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When A Powerful Visual Image Becomes A Theatrical Cliche

June 10, 2009

Even the most intelligent and bold stage auteurs can fall into the trap of cliche. Having caught the talented Bay Area writer-director Mark Jackson's expressionistic adaptation of Goethe's Faust at Shotgun Players at the weekend, I've come to the conclusion that the image of a young woman with red paint smeared below the waistline on the front of her dress may be in dire need of retirement.

Often used to suggest insanity and/or loss of innocence, a bloodstain on the nether-regions of an actress' clothes seems to crop up time and time again in plays and some films. One memorable example is Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 movie version of Hamlet opposite Mel Gibson. The image is extremely powerful and visceral. But it's been so over-used by directors that it's overstepped the line between engaging theatre-savvy audiences and boring them.

In Jackson's Faust Part 1, actress Blythe Foster as Gretchen finds herself in this unfortunate predicament before she -- surprise, surprise -- slits her throat with a knife.

There's part of me that wonders whether Jackson is trying to exploit the cliches of expressionism in this scene for artistic effect. Not only does Gretchen wear the bloodied dress, but she's also got botched makeup smeared haphazardly all over her face. She wears her lipstick on her cheek and her eyes look like bruises thanks to the puffs of blue-green makeup all over them.

Jackson exploits the archetype of feminine madness and disintegration so strongly that it's possible that he might be asking us to look beyond these cliches and see some deeper significance in them. But if that's the case, the meaning of this visual image in an otherwise thoughtful production was lost on me.


  • Hey there Chloe. The ol' blood on the belly is a cliche, I agree. I also agree that it's a powerful image, which is what has given it its lasting, mythic quality as an image in world art.

    And yes, the intent with piling several such cliches onto Gretchen at the end of her journey is indeed a dramaturgical gesture to exploit those cliches and reflect what has been done to her, and what is still done to women -- even in our supposedly modern world. Her brother piled a heap of virgin/whore cliches and expectations onto her, as did her mother. (If she had a TV or subscription to Vogue, they would only add to the pile.) She resists these cliches and expectations even as they vie to overwhelm her. And in the end we see them painted on her by Mephistopheles -- his own commentary on her situation, perhaps.

    I do indeed hope people look beyond the obvious, since it's merely obvious, and think deeper than the surface of the many myths that Goethe and this production draw upon, and to my great pleasure many people have been. I've been particularly pleased by the debates over these and other similar issues that I've been witness to among audience members who've remained in their seats after the show has ended. If we're willing to examine the cliches/myths of our world, then I think we can get back inside of them and understand why they've become cliches, and what we might do about their lingering, sometimes nagging, presence in our culture. --Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 10, 2009 at 10:43 AM  

  • Thanks Mark for responding to my post. The virgin-whore stuff in Goethe's play is very strong and you certainly brought out the contrast. I was particularly struck by the way in which you made Faust come across like a dirty old man and Gretchen like an innocent virginal child. Beyond the performance style, I thought Gretchen's school-girly blue dress and Faust's hammy white hair streak were very effective in this regard.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At June 10, 2009 at 10:53 AM  

  • Hi Chloe,
    You make a very relevant point about the imagery being overused in art, and that it is a cliche. very often in film I see similar examples, but I think a cliche only detracts from an experience if something is missing from those moments.

    I found that the manner in which the imagery was presented in Faust gave it incredible depth for me. Mephistopholes affecting her transformation on stage gave the imagery more meaning, and the intimacy of the moment between the characters made it very compelling. I was Riveted.

    I believe a cliche is only a problem if they're wrongly done, I feel that Faust certainly did it right.

    By Anonymous Tom Ignatius, At June 19, 2009 at 11:52 AM  

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