'The Breaking' Talks Sexual Assault In The Military Through Shakespeare Play

Mar 16, 2016

Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative is putting on a brand new play by WMU masters student Cara Beth Heath, Saturday at 8 p.m. It’s called The Breaking. It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that takes place at a Coast Guard station in Alaska. 

If you’re not familiar with the play Titus Andronicus, it’s about two Roman brothers who have just returned victorious from war with the Goths. Their father, the emperor, died in battle. Now the two brothers are fighting over who should take over. But the people of Rome want their war general, Titus Andronicus, to be the next emperor instead. Meanwhile, the Goths are plotting revenge against the Romans.

The play is full of murder and back stabbing - and very few make it out alive.

Playwright Cara Beth Heath says she decided to challenge herself by writing an adaptation to Titus Andronicus. Around that same time, she was learning more about the problem of sexual assault in the military and watching documentaries like The Invisible War. Heath says she couldn’t help but draw parallels between the women in the documentary and the character Lavinia, Titus’s daughter.

“One of the only female characters loses her tongue and her hands in a terrible assault - and because of that has no way to speak about or take action against the people who hurt her. And it just sort of reminded me of the way in which - because of military justice, the fact that they have their own court system and really very purposefully and for various reasons, separate their justice from civilian justice - victims of violence, female or male, in the military really have no voice.”

Heath says it’s difficult for both women and men to report sexual violence in the military.

“But if your boss’s boss is the person who assaulted you or your boss is the person who assaulted you. Or if, because we’re all friends, your boss is better friends with the person who assaulted you than they are with you - it becomes a huge mess. Is it worth it to report it? Maybe, maybe not.”

According to a Human Rights Watch study, 62 percent of military victims who reported sexual abuse faced some kind of retaliation - whether that’s losing their job, death threats, harassment, or even being charged with a crime themselves.

In Heath’s play, The Breaking, a woman named Seaman Lavin is the newest recruit at a Coast Guard station in rural Alaska. Heath says she borrowed the location from the real-life experience of one of the women in a documentary she watched.

“One of them experienced her assault at a very remote Coast Guard station in Alaska. And I liked the idea of setting this play in a very remote setting as well because it just sort of adds to the feeling of isolation and helplessness. That the characters really can’t just pull out a cell phone and call for help."

Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative will have a staged reading of Heath’s play Saturday. Heath says she hopes to get feedback from the audience and do a revamped version of the play in May. She says wants to know if there’s anything missing in her characters - whether people have seen Titus Andronicus or not.

“I’d also like to know because frankly I’m pushing some conventional boundaries in terms of what kinds of violence are usually shown on the stage. And I’d like to know how they react to that - whether or not they thought it was meaningful, powerful or if they thought that it was too much and they don’t think that’s the right way to tell a story.”

The staged reading of The Breaking will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. at Fire. Due to the violence in the play, Heath suggests viewers leave their kids at home.

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