“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
– Old Klingon Proverb –
Bloody, sanctimonious, and macabrely farcical; there are seldom few literary genres as distinct as revenge drama. Francis Bacon characterized revenge as “a kind of wild justice,” the mission of an avenger who must operate outside the law to achieve redress for inflicted wrongs. Because they reflect the failure of human institutions to respond to human crises, revenge stories have always flourished in societies quick to condemn evil but slow to correct it, outwardly righteous but inwardly corrupt. Which is to say, always.
Dramatists in early modern England took this ancient form and challenged all its conventions. Where Aeschylus and Seneca wrote about gods and semi-divine heroes, Shakespeare and Webster portrayed the suffering of mortal innocents and had the audacity to laugh at their misfortunes. Lurid acts of violence, once relegated to the imagination, were depicted, sensationalized, exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Protagonists in classical revenge stories were men and women seeking to balance divine justice and personal honor. Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists forever shifted the balance towards the individual and the nihilistic.
This trend was echoed in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. Free from the Hays Code and the influence of film studios, filmmakers had more latitude to explore material theretofore considered verboten. Writers and directors had drawn inspiration from revenge drama for decades; they were now free to depict the violence that had long lingered on the periphery of American cinema. Independent filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s brought a necessary lens of introspection to the revenge film genre, especially to its often troubling depictions of violence against women.
The history of revenge drama is long and complex, intersecting at various points with legal theory, gender theory, comedy, politics, religion, and myth. My aim this summer is to immerse myself in this world, one I have encountered as a playwright and screenwriter, but one with which I am ultimately unfamiliar. In doing so I will prepare myself to engage more fully in the deeper questions revenge drama poses and be better able to turn my own thoughts on the nature of vengeance into a tightly-scripted work of cinema.