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.