The new chamber opera anatomy theater by David Lang and Mark Dion provides layer upon layer of revelation—each peeling back from the opera’s heart like the transparent mylar overlays from an old anatomy textbook. The opera, set in early-18th century England, follows the trajectory of a young murderess, starting with her public hanging and continuing through the spectacle of her public dissection in which the parties involved hope to demonstrate “scientifically” that her evil is corporeally writ within her.
The most immediate confrontation leveled by anatomy theater upon its audience proves to be the confounding experience of witnessing outright, unflinching, center-stage misogyny. The objectification of the female body can’t get more literal: Lang, Dion, and director Bob McGrath position a completely naked female—a corpse, no less—as the physical (and topical) focal point of the opera, laid out on a wooden pallet in the center of the stage. The second ghastly understanding comes from feeling the tsunamic power of abstract fear which drives the action of the opera. However coolly cultivated the applause of the bourgeois dissection spectators, however aggressive the swagger of the showman executioner, however dispassionately objective the assessments of the so-called anatomical “specialists”—it is ultimately the all-consuming, irrational fear saturating a society of great inequality which allows the horrors of this narrative to occur, to be “justified.” Not simply gender inequality, but vast economic inequality as well—the murderess comes from poverty. Take one imaginative step outward to include racial and religious inequalities as well, and the picture begins to look unsettlingly familiar, as Lang and Dion fully intend. And the alarming present-day familiarity of an opera based on outdated early 18th-century anatomical practices and spiritual beliefs leads to what might be the most disturbing, subversive act of the opera: Lang and Dion lead the audience through a normalization process that allows us to accept atrocity incrementally until suddenly we find ourselves staring at a spotlit fully-naked, blood-drenched female corpse emptied of its central organs and about to be carted out to “the back gate” for further “auction[ing] under the moonlight.” How did we get here?
Let me briefly pause to consider how I got here, which should also serve to contextualize my remarks that follow. Coming from a childhood in which my exposure to television and media was drastically limited, I encountered a very steep learning curve in college where I had to cultivate—almost from nothing—the ability to access critical distance from media, and from movies in particular. In grade school, my exposure to media consisted of one TV show per week (an honor which was bestowed upon Knight Rider), as well as the incomprehensible splurge of stringently limited Saturday morning cartoons accompanied by French toast on TV trays (Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost Busters being the high points of these sessions). Probably since it wasn’t an animation, I experienced Knight Rider in particular with edge-of-my-seat intensity. There was no real person called “David Hasselhoff” or any modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am; actors and props did not exist for me. There was only Michael Knight and KITT. I experienced danger and surging adrenaline in real time with them, making split-second decisions, skidding around corners at top speed, and escaping impossible situations when the alternative was death. As might be expected, I had no critical distance to understand “parody,” and when I was accidentally exposed (in first grade, in the basement of my cousins’ house during an unsupervised hour of Thanksgiving) to an extensive excerpt of a horror spoof involving a serial killer who targeted a group of cheerleaders with rhyming names (Pandemonium), I suffered nearly unendurable nightmares for the decade to follow.
Fast-forward to my first year as an undergrad, when a group of friends thought I might like to see The Piano, being a pianist myself. Inevitably I became so immersed in the narrative, so intrinsically aligned with Ada McGrath (no idea who Holly Hunter was), that when her jealous husband axes her finger at the dramatic high point, I involuntarily let out a blood-curdling scream in the theater, not even knowing it was me who was screaming. Over a decade later, despite plenty of “media conditioning” in the intervening years, I almost started puking inside a theater during Pan’s Labyrinth and had to walk out midway sobbing uncontrollably.
I offer this background to inform what follows. Because what struck me as maybe the most telling barometer of how insidious and how deceptively crafted anatomy theater was—was that somehow I was able to sit through it. A film director friend of mine texted me, “I wish I could have been there to watch you watch a woman be dissected. That seems satisfying.” How had this improbability come to pass, when a dentistry-obsessed cheerleader murdered with her own electric toothbrush still haunts my days? How did David Lang and Mark Dion structure the music, pace the narrative, juxtapose the tonal shifts, overlay the absurdities and the acts of violence—how did they achieve the sleights of hand that would be necessary to enable anybody, let alone me, to stay in their seats and be both witnesses and participants in all the gore, the misogyny, the incredible injustices? In a way, Lang and Dion deafened us all with the blaringly immediate vulgarity and loudness and ham-fisted manipulation, serving almost to distract from the actual lethal maneuvering under the surface. I was so horrified at my ability to navigate the opera that I actually went back to a second showing to see if I could track the layers of architectural construction, the kinds of “duck and weave” moves Lang and Dion exploited, that could make such an outcome possible.
SPOILER ALERT: Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell), the murderess at the center of the story, has committed the crime of suffocating her husband and both her children. In a meta-move, Lang/Dion/McGrath don’t allow us, the ticket-purchasing audience, to enter the performance hall and settle in before the show. Instead, we are led into the theater as part of the execution procession of the opera’s narrative, with the executioner roughly shoving and restraining the convicted woman along the way, bystanders jeering, and all of us coolly walking behind, amusedly participating while also scouting out our seats. Already, Lang and Dion allow us, the audience members, to establish a nice comfortable distance. The opera calls us out on it throughout, so we feel sufficiently accused, but never quite implicated. Perfect, we were all put through the grinder just enough; our dues are paid. Even Lang and Dion are winking while pointing: isn’t this a great rhetorical device? Sarah Osborne implores us at the beginning of her confession, “Let pity move your hearts,” then describes the harrowing circumstances that led her to “extinguish” her husband and (instead of mother) “smother” each of her young children in turn. Nevertheless, her guilt has already been decreed, and in a swift inexorable matter of minutes, a hood is muscled over her head, a noose tightened around her neck, and with a blunt shove, her motionless body swings limply before us. How did we get here? “Justice! Is! Delivered!” announces the executioner, and signals the audience to applaud, which we do.
Why isn’t the opera already over? The main character is dead within the first five minutes. However, as the executioner Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch) points out, it’s not enough to convict Osborne for her “most heinous of crimes…that of being poor and desperate…that of being born a woman.” And it’s not enough to execute her. We aren’t finished with her yet—and not being finished, not having any kind of boundary where we can be satisfied and allow our endeavor to come to a close, is one of the most gruesome problems placed before us by Lang and Dion’s opera. As Osborne’s painful account detailing the unjust and unbearable conditions of her life remains apparently insufficient to explain her actions, we the survivors are left looking for a more grandiose motivator, and settle upon the abstractness of “evil.” How can we explain the presence of evil? Where does evil come from? Can we locate a corporeal source, a physical manifestation of this hideous motivator, that we might protect ourselves from it going forward? If the source of evil lies in Sarah Osborne’s body, specific to the female form, how can we control that form and thereby suppress the threat of the evil that women carry within them? Thus begins the exploration of the opera’s central aria: “Where is Evil?” as well as the breathtaking misogyny intertwined with the interrogation.
And thus opens the “dissection theater” with its “fresh quality female”! Crouch, the executioner-turned-emcee, parades the body onto the stage, fully covered in a sheet. He reveals the body incrementally, first unveiling the head. We recognize Osborne—is it really her, though? A mannequin of her? A wax likeness? Is there really going to be a dissection? How is Lang going to accomplish this? How realistic will/can it even be? And thus begins our incremental acceptance of what follows. Soon Crouch pulls the sheets back from Osborne’s legs, stroking them with loathsome arousal. Is Lang really going to go there? He just did. Well at least the rest of her body is covered, other than her head and her legs. Her body could be clothed, for all we know. Crouch keeps peeking under the sheet which covers her chest, shuddering with desire and commenting on the rareness of such a young, “fresh and exemplary” female body. Not long after, he tears off the sheet covering Osborne’s torso, revealing her to be utterly naked from the waist up, as well as from the thighs down. Is Lang really going to go there? He just did. Well, her pelvic area is still covered. “At least her pelvic area is still covered!” we think, as we recover from the shock of her upper body being completely naked and exposed before the audience. Who auditioned for this role anyway? Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility that the body may still be a wax mannequin, after all.
Crouch now makes a bombastic introduction of the highly-reputed anatomist and scholar, Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), who makes his bloviating entrance by belting out, “Presently, I shall reveal (“and explicate!” interjects Crouch eagerly) the instruments necessary.” Crouch lifts each of the “15 instruments” in turn, gesturing lewdly with each one toward the female corpse, and announcing them one by one (“The knife! The probe! Bone nippers!” Actually, to my count and re-count, there were only 14 instruments, but we were all too distracted to notice). Classical hand-drawn anatomical illustrations are gorgeously projected across a giant scrim separating the main action of the stage from the audience (yet another dermis, yet another deflection into beauty traced artfully over brutality). Meanwhile, the Igor-like Ambrose Strang (Timur), Peel’s assistant, has lurked onto the stage and has begun to prepare his various steel trays and buckets in the corner. Where did HE come from? Too late; Strang turns toward the audience and launches into the thick of the song, with himself and Crouch reverentially echoing Peel’s assertions (“Presently!…He shall reveal!”).
The absurdity and cognitive dissonance have gotten so over-the-top by this point that the audience is teetering at a breaking point. Lang has to make an artistic decision. Does he pull back? Does he relentlessly push ahead? What happens next defies expectation and yet is the fully logical extension of what has preceded. Lang directs the “Presently, I shall reveal” song toward the pinnacle of campiness, of (dare I say) “gallows humor.” The three male characters, spaced evenly across the stage, launch into a lunatic hybrid of the song, reminiscent of a cross between Pachelbel’s Canon and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Each man is spotlit in quick succession, sings the word “Presently!” and strikes a pose, over and over, faster and faster, all in perfect 4/4 time, outlining harmonies. Are Lang and his creative team really going to go there? They’re going there right now. They’re there. We’re all laughing, kind of bemused and marveling at the same time. This is really happening. The body is still right there, center stage. In an appropriately satirical stroke of luck, the performances of anatomy theater are sponsored in part by Tofurky. How did we get here?
Now begins the dissection of the corpse, and our repugnant voyeurism alongside. Conveniently, the pallet is raised and tilted toward the audience to make sure that all of us can rubberneck. “Where Is Evil?”—the central song of the opera—introduces the endeavor to discover the exact physical location of evil through a thorough examination of the three major organs of Osborne’s body: her stomach, spleen, and heart. This whole while, the corpse has lain statuesque and pristine, a voiceless onlooker to the men’s assertions of authority and expertise. Now back to business. Somehow the loony, spotlit trio of “Presently” provides the momentum and disorientation needed for the audience to swallow the fact that the dissection is going forward. We’re game. Blood and entrails follow. A lot of blood. An intestine pulled out so endlessly and grotesquely that audience members are groaning and covering their eyes. One audience member actually leaves the theater to vomit in the restroom, then returns. Organs are removed, held up to the light, squeezed, cut into pieces, weighed, examined, “intimately interrogated.” Peel orders Strang to “bring forth the chest riches” and the heart is cut out of Osborne’s body. We still hope it’s a wax body, even though the glossy shine of the now blood-drenched torso appears to reveal what can only be Peabody Southwell breathing.
Without proselytizing whatsoever, without any kind of reflection among the characters (in fact, because of their lack of self-awareness), Lang and Dion examine in persuasive and grisly detail the very fine boundary between objectivity and inhumanity. What is the distance between the physical and the spiritual, “the heart” and “the heart”? “Let pity move your hearts,” Osborne had pleaded. After the physical heart is removed from her body, Osborne’s corpse draws in a gasping breath and exhales the words, “My heart…” Another gasping inhale, then “My heart…” again, exhaled in a scalar melody. A third “My heart…” and one recognizes the melody as itself a dissection from a 2001 song of Lang’s called “i lie,” written for women’s chorus. I am overtaken by Lang’s fascinating move to extract the vital melodic line, a coronary artery perhaps, from another body of women, and allow it to re-animate this female corpse. Osborne gathers her breath and delivers a ravishing elegy for her heart (“This was the heart that in my youth was open”) while Strang delivers the stats: “271 grams…unblemished and without corruption.”
Inevitably, when Osborne’s stomach, spleen, and heart are found to be perfect specimens, with no evidence of evil or malformation of any kind, Peel announces that the uterus must be removed and examined, the uterus, the “very seat of hysteria…filled with animal vitality.” He tears the remaining pelvic cloth from her body, and Osborne lies fully exposed, all her privacy literally stripped away. Is Lang really going to go there? He just did. We knew from the beginning he would. We were waiting for him to get there, we, the complicit “Gentlemen” of the paying audience. Let’s fast-forward. The uterus reveals only perfection, the formal “dissection theater” comes to a close without locating the physical seat of evil, all four characters sing a glorious rendition of “Where Is Evil?” this time with Peel pointing outward to specific members of the audience rather than at Osborne’s corpse: “There it is. There. There it is.” Great, we get it, we already got it, and Lang/Dion use this conclusion-facade as a deceptive cadence of sorts. Lang’s opera has come to a close, and yet, the action of the opera continues after it ends, with Crouch issuing an invitation to the Gentlemen of the audience to “meet me by the back gate” for “further inspection of the parts…that haven’t yet been removed.”
Whether we have met Crouch by the back gate or not, eventually we all wend our way home humming “Where Is Evil?” to ourselves. The opera metastasizes through our real-time physical landscape. Sure, there’s our complicity in participating in the narrative, but after all, it’s a piece of art, and that bait and switch was part of the show. But at some point over the course of our homeward commute, the hitherto unidentified and most insidious journey Lang and Dion have led us on comes blistering to the surface. Through their pacing of the putrid, excruciating action, through their measured dosages of barbarity cut with slapstick, somehow they were able to feed us the whole rank slopbucket. Each one of us ingested it. And that revelation of our own individual ability in the very real world—beyond our intention and our professed morality and even our full awareness—survives as the “final” (and yet ever-expanding) horror of anatomy theater. The various processes of rationalization we yielded to begin to dawn on us. Sure, this was a piece of art, but what else could we accept, not quite cognizant we were accepting it? Lang and Dion take their outrageous risks pitch-perfectly, lowering our guard all the while. Nothing dogmatic, only the actions speaking for themselves, drenched in satire, drenched in blood. How did we get here? How did I get here? Moving from the dissection theater to the theater of a present world narcotized by the toxic elixir of fear and complacence, I am led by the performance to ask, “Who am I? And what am I capable of?”
Oni Buchanan is a poet, pianist, and the founder and director of the Ariel Artists management company. As a poet, Buchanan is the author of three poetry books to date — Must a Violence, Spring, and What Animal. Buchanan toured as a solo pianist for over a decade, and ArpaViva Recordings has just released her fifth album, Hierosgamos.