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david robertson   The Theatricality of Violence in America  
 
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  We Americans have no real need for history; we spit it out like a cherry pit." So writes one of my novel's characters, John Surratt, in his diary for early April, 1865. Surratt records this observation after returning from a Civil War battlefield with his employer, a commercial photographer. There the two had prepared a wagon-load of freshly-exposed photographic images of the recently killed soldiers. The public appetite for these grisly cartes de viste was insatiable during the 1860s. Great crowds had blocked traffic at Broadway to gaze at these frozen images of violence when Matthew Brady in 1862 first had offered "death studies" of the battle of Antietam at his New York photographic studio.

In his fictional diary, John Surratt also notes how his employer, an historical competitor to Brady named Alexander Gardner, had re-arranged the bodies on the battlefield before photographing them, readjusting the dead limbs for a more "artistic" pose, or "propping" a bullet-riddled soldier with a shattered rifle for an effect of greater dramatic "pathos." (As, in fact, the historical Brady and Gardner often both did.) This episode in the novel makes two impressions upon the mind of young John Surratt, and, I hope, upon the minds of my mature readers: first, that violence, through the popular medium of photography and, later, motion pictures, takes a peculiarly American turn in our popular culture. What sells is violence as a form of theatre, a private catharsis, or a form of personal creativity. Second, there is Surratt's observation that we Americans have no national taste for the bitter seeds of individual loss or suffering that violence brings. What we chose to recall in our images is the sweet, red pulp inside the theatrical romanticism of a violent act.

Violence not as irrationality but as a personal form of theatre is not too great an historical deviation from the experience of the Civil War, our bloodiest conflict. After all, "theatre of war" first came into popular useage during 1861-65. And do not forget that John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor who was himself the son of a more famous actor, chose to commit his first murder before a packed audience at a theatre. (Would even Edgar Allen Poe have dared that mordant symmetry?) The personal theatricality of violence became accelerated within our popular culture when the still pictures became the movies. I tried to suggest this theme by opening my novel, not in 1865, but in 1916, when the early film director D.W. Griffith contacts the elderly Surratt for his possible help in a re-enactment of Lincoln's assassination for Griffith's new movie, Birth of a Nation. (I will only point out that Lee Harvey Oswald's last act of freedom, after shooting President Kennedy, was to slip inside a movie theatre.) The French have given a name to this deliberate and personal theatricality of violence: Le Grand Guignol. But it took America to make a Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.

The mind of John Wilkes Booth within my novel is an attempt to prefigure this national national type of private theatre. Booth, as I describe him--and as he was historically--was, early in his career, one of the first American pop icons. He was handsome, photogenic, widely popular, sexually promiscuous, kindly to his adorers--and convinced of the personal possibilities of his wildly dramatic, violent act. I present Booth, in short, as a reborn, home-grown Dionysius--the god both of theatre and of destruction.

We are a long way from that night of horror on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre. But, more than a century later, violence is an American as cherry pie.
 
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Copyright © 1998 David Robertson.