Unfortunately, I found the same student crying in distress against the back wall of the Swan during The Provoked Wife’s act two rape scene. The RSC’s promotional materials described Sir Brute’s character as a “tedious drunk,” evoking the classical image of a less merry Falstaff or less ribald Sir Toby Belch. But what we saw was a convincing portrayal of a belligerent, malicious alcoholic who staggered on stage before roughly throwing his wife on a table, bending her over, and ripping away her skirts. Performed hyper-realistically, the rape was shocking in its brutality, and the scene contrasted significantly with the playful theatricality that began the production. Writing for the Guardian, Michael Billington praised both Slinger’s performance and Breen’s direction of the scene that “rightly does nothing to soften Brute’s attempted rape of his wife” to realize this “unsparing portrait of a soured relationship.” Rightly or wrongly, the scene became unbearable for my student and myself to watch.
While I was conscious of my next action, I do not remember making the decision to stand, knowing only that the explicit violence had provoked my fury. Despite being fully visible to others on the front rail of the second level, I left my seat, wondering only briefly how I would explain myself to my students before finding one crying against the back wall. “Do you want to leave?” I asked, worrying less about my volume because their distress was now more important than interrupting the performance. They signaled “No, I’ll be okay,” but instead of returning to my seat, I kept walking to the exit.
Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable.
I paced the lobby for a minute before the door opened again, and my student, still crying, joined me, followed by two other students. As an authority figure who had walked out of the theatre, I had given them permission to do the same. Knowing my own tears were imminent, I suggested that we go outside for some fresh air.
Current statistics suggest that at least one of the eight students I had brought to the performance is a survivor of sexual assault. But in that moment, I had three standing beside me, expressing, through a mix of anger and tears, that the performance had triggered some level of past trauma. To the RSC’s credit, when I approached the box office to return half of our tickets for that evening’s performance of Shrew—giving students the option to skip a second round of domestic abuse—they were incredibly accommodating.
Content Warnings and Triggered Responses
Had the RSC offered a content warning, I might have made different decisions about my students’ viewing experience. In his review of The Provoked Wife for Broadway World, Gary Naylor wondered “how long it will be before trigger warnings are required for works like these—it would be a sad day indeed, but I suspect it’s coming.” Naylor’s sadness over trigger warnings echoes many sentiments I have encountered recently, alongside grumblings about political correctness run amok and the regrettable coddling of the millennial generation. The increasing prevalence of trigger warnings in professional theatres is a trend, argued Michael Paulson in the New York Times, “bubbling up from college campuses.” But plenty of my colleagues who teach in theatre departments around the United States remain skeptical about their use.