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New Writing in Britain: How Do We Define the Contemporary?

By Aleks Sierz

Parody is a literary genre that always means so much more than it says.

I’d like to start by talking about one example of parody, a book by Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer called I An Actor (written under the pseudonym of Nicholas Craig), which is a work of fiction, a satire on British theatre today. Here, the author says he has been called everything from the “Blowtorch of the Barbican” (xiv) to the “Uncrowned Vesuvius of the English Classical Stage”, and mentions one role he had in which he found himself “wading through a sea of sea of syringes and crème fraiche” in a play called Fist F***ing which was staged — and you get no prizes for guessing this — at the Royal Court theatre in London in 1994. “I still have a burning need,” says Nicholas Craig, “to perform, to communicate and to immerse myself in all the roiling, squalid splendour of life — quite literally in the case of the notorious kitchenette scene from Fist F***ing” (xv).

I mention this book not because it’s an especially acute piece of satire, but rather to underline the fact that the explosion of in-yer-face creativity in 1990s British theatre was not only noticed by news journalists and cultural commentators, but has also become an object of parody. And when something becomes the target of jokes, you can be sure it’s attained the dizzy heights of cultural significance.

My second example is a parody of a Sarah Kane play, called Crushed, which was penned by Irish playwright Chris Lee at some time in early days of the new millennium, and which I heard him perform, to hilarious effect, at a theatre conference (Junge Hunde festival, Kanonhallen theatre) in Copenhagen in May 2004. He kindly let me have the text of this scintillatingly brief piece, and I’ve been using it is an introduction to many talks that I’ve given all over Europe. The simple fact that such a parody is possible suggests two things: that we all recognise an writer’s individual voice and that we all have some sense of what contemporary theatre is. Or do we?

I would like to use the remainder of this talk to explore the question of what contemporary theatre is, and I’d like now to quote from a play that is very different from any that Sarah Kane wrote. I’m referring to Alan Bennett’s award-winning piece, The History Boys (National, 2004). As you all know, The History Boys is about a guy called Irwin, who is a history teacher trying to get a class of teenage boys through their Oxbridge exams by encouraging them to make imaginative and original interpretations of history. At one point, he argues that they should distance themselves from the present:

He says, “Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past and one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be” (74).

This raises the intriguing question of whether it is ever possible to fully grasp the contemporary: if it is true that “there is no period so remote as the recent past”, how can we shift our focus and bring this remote era into clearer view?

One way of doing this, I would argue, is to reformulate the question. Instead of trying to immediately understand the contemporary, perhaps the best way is to ask: what is new writing?

What is new writing?

In Britain, the idea of new writing has an immensely powerful presence in theatre: everywhere you go, you are introduced to “new writers”, everywhere you go, you can watch plays that are examples of “new writing”, everywhere there are now “new writing festivals”. In fact, there is an absolute deluge of the new.

But what is “new writing”? Firstly, it’s a very British idea — in the United Sates of America, very few have ever heard of “new writing”; in Europe, it’s only sporadically glimpsed. In these countries, there are old plays and new plays, but “new writing” has little status and no history. It’s a very British phenomenon. So what is it?
A definition of new writing requires at least three elements at least (they are):

1 ) History. New writing is plays written in the Great Tradition of new writing which started at the Royal Court in 1956 with Look Back in Anger, and whose historic antecedents were the Harley Granville Barker and JE Vedrenne seasons, three of which were at the Court Theatre in 1904-07. That’s the historical frame. Here the idea of “new” gradually became synonymous with “original” and therefore “good”. The idea of novelty, of not having been seen before became a real cultural virtue (Chambers, 132). And, at the Royal Court during the 1960s, “new” came to mean a significant, meaningful text that had immediacy and relevance. In short, new writing became synonymous with contemporary theatre.

2 ) Writers. New writing is plays written by writers who see the role of the playwright as being central to the creation of theatrical meaning. Often, these new writers are young, usually in their twenties, and indeed British theatre has been no more successful than any other in escaping the cult of youth. Sarah Kane, for example, was 23 when her debut, Blasted, was first put on. New writing usually means the early work of young writers, but their age is less important than the fact that they are making their debut. At the 1999 London New Play Festival, for example, 10 out of 12 of the “new writers” were over 40 years of age. And that didn’t matter — they were all new writers. In terms of cultural kudos and value, an author is praised for the distinctive originality of their individual voice: most New Writing is written in a style that playwright Tim Fountain characterises as the “singular original voice”, with “a very particular vision, well expressed” (23).

3 ) Institutions. New writing is plays written for specialist state-subsidised new writing theatres that are more interested in art than in commerce. Starting with George Devine’s regime at the Royal Court, new writing has usually been seen as having been created in opposition to commercial theatre. Devine’s war cry of “the right to fail”, and the necessity of experiment, was its foundation myth, and state funding its economic sine qua non. They didn’t have to depend on the commercial market to succeed — and many modern classics, such as John Arden’s early work, were originally flops. Today, New writing is an industry with its own specialised theatres: the Royal Court, Bush, Hampstead and Soho theatres in London are joined by a couple of institutions outside the metropolis, the Traverse in Edinburgh and Live Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. (Of course, other key players include the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, plus regional reps, off-West End houses such as the Almeida and a handful of significant fringe venues such as Theatre 503.)

If this definition of new writing gives a historical, economic and social background to this British theatrical tradition, and shows how important a cultural presence it has had (from the Angry Young Man phenomenon of the 1950s to the scandals around in-yer-face theatre during the 1990s), it nevertheless sidesteps the far more interesting point — the question of aesthetics: what does a piece of “new writing” look like? In what style is it written? And what subjects does it tackle?

Contemporary style

Contemporary theatre is plays written in a contemporary style. If you consider Chris Lee’s Sarah Kane parody, it’s quite clear that the linguistic style of the piece is instantly recognisable as being the voice of today. New writing in the 1990s transformed the language of British theatre, making it more direct, raw and explicit. Influenced no doubt by other media, theatre also became more telegraphic, more conversational, and less literary, in its prose. It not only introduced a new dramatic vocabulary, it also pushed theatre into being more aggressively aimed at making audiences feel and respond.
When, in a famous scene from Blasted, Sarah Kane used the word “cunt” eleven times in a row (59), she was not only smashing a feminist taboo, but she was simultaneously asserting both a view of masculine psychology and a sense of the power of contemporary strong words.

But a sense of contemporary style is not just a matter of rude words and short exchanges of dialogue. A feeling of nowness can also be conveyed by ideas and a sensibility. When in Shopping and Fucking, Mark Ravenhill has Robbie say: “I think we all need stories, we make up stories so that we can get by” (66), this simple statement not only recalls the theories of Jean-François Lyotard, but also echoes American novelist Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, first published five years before Ravenhill’s play was staged. In this book, Claire says, “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them” (Quoted by Rebellato, xiv). Echoes such as these help make the language and ideas of these plays contemporary in style, in feeling.

But there are dangers in being too contemporary. You could call it the curse of the now. And the easiest way of making sure that your play will date very quickly is to fill it with contemporary references. For instance, when in Patrick Marber’s Closer, Alice borrows Dan’s mobile telephone, the text reads, “She pulls out the aerial with her teeth” (Marber 1999: 10). Very soon, of course, the typical mobile phone no longer needed an aerial. So, in the 2004 edition of Marber’s play, this stage direction was cut. Within five years, it was already out-of-date (See Saunders, 8). Old.

Contemporary issues

Contemporary theatre is plays about contemporary issues. Talking about the Sarah Kane parody, you could argue that it encapsulates the current problem of youth violence and suggests the whole question of nuclear power and humanity’s self-destructive urges.

Certainly a real play by Sarah Kane, such as Blasted, is about contemporary issues such sexual abuse, the crisis of masculinity and genocidal war. Since 9/11, of course, the most important contemporary issue has been the War on Terror — and Berlin director Thomas Ostermeier’s current Schaubühne Theatre version of Blasted (Zerbombt in German) had references to the Iraq War.

In some cases, even naturalism can be visionary. I remember the press night of Leo Butler’s Redundant (2001) at the Royal Court. Okay, this play was a classic dirty realist play set on a council estate, a familiar howl of rage. But it did also have a visionary moment: at one point, the old granny turns on the rest of the cast and harangues them,
“Someone should bomb this bloody country. That’d wake us up a bit. Saddam Hussein or someone. IRA, bleedin’ whatsisface? Bin Laden. He could do it. Drop a few tons of anthrax. Teach us what it really means to suffer.” (78)

On the press night, the line mentioning Bin Laden was cut — well, you can understand why: the date was September 12, 2001. The day after 9/11. But the speech does show how writers can uncannily connect with global events when they let their imaginations off the leash.

Likewise, some of the most thought-provoking plays about the War on Terror are not the lurid satires that preach to the already converted, but reworkings of ancient Greek tragedies. For example, Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender (2004), a free adaptation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, says more about the spirit of the age than most recent heavy-handed caricatures of Blair and Bush.

In Cruel and Tender, Crimp talks about a very contemporary issue, the fear of terror. If you asked a lesser playwright about for an image of a terrorist threat, they would suggest a banal image, perhaps of a young man with a dark complexion and a rucksack getting onto the London Underground system. Crimp takes a much more imaginative leap:

He says: “Every streak of vapour in a cold sky/is a threat/ every child with no shoes/wandering up to a checkpoint [is a threat] […] and even the lamp on the bedside table/even the coiled filament inside the lamp/ is a threat.” (58)
I particularly like that last image: the bedside lamp is the witness of all our most intimate activities, and by using it, Crimp shows how terror has penetrated to the heart of Western consciousness. Also, like all great art, such images change the way you see everyday life. After hearing this passage, there’s a sense that a light bulb, this most domestic of articles, is actually a threat – a bomb waiting to explode.

Contemporary provocations

Contemporary theatre is plays that challenge or provoke their audiences. In the Sarah Kane parody, for instance, there is something inherently challenging and disturbing in its aggression and its determination to rub the faces of the audience in the shit. Clearly there are some contemporary plays, most obviously those of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, whose language, stage imagery and central ideas are inherently challenging.

But some ideas are also more subtly challenging and provocative. Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, for example, is about consumerism and individualism, about drug addiction and the value of money, about alienated sex and abuse. But the most excitingly contemporary aspect of Ravenhill’s work is arguably not the references to technological gadgets such as the internet or to people such as Bill Gates that litter his work. More profoundly, Ravenhill’s plays suggest a sensibility (by which I mean a complex of feelings and ideas) that simply wouldn’t have been possible in, say, the 1980s. A good example of this is Scene Eleven of Some Explicit Polaroids (1999). In this scene, Nick the old leftie and Jonathan the new entrepreneur discuss their nostalgia for Cold War days.

Jonathan says, “Nostalgia’s a tricky bitch […] I think we both miss the struggle” (311, 310). At moments like this, the great British tradition of the state-of-the-nation play meets the contemporary reality of a globalised economy and nostalgia seems to sum up a distinctly contemporary sense of drift, uncertainty and confusion. Politically, few would have been able to write like this before the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

But there’s another way in which Ravenhill’s work is contemporary. I’m referring, of course, to the theme of absent fathers in his plays. Not only are parental good fathers absent in plays such as Shopping and Fucking, Faust Is Dead and Handbag, but their place has been taken by bad or abusive fathers, such as Brian the brutal drug dealer, Alain the anarchistic philosopher and the uncaring men in Handbag (Rebellato, xiii-xiv). Of course, missing father figures are not by themselves a sign of contemporaneity, after all, isn’t Hamlet a play with a missing good father and an abusive father substitute? What makes the missing father so contemporary in Ravenhill’s plays is the way he is symbolic of a missing paternalistic state. In the post-Thatcher era, not only have individual fathers gone AWOL, but the paternal Welfare State no longer looks after its citizens. This makes Ravenhill’s absent fathers not only a theme that reeks of contemporaneity, but also a metaphorically rich political statement.

Contemporary form

Contemporary theatre is plays which challenge theatrical form. If you remember the Sarah Kane parody, you could argue that the way it departs from the form of the traditional well-made play is a direct index of its contemporaneity. With this in mind, perhaps an even better definition of contemporary theatre is one that lets go of the content of the plays and looks instead at its form. Maybe the truly contemporary play is one that decisively challenges the old forms of drama, and expresses its nowness through its experimental attitude to structure. In other words, Waiting for Godot rather than Look Back in Anger; or, if you prefer, The Entertainer rather than Epitaph for George Dillon.

Elyse Dodgson, the head of the International Department at the Royal Court, once told me: “We look for work that is original, hard-hitting, provocative and contemporary, but we never talk about its form – that’s up to the individual writers. We positively discourage history plays or adaptations.”

Obviously, we can all think of the outstanding works that experiment with form, from Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (2000) to Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water) (2006), and from Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life (1997) to anything by Caryl Churchill. But why should we think of this as especially contemporary? Isn’t it just a kind of aesthetic nostalgia for the great days of theatrical modernism, when — as Martin Crimp once said satirically in Attempts on Her Life — “exemplifying the dictum form follows function” (212). Maybe, but I think there’s another reason why experiment with structure is so exciting and so contemporary. Because whenever a writer experiments with form they challenge the prevailing (in Britain) aesthetic of naturalism and by doing so they proclaim to the audience that what they are watching is not real life but theatre. When this happens, the writer is drawing attention to the fact that theatre is a kind of fiction.

Why is this important? Well, I always think that fiction has certain powers and characteristics that real life does not have. Fiction, for example, is a place of dream, of imagination and of magic. It is a place where the social conflicts of the real world, which often stubbornly defy solution, can be resolved in an imaginary world. So, in Blasted, Sarah Kane creates an irreconcilable conflict between Ian and Cate, a man and a woman, then in the end she magically resolves the tensions between them. In Shopping and Fucking, Mark Ravenhill ends up by turning a piece of gritty realism into an urban fairy tale: the drug dealer gives the young people their money back. Imagine that happening in the everyday world. Magical. In Attempts on Her Life, Martin Crimp does the impossible: he dramatises absence; he creates an absent woman who can be one woman and all women, both at the same time : that’s the power of fiction.

Finally, one of the other ways in which a fiction announces its contemporaneity is by splitting the critics and the audience. And the above examples all did that. When there is conflict, there is discussion; where there is division, there is the contemporary. In the end, perhaps the most contemporary plays are those which do two things: they both call attention to, and at the same time question, their own contemporaneity.

As Martin Crimp says, satirically, in Attempts on Her Life: “It’s theatre — that’s right — for a world in which theatre itself has died.” (254)


An earlier version of this article was originally presented as a paper at the International Seminar of Senior Critics (‘Dramaturgical and Scenographic Fictions: Convergences/ Confrontations’), Almada Theatre Festival, Lisbon, Portugal, 7 July 2007.

Bibliography

Bennett, Alan, The History Boys (London: Faber, 2004).

Butler, Leo, Redundant (London: Methuen, 2001).

Chambers, Colin, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company: Creativity and the Institution (London: Routledge, 2004).

Craig, Nicholas, I An Actor (London: Methuen, 2001).

Crimp, Martin, Plays Two: No One Sees the Video; The Misanthrope; Attempts on Her Life; The Country (London: Faber, 2005).

Fountain, Tim, So You Want To Be a Playwright? (London: Nick Hern, 2007).

Kane, Sarah, Complete Plays: Blasted; Phaedra’s Love; Cleansed; Crave; 4.48 Psychosis; Skin (London: Methuen, 2001).

Lee, Chris, Crushed [parody of a Sarah Kane play], typescript, c. 2004.

Marber, Patrick, Closer (London: Methuen, 1999).

Marber, Patrick, Plays One: Closer; Dealer’s Choice; After Miss Julie (London: Methuen, 2004).

Ravenhill, Mark, Plays One: Shopping and Fucking; Faust Is Dead; Handbag; Some Explicit Polaroids (London: Methuen, 2001).

Rebellato, Dan, ‘Introduction’, to Mark Ravenhill, Plays One: Shopping and Fucking; Faust Is Dead; Handbag; Some Explicit Polaroids, (London: Methuen, 2001): ix-xx.

Saunders, Graham, Patrick Marber’s Closer, (London: Continuum, 2008).

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