Those exist. Off campus. Look at “Measure for Measure,” in which Isabella is propositioned by Duke Angelo and says, “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,/Who would believe me?” Yet Isabella is ultimately vindicated.
Or is she? Her abuser receives a slap on the wrist (actually, it’s more of a caress — marriage to a loving woman), and Isabella herself, a novitiate who has spent the entire play battling for her chastity, is saddled with an unrefusable marriage proposal to an even more powerful man. Shakespeare doesn’t give Isabella any lines after that, because once again to whom can she complain?
There are other plays about rape in which a woman’s experience is unquestioned, from the devastating, like “Nhirbaya,” to the luridly risible, like “Extremities,” though stranger rape typically helps make these assaults more credible.
In “The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias,” which ran Off Broadway earlier this fall, no one believes that a high school girl was raped by a couple of classmates. Even her best friend says, “Because, like, if you didn’t fight back then it wasn’t rape.” But at least the audience isn’t left in much doubt.
And “Blackbird,” which played on Broadway two seasons ago, toys for a while with the idea that sexual intimacies between a 12-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man might construe a love story, but it ultimately affirms that this of course was abuse.
I’ve seen even more plays in which rape is not a focal point, but an incidental one, a shortcut to make a play appear edgier, grittier, sexier. As my colleague Siobhan Burke has written, this is a commonplace of ballet, too. (One welcome corrective, Sheila Callaghan’s lacerating “That Pretty Pretty, or the Rape Play.”)
I understand why playwrights like Ms. Ziegler and Mr. Colaizzo would be interested in twisty narrative structures and convoluted questions of truth. A boy student assaults a girl student. It’s sad, yes. But to quote Shakespeare again, it’s “everyday’s news.” It’s not a drama. It’s not a classical tragedy. Who wants to write about a victim? It’s depressing. Better to thrill an audience with some he said, she said, right?
But these convolutions have a troubling corollary. They suggest that these women may be crying rape — out of vengeance or confusion or motives even more opaque — which helps to perpetuate the myth that a large percentage of rape accusations are false.
While reliable statistics regarding college sexual assault specifically are hard to come by, a 2012 analysis by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, funded by a grant from the Department of Justice, found figures of false reporting of sexual assault as between 2 percent and 10 percent of all cases.
So these campus plays trouble me, and I can’t help but take them personally, because to me these plays are personal. I was assaulted in college, though assaulted is a word I would never have used then and one I’m reluctant to use now. (See? There’s that dramaturgy again. Assaulted. How sad. How boring.)
Still, some facts remain. They’re not all that fungible. One boy crawled into bed with me and touched me while I was sleeping. Another bullied me into accepting a back rub and then pinned my arms above my head while he rubbed himself against me until he finished. There were other instances, too.
I assumed I was somehow at fault. Maybe I’d “led them on,” maybe I’d “sent mixed signals” — those were terms I knew how to use. After all, these boys weren’t monsters; they were my friends. I liked them. Under other circumstances, I probably would have dated them. Of course I didn’t report them. I stayed in bed with that first one and let him tell me how lonely he felt. With the second, I cleaned myself up and went back out to a party. I turned the incidents into funny stories, stories that don’t seem so funny now.
As someone who has given her life over to stories, I’m going to insist that stories matter — the ones we tell, the ones we’re told. What have I learned from stories, from movies and books and music videos and plays in which the characters were close enough to touch? That a woman should be pretty, that she should be either fabulous or innocent, that she should be desired rather than desiring, that she will almost never say as much or do as much as a man. If she does? Then we get Medea.
I don’t want to be in the business of telling playwrights what they should and shouldn’t write, what they can and can’t. And I hope I understand the difference between documentary and fiction. But I’d like to see playwrights tell some other stories, some better stories, stories that more thoughtfully reflect what women and men experience.
But because of the stories I’ve already absorbed, because I also prefer snaking plots and complicated psychology, I worry that I won’t like those other stories. I worry that I won’t believe them. And I’ll have only myself to complain to.