On Theatrical Terror: “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” and “The Thin Place”
Works of drama have been traditionally classified into comedies or tragedies, (or if you are being generous, tragicomedies). Ever since the Ancient Greeks this dramaturgical framework has been the main way that audiences, writers, performers, scholars, and critics alike have understood theatre. The main basis behind this genre binary is the affect that each produces: tragedy has a negative affect, usually of sadness, while comedy has a positive affect of joy. However, recently another affect has come into fashion for theatre: fear.
This affect defies the boundaries of comedy and tragedy, although it leans closer to the latter, since fear is a negative affect. But in traditional dramaturgy, fear is not the emotion a playwright wants to elicit from the audience. Because of this, we do not even have a set vocabulary for how to talk about feelings of terror on the stage, nor do we have a clearly defined dramaturgy for how it works. Thus, the fact that several playwrights have taken terror as their goal makes for an equally noteworthy and fascinating trend.
The history of terror on the stage could be traced back quite a bit. Perhaps not to the Greeks, who almost always saved violence for offstage, but back enough to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, through bloody Jacobean dramas, adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, and even Sweeney Todd. Beetlejuice: The Musical doesn’t really count, it’s spooky but not terrifying per se. Violence and fear themselves are not new, but the direct goal to inspire terror might be. Terror can have violence, be spooky, and cause fear, but what makes it unique is the way it combines this styles and affects to create an overwhelming mental state.
I’d argue that the first time we really got terror on the stage was with the beautiful but disastrous American Psycho: The Musical, which had a far-too short run on Broadway back in 2016. The production, with its stark white sets that became bloodier and bloodier as the musical went on, was perhaps too terrifying for its time. Audiences did not know what to make of it; after all, who goes to Broadway wanting to be terrified?