My play The Way It Is features Cane and Yasmine, a couple who have broken up. When Cane returns to the apartment they shared to retrieve his mother’s engagement ring, he is raped by his ex. At least it is my intention that he is.
When I first wrote the play, I showed it to two trusted readers; both said it was the best thing I ever wrote. So I sent it to some more friends, and while they liked the immediacy and the writing, they described Yasmine as crazy, which seemed to mean, to me at least, that the play was unworkable, which, of course, was bothersome. The other bothersome thing is that nobody—beyond those first two readers—seemed to see the final scene as rape. There were euphemisms like “gun sex” (there is a gun involved), but the word rape didn’t come up at all.
How could that be? More importantly, how could I fix it? How could I make people see that ending differently? After much internal debate, I changed the play to add a second ending. In this version, Cane leaves and the audience sits in darkness for twenty seconds contemplating what they’ve just seen. Then, Cane comes back and the final scene plays in reverse with nearly the same dialogue. Being forced to compare both scenarios would make audience members rethink what they’d seen prior, and perhaps view it through a different lens. And from a play perspective, perhaps audiences would wonder which was actually the real ending, which might be cool.
I sent the play out to some more people to read. Amazingly, nobody called Yasmine crazy anymore. Nobody. Not a word of her dialogue had changed, but she was no longer crazy. That was good, right? Except that two very respected readers both said that the second ending was unnecessary, that the first ending was very clear and organic, and the second felt tacked on. Aaargh! Would they have felt that way without having read the second ending?
Because that’s what I’d felt at the start, I took their advice, went through the play, revised to elevate Yasmine’s sympathy quotient, and happily removed the second ending. Shortly after, another friend read it and said Yasmine was crazy. Then a director read it and said she was crazy—and called the ending “gun sex.” I wanted to tear my hair out.
I wrote back to this director and explained my process with the endings thus far, particularly highlighting the “crazy” feedback. He wondered if calling Yasmine crazy ran along gender lines. Since all but one of the previous readers had been men, I didn’t know. Thus, my idea for an experiment: I asked for volunteers on the Official Playwrights of Facebook to help with this experiment. Nineteen playwrights raised their hands (I need to sidebar here to offer them a mighty thank you; this wonderful dramaturgical tool was possible only through their generosity). I sent my play without the second ending to all of them, who read it immediately. When they were finished, I asked them three questions:
- Give me three words to describe Yasmine.
- Give me three words to describe Cane.
- In a sentence, describe what happens at the end.
My goal: to see how many “crazy” descriptions I got for Yasmine, and from whom. The third question was for me to see how people perceived the initial ending independent of the second. (For fun, I asked them to optionally tell me if they’d want to see the play, and why or why not.) The results were fascinating:
- People do not like to use the word rape, as evidenced by the way the respondents went out of their way to avoid it. Whether this is because they don’t recognize rape when they see it, or because they’re uncomfortable labeling it, I don’t know. Both situations are uncomfortable for me because if we don’t recognize it and name it, how do we ever have conversations that can change rape culture? Only three readers identified it as rape, and one added that writing the words “Cane gets raped” was difficult and he second-guessed himself. That made me wonder how much this happens in real life; do we tend to reframe uncomfortable incidents after the fact? In that split second after reading, did other readers abandon “rape” and instead call it a death dance; intense and troubling; a plan that worked; Yasmine getting what she wanted; a classic good-bye fuck; or powerful break-up sex? One reader did say Cane was forced, but “accidentally” got into it. Another simply described the scene clinically. Although most said they would want to see the play, one said no because the situation was “too familiar.”
- Too familiar? That either means my sex life needs some serious ramping up, or the definitions of rape, what is consensual, and what is “fun” are so blurred that it’s no wonder we have problems talking about rape culture, let alone getting anybody to agree. I have no doubt that if this situation were reversed—if readers read/saw the second ending—they would view the first ending differently. Yet the fact that only three readers out of nineteen used the word “rape” is telling, confounding, and illustrative of different perceptions on this issue. Maybe what rape is to me truly isn’t to someone else. We all have our own realities, but somewhere there is—there has to be—a line. These are conversations we need to have.
- If you had any doubt that plays are colored by the perceptions and experiences of audience members, the diversity of adjectives used to describe these two characters is proof positive. Though “manipulative” and “desperate” led the pack for Yasmine, she ranged from sensual, mercurial, sexy and selfish, to hurt, and smart. Surprisingly, only two people described her as “crazy”—both women. Cane was also selfish, as well as thoughtful, weak, proud, purposeful, childish, smug, and indecisive, among other descriptors. It was fascinating to see that no matter how we view our characters or the situations we put them in, they will be other things—sometimes completely opposite things—when viewed through different lenses. The good news: with this play, that’s the whole point.
- I absolutely don’t need the second ending. Depending on the responses, I was going to have a Phase II where I had a different set of readers read the play with the second ending to see how/if these answers changed. But I didn’t need to and I’m glad for that. I don’t want two rapes on stage back-to-back, and as there would likely be no doubt the second instance was rape—it would be gratuitous. But more importantly, it doesn’t matter that I—or audience members—view the ending as rape. What matters is that the varied perceptions of it are explored. Bad idea smacked down and best result ever—dramaturgical gold.
On the other hand, I’m giving all the readers the benefit of the doubt and thinking—hoping—that if they watched the play, or even heard it at a reading, they would feel uneasy and want to explore why. And then I hope that following this mythical production, those who disagree or are confused over what happened go out with friends after and hash it out over drinks. And that the idea that it might have been rape comes up, and surprises someone. And maybe convinces another. And the conversation continues.