A Provok’d Audience Member: “The Provok’d Wife” by Sir John Vanbrugh

*Content warning: rape, sexual assault*

The best part of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife was the final 40 minutes or so. This is not because of the crystalline beauty of the timeless writing, not because of the inarguable talent displayed by all actors involved, not because of the professionalism which all technical elements of the show demonstrated in the celerity of set transitions and the aesthetic appeal of every tableau.


It’s because we left a few scenes into the second act.


Perhaps the production was bound to fail for us: my classmates and I were seated in the house-right gallery, where two sturdy wooden railings blocked more than half of the view of the stage from a normal upright sitting position. To accommodate this, we had to choose between leaning over the railing at the edges of our seats until our backs ached, peering through the bars of the railing from a semi-upright position, or simply sitting up like human beings and missing all of the downstage action. We were also (once again) not the intended audience for this show: we were younger than 95% of the audience by about 40 years, and our group had within it the only black person in the crowd. Nevertheless, I know that we all approached the show with our eyes and ears open and our minds ready to be scintillated by some good ole Restoration comedy.


This production, however, just didn’t want us. Though the prologue had some fantastic lines and was delivered with the self-awareness necessary to play the misogynistic and racist scenes of 18th-century theatre in the modern day, the show was altogether an exercise in reaching backwards, asking the audience to remember the old days when you could beat and “ravish” your wife and the worst you might get is a tad of ridicule. Interestingly, the actors seemed to mimic the progression of the show from self-aware to not, as they went from making occasional eye contact with us up in the balcony to ignoring us completely, turning from Restoration-comedy farce to gritty realism from pre-interval to post.


Now, the actors were phenomenal: I believed all of the tactics they played and all of the goals they pursued. But the actors also seemed like they had never been put in the same room together until the time the curtain rose on this performance. The director (Phillip Breen) must have been feeling pretty moody over the past couple months, as he directed the redheaded vain mistress to perform as though she were a clown while directing the alcoholic, abusive husband to pursue his wife with all of the violence and sliminess befitting a proper serial killer. The musical numbers are gorgeous (if tired as all hell), but again, they are as tonally relevant as the sporadic moments of improvised direct audience interaction. By the time we reach the interval after 90 minutes, one is exhausted — and not just literally. Of the sorry gender politics in the play, Dr. Essin tells me right before the second half begins, “I’m just tired.”


As the audience cackled and hooted with laughter at the cross-dressing of the alcoholic husband, I could not help but see what she meant. Is it really all that funny for a man to wear a dress? That funny? Is it really all that funny for the policeman to be offered the chance to rape this man and to, astonished, reply “I ravish her??” Is it really all that funny for a man to force his wife to kiss him, force his wife to kiss him again and harder, and then to force his wife onto the table and —


This is where we left. The alcoholic husband comes home to his wife and makes her kiss him once on the lips. She does so. She begins walking away. Then he demands, “Again.” And so she does. This time, he ravenously makes out with her for an uncomfortable 20 seconds or so, grabbing her bottom and rubbing himself on her throughout. She is freed at last. She is at the door. She is about to leave. And then, he runs to her, grabs her by both arms, throws her onto the table, hikes up her skirt, lowers his pants, and thrusts into her while her face is pressed hard against the tabletop. As the audience laughs.


My classmate stood up first. Then Dr. Essin. After the actor lowered his pants, I did, as well. The three of us stood against the back wall as the scene unfolded. Dr. Essin asked my classmate if she wanted to leave. She said no. And then, Dr. Essin left. She just walked right out. There was a moment or two, when I believe my classmate and I had more or less the same thought: “You can do that?” At the Royal Shakespeare Company? In the middle of a renowned show?? Soon, I was following Dr. Essin out the door, with two of my classmates now right behind. We met Dr. Essin, left the building, walked to the nearby pond, and wept. We wept and wept. My classmate has just said, “I’m so scared that that’s going to happen to me, forever.”


I have, in the past, questioned the value of trigger warnings. Art is supposed to confront you, to make you think, to make you feel. I have argued that trigger warnings lessen the capacity of art to reach its full potential for impact, as it provides one the opportunity to opt out of thought. But that line of reasoning cannot work here, for that’s not what this was. This was a director electing to depict rape and sexual violence in the most gruesome and realistic way possible in the dead middle of a farce, without a hint of warning. It was almost designed to be as traumatic as possible. The play was making no statement, no artistic commentary on anything at all. Phillip Breen just wanted to direct a good rape scene. That his artistic avarice so hurt the women in my life simply infuriates me. And it makes me call as loudly as I can for trigger warnings to preface all similar content.


The box office manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company comped our tickets for the production later that evening, Taming of the Shrew, thanks also in large part to Dr. Essin. Though the workers here seemed to understand that “That happens a lot” (a direct quote from an usher), re. people having to step out during or immediately following the sexual violence scene, they don’t seem to grasp the breadth of the trauma or of the error of their ways in depicting same. It is my sincere hope that they listen to women like my classmate and Dr. Essin, both of whom intend to write letters to the Company, and remedy their practices before another trauma like this has to be unearthed again.


My classmate rated the show 0 out of 10 — many times over. I don’t necessarily believe that’s fair to those involved in the show: the actors were phenomenal, the musicians incredible, the designers extremely talented. The only things which deserve a rating of 0 out of 10 are director Phillip Breen, the producers who let him do this, and each and every audience member who laughed at the horrific rape which was put on the stage for their placated enjoyment.