. This is also why he must be shot in the head: to completely excise the rot that exists in his brain. (Somewhat of a segue, the series is full of other men who murder because of their fragile masculinity; five of the seven killers are male, and of the two who are female, one is the mother of original killer Billy Loomis and is avenging her loss; in the first Scream, Sidney’s best [female] friend Tatum says it is ‘sexist’ to assume the killer is a male; all five of the male killers are young men, in some way emasculated.)
A concern with toxic masculinity and its logical trajectory is as entrenched in our pop-culture as it is in our theatre, particularly in images of blood. Aberg and Turner (and Kelly) have accessed a current and urgent zeitgeist to flesh out the contents; spilling the blood, they carry on the work of exposing what is rotten, and what this rot is doing.
There is another qualm to consider, in the authorship of these plays. Neither John Webster nor Dennis Kelly are women. For Webster – who was writing in a time with few known female contemporary writers – perhaps it’s not too much of a problem; the play is mostly told from the perspective of men after all, and it’s Maria Aberg, a woman, who frames it in such a way that the experiences of women is brought to the forefront. But Dennis Kelly is a living playwright, contemporary to our times, and single-handedly wrote this tale of female experience, through the vehicle of the female voice, to whom he does not even attribute a name. Why is this his story to tell?
Of course, men do have a stake in stories of toxic masculinity, and men must consider the ways in which they are complicit, and do what is within their means to affect change. After all, feminism and most other types of progressivism require, at some point, the cooperation of those who belong in the category of oppressor. True equality cannot be won passively. And the story that Kelly tells is necessary and timely and urgent. Perhaps it’s the female team who bring it to life: visionary set designer Es Devlin, director Lyndsey Turner and assistant director Milli Bhatia, and of course the Performer herself, Carey Mulligan, who keeps the audience waiting for every next word, who turns the mood from humour to tragedy with such unexpected ease that you could (literally) hear a pin (or, in one case, a penny) drop, all throughout the auditorium.
Again, I think of Björk. The song immediately preceding “Tabula Rasa” is “Sue Me”; the song is lyrically reminiscent of the closing track on Vulnicura, “Quicksand”, which begins the healing process following a difficult separation from her partner, finally considering the importance of female lineage. “Sue Me” is a direct reference to the custody battle between her and her ex-partner, deeply personal, and as with “Tabula Rasa” urges this man to think of the children, to free them from a legacy of hurt and hate: ‘he took it from his father / who took it from his father / who took it from his father/ let’s break this curse / so it won’t fall on our daughter / and her daughter / and her daughter’. But Björk’s intensely personal writing is speaking of the world more generally, speaking to the women and the men locked in these battles now and throughout time. “Let’s break this curse”, she pleads; let’s stop doing this same thing over and over. In this personal narrative Björk accesses a universal truth, that it is up to us all to move past it, men and women both.
This naturally brings me back to Sophie Collins, musing on Joanna Russ’ observation that men have often objected to the quality of female writing because of ‘what she wrote about’: herself, her life, or – god forbid – other women.
I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female
protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a
thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.
Something like: a woman who tries to invent in literature will fail,
whereas a woman who succeeds in writing is believed to have done
so to the extent that she has been able to accurately portray the
details of her own life.
I am reminded also of Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, written and performed by Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava. Using their own experiences of womanhood, they crafted and performed a single, fictional character, in a Mrs Dalloway day-in-the-life affair; but this one woman, crafted by two women, constructed personally from the microcosms of the everyday, speaks to a very universal (or universally western, middle-class, educated) experience of womanhood. That’s why the play is resonant. The female writers have created a female protagonist unlike themselves, “non-idealised” or not, that speaks truth to something that an audience may struggle even to articulate. The fact is that they live this experience and are undoubtedly better at channelling it than a man would be.
So what of Dennis Kelly’s creation? He is not criticised in the same way that a female writer is; in such a way, perhaps the points he makes will leave more of an impression on those sexist minds who would reject such words if they were written by a female. On the other hand it is frustrating (and I say this as a writer who is drawn to female experiences and female voices, and a director who is keen to explore, foreground and facilitate those experiences and voices); why can’t this play, largely put together by incredible women, also have been written by one? I offer no answer or solution to this – I feel one of the reasons I can write this in the first place is because toxic masculinity concerns me too. So I offer only an awareness that Kelly has written a great work and this should not be detracted from on the grounds of his gender. And yet of course there is still much work to be done.
In Maria Aberg’s hands, the ending of Duchess differs from the text. Delio is denied his final lines and appearance, so that the play ends not with resolution or hope but with absolute death, a holocaust of blood-soaked corpses strewn about – the four men, actually. The children, Cariola, and Julia are already off-stage. Bosola’s final words, before death, diminish the world and its violence to ‘a kind of nothing’. The Duchess is there, conscious and watching even though she is dead, situated above the others, upstage, first in a seat and then eventually on the steps, watching passively as the violence decimates her familial line and her societal order. The ending of the play becomes a story in itself of a savage, cannibalistic male violence – blood for blood – a toxic masculinity that has left nothing in its wake but more blood, and an uneasy legacy. The Duchess has one surviving child after all, orphaned by this violence, maybe free to break the cycle; but his final appearance onstage, earlier in the play, is troubled. He appears and leaves in a salmon-pink outfit, horrifyingly reminiscent of his uncle Ferdinand. We are not to know if he can or will break the cycle; we know only that it is unlikely, that it will be hard, that he cannot do it alone.
Girls & Boys is no more forgiving than Duchess. It seems prescient that the Performer’s husband does not die immediately; he lives as a reminder of her loss, as a continued torture to her. But also it puts him in prison, where he kills himself promptly. This confluence of prison and suicide perhaps comes quite strongly from a male writer, as these two elements are key components in the study of toxic masculinity. Much research done when “toxic masculinity” was a new term focused on prison culture; and today, we recognise the danger and prevalence that male suicide poses to our society. Many campaigners posit that male suicide is fostered by a toxic masculinity that puts unattainable expectations on some men, and makes it impossible for them to open up about how they feel. Lost and disappointed in themselves, they run out of options quickly and act with finality. The final bite in Girls & Boys is that, maybe, if you can move just far enough away from the Performer’s side of the story, and the emotional investment that has been established, just maybe there should be a little bit of sympathy for this parasite of a man. And that is something that men generally still need to realise: they too are victims of toxic masculinity, and feminism seeks to liberate them, too.
The play concludes with another of Mulligan’s memories, which prompts the question: what is the point of these flashback scenes, mostly domestic, and mostly full of discord? The Performer herself ponders: ‘I don’t know why when I do this it’s always moments of conflict… I mean it’s my imagination so you’d think I’d go for beautiful moments… like just sitting quietly with Danny asleep against me. And Leanne lying on my lap watching TV… maybe I don’t deserve… yet. Or earned? Or something’. In these domestic scenes we see the children playing out the same futility, perpetuating the cycle and the propensities of the genders that their parents represent: the caring and creative daughter and the selfish, violent son who destroys everything that his sister builds. The future generation is without hope if we don’t do something about it soon enough, if we just leave them on their own to follow our lead. And maybe the Performer isn’t hopeful enough yet. But the very final flashback is that exact scene she longs for, domestic bliss, sans father, rewarding and hopeful and peaceful. The final thing you see is the off-white furniture and props, her own tabula rasa, suddenly come to vibrant, colourful life, a miraculous feat of lighting wizardry. Perhaps she can be free from the horror and the anguish in her past. In this new version of the past, there is hope for both of her children and for her too. So even though the play is painful in its very composition, even though the Performer cannot really go back, we are given something to cling to. In order to face the outside world when the curtain call is over, I think we should cling on for dear life.
With the current rise of activism and awareness of gender issues such as toxic masculinity, even as we live in bleak and terrible political times, there is some cause to be hopeful, even amidst all this blood. And Björk is hopeful in “Tabula Rasa”; ‘it is time: / the world is listening’, she tells us, before closing the song with insistence, telling her daughter, telling the unknown but fondly imagined listener ‘you are strong / you are strong’. The Duchess of Malfi and Girls & Boys have presented and bloodily dissected the questions, the problems, the way that the world has been built up and is so often blown apart. The answer is implied, and the real tragedy of these plays is that no one ever sees it, at least not in time; Björk sees it. “Break the chain” – establish a new order. Men and women alike must learn and improve, or face the same bloody consequences.
The Duchess of Malfi continues its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 3 August 2018. Information and tickets are available here.
Girls & Boys has finished its run at the Royal Court; hopefully, for the good of the world, it will be revived, transferred or toured. In the meantime, information about the production is available here.
Björk’s ninth studio album, Utopia, is available from most good music stores and streaming services. It was released on gorgeous vinyl here.
Sophie Collins’ debut collection of poems, Who Is Mary Sue?, is available from most bookshops, or here. It was first published by Faber & Faber in 2018.
Mouthpiece first played in the UK in August 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has since played again in Sheffield and London. It will be returning to the UK in May and June 2018 for more touring appearances. Further information here.
Lyrics from Björk’s album Utopia are taken from the album liner notes on the UK limited edition coloured vinyl release (tplp1381ltd).
Lines from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster are taken from the fourth edition of the text edited by Brian Gibbons, as published by A & C Black Publishers (London, 2001, reprinted 2005). I saw Maria Aberg’s production first on 1 March 2018, and again on 14 March 2018.
Lines from Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly are taken from the script, published by Oberon Books in association with the Royal Court (London, 2018). I saw Lyndsey Turner’s production on 17 March 2018.
Lines from the titular poem in Sophie Collins’ collection Who Is Mary Sue? are taken from the first edition, published by Faber & Faber (London, 2018).
Mouthpiece, by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, is not referenced explicitly, but the script, published by Oberon Books (London, 2018), was consulted for this article. Comments about the individual experience of womanhood came from a Q&A that the writers gave after their performance in Sheffield on 3 March 2018.
Scream has been referenced from the archive of my own memory after a million viewings. Macbeth has been referenced (briefly) from memory.
*My initial micro-review of The Duchess of Malfi, posted online after the performance on 1 March 2018, is as follows: “I braved the blizzard last night to see the first preview performance of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ by John Webster at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, directed by the incomparable Maria Aberg, whose work has been inspiring me for nearly five years. I’d brave another dozen blizzards for this production. The talented cast never dip below “terrifyingly convincing”, with Amanda Hadingue as an endearing and passionate and fearsome Cariola, and lead by Joan Iyiola giving the performance of a lifetime as the daring, dauntless Duchess. Orlando Gough’s music brought to life by Musical Director David Ridley and played live to enormously atmospheric effect, was so fitting and powerful that I want to go back ASAP just to hear it again (those drums!). The stage design, courtesy of Naomi Dawson, brought the “toxic masculinity” of Malfi to painful life, and the use of blood in the second half was simply incredible. Also noteworthy is the brilliant movement (as ever) by Ayse Tashkiran, which especially in the second half became feverish and imposing. Ultimately this creative team has been brought into glorious union by Maria Aberg, easily topping her previous successes, and proving herself once more as one of our greatest directors. This staggering production of one of my favourite early modern revenge tragedies deserves a packed and celebratory run, and will hopefully seen by young audiences, who have so much to learn about this toxic patriarchal world.”*
*My initial micro-review of Girls & Boys, posted online after the performance on 17 March 2018, is as follows: “On Saturday I was fortunate enough to catch the penultimate performance of Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, directed by Lyndsey Turner, designed by Es Devlin and performed by Carey Mulligan, at the very brilliant Royal Court. This show hollowed me out and broke the husk that was left. I found myself struggling to hold back the sobs, such is the emotional force of this punchy story about a woman, her family, toxic masculinity, and the unexpected annihilation of lives. Mulligan performed the piece to flawless execution, captivating the whole room effortlessly for 90 minutes. Devlin’s design was (as always) a truly incredible complement to the production as a whole, its own expression of the themes and narrative. Quite simply one of the most effective, well-written, well-directed, well-performed pieces I’ve seen. The most urgent theatre-making and I only wish more people could see it in the near future.”*