Back to the Playground: the New Brutalists and Violent Sexual Prosthetics


At the Independent, critic Paul Taylor understood the descriptions of rape in Penetrator as a metaphor. He objected to the play’s conversion “of a heinous violation of human rights into a convenient psycho-dramatic metaphor” for repressed homosexual desire. Claire Armitstead’s review in the Guardian makes precisely the same critique, noting that Neilson’s play presents “homosexuality [as] a monster waiting to devour men whose defences are destroyed”. All of this is true enough, and we might go even further, saying that what waits to devour the men is not homosexuality per se but rape. Whether or not Tadge really experienced anything that he described in the black room, Neilson presents those horrors as something that Tadge fundamentally desires. In Penetrator, repressed homosexual desire is a rape fantasy – not the fantasy of the rapist but a fantasy of victimage. This fantasy of becoming a rape victim is one that replaces – or forecloses the possibility of – an earlier fantasy in the play, one in which Max imagines himself as the rapist of the woman he dates. Max rejects the idea, at the play’s very beginning, that using the word cunt makes him a potential rapist, but Neilson, for his part, does not: Penetrator represents rape as a fantasy, simultaneously desired and feared by men, irrespective of so-called sexuality. Tadge’s entrance into Max and Alan’s apartment is a literal intrusion of the possibility of sexual violence into a domestic, homosocial world. In fact, it is more accurate to say that Tadge’s entrance reveals a potential for male/male rape that was already present in the structure of the men’s homosocial interactions. The play describes all men as potential rapists and all homosocial interactions as subtended by the possibility of sexual violation.

But what of Tadge’s gigantic hunting knife, the knife to end all knives?

Theatre critics have long interpreted swords and other weapons as “phallic”, that is, representative of the penis. To cite a single, typical example from the literature on representations of rape, Karen Bamford describes the deaths of martyred saints on the Jacobean stage as frequently performed “by the phallic sword, suggesting that they [the female victims] suffer symbolic rape”. An analysis such as this, which sees the sword as a symbol for the penis, is unable to describe the complexity of the sexual prosthesis staged by Neilson’s play. In Penetrator there is no penis at all: an enormous knife is an enormous knife. The weaponized object functions as a prosthesis, an extension of the male body imagined not as a sex-toy but as a tool of sexual violation. Neilson has removed the possibility of sexual pleasure almost entirely from his play. The play’s fantasies are all violent. In opposition to analyses of violence like Bamford’s, which are quick to interpret non-sexual acts of violence as though they exist on a continuum of eroticism (“symbolic rape”), Neilson’s focus on the prosthesis encourages us to interpret the sexual violence in his play on a continuum of violence and torture rather than one that is erotic.