A Silent Scream

MOTHER is looking at a photograph that CALVIN made. Two tones enters the room, slowly: a bass and a treble. We iris on MOTHER as the tones enter,
The bass grows louder.
And louder.
And fuller.
And louder.
We can feel it in our chests.
The treble also grows louder and fuller: It fills our ears. MOTHER’s mouth opens – slack jawed.
She might be making a noise – an ahhh, and if she is, her noise and the note’s noise are the same.
It’s the sound of screaming silently in one’s own mind. MOTHER is filled with the image, the photograph.


The “silent scream” is an indelible moment of the modern theatre. Berliner Ensemble actor Helene Weigel’s seminal interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage has left us with an iconic gesture of loss and pain. It’s a manifestation of Brecht’s concept of gestus — that is, a character’s singular physical expression of social behavior embracing the economic, emotional, familial and rational reality that informs the scene. Moments of gestus often become definitional of a character’s essence as it exists in the social/political context of the play. This was certainly true for Weigel’s Mother Courage. A description of the moment in performance:


For reference: below, see the screaming horse from Guernica, which Picasso painted as a response to the Nazi’s barbarous bombing campaign on the Basque town. The horse in particular was said to stand in for the people of Guernica and the suffering they endured.

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

In REALLY, the Mother confronts a moment of existential grief and loss. Her physical response mirrors that of Mother Courage, but also another famous silent scream: Meryl Streep’s in the film Sophie’s Choice , wherein Sophie is forced by a Nazi official to choose which of her two children will be sent to the gas chamber. If she refuses the choice, both children will die. At the last moment, she saves one child, and the camera focuses on her silent scream as she hears the dying screams of her daughter — the daughter’s voice becomes Sophie’s.



In both cases — Mother Courage and Sophie — the silent scream is prompted by the loss of a child. And not just loss, but by the tragic shocking injustice of the circumstance, by desperation, and by each mother’s inability to voice that grief aloud. There is an existential terror embedded in these gestures: a deep, cavernous, consuming, annihilating grief. The philosopher Jacques Lacan called this the “grimace of [a] life that suffers” — a silence, a pain located somewhere beyond the cry.


Portrait of a Muse

GIRLFRIEND feels herself being stared at.
CALVIN stares at GIRLFRIEND like she’s the only girl in the world.
He stares at her with new eyes.
He stares at her and he is inspired.
GIRLFRIEND grows warmer in his gaze.
She no longer sits, she poses, she fills herself.
She is beautiful.
She is a muse.
She warms and fills with CALVIN’s attention.
They are both warm and light and full.
And they are so lovely with each other.

In a previous post, we talked about the Mother’s challenge of posing, consciously, for a portrait under the Girlfriend’s gaze. As a counterpoint, we see the Girlfriend as she is filled with the love of the artist, transforming into a muse. Later, Mother tells of being painted in her youth by a handsome young man whose attentions she won as if in battle.

What might any of this look like from the artist’s point of view? How does the male artist view the muse?

Klimt’s intricate, radiant, gold leaf portraits are loaded with symbolism, and often feature women of exquisite beauty. I’m reminded of his work in particular in relationship to the stage directions regarding the Girlfriend’s transformation (above).


Notorious as a womanizer and renowned as a genius, Picasso was inspired by a series of muses, two of whom are depicted here.


Fortuny spent over four decades painting and photographing his wife, Henriette, as he pursued a critically lauded career that spanned textile design, to scenic design and lighting innovations, to high fashion.


Here’s a small selection of works portraying his muse, Lydia Delectorskaya.


His longtime partner and fellow artist Georgia O’Keefe featured prominently in his oeuvre.


The avant garde Dadaist spent nearly his whole life working side by side with his partner, muse, and fellow artist Lee Miller.


Another artist pair, Mapplethorpe and singer/poet Patti Smith were both frequent subjects of his photographs.

The Pose

The Mother in this play has arrived, at the invitation of the Girlfriend, to sit for a portrait — to spend some portion of time being seen, recorded, examined. What is the Mother expecting of the resulting photograph? Is she hoping to appear beautiful? Wise? Mysterious? Powerful? Vindicated? We know she studied art history in college, and she comes back over and over to the value of beauty in art. In this way, she seems to be representative of an earlier generation of art connoisseurs deeply connected to classic ideals of taste and propriety — she is at odds, perhaps, with her son’s cohort of artists who draw influence from photographers who explored grittier, messier subject matter. As she says to the Girlfriend:

“You all like things — you like things to be.
Ugly even.”

So who does the Mother envision herself to be, in this portrait? She emphasizes her desire for prettiness (in art) as the portrait session starts. What is this negotiation about?

One way to think about this moment is by considering what the Mother thinks of as classically beautiful or powerful portraiture — what will she be measuring herself against? These ideas might shape the physical score of the Mother as she performs the act of posing, of being seen and recorded.

I’ve been thinking about Edwardian era painted portraits of strong and intriguing women, as well as the way in which contemporary photographers like Annie Leibovitz have innovated portraiture, using unexpected physical gestures or settings to reveal the inner truth of a subject. It feels like the Mother  might admire Leibovitz-ian work, but in her heart wants to be seen through a more idealized, romantic lens. Some examples of each are below.

I’ll also note how prescribed the poses seem — the angle of hips and knees to the shoulders/neck; the direction of the eyes versus the feet; the manufactured line of the body to convey personality, status, emotion. So many portraits recapitulate the same general idea: the subject angled diagonally across the frame. It’s rare to see women — unless they’re of extremely high status — portrayed full front, the gaze directly forward towards the viewer.  How does the Mother play with these conventions, consciously or not, as she explores her own relationship to the camera’s eye?

{Click images to enlarge and view captions.}