In Sheila Callaghan’s darkly tantalizing satire, That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play, two radical feminist ex-strippers, Agnes and Valerie, pursue right-wing pro-lifers in a murderous rampage. Eventually, they meet a screenwriter, Owen, in the midst of writing his magnum opus who later incorporates them into his script. His friend with whom he stays, Rodney (called “The Rod”), pursues manly enterprises, and has yet to be taught the lessons of consent. Soon after, the lines between dramatic fiction and harsh reality blur as the writing progresses, further spiraling the characters into a web of conflict.
While the violence tends towards the extreme, a rare feminist addition to the theatre of the absurd canon, the play resembles many other radical works that seek to smash the patriarchy, albeit with an unhealthy dose of violent misandry. Its closest comparison, though written by a man, is Ariel Dorfmann’s Death and the Maiden, which delves into the chilling consequences of Chilean state violence, and one woman’s harrowing history of sexual assault culminating in the wrath of revenge. The work aligns with such films as Thelma & Louise (1991) and Baise-Moi (or ‘Fuck Me‘) (2000), part of the “New French Extremity” that portrays intense scenes of violence for the purposes of (sometimes radical) political commentary. Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) similarly through its use of the reverse chronological order, a device popularized by Memento (2000), shows how the brutal assault of Alex results in her lover and former lover follow the trail of her assaulter from their arrest to her gleefully finding out she is pregnant, which is rendered elegiac because of the film’s reverse chronology (and beautifully encapsulated by “le temps détruit tout”, or time destroys everything.)
The brilliance of this work lies in its gynocentric perspective on sexual assault that consciously seeks to render explicit the aftermath of its violence. Its juxtaposition of two types of radicals in diametrical opposition, feminism and a staunch pro-life supporters, allows for the absurdity of either to subdue radicalism of both. Though the work may be deemed dystopian, its vision of a rebellious reaction to assault proves crucial in a time when few report their cases and fewer are afforded any form of legal justice. Agnes opines of the radical pro-lifers, “We just…wanna keep going for as long as we can. Because we FUCKING HATE THEM ALL. Okay. Not just the ones with bombs in their trucks.” Valerie replies, curtly, “That’s right.” “And we fucking hate people telling us how to act.” “Right,” Valerie responds, before Agnes adds, “About our bodies,” “Right,” “And about the Internet.” They turn to blogging as a form of activism and self-help, asserting their self-autonomy while also being critical of body policing and controlling women.
While farcical, it employs the recurrent literary trope & plot device of rape and its repercussive revenge reflecting the reality of sexual violence against women and the profound impact it can have on people’s lives–to the extent that the act of rape can instigate such traumatic experiences that an individual cannot cope with them and, thereafter, then acts out their trauma. While imperfect, the play’s uncanny ability to simulate sexual violence & simultaneously distance itself from it makes it worth the quick read.
The play can be found on the playwright’s website.