May 1, 2007

Richard McBeef

John Smythe      posted 19 Apr 2007, 04:44 PM / edited 21 Apr 2007, 10:20 AM

The one-act ‘play’ Richard McBeef by Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui has been posted on the internet. Click on the title to read it (on a site called The Smoking Gun).

Given many visitors to this site are experienced at reading, assessing, workshopping, producing, directing and acting in stage plays, is it worth asking ourselves how we might have assessed this script, and the potential of its writer, without the benefit of hindsight.

I would certainly have found it disturbing and, as a way of avoiding confronting the substantive issues first up, would have pointed out the over-written dialogue and the technical difficulties (assuming a live theatre production) of moving from kitchen to basement to car, not to mention indicating a 30 minute time lapse (page 8) …

In response to the violence, I might well have acknowledged John’s actions represent a credible state of mind for an embittered young man who has lost his father and has had to cope with a step-father invading his home and his mother’s bed. Precedents may include Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy – especially given the indication that the irrational behaviour of the protagonist brings about his own demise.

The characters are strongly delineated, each clearly feels justified in their responses, and the mother’s protective instincts towards her son, and her immediate inclination to believe his outrageous claims, could – though extreme – come over as credible in a heightened reality performance style.

But would I, on the basis of just reading the script, have suggested counselling or had a flash that the writer could be dangerous in real life? I doubt it, unless in talking to him about his play I realised he was unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. That would definitely have been a warning sign.

How do you, dear reader, respond to the play? And what are your thoughts concerning the role / rights / responsibilities of plays, and playwrights, in our world?

When a playwright addresses the darker sides of human behaviour, what do we require of them and what conclusions may it be valid to come to about the playwright, in the light of the characters and actions they dramatise? 

Gabe McDonnell               posted 20 Apr 2007, 10:44 AM

From the excerpt broadcasted on the news, I don’t think I’d like to pore over that manuscript, thanks. As you say John, there’s writing about mass killings and murder, and then there’s actual anti-social behaviour and signs that point to suicidal thoughts. He obviously greatly unnerved many people, but nothing was done. If taken on the surface, hundreds of historical and contemporary plays would ‘ring warning bells’, in fact Mr Rothwell’s canon would have him taken into a small room with bright lights and questioned, and as for Shakespeare….fact is, this was a very sick , lonely  guy whose turmoil was expressed in let’s face it, pretty dire sounding plays. His actions have brought them to international light, which is just what he wanted. I wouldn’t want to read it, on that count.

Super Dooper    posted 20 Apr 2007, 11:31 AM

Let’s not forget ‘Mr Brownstone’, his other mangum poopus. The ‘plays’ are both just garbage. They wouldn’t set off any warning bells for me, but in conjunction with what we know about his character… maybe. One of his teachers said that it’s hard to tell sometimes what’s a sign of true disturbance and what’s simply ‘a lack of craft’. I’m not about to shoot anyone, but I can write right here, um, let’s see…

‘A woman begins menstruating in floods on to the stage. Lobsters materialise from the blood and slowly dismember her. Three fat men come on, naked, and engage in coitus with chunks of her flesh.’

Yeah. So there are obviously some problems with staging that, but I don’t suggest anyone wastes their time examining it too closely. I bet ‘Richard McBeef’ will be up on YouTube in days.

Gabe McDonnell               posted 20 Apr 2007, 11:44 AM

Oh dear…yes Mr. / Ms Super dooper you’re prob right. Never in the history of the world has it been so easy, for so read/view/ so much rubbish. This is a boom time for crap, but maybe it was always so.

Moya Bannerman            posted 20 Apr 2007, 11:46 AM

Well writ, Gabe. Had Shakespeare been taken to a shrink and prescribed medication after penning Titus Andronicus, the world would be a poorer place. Likewise Peter Jackson after Bad Taste. Sarah Kane, however … (I’ll come back to that)

So, having no fear of contamination (it’s a piece of fiction and I have delusions of rationality), nor of giving him the attention he may have craved (he’s dead so he won’t know), I have read the script. It reminds me a lot of many written by adolescent boys, some in their 20s and even older, except for the eerie lack of humour; of any sense of genre send-up.

Also I am not sure it does have a moral centre just because it is clear the protagonist brings about his own demise. In this day and age where righteously motivated suicide is the new black, the writer probably did not see it as a cautionary tale but as the road to martyrdom. But that comes from hindsight: would I have seen or suspected that reading it cold and if so, would I have taken any action?

I’d be interested to hear from teachers on how they see their responsibilities in response to the creative writing – and other art works? – they assess. What sorts of conversation are deemed appropriate when it comes to exploring the thoughts and feelings behind the output?

I’d also like to hear from someone who rates Sarah Kane’s plays and thinks it’s important we see them produced. Does the fact she committed suicide, was considered psychotic and maybe had trouble reconciling fantasy with reality render her plays in any way dangerous? If not, why not?

Then there is the question of whether the ‘might is right and resides in a gun’ mindlessness that permeates so many popular films and TV series is the real danger here … These are the thoughts this latest atrocity has set loose in my brain …

Super Dooper    posted 20 Apr 2007, 12:09 PM

Sarah Kane’s plays are good. That’s all they need to be. Cho’s are bad. Was it Oscar Wilde who said there are only two types of writing – good and bad? No such thing as a ‘moral book’ etc.?

I don’t regard Kane’s work as dangerous. Nor do I regard the work of Ernest Hemingway, Nick Drake or Vincent van Gogh ‘dangerous’. The fact that the work is good is enough.

David Lawrence                posted 21 Apr 2007, 01:17 AM / edited 21 Apr 2007, 01:18 AM

I, too, rate Sarah Kane’s plays (as the only person in Wellington to have staged any of them!).  But then I also directed the “dangerously unsafe” (insert Mrs Krabappel’s laugh) Deliver Us, so maybe I need to be psychiatrically assessed too?

Yes, Sarah Kane committed suicide and was considered psychotic – at least during the last six months of her life when she was in and out of hospital and writing 4.48 Psychosis.  But she was also a director and an actor with an MA in script-writing.  The fundamental difference between Sarah and the author of Richard McBeef is that her plays all demonstrate, whatever you think of the content, a strong knowledge of structure, style, genre and practical stagecraft.  Additionally there have been hundreds of professional productions of all of her plays in the UK, the US and Europe in the last decade – I highly doubt it’s in the hope of the ‘shock’ value equalling bums on seats but more because most people consider her an important playwright.  But I somehow doubt that the Royal Court – or any other theatre – is going to be rushing to get Richard McBeef into production. 

I don’t think Sarah had any trouble reconciling fantasy with reality – the problem is that after her death it’s all too easy to see the plays as an extended suicide note (but does the fact that many of Shakespeare’s post-1597 plays are about his dead son mean we discount their dramatic merits?).  And when she was alive a handful of critics couldn’t see past the ‘gratuitous’ violence (imagine a play about Bosnia being violent! heaven forbid) in Blasted – which doomed her forever to the label of “from the controversial author of” – to realise that her plays are all preaching a message of love and hope.  Richard McBeef isn’t doing this, nor did Cho Seung-Hui’s actions on Tuesday.

I’m with Super Dooper – I didn’t come away from reading Richard McBeef thinking “This person needs psychological counselling”.  I came away thinking “This writer has no talent”.  But then seeing the video footage of him on tonight’s news saying “Some life”, maybe one element of this tragedy (and I know this can hardly compare to or justify the murder of 32 people) is that ultimately he knew that too?

John Smythe      posted 21 Apr 2007, 12:23 PM / edited 21 Apr 2007, 02:35 PM

Good, let us agree then that Richard McBeef is a bad play with only two redeeming features: 1) it is driven by a genuine, if unremittingly destructive, passion 2) it is not performable so won’t be inflicted on audiences.  Sarah Kane, however, as David points out, is much more deserving of our attention as we confront the key provocation of this forum.

A fundamental question I ask of any live performing art work (being a form that requires large numbers of people to gather in one place to witness / experience it, having invested their time and money in advance and in good faith) is: what does it contribute? Rather than try to answer in the abstract, I offer two excerpts from critiques of Sarah Kane plays.

Here is what Guardian critic Michael Billington wrote of Blasted, in January 1995:


Readers of a sensitive nature are warned that the following review may concern words likely to disturb. For, not to beat about the bush, Blasted by the 23-year-old Sarah Kane at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs contains scenes of masturbation, fellatio, frottage, micturition, defecation – ah, those old familiar faeces! – homosexual rape, eye-gouging and cannibalism. Far from crying, like the man in front of me: “Bring back the censor”, I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court’s normally judicious play-selection committee …”


Billington later admitted that he “made an idiot of himself” over Kane’s play, and wrote: “One of the most heartening experiences in my tenure has been the explosion of new writing that took place at the Royal Court, under Stephen Daldry’s directorship, in 1995. Sarah Kane, whom we all misread, and Mark Ravenhill spearheaded a movement based more on moral rage than political engagement.”

“Moral rage” – there’s an interesting idea. Where does that sit in relation to “moral responsibility”? Cho almost certainly justified his ‘plays’ and subsequent actions by ‘virtue’ of “moral rage” … Anyway, here is what I wrote in the National Business Review of 12 July 2002, of the Bacchanals production of Sarah Kane’s Crave at BATS:


It is widely, if not universally, accepted that a play has to be more than personal therapy made public to become valid theatre. But with Crave there is not even a therapeutic process happening. There is only a deeply humourless hunger for something other than all that seems to be.

As its four actors wallow in the septic sludge of human existence, the people they play and the random platitudes they speak exhibit a compulsive inability to lift their sights above “me, myself and I”. They slowly drown in the self-defeating assumption that life is something that’s being done to them and it’s supposed to be doing them better. In short, Crave is an exercise in destructive self-indulgence that can only have one inevitable and uninspiring end.

This is the fourth and penultimate play of a mentally disturbed young woman who, at the age of 28 (in 1999) hanged herself in a hospital bathroom. Two days before, a flatmate had foiled her earlier suicide attempt. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see Crave as the extended suicide note of a clinically depressed and therefore self-defeating mind.

According to the British Theatre Guide, Sarah Kane had a breakdown in 1997, the year before Crave premiered at the Traverse in Edinburgh before returning home to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London. In the face of comprehensive critical condemnation of her previous plays, Blasted (1995), Phaedra’s Love (1996) and Cleansed (1997), The Royal Court continued to nurture Kane’s supposed talent. Or maybe they were exploiting her notoriety.

It is my guess that the radical revisionism that has swirled around Sarah Kane’s plays is driven, in part, by a need to assuage the collective guilt of those who were part of the process. Either that or the wellspring of guilt has simply increased the capacity for commercial exploitation.

Harold Pinter, who leapt to Kane’s defence over Blasted (in which, for example, limbs are chopped off, a woman receives a penis transplant, and heroin is injected through an eyeball), is right when he says, “[She is] facing something actual and true and ugly and painful.” But should she have faced her demons in public or in private with a professional counsellor? How able is the theatre industry to exercise the compassion, support and rigorous therapy she clearly needed?

A critic who experiences Kane’s plays as alienating assault, devoid of effective dramatic engagement, must be free to say so. It may well be that, as some have suggested, Crave can be played as a lyrical yet authentic symphony for four voices that engages us and rewards our interest and attention. But this premiere New Zealand production goes nowhere near that for me …

Director David Lawrence claims the writing in Crave is complex and multi-layered. “Whereas initially it seemed to affirm my feelings of hate and despair,” he writes in the programme, “it now seems to affirm love and redemption through those two mighty opposites, cruelty and compassion.”

Had he and his actors managed to find and share such insight on the night, I’d concede the journey was worth it. But because the most dramatic element in his production is the use of bright white light as the threshold is crossed, it clearly supports the play’s glorification of death as the answer.

So my misgivings are moral as well as artistic. I can’t help wondering what effect this production might have on an audience member prone to depression. Could it provoke them to emulate its outcome or might realising they’re not alone stop them feeling so desperate? Should counselling and help line numbers be clearly publicised (as they are when such material airs on television) or does the right of artists, and all people for that matter, to express themselves regardless of the limitations of others absolve them of further responsibility?


The only thing I want to add at this point is that I don’t accept that artistry can validate work regardless of the content. I’m reminded of the furore that broke out over the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. In that case I felt the link between the single bullet a professional deer hunter aims to use, and the one involved in Russian Roulette, was artistically valid and in no way did I extrapolate that the Vietnamese as a people were obsessed with Russian Roulette. It was not a documentary drama. But the argument did generate a satirical poem in Time magazine that ‘asserted’ it didn’t matter what the Auschwitz gas chambers were used for because they were well designed. (Does anyone have a copy of that? I’d love to get the actual words; it makes the point so well.)

PS: For a satirical argument in favour of random, gratuitous violence in theatre and the contribution it might offer, see Ryan Hartigan’s recent post to the ‘Who owns devised work?’ forum, beginning: “Oh, and a slight footnote …”

Super Dooper    posted 23 Apr 2007, 11:34 AM / edited 26 Apr 2007, 04:39 PM

As predicted – go to YouTube and search for ‘Richard McBeef’. Pick your version. Actually, one of them features some pretty decent actors. It looks like audiences are going to get to see this.

“Honey, I’m sorry I slept with that hooker, but it was driven by a genuine, if unremittingly destructive, passion.”

Gabe McDonnell               posted 23 Apr 2007, 11:50 AM / edited 26 Apr 2007, 04:40 PM

…and then one of those actors gets their big break on a new reality series that uses actors and gets a career going and then at some glossy point does an impassioned interview about how terrible and awful violence is. And stuff. You see? Flowers grow in dung heaps!

Super Dooper    posted 26 Apr 2007, 01:25 PM / edited 26 Apr 2007, 04:40 PM

Although it took this thread much too short a time to prove Godwin’s Law, feel I must add a couple of really-not–that-facetious points.

1. Leni Riefenstahl. Discuss.

2. If we can learn how to build better refugee camps, prisons or plumbing systems because the Germans did it well for something evil, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that something worth stealing? The Romans owned slaves and had people ripped to shreds in the Colosseum. Does that mean we shouldn’t admire it as a piece of architecture? Should it be torn down?

3. Why are people in the theatre such wusses? As I’ve alluded to previously, Van Gogh shot himself in the face. Art galleries don’t wring their hands over showing his work. Hemingway shot himself in the face, but I can rent ‘Fiesta’ from the library and no one questions my morality (or the library’s), Kurt Cobain shot himself in the face too! Ian Curtis hanged himself! Good art sometimes comes from people who shoot themselves in the face. If the play’s good, put it on already! Get over it.

Super Dooper    posted 26 Apr 2007, 02:51 PM / edited 26 Apr 2007, 04:40 PM

Also, as an aside – dig this: Cho Seung-Hui is probably the most widely-read playwright of the 21st century.

Gabe McDonnell               posted 27 Apr 2007, 11:21 AM

Leni always maintained she was never a member of the Nazi party, and that her focus was on making innovative, beautiful work, and her passionate admiration for Adolf was because he was an engaging after dinner speaker…yet a collective ‘oh come ON Leni’ must be applied when she claimed she had no idea the Nazis were committing gross acts. Look I’m no film expert, but the Triumph of the Will can be read a few ways, I’m sure. Is she just a famous case of wanting to have her cake and eat it too?

Ok, the Collosseum-The passage of time could be said to make things beautiful again, and some objectivity grows, in that we ‘see’ the building as a form, and move away from what happened in it. But that’s some passing of time, all third reich art forms still reek of the history, so anyone piping up in praise over the lovely clean lines of one of those customers would be swiftly set to.(Google a  recent comment by him of the immaculate fringe, Bryan Ferry- poor Bryan! He just likes strong artistic statements. And Mr. Bowie with his unfortunate arm stretch at the railway station).

I don’t think theatre people are wusses, really, it’s like you pointed out, if the art is deemed ‘good’ and compelling in some way, it will make its mark, however unsettling… the facts behind the creation, or the life of the creator make it all the more compelling. I bet if Ian Curtis decided he wanted to sing a cover of Donna Summers after ‘Love Will…’ that song would not have the power it has, in some ways.

Charlotte Simmonds       posted 1 May 2007, 11:33 AM

It’s true, theatre people are wusses. Here is an excerpt from The Soft Machine by William Burroughs: “The first one of the day I nailed in a subway pissoir: ‘You fucking nance!’ I screamed, ‘I’ll teach you to savage my bloody meat, I will.’ And I sloughed him with the iron glove and his face smashed like a rotten canteloupe. Then I hit him in the lungs and blood jumped out his mouth, nose and eyes, spattered three commuters across the room huddled in gabardine topcoats and grey flannel suits under that.” William Burroughs has long been hailed as a classic in the world of literature, yet theatre people are still shy about whether or not they should like Sarah Kane. William Burroughs did not even have a political point to make, and yet he is lauded for the wide influence he had on both other members of the Beat generation and writers today.

groof     posted 1 May 2007, 09:06 PM

Yeah Charlotte, but … this sort of argument is likely to just encourage a whole bunch of talent-free weirdos to think that if they cover a few pages with expletives they’re a genius, and they can sneer at people who don’t think so and call them wusses.  There aren’t many people who can do violent and cruel and be clever rather than juvenile.  

Moya Bannerman            posted 1 May 2007, 10:16 PM

Needless to say – or perhaps it does need to be said – context and purpose are everything.

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