The Spectacle of Anatomy


In “An Opera Revisits the Grisly Public Dissections of the 18th Century” from Hyperallergic, Allison Meier reviewed the opera “Anatomy Theater,” a production staged in January this year at the Prototype Festival in Brooklyn. Meier is a staff writer for Hyperallergic, which presents itself as a “forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today.” Meier provided thorough support for her analysis of the opera, in both historical references as well as current links.

Anatomy Theater” is a short opera based on real-life public dissections of the 18th century; it shows how the idealized female form was scrutinized inside and out. Meier references the Anatomical Venus in her introduction, citing several examples through history of how medicine and art overlapped in order to educate.

The study of anatomy in the 18th century involved a strange obsession with an idealized female body, even when her guts were splayed open.

Meier’s brief description of the plot of “Anatomy Theater” connects certain elements of the opera to religious fervor, loss of agency, silencing of women’s voices, and technicalities of crime. The story revolves around the execution and subsequent dissection of a woman, who was hanged for the murder of her abusive husband and children.

One by one her organs are lifted from her chest, as the anatomists search for visible evidence of her moral corruption.

Doctors examining the woman’s body look for physical proof of her lack of morality, while they themselves embody the “gray areas of morality around this visceral punishment.” Meier’s analysis of “Anatomy Theater” is grounded in historical context and appreciation of medical detail. This article brings attention to the previously-overlooked historical events of the execution of women and the dissection in search of evil. Meier also draws comparisons between art and medicine: the historical Anatomical Venus as well as the modern representation of art in the form of theater.

This article connects to Katharine Park’s Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection and the rise of dissections of women in 14th century Italy in search of the mysteries of reproduction, religious iconography, and moral rectitude. Meier’s writing, as well as the provided references and suggestions for further reading, entices the reader to learn more about a topic that still has relevancy today as women’s bodies continue to be examined and legislated. In conclusion, Meier wrote that “Anatomy Theater” is a “reminder of all those people whose agency over the fate of their own bodies was lost to those with greater power.” This thread of bodily autonomy and agency continues throughout artistic representation in modernity.