The Witness Turn in the Performance of Violence,
Trauma, and the Real
While much attention has already been given to the ethics of practice involved in repre-
senting violence and trauma on stage, recently there has been a shift in focus towards
the ethics of spectatorship. Here, I identify two trends in the ‘witness turn’ and the
issues that surround each. The rst trend is the attempt to congure audiences as wit-
nesses in a way commensurate with the concept of witnessing in Trauma Studies. The
second is the desire to charge spectators as complicit creators in the production of vio-
lent and depraved theatre.
Criticism on the representation of trauma, violence, and the real in perfor-
mance has recently shifted from the stage to the auditorium. Instead of focus-
ing on the ethics of practice, commentators are increasingly raising the issue
of the ethics and function of spectatorship. This reects, in part, a growing
desire by practitioners in the eld either to congure the audience as a witness
or, to charge the audience with being complicit in the creation of violent or
depraved performance texts. The attempt to engage audiences as witnesses is
prevalent in what Carol Martin refers to as the “Theatre of the Real,” which is
characterised by the use of “practices and styles that recycle reality” (5). In this
type of theatre, the strategy of conguring the audience as witnesses can be
seen as an attempt to instil a duty or “responsibility” for the “other” akin to that
described in Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics (Levinas 17). In order to achieve this,
practitioners seek to invoke the semantically conrmatory or authoritative
witnessing found within trauma and Holocaust studies. There is often a con-
comitant desire or expectation that audiences witnessing such performances
will be driven to efect political or social change. This is seen as further proof
of ethical witnessing. The other less prevalent but more provocative strategy
of charging audiences as culpable creators is exemplied by the work of the
contemporary British playwright and actor Tim Crouch. At the heart of
both audience-oriented strategies is an attempt to shift the audience position
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and identity from that of a distant viewer to that of an ethically responsible
witness. In one strategy, the audience is often directed to bear witness to a
representation of a sufering, marginalised or traumatised other, as in a docu-
mentary production such as Clare Bayley’s immigrant drama, The Container.
Conversely, Crouch’s strategy is designed to highlight the moral and ethical in-
adequacy of current audience viewing patterns, where the aim is for audience
members to bear witness to themselves in the act of consumption, and to ac-
cept responsibility for their choices. The dramatically diferent nature and fo-
cus of these two strategies point to a schism in the current audience turn.
These contradictory practices reveal not only a lack of coherence in approach,
but also, as is shown, a lack of understanding about the role of, and conditions
required for, ethical witnessing or spectatorship. This chapter discusses the
above strategies in regard to recent dramaturgical practices and theoretical de-
bates with reference to The Container by Claire Bayley and The Author by Tim
Bayley’s documentary play The Container was rst staged at the 2007 Edin-
burgh Festival by Nimble Fish productions and was then restaged by the Young
Vic in a co-production with Amnesty International in 2009. Tom Wright di-
rected both productions. The 2009 production serves as the focus of analysis in
this chapter. The play is set in a shipping container and recounts the journey of
ve illegal immigrants from Somalia, Turkey, and Afghanistan to their hoped-
for destination of England. Bayley spent a number of months interviewing
refugee groups in London about their experiences. Bayley’s and Wright’s inten-
tions were to highlight and, in part, to recreate the experience of the refugee/
illegal immigrant. This extended to staging the play within an actual shipping
container and locking the audience in the same dark and claustrophobic space
as the actors-as-refugees, thereby attempting to enrol the audience as witness-
es through close proximity and through a type of phenomenological equiva-
lence, a point discussed below.
The Author (2009) recounts the efects of the production of a highly success-
ful and shockingly violent, ctitious play, written by “Tim Crouch” and staged
at London’s Royal Court, the home of British In-yer-face theatre. In The Author
Crouch (who played himself in early productions), two actors (using their real
names) who ostensibly appeared in the ctitious play, and another actor play-
ing a regular Royal Court patron relate—without ever showing—details of the
rehearsal, content, and traumatic aftermath of that play.
All the performers sat amongst the actual audience, who were arranged in
traverse, with no playing space between the two banks of seating.
The play begins with the cast inviting audience members into friendly
conversations. A more insidious project emerges as “Crouch” and the other
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actor-characters gradually interrogate the audience’s viewing choices and
implicate them as co-creators or authors in the making of similar plays. The
audience’s gaze is turned on itself in an act of unwanted and confronting self-
. Tim Crouch (left), Vic Llewellyn, and the audience in The Author, Royal Court
Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 2009. : .
. Adrian Howells (glasses, with Maltesers) and the audience in The Author, Royal
Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 2009. :
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The strategies employed in both The Author and The Container enrol the
audience as witness(es) and challenge traditional notions of theatre spectator-
ship. In The Container, audience members are cast as allegedly ethical wit-
nesses to a representation of a traumatised or sufering other. This (re)
conguration of the audience’s role is achieved in part through the use of dra-
matic material that is linked to real people and events (in this case, the plight
of refugees/migrants). Crouch’s strategy in The Author is markedly diferent:
the audience is denied the opportunity to watch or bear witness to a fully
staged performance per se. Instead, the focus and gaze are pointedly directed
back on the audience themselves as they are made to bear witness and to ap-
praise their own spectatorship. Crouch explains his rationale in a letter to a
disgruntled Author audience member:
We are all responsible for this world—decapitations occur and are lmed
because the perpetrators know that there will be an audience. Children
are abused and lmed because there will be an audience. The audience is
also responsible. I had to name the worse thing because the worse [sic]
thing is out there—not perpetrated by anonymous “evil” villains, but per-
petrated by people not that much unlike ourselves. (“The Author:
Hence, Crouch seeks to confront audiences with the ethical implications of
In terms of the rst strategy, more commonly found in Theatre of the Real,
the notion of the audience’s being able to witness a real other is problematic.
Janine Hauthal nds it dicult to ascribe to theatre audiences the status of
witness: “On the one hand, its [theatre’s] ephemeral nature makes any percep-
tion of a live performance an act of witnessing. On the other hand, the ction-
ality ensured by the theatrical frame is exactly what diferentiates spectators in
the theatre from witnesses in real life” (349). In conventional terms, witnessing
occurs in theatre when something real happens, such as the fatal fall of Cirque
du Soleil acrobat Sarah Guillot-Guyard during a performance in 2013:
“It was just an instant,” said Madelyn Bell, 17, of Pensacola, Fla. “She just
fell. She hit the ground, and you could hear the scream.” Within an hour,
Guillot-Guyard was dead. The audience at the Grand, which had
paid to witness one of Cirque du Soleil’s world-famous death-defying
productions, had witnessed the unthinkable: a performance death,
thought to be the rst in Cirque du Soleil’s 29-year history. (Pearce,
Gilonna and Keegan)
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In efect, the fatal accident created a reality break in the ctional world of the
performance. Although there were arguably moments of suspension in this
incident, where the ctional contained the real, this was a case of witness
through accident rather than through dramaturgical ploy. It is unlikely that
simply pointing to the real world in a performance (through representation)
would have the same efect; nor, as in the case of the Cirque du Soleil accident,
would it ensure ethical witnessing.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency to elide the notion of real world witnessing
with the notion of active spectatorship in theatre. This is an unproductive eli-
sion that Caroline Wake argues has stalled witnessing theory (“The Accident”
n.pag.). Wake follows Jacques Rancière, who, although noting that there are
difering levels of engagement, contends that all spectatorship is in fact active:
the “spectator also acts. . . . She observes, selects, compares, interprets. . . . She
composes her own poem with the elements of the poem before her” (13). To
examine the assumptions and theoretical underpinnings of the two strategies
central to this investigation it is necessary to look more closely at the terms
witness and witnessing, and their signicance in relation to the audience, spec-
tatorship, and ethics.
Carole-Anne Upton identies the “commonplace” practice to “congure au-
dience members not ‘just’ as spectators or onlookers . . . but as engaged wit-
nesses, with the disposition to take action in response to what they see,” adding,
The term “witness” has been energetically embraced in theatre discourse
over the past few years, as much to signal the honourable intentions of a
given production as to invoke an ethically invigorated aesthetic for per-
formance in the presence of an audience. (3)
Both “public integrity and artistic practices” are relevant to performance ethics
and Upton nds both problematic, particularly in terms of ensuring respect for
the other and self, and in relation to issues of “physical and emotional vulner-
ability” (3-4)—points examined further below. One of the problems in ascrib-
ing to theatre audiences the status of witness is that the term is slippery, with
diferent categories and denitions appearing across various paradigms. “Wit-
ness” is both a noun—a person who sees an event rst-hand—and a verb—to
see an event (usually of some signicance) take place, or to give evidence or
testimony verifying an event. As already noted, the term is reserved usually for
individuals who experience a real event either directly or through live media
The term has additional resonances and wider applications within certain
academic elds. Wake observes that current preoccupations with the witness
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in theatre and performance studies correspond with the emergence of wit-
nessing as a concern in the humanities generally, and in particular with the rise
of trauma studies in the 1990s (“The Accident”). Theatre theorists engaged in
witness discourse commonly turn to gures such as Levinas, Shoshanna Fel-
man, Giorgio Agamben, Cathy Caruth, Dominick La Capra, and Zygmunt Bau-
man in trauma and Holocaust studies. The witness has special signicance in
these interrelated elds, often within a therapeutic context, and particularly in
terms of arming the traumatic experience of the other. It is not possible to
ofer a detailed analysis of the theoretical witness discourse in trauma and Ho-
locaust studies within the connes of this chapter. However, it is possible to
note a number of the key ideas that appear to inuence current theoretical
debate and dramaturgical practice in theatre and to register how these may
operate in relation to The Container and the strategy to enrol audience as wit-
nesses in performances of the real.
In the simplest terms, the original trauma “survivor” (Caruth 6) is consid-
ered a “direct” witness (Kaplan 2), or “survivor-witness” (Hirsch and Spitzer
156) to her or his own experience. That experience may be elusive due to the
temporal and memory distortions, performative repetitions, deferrals and gaps
that often accompany and characterise traumatic experience and its symp-
toms. Indeed, the overwhelming and distorting nature of traumatic experience
and its resistance to language or representation have often led to its being con-
sidered unrepresentable. As a result, attempts to represent the trauma of oth-
ers have often been considered near impossible and unethical. For example,
writing about the Holocaust, Theodor Adorno argues that representations
such as Arnold Schoenberg’s Survivor of Warsaw do an injustice to the victims,
allowing their sufering to be aestheticised, publicly consumed, and possibly
enjoyed. Moreover, they work to change that which is beyond comprehension
into something manageable and meaningful, and in the process contribute to
“clearing up the past” (189).
Julie Salverson identies similar injustices, or what she refers to as an “Erot-
ics of Injury” or an “Erotics of Sufering,” occurring in documentary and verba-
tim theatre that has sought to represent the traumatised other (“Change on
Whose Terms” 119, 123). Indeed, it can be argued that verbatim plays such as
David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003), directed by Max Staford-Clark, and
Jonathan Holmes’ self-directed Katrina—A Play of New Orleans (2009) aesthet-
icise the sufering of the other for public consumption and render meaningful
that which is unmanageable, as well as helping to move the represented trau-
matic events into an historical past (Little, “In and Out”; “Repeating Repeti-
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In trauma and Holocaust studies, the role of the witness has an important
ethical status. Recent attempts at reconguring audiences as witnesses appear
to seek to mirror the way the role is conceived in these elds and could be seen,
in part, as endeavouring to address the various charges of exploitation, ma-
nipulation, voyeurism, victim silencing, retraumatisation, and generally un-
ethical or naïve approaches in recent representations of the traumatised or
sufering other on stage (Harris; Salverson, “Performing Emergency,” “Change
on Whose Terms”; Wake, “Through the Wire,” “To Witness Mimesis”; Bottoms;
Witnessing through being present at the testimony of an actual survivor-
witness is considered an ethical activity and one that is of benet to the survi-
vor-witness. The primary survivor-witness’s experience may be armed,
therapeutically worked through, and preserved for history, through having her
or his testimony witnessed by others who in turn become secondary or vicari-
ous witnesses. Perhaps the most famous example of this was the trial of Nazi
war criminal Adolf Eichmann, at which a hundred Holocaust survivor-witness-
es presented their testimony before the court and international media. Shosha-
na Felman argues that giving testimony at the trial allowed the victims to gain
historical or “semantic authority over themselves and others,” and that those
who witnessed the trial were entrusted to carry “the memory of the trauma
event into the future when all known survivors have gone” (127). Part of the
semantic authority to which Felman refers undoubtedly also comes from the
testimony’s occurring within a trial, giving it legal authority. Similar thinking
appears to be behind the claims by verbatim theatre practitioners that, in pre-
senting the testimony of the other, they give “voice to the voiceless, face to the
faceless” (Wake, “To Witness” 105).
In the case of The Container, Bayley and Wright appear to seek to engage
audience members as witnesses through immersing them in a world and cir-
cumstances that are presented as being closely akin to that of actual survivor-
witnesses. The production emerges as a facsimile of a face-to-face experience
with an actual other, and as a result may be susceptible to charges of aestheti-
cisation, deception, and appropriation. Furthermore, the therapeutic benet
that actual refugees may receive from the performance is debatable. It is pos-
sible that survivor-witnesses may nd some comfort and perceived semantic
authority in having their stories told in such productions. However, survivor-
witnesses themselves rarely (re)tell those stories in performance, or, if they do,
almost invariably this must be to full “the primary function of the event”
(Jestrovic 163), namely to create theatre.
Nonetheless, it may be possible to argue that The Container invokes ethical
witnessing if it sparks in audience members a desire to efect social or political
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change and to carry the memory of the depicted trauma event into the future.
Certainly, practitioners such as Tim Etchells argue that a witness-like presence
at a performance can spur change and instil responsibility:
[T]o witness an event is to be present at it in some fundamentally ethical
way, to feel the weight of things and one’s own place in them . . . the art-
work that turns us into witnesses leaves us, above all, unable to stop
thinking, talking and reporting what we’ve seen . . . borne on by our
responsibility to events. (17-18)
However, there is no guarantee that a performance will have this efect. As Kar-
ine Schaefer reminds us, “once one moves out of the realm of theorizations,
any attempt to unilaterally equate spectators with witnesses collapses under
the multivalency of audience reactions” (17). This is reected in criticism of the
production of Bayley’s play: “The Container shows us that we have indeed de-
humanised these people. We don’t care, because we have no concept of what
they have been through. This important, award-winning piece provides the
concept. It is up to the audience what they do with that” (Atkins). Moreover,
successful conversion of passive audience members into responsible action-
orientated witnesses would rely, at least in part, on the ability to be shocked or
confronted through the presentation of new information. However, as another
reviewer notes, “[o]ne suspects that the people who will choose to see this
show will know most of what it tells them already and will be aware of the is-
sues involved” (Tripney). To confront an informed audience and recongure
them as witnesses may require tactics other than simply re-presenting infor-
mation about refugee issues.
A logical but potentially risky solution to this problem may be to nd a pro-
vocative new way to present the information. This would seem to be the logic
behind Bayley’s idea of setting and staging the play within a shipping contain-
The real story—the story of what people have come from, what they have
gone through to get here, and what they are confronted with when they
do arrive. . . . As a playwright, it was this I wanted audiences to under-
stand. And if they could get some sense of what those stories involved by
experiencing them from the inside of a container, then so much the bet-
Thus Bayley places the audience in an environment where members may os-
tensibly become secondary witnesses to the sufering of the refugee as well as
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potentially primary witnesses to their own discomfort as pseudo refugees
trapped in the same claustrophobic space. The close proximity of audience
members to the represented immigrants, within an oppressively claustropho-
bic space (lit only by torches held by the actors), can be seen as attempt at an
immersive theatre of equivalency. In this audience members not only suppos-
edly witness the refugee’s sufering, but also purportedly come away with some
knowledge of the experience of the refugee/illegal immigrant other because,
for a brief time, they appear to have shared the same circumstances. It could be
argued that this aggressive attempt at producing vicarious or secondary wit-
nessing is similar to Jane M. Gaines’s concept of “political mimesis,” where, by
watching a “‘radical documentary’ [lmed documentaries in Gaines’s exam-
ples], purportedly the body of the audience member mirrors the sensations
and emotions of the bodies on screen and is provoked in an ‘almost involun-
tary’ act” (90).
This suggestion of equivalency is problematic. Geraldine Harris is con-
cerned by accounts from theatre and performance studies that construct the
medium of performance as an ideal(ised) site for thinking or even “staging”
ethics or politics. In such approaches there can be a degree of abstraction and
decontextualisation that allows for slippage between gural and literal resis-
tance and subversion and/or between the ethics of “witnessing” a performance
and “witnessing” an actual signicant event (10). The risk of audience mem-
bers’ believing that they are sharing an experience akin to that of the other is
increased if some level of empathic identication or vicarious traumatisation
occurs. Of course, traumatising audiences presents a whole new set of ethical
problems. There is not the space to deal fully with this aspect here. However,
theatre-makers who traumatise audiences are working in precarious ethical
territory. It should also be noted that what may traumatise one individual may
not traumatise another, making it dicult for practitioners to determine the
possible impact of their work as well as making it possible for accidental trau-
matisations to occur.
To return to issues of witnessing and the other, vicarious trauma is possible
in secondary witnessing, but, as E. Ann Kaplan explains, “the spectators do not
feel the protagonist’s trauma. They feel the pain evoked by empathy-arousing
mechanisms interacting with their own traumatic experience” (90). Therefore,
while the spectator-as-witness appears to share the same experience of the il-
legal immigrant/refugee, this experience is not the same. This conation of
experience and the idea of apparently gaining knowledge of the other (in real-
ity and through representation) is highly problematic in ethical terms and is
contradicted by the notions of respect and responsibility prescribed in the
work of Levinas and Dominick LaCapra.
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Levinas advocates an ethics of a preconceptual and preexisting responsibil-
ity to the other, whereby the self is realised in relation to the other and may
only be found in a face-to-face encounter with the other:
The epiphany of the Absolutely Other is a face by which the Other chal-
lenges and commands me through his nakedness, through his destitution.
He challenges me from his humility and from his height. . . . The abso-
lutely Other is the human Other (autrui). And the putting into question
of the Same [I or self] by the Other is a summons to respond. . . . Hence,
to be I signies not being able to escape responsibility. (17)
Michael L. Morgan explains this encounter as involving a plea and command
from the other and in turn an unlimited responsibility for the other by the self
The idea of co-presence (a face-to-face encounter) with the other resulting
in ethical responsibility may seemingly translate well to the live exchanges of
theatre. However, Nicholas Ridout and Helena Grehan acknowledge that a the-
atre encounter is intrinsically at odds with many of Levinas’s ideas. “For Levi-
nas, art gets in the way of the ‘real’ call of the other” (Grehan 13). The theatrical
encounter “removes the unknowability and anonymity of the face: it dilutes
the absolute quality of the demand to innite responsibility; it obscures the
idea that the self comes into being only through this encounter with, and in-
nite subjection to, the other” (Ridout 55). In other words, for Levinas it would
seem that the mimetic and representative elements of theatre place the whole
encounter with the other at a mediated distance, whilst simultaneously ren-
dering concrete that which is unknowable, thereby denying the circumstances
needed for both the emergence of the self and the instilling of responsibility.
Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of interest in Levinasian ethics
amongst theatre researchers, who attempt to reconcile the incompatibilities
that the philosopher’s ideas present in theatrical contexts. Grehan, for exam-
ple, has blended Levinasian ethics with Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of ambiva-
lence, to ofer “radical unsettlement,” characterised by a disruptive dramatur-
gical practice that promotes ambivalence in spectators, keeping them, she
argues, “engaged with the other, with the work, and with responsibility and
therefore an ethical process, long after they have left the performance space”
(22). This notion has some similarities to LaCapra’s notion of “empathic un-
settlement,” according to which, instead of a reductive empathetic identica-
tion with the other, “the other is indeed recognised and respected as other,
and one does not feel compelled or authorised to speak in the other’s voice or
take the other’s place, for example, as surrogate victim or perpetrator” (27).
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LaCapra’s notion, however, would seem to preclude the use of actors as proxy
for the sufering or traumatised other as well as render suspect any witnessing
born of the practice (Little, “In and Out”). For Levinas, it may never be possible
to encounter the other through representation; in Grehan’s and potentially
LaCapra’s terms a theatre practitioner may be seen to facilitate an ethical en-
counter if he or she can create the conditions for ambivalent or empathic un-
In trying to replicate the experience of the other in performance, and in
placing the audience in a position where members may uncritically empathise
with and presume to know the other, The Container, however, misguidedly col-
lapses the perceivable distance between self and other. As such it is dicult to
ensure ethical witnessing because of the dangers involved with the blurring
and conation of real and represented experience. There are performances
that potentially do lend themselves to ambivalent or empathic unsettlement
and/or ethical witnessing, such as Kamp (2005), by the Dutch theatre group
Hotel Modern, which represents the Holocaust through the use of video cam-
eras, a scale model of Auschwitz, and a multitude of small, handmade puppets
that represent both the prisoners and the executioners. There is no attempt to
represent the other with live actors (hence no opportunity for straightforward
empathic identication) and no dialogue to render the unmanageable man-
ageable. There is no mistaking this for a real encounter with the other. Never-
theless, the production had a powerful haunting quality that served, in Felman’s
sense, to carry the memory of the trauma event into the future and thus poten-
tially to facilitate ethical witnessing of a kind. In another, very diferent exam-
ple, the production of Howard Brenton’s #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Wei Wei,
directed by James Macdonald at the Hampstead Theatre in 2013, succeeded
conceivably in avoiding ethical transgressions because the play was created at
the request of the artist himself. The play details Ai Wei Wei’s eighty-one day,
politically motivated incarceration by Chinese authorities. The Guardian re-
viewer notes that Ai’s imprisonment might also be seen as one of his most po-
tent political artworks (Barnett). The production and its live streaming around
the world (also at the artist’s request), as well as the social media links, worked
to refocus public attention on Chinese politics and human rights abuses, the
subject of many of Ai’s artworks. The production encouraged audience identi-
cation through a sympathetic and accessible portrayal of the artist. Beyond
this, however, the production not only aforded Ai semantic authority as a sur-
vivor-witness but also played into his project of political dissidence. Brenton
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I am very aware that it is not at all dangerous for me to write the play
while it could be very dangerous for him. But it is what he wanted and it
has been a privilege to help. In an early rehearsal during a discussion with
the cast and production team, it suddenly dawned on us that we have all
now been sucked into the vast Ai Wei Wei project! And very willingly. (8)
This is, of course, a rare example of a survivor-witness’s initiation of a perfor-
As discussed, despite the current drive to do so, there are many factors and
issues that work against attempts to recongure audience as ethical witnesses.
While there is an implicit suggestion by practitioners, such as those involved in
The Container, that audiences must be directed towards ethical spectatorship,
in The Author Tim Crouch explicitly accuses the audience of unethical specta-
torship. Furthermore, he uses the audience’s very presence at his play as evi-
dence of transgression. Where the creators of The Container attempt to create
new understandings through placing audience members in an intimate and
immersive up-close encounter with a represented other, Crouch provokes au-
dience self-reection by removing the opportunity to watch an onstage repre-
Through the course of the play the audience listens to increasingly disturb-
ing accounts about the process of creating the ctitious play that highlight the
unethical behaviour of the creators towards not only their fellow practitioners,
but also ostensibly real-world others. For example, the female actor reveals,
“I went to a shelter for women who had sufered domestic violence. I was
really lucky. I met a woman who had been raped as a teenager by her father.
That’s just like my character, I said” (Crouch, The Author 40). The “lucky” iden-
tication is not with her own experience but with that of her character in the
play. Crouch and the actors also describe watching internet footage of actual
beheadings as well as of soldiers’ raping a woman, in order to gain further in-
sights into the issues explored in their ctitious play. Crouch declares to the
audience, “I rewrote quite a bit after that!” (37). One reviewer describes
the gradual shift in focus during the course of the play from the performers
to the audience:
Almost imperceptibly at rst, references to sexual and violent enormities
creep in, gradually moving into the foreground until we are question-
ing the proprieties of using such events, such knowledge, in drama.
Do we devalue people’s traumas by plugging them into an actor’s char-
acterisation? Do we risk such energies spilling of the stage? Do we
grow desensitised ourselves? How far are we as spectators prepared to
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authorise such possibilities? The repeated questions to us, “Can you see
all right?” and “Are you okay if I carry on?” draw more muted and uneasy
responses from us as we watch, chiey, ourselves and our own reactions.
The Author is thus a critique of the ethics of both practice and spectatorship.
Near the end of the play, Crouch confesses to and describes raping a baby. In
this, Crouch alludes to other notorious plays involving violence towards babies
that have been staged at the Royal Court, in particular Edward Bond’s Saved
and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. While Bond and Kane stage that violence, Crouch
seeks to absolve himself of unethical charges in this play by not showing the
rape on stage, thereby also denying the audience the opportunity to view and
potentially take any pleasure from viewing the depraved act. Nevertheless, the
images forcibly materialise in the minds of audience members. One critic de-
scribes the phenomenon:
The audience are collaborators who are required to use their imagina-
tions to conjure up images. So it is with this bold, brave, playful piece, a
devastating rif on ways of seeing and turning a blind eye to our own
moral choices. As collaborators in this story, we become complicit in
. Tim Crouch and the audience in The Author, Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre
Upstairs, 2009. : .
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. Esther Smith (standing) and the audience in The Author, Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 2009. :
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what is seen and unseen. Even if we close our eyes and sew up the lids,
the choice has been made, and the pornographic images roll like a movie
inside our heads: what has been seen takes root, grows and multiplies.
The strategy is undoubtedly unsettling and also potentially traumatising and
unethical. Crouch and the directors capitalise on the audience’s conventional
position of polite non-intervention. While some audience members became
abusive in performances and others left the theatre, most stayed quietly for the
whole performance. Prior to the start of the scripted performance, the actors
engaged audience members in friendly conversation, easily eliciting individu-
als’ names and details, which were later inserted into the play itself (Freshwa-
ter 408). Helen Freshwater argues that, while the confronting content of the
ctitious show has caused outrage, part of the anger has come from the shift-
ing messages to audience members about the roles they should adopt in the
show: the amiable invitation to participate in pre-show chat transforms into
implicit threats of humiliation and exposure as personal details elicited during
those conversations are inserted into the dialogue. Audience members nally
come to the realisation that any comment or action on their part will do noth-
ing to alter the content or outcome of the performance (407-9).
James Frieze sees these “intensely contradictory signals” as indicative of a
mode of performance he describes as the “intrusive hypothetical,” which si-
multaneously “invites us in and shuts us out, praises our attentions and mocks
our apathy” (8). Frieze argues that such practices put “participation into crisis”
(21). Indeed, The Author works by placing opposing ideas about ethics and
spectatorship into play. Crouch encourages and seduces audience members
into participation, suggests that they have agency, and then actively denies
them any agency within the performance (except the right to walk out), while
at the same time charging them with complicity (because of their presence at
this performance) in the proliferation of other violent plays. The work operates
as a form of aversion therapy: audience members willingly attend a play fa-
mous for its violent and depraved content (the stimulus) and then are sub-
jected to a form of discomfort (here, negative self-witnessing through reecting
accusation and torment) in order to condition them against wanting to see
other depictions of violence.
While Crouch’s practices may be seen as sensationalist, he achieves a
troubling of many of the commonly accepted ideas about the role and agency
of the audience member. In this respect, his work succeeds where The Con-
tainer and other works prove highly problematic. Crouch’s answer is not to
represent the traumatised or sufering other, but instead to direct the audience
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members’ gaze back on themselves, to have them question why they seek to
view such things and to examine what this desire says about their personal
ethics and behaviour. However, behind this strategy is the presumption that
Crouch knows the other, in this case the minds and ethics of the audiences
who attend the production. While he may not seek to represent an external
real other, he does seek to represent the real audience (present in the theatre)
through the inclusion of an audience surrogate character (the Royal Court
regular) and through using personal details derived from actual audience
members in the performance itself. As a result, he too is guilty of ethical trans-
gression with regard to the representation of and approach to the other.
The practice of critiquing and attempting to shift audience expectations
and viewing patterns is not unique to Crouch. Underlying many of the current,
well-intentioned strategies surrounding witnessing and spectatorship is a sug-
gestion that audiences can and should be directed towards specic behaviour
or responses. In trying to recongure audience members as ethical witnesses
or spectators, practitioners presuppose individual audience member’s posi-
tions and capacities as well as assume that he or she may not see the “truth
behind the image and the reality outside the theatre” (Rancière 12). According
to Rancière, such directive dramaturgical ploys do an injustice to the audience
and follow “the logic of the stultifying pedagogue, the logic of straight uniform
transmission: there is something—a form of knowledge . . . on one side, and it
must pass to the other side. . . . What the spectator must see is what the director
makes her see” (14). In this respect, rigorous attempts to endow the audience
with the agency of the witness or attempts such as Crouch’s to force audience
self-reection may also be seen as examples of condescending or totalising en-
counters between practitioners and the audience. Additionally, Crouch’s strat-
egy involves an attack on the audience and the invocation of disturbing images
that may traumatise some members. Hence, any attempt to recongure audi-
ences as witnesses must involve not only consideration of the ethical ecacy
in representing the other but also the ethical implications involved in presum-
ing to know and redirect the audience.
There is much more to examine with respect to the witness turn in recent
theatre and performance. While ethical spectatorship is desirable, placing the
ethical responsibility for the reception and/or content of a production on the
audience is a precarious and dubious practice. The strategy of attempting to
recongure audiences as witnesses, as well as that of forcing audiences to wit-
ness their own unethical spectatorship, places the practitioner above audi-
ences as an ethical authority and it disrespects spectators and their capacities:
it assumes that audiences are homogenous groups who need to be directed
toward ethical behaviour by theatre practitioners. Attempts to recongure
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audiences as witnesses, through following models drawn from trauma studies,
tend to blur the real and the represented, laying the path for, among other
things, empathic identication and the conation of experience between self
and other. This is in direct opposition to the ideas of Levinas and LaCapra.
Grehan’s concept of ambivalent unsettlement suggests there may be ways to
circumvent Levinas’s strictures with regard to representation. Indeed, with
Kamp Hotel Modern ofers the possibility for an unsettling ethical encounter
with the trauma of the Holocaust by removing the opportunity for straightfor-
ward empathic identication. However, performances that involve audiences’
witnessing live actors standing in for an absent other tend to lack the agency,
authority or critical distance required for an entirely ethical encounter. This is
not to say that eforts to create ethical witnessing in theatre and performance
should be abandoned. The witness turn is an important and timely phenome-
non and may be seen as part of a larger ethical turn in theatre and perfor-
mance, but more work needs to be done to achieve a fully realizable practical
model for ethical witnessing (or a viable substitute), applicable to a variety of
theatrical and performance forms, to emerge.
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