Death on Stage

Brad Pontius

  • OnStage New York Columnist

When was the last time you saw or were involved with a show in which one or more characters died? It can be offstage, it can be onstage, or it can even be revealed through exposition later on but the chances are that it was pretty recent. Death is one audition that eventually everyone gets a part for. It’s inevitable, and so it’s something that makes its way into many stories. That being said death can sometimes feel like almost a lazy way to end a character’s arc. So let’s discuss why!

One goes to the theatre to live life vicariously through the characters onstage. When they are upset, the audience sympathizes. Likewise when they’re happy, or distraught, or even downright murderous. People come to see shows because they want to become immersed in the foibles of these (usually) fictional characters and lose themselves to the ecstasy of experiencing through another living human. That is certainly why theatre means more to some people than cinema or paintings. Why try to get the art to speak to your soul, after all, when an actor can actually talk to you in person. This is why Death can be so horrifically upsetting on the stage. You are witnessing the last breath leave the character – even though secretly we all know that the actor will stand up for the bows later and relive the same death later in an almost bizarre, macabre cycle reliving the same moment each night.

So why might it be better to rip this particular emotional attachment away from the audience and present something else? That can be explained in one word: “Consequences”. Death is the final word. It’s the final bow for the character rather than the actor. You no longer get to see how they react. It’s done. To better explain, I pose a scenario. A play is produced in which one of the main characters attempts suicide half-way through. He is successful and the other characters must deal with his decision to take his own life. This is strong for the other characters and can drive a good deal of drama in innumerable ways. You see the heartbreak, the anger, the loneliness from the other characters. Sounds like a good but sad story, yes? Now take away the death but keep the suicide attempt. He fails and is still somehow alive. Suddenly you get to keep every inch of the horror from the other characters but now you also see the crushing arc presented by the main character. Now suddenly he has to deal with everything. And I do mean everything! What is his relationship with his friends now? What about his close family? Is he physically hampered now by this attempt? What is his view mentally and how do we see that?

Now suddenly you have all of the drama, but you have added a layer of tension that will preside thickly over the rest of the play. Hell, you could even have that happen at the end of a play and show the struggle leading up to that fateful moment – and then all of that tension is implied after the play and you leave the audience thinking about what comes next. The build-up alone is going to be huge. You leave them wanting more, because they just need to know what the end really is. It gives the characters more than life on the stage, it gives them life beyond the play. It lets the character’s story extend beyond the two plus hours they are allowed to breathe on stage.

Allow the characters to live not just on stage, but also to have life surrounding the play. Taking death away completely from plays would be a mistake. It can still be utilized as a great end to many characters. But in working with or writing new work for the stage, remember that it will almost always be more powerful to see someone struggle rather than see them in a casket.

Death can, conversely, also craft a better play with the demise of supporting characters. Just look at the brilliantly grim story arc in Heathers: The Musical. Granted it’s based off a film, but the numerous deaths that occur within this musical are huge. They not only build up tension to what the audience believes will be a bloody climax, but it also lends itself to the audience. We are not sad to see the characters pass, we’re actually kind of elated for some of them to die – they’re genuinely bad people and you end up rooting for the main characters, at least until the end. And then, of course, there is Sweeney Todd, a great musical so drenched in blood that you could consider it in the ‘Slasher’ genre. Here you can see the death of so many supporting characters that it’s actually justified when Sweeney himself gets a shave. His own tragic descent and demise creates a paradox. The only possible way for his arc of killing and vengeance is to himself die.

As is usually the case with theatre, things work sometimes and do not work others. Death, one of those great and terrifying things that is common among all humans, will always play into humanity’s fears. Whether it is a supporting part or a major role may vary from person to person, but this much is true for theatre: Death should be handled with tact and adherence to the story to make a better impact on the audience.

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