In-yer-face theatre : British drama today /
Aleks Sierz.
London : Faber and Faber, 2001.
xiii, 274 p. ; 22 cm.
More Details
London : Faber and Faber, 2001.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 251-265) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

What is in-yer-face theatre?

It offends today, but we look harder and we know, it will not offend tomorrow.

    (Urgentino in Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution )

On 4 November 1998, a small but lively audience filled the Pleasance theatre in north London for the opening night of Snatch , a seventy-five-minute play by twenty-one-year-old Peter Rose. Put on by the Soho Theatre Company, it kicked off a four-week season of new drama. As the programme explained, to make the most of the excitement generated when the `text is lifted off the page and, for the very first time, acquires a life of its own', each play was given only one week of rehearsal. This both saved money and meant that the work was seen in its `most raw and energetic state'.

    Set in an untidy flat, Snatch begins with two students, Paul and Simon, boasting about a girl they've picked up and raped during the night. As dawn breaks, a huddled figure lying at the back of the stage begins to move. When she gets up, Beth is trembling and covered in bruises. `It could be worse,' she says, `I could be you.' `There's a draught, says one of the blokes. `Shut your legs.' Simon goes out and Beth curls up in a foetal position. Paul, who claims to be a real `ladykiller', tries to rape her again. Suddenly, there is a red flash and Beth and Paul swap bodies. Now Beth strides around the room showing off `her' muscles and Paul cowers, defenceless in a woman's body. Beth gags and ties him up. When Simon returns, she invites him to abuse `Beth', and he does so, unaware that he is having sex with his mate. Beth returns with a tattoo on `her' forehead. It reads RAPIST. Simon is appalled. Then Beth cuts off `her' penis. As the blood spreads, there is another flash and Beth and Paul swap bodies again. Beth blinds Simon and leaves, shouting: `I'll get over this -- I will.'

    With a full-on play such as this, you expect an emotional reaction from the audience. When Beth mutilated `her' manhood, there were gasps. Some people hid their eyes. Next to me, two young women squirmed. Men instinctively squeezed their thighs together. There were groans. When the play was over, and the audience began to leave, some people complained about the play's viciousness, others hated its brutal images, but a few were excited by its emotional punch. Rose's youth was mentioned, his writing praised, his imagination attacked. It was pointed out that even when Beth had become a bloke, it was a woman's body that bore the brunt of male attack; others noted that, compared to the laddish banter, the woman's voice was muted. Most tried to come to grips with the anger and agony shown onstage. But, above all, what was striking was the buzz of discussion -- this audience had gone to the theatre and emerged shaken, talking, arguing, feeling.

    Watching Snatch , I was reminded of the gut rage of Sarah Kane's Blasted , the gender issues of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking and the fearsome violence of Anthony Neilson's Penetrator . It was neither the first play of its kind nor the last, but it was one of those moments when you feel that a new sensibility has become the norm in British theatre. In-yer-face theatre had not only arrived, it had become the dominant theatrical style of the decade.

The widest definition of in-yer-face theatre is any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. It is a theatre of sensation: it jolts both actors and spectators out of conventional responses, touching nerves and provoking alarm. Often such drama employs shock tactics, or is shocking because it is new in tone or structure, or because it is bolder or more experimental than what audiences are used to. Questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort. Crucially, it tells us more about who we really are. Unlike the type of theatre that allows us to sit back and contemplate what we see in detachment, the best in-yer-face theatre takes us on an emotional journey, getting under our skin. In other words, it is experiential, not speculative.

    The phrase `in-your-face' is defined by the New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) as something `blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid'. The Collins English Dictionary (1998) adds the adjective `confrontational'. The phrase originated in American sports journalism during the mid-seventies, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang over the following decade. It implies that you are being forced to see something close up, that your personal space has been invaded. It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries. In short, it describes perfectly the kind of theatre that puts audiences in just such a situation.

    How can you tell if a play is in-yer-face? It really isn't difficult: the language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen, and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.

    Usually, when writers use shock tactics, it is because they have something urgent to say. If they are dealing with disturbing subjects, or want to explore difficult feelings, shock is one way of waking up the audience. Writers who provoke audiences or try to confront them are usually trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable -- often because they want to question current ideas of what is normal, what it means to be human, what is natural or what is real. In other words, the use of shock is part of a search for deeper meaning, part of a rediscovery of theatrical possibility -- an attempt by writers to see just how far they can go.

    Provocation in performance can range from a new tone of voice being heard for the first time, a question of sensibility, to deliberate attacks on an audience's prejudices. The most successful plays are often those that seduce the audience with a naturalistic mood and then hit it with intense emotional material, or those where an experiment in form encourages people to question their assumptions. In such cases, what is being renegotiated is the relationship between audience and performers -- shock disturbs the spectator's habitual gaze.

    Controversy may often be sought, but usually only takes off by chance. For a play to be controversial, it needs to touch raw nerves. Often, although the audience's feelings of discomfort and outrage are real enough, the form that controversy takes is itself a performance: walkouts, letters to the press, leader articles denouncing a `waste of public money', calls for bans or cuts in funding, mocking cartoons, questions in parliament, or even prosecution on charges of obscenity or blasphemy.

    A useful distinction can be made between the hot and cool versions of in-yer-face theatre. The hot version -- often performed in small studio theatres with audiences of between fifty and 200 people -- uses the aesthetics of extremism. The language is blatant, the actions explicit, the emotions heightened. Here, the aggression is open and the intention is to make the experience unforgettable. Cooler versions mediate the disturbing power of extreme emotions by using a number of distancing devices: larger auditoriums, a more naturalistic style or a more traditional structure. Comedy is the most effective distancing device and can sometimes completely defuse an emotionally fraught situation. After all, a common reaction to terror is either to ignore it or to laugh at it.

    But whether hot or cool, this kind of theatre should always have an unusual power to trouble the audience emotionally, to contain material that questions our ideas about who we are. For this reason, what outraged audiences say is often revealing: the vocabulary of disgust nearly always involves ideas about what is dirty, what is natural, what is human, what is right and proper. Most in-yer-face theatre challenges the distinctions we use to define who we are: human/animal; clean/dirty; healthy/unhealthy; normal/abnormal; good/evil; true/untrue; real/unreal; right/wrong; just/unjust; art/life. These binary oppositions are central to our worldview; questioning them can be unsettling. But the terms in which a play is attacked says as much about the attackers as about the play. Often, some members of the audience are blinded by their own outrage -- they remember words or scenes that never occurred onstage. Such incidents show just how malleable memory can be.

    In-yer-face theatre always forces us to look at ideas and feelings we would normally avoid because they are too painful, too frightening, too unpleasant or too acute. We avoid them for good reason -- what they have to tell us is bad news: they remind us of the awful things human beings are capable of, and of the limits of our self-control. They summon up ancient fears about the power of the irrational and the fragility of our sense of the world. At the same time, theatre is similar to other cultural forms in that it provides a comparatively safe place in which to explore such emotions. Experiential theatre is potent precisely when it threatens to violate that sense of safety.

    A play's content can be provocative because it is expressed in blatant or confrontational language or stage images, but its power as drama also depends greatly on its form. The further a play departs from the conventions of naturalism, especially those of the well-made three-act drama, the more difficult it is for many audiences to accept. On the other hand, some shocking emotional material may be made more acceptable by being placed within a theatrical frame that is traditional, either in its tone or form. Naturalistic representations of disturbing subjects are usually much easier to handle than emotionally fraught situations that are presented in a unfamiliar theatrical style.

    How can theatre be so shocking? The main reason is that it is live. Taboos are broken not in individual seclusion but out in the open. When you're watching a play, which is mostly in real time with real people acting just a few feet away from you, not only do you find yourself reacting but you also know that others are reacting and are aware of your reaction. Subjects that might be bearable when you read about them in private suddenly seem electrifying when shown in public. Situations that are essentially private, such as sex, seem embarrassingly intimate onstage. Compared with the rather detached feeling of reading a playtext, sitting in the dark surrounded by a body of people while watching an explicit performance can be an overwhelming experience. When taboos are broken in public, the spectators often become complicit witnesses.

    Because every performance is different, there is always the risk that something unexpected might happen. In a provocative play, this feeds into the tension of what is happening onstage. For such reasons, theatre can be a place that conveys a strong sense of territorial threat and of the vulnerability of the audience's personal space. Live performance heightens awareness, increases potential embarrassment, and can make the representation of private pain on a public stage almost unendurable. But theatre depends not only on willing suspension of disbelief but also on empathy. For while no one believes literally in what is shown onstage -- no actual atrocity is actually being committed -- many spectators will invest emotionally in it. Although what is shown is make-believe, they take it close to their hearts. And because the actors are always real people breathing the same air as the audience, the public tends to empathize strongly with them.

    For these reasons, in-yer-face theatre has the potential to be much more visceral, more shocking than other art forms. It can sometimes be an emotional journey that gives you a startling feeling of having lived through the experience being represented. This can tell you more about an extreme state of mind than just reading about it. And since censorship in Britain was abolished in 1968, theatre has been a much freer cultural space than film or television. But if provocative theatre is a search for a deeper knowledge of ourselves, what does it tell us?

    Because humans are language animals, words often seem to cause more offence than the acts to which they refer. Taboo words, such as `fuck' and `cunt', work because we give them a magic power, which makes them more than simple signs that describe a real-life event or thing. Like all taboos, they are a way of guarding against imagined infections, a way of drawing a line that must not be crossed. In every case, the words tell us all we need to know about what a culture is embarrassed by, afraid of or resentful about. The violent impact of sexual swearwords in British culture says much about what we feel about sex or women. Because they refer to sex, but are violent in intent, those words pack a double punch. Unlike euphemism, which is a way of defusing difficult subjects, of circling around a meaning, the swearword aims to compact more than one hatred, becoming a verbal act of aggression, a slap in the mouth. In theatre, `bad language' seems even stronger because it is used openly.

    Staging private and intimate situations in public generates a strong emotional charge which can feel more unsettling than the same experience in real life. Theatre is a deliberate act, and can cause offence because the representation of real life is invested with more power than real life itself. When it comes to showing sex onstage, its public performance immediately raises questions about privacy, voyeurism and `realistic' acting. We may suspend disbelief about many emotions in theatre, but we know that most sex acts in public are not the real thing. Nevertheless, showing sex in public is often unsettling because it is a reminder of many of our most intimate feelings, and of what we most desire to keep secret. Images of sex cause anxiety because they refer to powerful and uncontrollable feelings. When sex is coupled with emotions such as neediness or loneliness, the effect can be immensely disturbing.

    Nudity onstage is more powerful than nudity in films, paintings or sculpture for the simple reason that a real person is actually present. Unable to hide behind camera angles or fig leaves, the nudity of the actor can expose human frailty as well as the body beautiful, our mortality as well as our resilience. A naked body's inherent vulnerability can be heavy with metaphorical significance: it can be morally `exposed', or `stripped' of illusions. At other times, removing your clothes can be an act of political power, of liberation from convention, a statement of transgression that can expose a spectator's mixed feelings about being naked. As always, responses to a natural fact, nudity, imply a cultural act, nakedness in all the many meanings of the word.

    Violence becomes impossible to ignore when it confronts you by showing pain, humiliation and degradation. Sometimes this is a question of showing violent acts literally; at other times, the suggestion of extreme mental cruelty is enough to disturb. Violent actions are shocking because they break the rules of debate; they go beyond words and thus can get out of control. Violence feels primitive, irrational and destructive. Violence onstage also disturbs when we feel the emotion behind the acting, or catch ourselves enjoying the violence vicariously.

    Provocative theatre is controversial because, although most people assume that mere titillation is bad and that gratuitous violence is irresponsible, no one can agree which plays fall into which category.

    What most affronts us can sometimes be what most fascinates us. It is as if we want to know more about ourselves, but are too afraid to find out. Because in-yer-face theatre is about intimate subjects, it touches what is both most central to our humanity and most often hidden in our daily behaviour. The public staging of secret desires and monstrous acts both repels us and draws us in. And there is always the possibility that what we enjoy watching might tell us unwelcome truths about who we really are.

    Shock is an essential part of a confrontational sensibility. Depending as it does on audience expectations, it is usually relative. What startles us the first time may merely amuse us the second time. Small shocks may gradually make us immune to bigger ones. Shock is relative not only in terms of time and experience but also in terms of geography. While in Britain most metropolitan audiences are unshockable, or want to appear to be so, small-town audiences may react with greater disgust, or perhaps greater candour.

    Often shock comes from demolishing the simple binary oppositions that hold society together. In this way, modernism's `shock of the new' has a political agenda. It asks profound questions about social mores and moral norms. Sensation spawns many tactics: from startling audiences by attacking them to refusing to provide easily digestible meanings. Even when newness itself becomes an established tradition -- the avant-garde writers of one decade become the school syllabus fodder of the next -- shock can still force spectators to reassess their responses. It can educate the senses as well as stimulating curiosity. And because it often sells shows, shock can also be a marketing tool.

    Just because something is shocking does not mean it is automatically good or praiseworthy. Just because a work is openly aggressive does not mean that it is profound, or excellent, or ethical. The wish to disgust may be politically motivated, but it can also be puerile. Since almost any theatrical image can be used either in a way that conveys moral outrage or in a way that is voyeuristic and reactionary, a negative reaction to sensation is not necessarily philistine. For these reasons, confrontational theatre is a constantly contested territory.

    In the nineties, in-yer-face theatre injected a dose of blatant extremism into British theatre and changed theatrical sensibility. But although it was a new phenomenon, it also had firm roots in tradition.

A brief history of provocation

In-yer-face drama is a theatrical space with a distinctive geography that has attracted explorers for centuries. On the cover of the playtext of Sarah Kane's Blasted is a photograph of a man's face with both eyes gouged out: it could be Oedipus, Gloucester or Hamm. The programme of Trainspotting shows men in skull masks, a reminder of T. S. Eliot's image of Jacobean theatre: `The skull beneath the skin.' Sex and violence are scarcely new in theatre.

    The greatest of the ancient Greek tragedies deal with extreme states of mind: brutal deaths and terrible suicides, agonizing pain and dreadful suffering, human sacrifice and cannibalism, rape and incest, mutilations and humiliations. Thanks to Freud, Oedipus now symbolizes the most familiar taboo -- even to people who never go to the theatre. And think of the crimes and emotions, from child murder to incestuous passion, evoked by the names Medea, Phaedra and Agamemnon. The content of tragedy is a meeting between the waywardness of fate and some of our most intimate fears, and the Greeks were well aware of the mixture of heroism and hopelessness involved in taking a stand against the inexorable and inexplicable. But of all the theories about the purpose of tragedy, the most suggestive is the idea that it was meant to purge the bad feelings of the audience. The idea of putting yourself through hell in order to exorcize your inner demons is at the root of experiential theatre. Yet Greek drama was probably intended not to attack but to heal the audience, to make it better able to face its time. This argues for a kind of utilitarian role for theatre, making it a form of shock therapy.

    The heightened emotions of Greek tragedy must have battered audience sensibilities. Plutarch, for example, records that, at one performance of a lost play by Euripides, the audience rose to its feet in horror when, in ignorance, a mother was about to kill her son. In an anonymous Life of Aeschylus , it says that at the beginning of his Eumenides , spectators were so shocked by the fearful appearance of the Furies that children fainted and women miscarried. (So much for the notion that women and children weren't allowed into the theatre.) True or not, such stories remind us that tragedy should churn up the emotions; they also challenge writers to reinvent the genre.

    Helped by Renaissance translations of Seneca, the Jacobean version of tragedy delighted in horrible murder, painful torture, wanton acts of cruelty and vicious vengeance. Not for nothing is the revenge tragedy called the `tragedy of blood'. Consider the ingredients of Horatio's closing speech in Hamlet : `Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,/ Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters'. In other plays, murder is depicted in bloody detail, with poisoned pictures and skulls ( The White Devil and The Revenger's Tragedy ), mutilation ( The Changeling ) and even incest (' Tis Pity She's a Whore ). You can see why George Bernard Shaw saw in John Webster's work only gratuitous shocks, and christened him `Tussaud Laureate'. Because they occur in so many plays -- from Titus Andronicus to King Lear -- such effects were obviously popular. Audiences were delighted by horrific stage images and thrilled by depictions of evil, but what tended to disturb them was the upsetting of the Christian moral universe that such acts implied. Only the expectation that morality would be finally restored gave them permission to guiltlessly enjoy such poetic inflammations of sensation, such orgies of feeling.

    Long after the Jacobean age, the thrill and chill of gore lived on, like an impoverished vampire feeding off a richer host, in gothic fantasy, melodrama, Grand Guignol (`great punch') and the horror story. No one could bury the lush language of violence, the shock of forbidden desire or the fun of transgression. Small wonder that critics label some violent contemporary plays `Jacobean'.


Excerpted from IN-YER-FACE THEATRE by ALEKS SIERZ. Copyright © 2000 by Aleks Sierz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Unpaid Annotation
In the 1990s, British theater audiences were shocked to see blatant portrayals of physical and psychological violence, murder, rape, incest, adultery, drug abuse, and homosexuality onstage. These confrontational and aggressive plays, written by young, honest, and uncompromising playwrights, came to be known as in-yer-face theater. With their use of obscene language, nudity, and even the performance of actual sex acts onstage, the playwrights in this genre intended to force people to think about and question their own desires and impulses. On the flip side, sly humor proved an equal part of the mix when in-yer-face dramatists turned their barbed tongues on the hypocrisy and denial inherent in the decorum of traditional drama.Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Patrick Marber's Closer are just a few of the plays examined in In-Yer-Face Theatre. Aleks Sierz closely analyzes this new genre in relation to audience and critical reaction as well as to the history and current state of mainstream and fringe British theater. In the process, he provides a vital evaluation demonstrating that in-yer-face is not simply comprised of sensationalist ploys and pessimistic assessments of modern life but in fact offers keen observations on current attitudes toward consumerism, violence, sexuality, and morality.
Publisher Fact Sheet
In the 1990s, British theater audiences were shocked to see on stage blatant portrayals of physical & psychological violence, murder, rape, incest, adultery, drug abuse, & homosexuality. These confrontational & aggressive plays, written by young, honest, & uncompromising playwrights, came to be known as in-yer-face theater. With their use of obscene language, nudity, & even the performance of actual sex acts on stage, the playwrights in this genre intended to force people to think about & question their own desires & impulses. On the flip side, sly humor proved an equal part of the mix when in-yer-face dramatists turned their barbed tongues on the hypocrisy & denial inherent in the decorum of traditional drama. Mark Ravenhill's Shopping & Fucking, Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, & Patrick Marber's Closer are just a few of the plays examined in In-Yer-Face. Aleks Sierz closely analyzes this new genre in relation to audience & critical reaction as well as to the history & current state of mainstream & fringe British theater. In the process, he provides a vital evaluation demonstrating that in-yer-face is not simply comprised of sensationalist ploys & pessimistic assessments of modern life, but in fact offers keen observations on current attitudes towards consumerism, violence, sexuality, & morality.
Main Description
The most controversial and newsworthy plays of British theatre are a rash of rude, vicious and provocative pieces by a brat pack of twentysomethings whose debuts startled critics and audiences with their heady mix of sex, violence and street-poetry. In-Yer-Face Theatre is the first book to study this exciting outburst of creative self-expression by what in other contexts has been called Generation X, or Thatcher's Children, the 'yoof' who grew up during the last Conservative Government. The book argues that, for example, Trainspotting, Blasted, Mojo and Shopping and F**king are much more than a collection of shock tactics - taken together, they represent a consistent critique of modern life, one which focuses on the problem of violence, the crisis of masculinity and the futility of consumerism. The book contains extensive interviews with playwrights, including Sarah Kane (Blasted), Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and F**king), Philip Ridley (The Pitchfork Disney), Patrick Marber (Closer) and Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Bowker Data Service Summary
This work examines the importance of the renaissance in British theatre that began in the 1990s with a rash of rude pieces by a group of younger playwrights, whose debuts startled critics and audiences with their mix of sex, violence and street-poetry.
Table of Contents
What is in-yer-face theatre?p. 3
A brief history of provocationp. 10
The nasty ninetiesp. 30
Come to the shock-festp. 36
Philip Ridley's Ghost from a Perfect Placep. 40
Phyllis Nagy's Butterfly Kissp. 47
Tracy Lett's Killer Joep. 53
Harry Gibson's Trainspottingp. 57
Antony Neilsonp. 65
Normalp. 68
Penetratorp. 74
The Censorp. 80
Sarah Kanep. 90
Blastedp. 93
Phaedra's Lovep. 107
Cleansedp. 112
Cravep. 117
Mark Ravenhillp. 122
Shopping and Fuckingp. 125
Faust Is Dead, Sleeping Around and Handbagp. 134
Some Explicit Polariodsp. 144
Boys Togetherp. 153
Naomi Wallace's The War Boysp. 156
Jez Butterworth's Mojop. 161
Simon Block's Not a Game for Boysp. 167
David Eldridge's Serving It Upp. 172
Sex Warsp. 178
Nick Grosso's Peaches and Sweetheartp. 181
Patrick Marber's Closerp. 187
Che Walker's Been So Longp. 195
Richard Zajdlic's Dogs Barkingp. 199
Battered and bruisedp. 206
Joe Penhall's Some Voicesp. 210
Judy Upton's Ashes and Sand and Bruisesp. 215
Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenanep. 219
Rebecca Prichard's Yard Galp. 226
Conclusionp. 233
Bibliographyp. 251
Indexp. 266
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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