JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.8.12
SOMETIMES, art has an extraordinary way of anticipating life, and even of foreshadowing the news headlines. On Wednesday evening, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, the wonderful singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan gave the Edinburgh premiere performance of her remarkable solo version of Shakespeare’s great narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece, about the beautiful young wife of a Roman general savagely raped by the arrogant Prince, Tarquin.
O’Sullivan’s show is just one of a series of superb dramas about rape or sexual violence that have won acclaim in Edinburgh this August, ranging from the double-bill of plays about the consequences of torture in Chile seen in the official festival earlier this week, to the mind-blowing South African Mies Julie at Assembly, in which a wealthy farmer’s daughter recklessly seduces one of her father’s black servants, unleashing a torrent of violence on both sides.
And it has been a strange and sobering experience to watch these shows, this week, at a time when the subject of rape has barely been out of the news. Confronted with any fictional account of a distressing subject, we tend to look for reasons to keep the story at a distance; The Rape Of Lucrece is set in ancient Rome, we tell ourselves, and the military dictatorship in Chile ended two decades ago.
Yet however much we want to believe that we live in a place and time where these horrors have been laid to rest, the daily news conspires to remind us that this argument rages on. This week, in a terrifying and hallucinatory moment, a serious Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives publicly denied that rape could result in pregnancy, so eager is he to refuse women the right to determine whether they continue with such a pregnancy or not. And here in Britain, some public figures who should know better – including the increasingly notorious George Galloway – set out to explain away the charges of rape faced by Wikileaks boss Julian Assange as mere breaches of what Galloway called “sexual etiquette”.
So what is going on, in a world where rape is so loudly dismissed as unacceptable, yet still so widespread, and so diffiicult to bring to justice? In the first place, we live in an age of growing global instability; and wherever there is war, and the collapse of states, women and vulnerable men risk becoming victims of rape. The protection of the weak requires stable and reasonably strong governmment, with some kind of working justice system; and western governments may be about to learn a tough lesson or two, about the consequences of their enthusiasm for tearing down authoritarian regimes across the planet, and simply assuming that whatever replaces them will be better.
Secondly, there are levels of confusion about the extent to which respect for different culture involves tolerating the assumption, in many traditional moral codes, that a raped woman has suffered an irreversible disaster, and is doomed to suffer a worse punishment than her attacker, including complete social ostracism and possible death. There is nothing in the creed of any major faith, or in any culture worth the name, that makes it right to punish the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. The code of honour under which poor Lucrece feels her only remaining option is suicide, following her rape, amounts to oppressive patriarchal superstition; and it is one of the main tasks of civlisation and enlightenment – and of women campaigning together everywhere – to challenge those superstitions, and strike them down.
Thirdly, we have the phenomenon of rape-talk as part of the western backlash against feminisim; the feeling, among some men, that women have got above themselves in recent decades, and need to be slapped back into their place. This is a culture that informs some of the jokes about rape – often found hilarious by audiences – that women stand-up comics in Edinburgh this week asked their male colleagues to stop making. It informs the tidal wave of violent internet porn which, in a culture short of real erotic tenderness, increasingly encourages young men – and girls too – to make a pathological and dangerous link between sexual excitement and violence; and it helps shape the archaic sexual politics of the extreme social and “religious” right, as represented this week by the hapless Congressman Akin.
And somewhere behind it all, perhaps, we have the culture of destructive pessimism about human nature that has been marching across western thought since the early 1980’s, driven by a grim biological determinism about gender differences. Yet the whole story of our species – in so far as it contains anty drama or interest at all – is about our struggle to be something better than that. Of course we are the species who rape and lie about rape, who kill and compete, and who sometimes grab colossal wealth for ourselves, when we can.
We are also the species, though, that has constructed civil societies in which wrongs can be righted, equality advanced, and justice done; and in which millions of fortunate women – of whom I count myself one – can live out their lives in freedom, without fear of assault or abuse. In the subtitle of her wonderful Mies Julie, the South African writer Yael Farber talks of “resititution of body and soul”, following the multiple abuses of apartheid, often written on the bodies of suffering men and women.
To achieve that, though, we have to believe in our continuing capacity to build societies worth living in; and we have to reject the cynicism and lies of those who say that our efforts are futile. In The Rape Of Lucrece, Shakespeare dedicates more than half of the poem to Lucrece’s long argument with herself about how she should respond to the violence she has suffered; and he does this not because he is a theorist about women’s rights. He does it because he knows, in his truth-telling poet’s soul, that Lucrece is a complete person, subtle, inteligent, and as full of thought, integrity and questioning as any man; and that she deserves to be heard speaking her truth down the ages, in the kind of voice that can change lives, and perhaps begin to change worlds.