I’m a Playwright, and Trigger Warnings Trouble Me

What right has anyone to tell me how audiences should experience my plays?

Careful, you might be triggered. Or robbing the playwright of their authorial authority.

Imagine that you’re seeing Hedda Gabler, Uncle Vanya or The Seagull for the first time and you receive a message before the curtain that a gun will be fired. Now you’re waiting for it; the message you received has more emphasis than anything else in the play. Even for those of us who know these plays well, this message, this reminder, may still dominate our experience of the play.

Yes, I’m writing about trigger warnings and why, as a playwright, they are problematic to me. I do realize that strobe lights can trigger an epileptic seizure. However, they are rarely part of the story that the playwright has constructed. And warnings about smoke? Here’s the truth: audience members will cough when they see smoke, even if you tell them ahead of time that the smoke is fake.

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And now to caveats that audiences are receiving more and more: warnings about sexual violence and warnings about offensive language. They make me want to ask this question: What did Shakespeare’s audience do? Everything happened right in front of them. I mean everything, including “Exit, pursued by a bear.” By denoting potentially upsetting events in a performance, as reminders that you would read right before the performance starts, any element of surprise is gone.

I go to the theater to be taken into a world. I want to be unsettled, frightened, angered, even offended, because those elements shake up my complacency. Theater is live. When I go to see a play, there’s very little to protect me from what happens and that is why I love the theater. Movies? Movies are violent, offensive and rarely stop my consumption of my popcorn. (I also avoid movies that have a lot of violence. If they have a lot of violence, I leave.) In other words, I think audiences need to take responsibility for what they may see in plays.

Audiences aren’t children.

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Let me talk now about the really big bomb: rape. I wrote a rape scene into my play Casanova. Actors John Seitz and Erica Alexander, with the help of director Michael Greif, worked out the blocking. Erica was standing on the couch, facing John, saying that what she wants is Casanova’s life — his freedom. The actors and Michael came up with this horrifying image of Casanova putting his hand over her mouth and forcing her down and then climbing on top of her. Soon after the rape, Casanova exited, using this crab walk that John developed when he worked with Robert Wilson. It was so creepy, seeing Casanova become a crustacean. The young woman then gets up and Young Casanova, played by Ethan Hawke, comes out of the armoire where he’s been hiding and tries to comfort Erica’s character and then he just exits, helplessly. And then the young woman’s mother, played by Marylouise Burke, berates Erica’s character for giving away her prize — her virginity — which her mother has been trying to sell. There was no trigger warning and everyone survived. As the author of the play, I say a trigger warning would have destroyed the power of this scene. I say that everyone would have waited for the rape, and the play would have become about nothing else. I believe audience members would have said to themselves, “I wonder if this is the scene with the rape.”

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How are playwrights to continue to write plays with complexity and surprise if we have to give away those moments with signage telling the audience that this or that upsetting event is going to occur in what they’re about to see? We live in strange times, with censorship knocking on all our doors. Don’t answer the damn door. Stay with the play and where it takes you.

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Constance Congdon
Constance Congdon has been called "one of the best playwrights our country and our language has ever produced" by playwright Tony Kushner in Kushner's introduction to her collection Tales of the Lost Formicans and Other Plays. In addition to Formicans, which has had more than 300 productions worldwide, her plays include: Casanova, Dog Opera (both produced at The Public Theater), Losing Father's Body (Portland Stage), Lips (Primary Stages), Native American (Portland Stage; Lyric Hammersmith Studio, London), The Children of the Elvi (Key City Public Theater), A Mother (starring Olympia Dukakis), new verse versions of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. Congdon's No Mercy and its companion piece, One Day Earlier, were part of the 2000 season devoted to Congdon at the Profile Theatre. Newest plays include Paradise Street, Take Me to the River, Enemy Sky. Congdon thanks the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Mellon foundations for being there for her.