«I’ll kill him and I’ll eat him!»: Peter Greenaway and the cinematic Trauerspiel

Mattia Petricola


The career of British director Peter Greenaway, now more than four decades long, has often been animated by a profound interest in what one may call the aesthetics of death. This is particularly true for his 80s and 90s films, which explore a wide array of strategies for the staging and ritualization of death. In The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover (1989), for the first time, this interest takes Greenaway into the territories of the tragic.I propose to rethink the fundamental relationship that Greenaway’s film entertains with the narrative and aesthetic forms of the tragic. More precisely, I suggest to interpret The Cook in the light of the reflections on the Trauerspiel (mourning-play) that Walter Benjamin elaborates in The Origin of German Tragic Drama [Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels]. After giving a short account of the first macro-section of Benjamin’s essay, I will argue that the opposition between the Thief and the Lover mirrors the Trauerspiel’s opposition between Tyrant and Martyr, that Benjamin regards as one of the conceptual cores of this theatrical form. This, in turn, reflects the presence in the film of a more abstract conflict between two systems for the construction of knowledge and experience. By drawing on Benjamin’s study, I will trace this conflict back to the opposition between nature and books in baroque culture.The battle between the Thief/Tyrant and the Lover/Martyr takes the form of a succession of rites and counter-rites for the (un)making of social bonds, and the film constructs these rites by clearly referring to the Christian imagination and its subversion. I will contend that the motif of the subversion of the Holy Communion can provide us with a unifying key for the interpretation of the film. From a semiotic perspective, this manipulation consists in the substitution of what our culture constructs as food with its dysphoric counterparts: decay, excrement, and human flesh. 


baroque drama; mourning play; Peter Greenaway; Walter Benjamin; Cannibalism; neo-baroque;

Full Text:



Aebischer, Pascale, Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Armstrong, Raymond, “All-Consuming Passions: Peter Greenaway’s the Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”, Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, Ed. Anne L. Bower, London, Routledge, 2004: 219-34.

Bartolovich, Crystal, “Consumerism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Cannibalism”, Cannibalism and the Colonial World, Eds. Francis Barker - Peter Hulme - Margaret Iversen, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998: 204-37.

 Benjamin, Walter, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928), eng. tr. The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London, Verso, 1998.

Bennett, Susan, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past, London, Routledge, 2013.

Brinkema, Eugenie, The Forms of the Affects, Durham-London, Duke University Press, 2014.

Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, New Haven-London, Yale University Press, 1995.

Elliott, Bridget and Purdy, Anthony, Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory, London, Academy Editions, 1997.

Greenaway, Peter, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Paris, Dis Voir, 1989.

Keesey, Douglas, The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death and Provocation, Jefferson, McFarland, 2006.

Keller, James R., “The Allegory of Intemperance: Spenser and Greenaway's the Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”, Food, Film and Culture: A Genre Study, Ed. James R. Keller, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Company, 2006: 13-23.

Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pascoe, David, Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images, Islington, Reaktion Books, 1997.

Schiavoni, Giulio, “Fuori Dal Coro”, Benjamin, Walter, Il Dramma Barocco Tedesco, Turin, Einaudi, 1999: vii-xxxv.

Siegel, Joel, “Greenaway by the Numbers”, Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Eds. Vernon W. Gras - Marguerite Gras, Jackson MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2000: 66-90.

Siegel, Janice F., “Peter Greenaway's the Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: A Cockney Procne”, Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema, Ed. Martin M. Winkler, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001: 233-257.

Steiner, George, “Introduction”, in W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London, Verso, 1998: 7-24.

Stetco, Dayana, “The Crisis of Commentary: Tilting at Windmills in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”, Peter Greenaway's Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema, Eds. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi and Mary Alemany-Galway, Lanham MD, Scarecrow Press, 2008.

Walsh, Michael, “Allegories of Thatcherism: The Films of Peter Greenaway”, Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, Ed. Lester D. Friedman, Minneapolis MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1993: 255-77.

Woods, Alan, Being Naked Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/2788

NBN: http://nbn.depositolegale.it/urn%3Anbn%3Ait%3Aunica-21493

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM

Between Journal is published by the University of Cagliari - Maintenance for this OJS installation is provided by UniCA  Open Journals, hosted by Sistema Bibliotecario di Ateneo.

Between Journal is published with the funding of the Bank of Sardinia Foundation.

ISSN 2039-6597

CC-By lockssDOAJ seal SPARC Europe