Ruined, Lynn Nottage (2009)

The use of rape as an instrument of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most horrific ongoing crises in the world today. Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey traveled to the DRC and heard the stories of many rape victims first-hand. Nottage used this material to write this play, which Whoriskey directed.

I can think of few other examples of works of art which so vividly demonstrate the problem of the representation of human depravity. That problem being that on the one hand, one wishes to see terrible crimes brought to light, in hopes that once exposed they will be ended and punished, but on the other hand one despairs to see the indescribably horrible described, since any such description inevitably minimizes the scope of the crime.

Nottage’s play succeeds for me in theory, because it draws attention to a crisis which is not receiving enough attention. But it fails in practice, because it turns that crisis into a narrative, with types for characters and a classic Freytag pyramid for a plot, and so provides a coherence, structure, catharsis, and sense of resolution which the reality in the Congo does not possess.

I’ve been asking this question of myself for twenty years, and I know I sound like a broken record, a whiny American bourgeois, a useless intellectual who would have been shipped out on the first train to the pig farms during the Cultural Revolution, but the question persists regardless, namely, how does the politically-engaged artist ensure that the audience won’t feel they’ve already done something to help just by experiencing the art?


  1. well, i certainly do not have the answer but the viewer does not cause any harm by experiencing the art and perhaps is educated and/or inspired to do more, to do something instead of nothing.

  2. I had a hope you might chime in on this, my friend. I know you think often of the role of art in politics and vice-versa. It's been seeming to me recently that the problem is particularly thorny in the case of theater, as opposed to other artistic genres. In Ruined, for example, the audience sees an injustice demonstrated before their very eyes, which of course is very powerful, but then they see that same injustice, in effect, resolved, in that the play ends with a climax, a closure, and even a sense of hope. My fear, then, is that people don't go home with the problem so much as they go home with the sense that they've just seen a problem solved.

Leave a Reply