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The movie inside Holmes’ head

Real violence and violent art have always been connected. But that does not make the Batman film responsible for the Aurora massacre

Written by New York Times |
July 28, 2012 12:14:42 am

The stories emerging from the Aurora,Colorado,cineplex shooting are excruciating: the 6-year-old girl who will never grow up; the young men who shielded their girlfriends from the spray of the assault rifle; the killer in court in the grips of some evil unfathomable even to himself. The senselessness of the crime stands in contrast to its setting. The theatre,the place where we are supposed to purge our pity and horror,has been converted into a wellspring of horror itself.

We have,mercifully,largely passed the point where we ask whether art causes such disasters. A new cliché has taken hold,though,one that insists on an absolute separation between violent art and real violence.

The truth is that real violence and violent art have always been connected. Some of the most violent scenes in American history have emerged from theatrical spaces. The Astor Place riot in 1849 started in competing performances of Macbeth,one by the Englishman William Charles Macready and the other by the American Edwin Forrest. The theatre in that case brought to the surface underlying tensions that were rampant in New York at the time — between immigrants and nativists,between the lower classes and the police.

The connection between the violence onstage and off was even closer for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,the original spectacular murder in American history. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln during the play Our American Cousin,firing immediately after the line that always got the biggest laugh: “Well,I guess I know enough to turn you inside out,old gal — you sockdologising old man-trap!” Booth’s choice of that moment to shoot the president must have been significant. Was Lincoln the man-trap,or Booth? Was the Civil War the man-trap? Or was it all just coincidence? Maybe Booth chose that moment to shoot just for the cover of the big laugh.

Booth was clearly imitating Brutus from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He was an actor and,along with his more famous brother,Edwin Booth,had performed the play only a few months earlier in order to raise money for the Shakespeare statue that still stands in Central Park. Just as Caesar cries out,“Et tu,Brute?” Booth inserted Latin at the key moment. Immediately after he shot the president,he leapt on the stage and shouted,“Sic semper tyrannis!” — “Thus ever to tyrants,” the motto of the seal of the State of Virginia — before he fled.

Christopher Nolan — the director of the Batman trilogy — is no more to blame for the Aurora rampage than Shakespeare was to blame for the assassination of Lincoln. But just because there’s no responsibility doesn’t mean there’s no connection. The drama was both at the forefront of Booth’s crime and deeply in the background. He chose the location to give his violence a spectacular quality and he was motivated,at least in part,by its power. James E. Holmes’s madness,or whatever name we eventually come up with for what motivated him to kill 12 people and wound dozens more,also ran on the power of drama. He allegedly said “I am the Joker” before opening fire,and an employee at the jail where he was arraigned told a reporter,“He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”

Earlier this week,Christian Bale,who plays the hero in the movie,visited victims of the massacre in the hospital. But Edwin Booth took the opposite approach after his brother assassinated Lincoln. He hid from publicity and resigned from the stage. And yet he was able to return to acting about a year later,going on to redefine the performance of Hamlet. His haunted quality appealed to audiences. Edwin didn’t try Julius Caesar again until 1871,but then he memorably transformed that role as well. As the conspirators gather around to murder Caesar,Booth had Brutus “turn away in revulsion,” according to his stage notes.

Was he turning away from the violence onstage or the memory of his brother’s violence in real life? Or both? Which horror could he not bear to face?

Stephen Marche is the author of ‘How Shakespeare Changed Everything’

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