The Guardian view on violence against women on stage and screen | Editorial

The tragic woman, killed for the audience’s gratification, is a powerful artistic trope. Is it time to vary the script?

When English National Opera announced its new season last week, it brought news of its latest new commission: a work by composer Iain Bell and librettist Emma Jenkins about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The murderer will not appear on stage, though the opera is to bear his name (Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel). And, according to Bell, the work will treat its female characters with respect and sensitivity. “These are women who are just names, whose identity is defined by their death. I wanted to do something to explore their humanity,” he said last week. It will star some of the greatest voices in British opera: Janis Kelly, Dame Josephine Barstow, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett and Marie McLaughlin.

The work has not yet come to the stage; it must not be prejudged. Yet it is an intriguing prospect. It is not impossible to make a searching and thoughtful stage show out of the wreckage of real acts of brutal violence against women. London Road, Alecky Blythe’s drama for the National Theatre about the 2006 Ipswich murders, showed that. But opera has tragic women written into its history, almost hardwired into the genre. There are those who stab themselves (Liu in Turandot, Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens). There are those who sacrifice themselves (Leonora in Il Trovatore, Gilda in Rigoletto, and Norma). There are those who fade away, often directly or indirectly because of sexual transgression – Violetta in La Traviata, Mimì in La Bohème. Even recent operas, such as Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, can find it hard to detach themselves from the 19th-century trope of the tragic operatic woman. And Jack the Ripper himself crops up in one of the greatest operas of them all: Berg’s expressionist masterpiece Lulu, in which – after a career of being worshipped, objectified, used and damaged by men – the titular heroine and her lesbian lover are killed by the murderer, as Lulu works out her abject end days as a prostitute. It is almost as if the women of opera must, in some symbolic fashion, be punished for the dangerous beauty and feminine vitality of their voices (leading, in some cases, to curious dramaturgical effects, as when divas die on stage even as their lusty, powerful voices ring out true and clear).

Dramatising the destruction of women is not only, of course, a convention of the operatic stage. When the Swedish-Danish drama The Bridge returns to BBC2 on Friday, its story will begin with a woman buried up to her neck, being stoned to death. There are plenty of other examples of outré and unpleasant ends being visited on women in fiction: in recent years, the British-Irish drama The Fall, which starred Gillian Anderson as a feminist police detective, was criticised for its lingeringly filmed scenes of the torture of young women. Germaine Greer argued recently that since more women than men read crime fiction, such scenes are designed not so much to appeal to a furtive and libidinous male gaze as to female viewers. In fact, since women read more fiction than men (not just crime fiction) across the board, her observation may not be especially significant, but it certainly invites us to question the possible reasons that representations of women’s unpleasant demises are so thoroughly stitched into the culture.

Meantime, when the world is full of all too real violence against women – recent news of systematic rapes perpetrated against Rohingya women during the Burmese pogrom comes to mind – one cannot help but wonder whether a truly radical operatic storyline would foreground women’s agency. And let the characters walk away, alive, at the end.



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