Spectacle and Sadism

Mel Gibson revives the drama of medieval cultural brutality


Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, opening on Ash Wednesday, has inspired an argument over its revival of medieval Passion Play content, and whether such a project risks a revival of medieval-style, post-Passion Play Judeophobia. But there's a closely related dimension of Gibson's film that has so far received less attention, and which is at least as compelling: The movie is also a revival of medieval theatrical sadism.

Gibson's film is controversial in part because of its unrelenting depiction of the violence visited on Jesus. According to one deeply impressed review by Texas broadcaster Jody Dean, posted on Religion Today, "The brutality, humiliation, and gore is almost inconceivable—and still probably doesn't go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow—no matter how steely your nerves." That is almost surely the kind of reaction that would have satisfied the creators of medieval religious stagecraft.

That is because the theater of the medieval and early modern periods was filled with depictions of cruelty, pain, and torture, sometimes extending over days of spectacle. While the suffering of Jesus was a major theme of these presentations, there were many other tales, drawn from the Bible, Apocrypha, and the lives of the saints, that featured scourging, flaying, beheading, and every imaginable type of horror.

Jody Enders, a professor of French in Santa Barbara, has written extensively on such plays. In her most recent work, Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends, she describes a 15th century presentation of the life of Saint Barbara that lasted for five days. On Day One, the pagan Barbara becomes a Christian. On Day Two, she refuses her father's order to marry. On Day Three, her angry father orders her to be tied to a pillar and beaten; he will eat his supper as he watches. On Day Four, Barbara is stripped naked and scourged harshly, salt and vinegar are rubbed into her wounds, her breasts are cut off, and she is led to a cell and ordered to lie down on a bed of sharp rocks. On Day Five, she is tied naked to a nail-studded barrel and rolled. Finally, her father beheads her.

Those who staged such scenes had become notably inventive at presenting pain and bloodletting in a convincing manner (convincing by contemporary standards, anyway). Mel Gordon, a theatrical historian at Berkeley, notes, for example, that "Promptbooks from the Middle Ages reveal an awful and bloody display of animal parts that realistically substituted for performers' severed limbs and organs." Onstage flayings and beheadings could be achieved through carefully crafted outfits, body makeup, and dummies. Indeed, in Death by Drama, Enders writes about unconfirmed period reports that, on at least one occasion, a condemned prisoner was included in a drama and actually beheaded onstage. This is, as she notes, the exact equivalent of modern "snuff movie" legends. (Enders concludes that, for common-sense reasons, such an event was extremely unlikely.)

There is so much horror on the medieval stage that modern scholars of the period are themselves aghast, and have long been at odds over what to make of it all. Some have been troubled by features of medieval drama that are potentially applicable to Gibson's film, too. For example, there are scholars who have concluded that the stage tortures of Jesus were amplified well beyond those recorded in the Gospels, while others have attributed a pathological pleasure to the spectators, many of whom might travel considerable distances to see such spectacles.

It's not necessarily that simple. The medieval world was after all heir to a history of sadistic spectacle that was well known in antiquity, and one might even credit the Church with transforming an established tradition of public cruelty into a "moral" form. Enders herself has noted that staging the torment of the saints and of Jesus—whose suffering obviously has an essential meaning for believing Christians—evinced pity. In that context, Texas broadcaster Jody Dean's sympathetic review of Gibson's film features some especially interesting passages, such as this one: "What you've heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film's conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing."

Nevertheless, not all cruelty and suffering in these plays are staged to elicit compassion or pity. When the Jewish heroine Judith beheads the sleeping Holofernes, for example, it is the villain who is being punished by an act of onstage violence that, in all likelihood, elicited the audience's cathartic satisfaction. For that matter, neither compassion nor pity is in any particular evidence for the many real-life victims of the period's inquisitional and judicial torture. On the contrary, real public beheadings, burnings, hangings, quarterings, etc., continued to be a source of widespread holiday-making and merriment for centuries.

While it is not possible to recapture the "mentalities" of medieval audiences, it's at least observable that the staggering cruelty of the period's theater is of a kind with the cruelty of other popular pastimes that were being pursued simultaneously. The history of blood sports, for example, is a very long one. The public baiting, torture, and killing of animals for pleasure was utterly commonplace for generations, as was betting on which of two fighting animals would kill the other. Common also was watching two men (or occasionally women) beat each other nearly to death—sometimes with cudgels or other weapons—for the entertainment of onlookers. Executions were such a treat that spectators made sure to hold young children aloft so they wouldn't miss the sight of a man kicking and strangling at the end of a rope. In 18th century London, criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were folk heroes in the Grub Street press. Sheppard had a number of plays written about him, while one of Turpin's most celebrated crimes involved torturing an old woman (by burning her) to find out where she had hidden her valuables.

This tide of cruelty was to turn only with industrialism and the consequent transformation of traditional culture. Although modern popular culture is often charged with coarseness, and the effect of commercialism is often equated with degradation, cultural history suggests an entirely different conclusion. However coarse a given viewer, reader, or listener may find a particular modern artifact, the unavoidable fact is that modern culture has either eliminated or marginalized an entire world of cultural brutality that existed for millennia.

Yet there are already efforts to place Gibson's Passion in a context of modern commercial exploitation. "How might the intense emotional experience of seeing such brutality affect viewers—especially children and youth already immersed in violent 'entertainment'?" asks a posting on one Christian Website. "Will it further desensitize some to intense violence, build a craving for other emotional experiences, or alter the foundation for their faith?"

If such questions are legitimate today, they were even more legitimate a thousand years ago. Then, the experience of intense violence was not feared as a potential threat to the foundation of one's faith, it was assumed to be a part of it.