Stage Fright

The history of bringing gore to stage and screen.

By Sarah Marshall

Thursday, September 22, 2016

 Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia and William Houston as Titus in William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, directed by Lucy Bailey at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, 2014. Photograph by Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images.

Like blue jeans and pornography, fake blood is much older than you think. It’s also a recession-proof commodity, which means the people who make our nightmares come true for entertainment’s sake have never gone out of work. But how much has changed between the days of stage and screen? Have our nightmare visions gotten worse, or has our thirst for simulated bloodshed always been as unquenchable as it is today?

The stage directions for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus include “seizing,” “stabbing,” “stabs,” “also stabs,” “Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand,” and “Enter Demetrius and Chiron with Lavinia, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out.” Like the rest of the show, the play’s stage directions were easier to write than they were to execute.

They also were not unique. George Chapman’s Jacobean tragedy Caesar and Pompey requires one character to enter with a sword “thrust through his face.” Later, another character “plucks out his entrails,” a feat that makes John Marston’s 1606 play Sophonisba seem almost tame, since Marston only calls for a character to enter with “his arme transfixt with a dart.”

“Uncle your blood flows fast, pray ye withdraw,” his nephew protests, but the company will have to get through eighty lines of text before the dart can be removed and the blood stanched.

More astounding is the fact that Sophonisba was originally performed by a troupe of adolescent boys. Based on the popularity of the simulated gore of horror movies and video games among teenagers today, it’s easy to imagine a troupe of Jacobean youths alternating between fear and delight as they create an imaginary massacre onstage, reveling in an Elizabethan Faces of Death. Today, as yesterday, the point of gorefests isn’t pleasure or revulsion, but an exhilarating whiplash between the two.

Shakespeare scholar Leo Kirschbaum marshals these theatrical examples, among many others, in his 1949 article “Shakespeare’s Stage Blood and Its Critical Significance.” Throughout Kirschbaum laments the fact that his fellow critics “have little to say” about Shakespeare’s “gore-spattered dramatis personae,” not to mention the “tangible, sensory actuality of the Elizabethan stage.” Among Kirschbaum’s contemporaries, those who did address Shakespeare’s violence did their best to mitigate it, rather than dwell on its details. Nearly seventy years later, there is still something revolutionary in Kirschbaum’s conviction that getting to the heart of Shakespeare’s work means not just absorbing its language and themes but appreciating the sticky, sweaty, gruesome gestalt of the Elizabethan stage.

Learning about the realities of Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ stage effects means understanding exactly what their audiences—coming from different classes and social stations but united by their desires—wanted from the theater. On the face of it, the answer Kirschbaum reaches is a simple one: blood and guts by the bucketful.

In order to deliver that, theater companies needed to be creative. The blood that gushed forth from a stab wound could easily be simulated by “a little bladder of vinegar prickt,” as it was in Preston’s Cambises, while George Peele’s 1589 play The Battle of Alcazar stages a disemboweling scene that calls for “a sheep’s gather”—the animal’s heart, liver, and lungs. The scene also calls for “three vials of blood” but doesn’t specify what kind. One can only speculate that they came from the sheep as well.

Elizabethan writings on the trickery practiced by con artists claiming magical powers may have lent theater companies some much-needed inspiration. If a sham warlock could rely on a dagger with a retractable blade to entrance an audience, then nothing could stop a troupe of actors from adopting the same tools, as long as they were savvy enough to recognize a fellow performer’s chicanery. And in a time when a claret-soaked sponge could convince someone of its wielder’s unearthly powers, it’s easy to imagine that theatergoers, confronted with the same effect onstage, would have a difficult time understanding where playacting ended and reality began. (In 1584 Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft would expose trickery employed by self-designated alchemists, clairvoyants, and conjurers. Stage blood, because it was never meant to be real, continued to feel as real as ever.)

“This trail of blood runs through the whole period and beyond,” G.F. Reynolds wrote of Elizabethan drama in 1940. “It must have been a messy nuisance,” he added, in a tone of near-exasperation. “But what of that, we may hear the stage manager saying, if he could give the ‘understanding gentleman’ a deeper thrill.”

Reynolds implies that there was something prurient about this “deeper thrill”—and that the relative restraint characteristic of twentieth-century stagings of Shakespeare’s plays merely allow the playwright’s genius to take center stage. The evolution of Shakespearean productions has been, Kirschbaum argues, an extended bowdlerization that transforms “the bathing of the hands in Caesar’s bloody corpse” from a “shocking gory effect” to “a solemn religious sacrifice.”

Mary Wells as Lavinia in “Titus Andronicus,” 1785.

What Kirschbaum claims is that this act of violence imbues the play with a greater solemnity, and a deeper meaning, than it might otherwise hold. He notes, for example, that directors who sought to diminish the violence in Julius Caesar were unwilling to let Brutus command his fellow Romans to “stoope” and douse their hands in the torrents of blood that poured from their murdered leader. Rather than believe that the moment should play out as the text seemed to dictate, both critics and dramaturges assigned the line to a different character or bent over backward to imagine the line as more of a metaphor than an actual command, one that would save Shakespeare’s Brutus from experiencing the visceral reality of his betrayal, and so might save the audience from experiencing it through him.

Why stage a scene of regicide so overwhelmingly gory that it might splatter the theater’s groundlings with animal blood? When we produce Shakespeare’s plays today, we often describe their power to speak to the eternal mysteries of death, desire, power, doubt, and love. Yet perhaps the most potent desire we bring to the theater has gone unchanged since Shakespeare’s time: to experience something that feels as close to lived reality as possible, letting us feel fearful, traumatized, and finally rescued, while remaining physically safe all the while.

Audiences who came of age in the multiplex know this craving all too well, and Shakespeare’s most faithful successors might be the filmmakers who are often as maligned as he is celebrated: horror directors. The horror genre’s apex—or its nadir, depending on a critic’s point of view—may have arrived in 1974, with the release of Tobe Hooper’s classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The movie is memorable less for its carnage—which, considering the title, is surprisingly restrained—than for the actual discomfort its cast experienced during filming. The shoot forced the actors to live the story they told as literally as a Shakespearean cast would have experienced the “seizing” and “stabbing” of Titus Andronicus.

Filming in the Texas heat, Hooper stretched his shoestring budget by buying real skeletons imported from India, which were far cheaper than artificial ones made in America. Actors wore the same clothes over and over again, never getting used to the stench that clung to them. Lead actress Marilyn Burns cut herself badly while filming a chase scene through the brush, and when a blood effect malfunctioned in the penultimate scene, she let her costar inflict a real cut on her hand. The result is one of the most uncomfortable movies ever made, and—during the Final Girl’s hard-won escape—one of the most exhilarating. The audience, exposed to a film whose cast experienced the violence depicted almost as viscerally as the characters they portrayed, shared the sensation of being hunted, trapped, and finally freed. The story, contrary to what the filmmakers hinted for promotion’s sake, was fiction. The effect on the audience was real.

Few iconic horror movies have ever been as cheap, raw, and gritty as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the horror movies that manage to transcend the presumed limitations of the genre use the same techniques to brand their images into theatergoers’ memories. In 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow had to portray a vulnerable and increasingly distraught young woman, a task director Roman Polanski managed by subjecting her to actual danger and discomfort. Farrow wrote in her memoir, What Falls Away:

When Roman wanted me to eat raw liver, I ate it, take after take, even though, at the time, I was a committed vegetarian. While we were shooting on Park Avenue, he had the idea that I should absentmindedly walk across the street into moving traffic, not looking right or left. “Nobody will hit a pregnant woman,” he laughed, referring to my padded stomach. He had to operate the handheld camera himself, since nobody else would. I took a deep breath—an almost giddy, euphoric feeling came over me. Together Roman and I marched right in front of the oncoming cars—with Roman on the far side, so I would have been hit first.

But Farrow herself was the mastermind behind some of the movie’s most visceral effects. When an interviewer asked her, at the time of the film’s release, about a scene in which Rosemary undergoes a blood test—the camera lingering on the needle in a nauseating close-up—Farrow said lightly, “Oh, it was my suggestion that it should be my arm.” Perhaps the best special effect is reality.

Today movies often feel more “real” than theater: we have become used to vicariously experiencing the pain and fear of people on screen, but attending a live play may leave us feeling trapped in our own roles as consumers of highbrow culture. We have come to regard live theater as an event that should inspire intellectual discourse, not full-body terror or the catharsis this terror can lead to.

All too many contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays support such expectations: the drama is staid and the gore is symbolic. The exception to this rule often comes when modern companies try to do justice to the play that once called for a messenger to “enter…with two heads and a hand”: Titus Andronicus.

In 1955 a staging of Titus starring Laurence Olivier used red ribbons to symbolize Lavinia’s blood. Today, some theater companies have become more daring—perhaps trying to reclaim the viewer experience we now turn to movies for—and everything old is new again. At Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company, Sandra Smith, the head of wigs and makeup, has been helping stage Titus Andronicus for nearly thirty years, and is just as practiced at creating false mayhem as were her Elizabethan predecessors. “Up to ten people went down each night,” she said of her first Titus, describing the fainting spells that afflicted the audience, “and some vomited, too.”

Smith has only grown more effective since then. These days she keeps multiple consistencies of fake blood on hand for different effects, including blood balls. The actress who played Lavinia in a 2013 staging of Titus could hide one in her mouth, then bite it when her attackers cut her tongue out and make it burst. “Don’t worry,” Smith told the Telegraph. “It tastes like toffee apples.”

There is something timeless about our desire to experience death and dismemberment as immediately as we can without running the risk of losing our own lives; about our need to suspend disbelief as thoroughly as we can, to feel the blood of the slain general as it gems our faces, and know both the thrill of violence and the safety of understanding that we do not have to dip our hands in Caesar’s blood to guess how such a stain might darken our souls.

If Julius Caesar’s assassination is turned into a stylized centerpiece, more metaphor than meat, we may miss the kinds of insights we can find only if we let a story unsettle us on every level: if we confront a scene that inspires not just intellectual engagement but physical discomfort. As audience members, our conscious minds can do only so much. Sometimes we need our guts as well.