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This collection of essays examines the contribution of British plays to key social, political, and intellectual debates since 2000. It explores some of the most pressing concerns that have dominated the public discourse in Britain in the last decade, focusing on their representation in dramatic texts. Each essay provides an in-depth analysis of one play, assessing its particular contribution to the debate in question. The book aims to show how contemporary drama has developed unique ways to present the complexities and ambiguities of certain issues with aesthetic as well as emotional appeal.
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Kerstin Frank, Caroline Lusin (eds.)
Finance, Terror, and Science on Stage
Current Public Concerns in 21st-Century British Drama
Narr Francke Attempto Verlag Tübingen
Umschlagabbildung: Joan Marcus. Photo of the production of Nick Payne’s Incognito at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, 2016 (directed by Doug Hughes, scenic design by Scott Pask)
Signet: Motiv vom Hals der Qinochoe des ‚Mannheimer Malers‘ (Reissmuseum Mannheim, Mitte des 5. Jh. v. Chr.)
© 2017 • Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG Dischingerweg 5 • D-72070 Tübingen www.francke.de • [email protected]
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No collection of essays is a solitary project, and therefore we would like at this point to express our gratitude to all those involved. First of all, we would like to thank our contributors, without whom this volume simply would not exist. Thank you for your excellent collaboration! Secondly, we are very grateful to the publishing team of Gunter Narr Verlag, particularly Kathrin Heyng and Vanessa Weihgold, for their unflinching support and patience. And, last but not least, we owe a great debt to Annika Gonnermann and Lisa Schwander, who assisted us in the editing process far beyond the measure of what can usually be expected. Without their staunch and committed assistance, this volume could not have been published in time. Thank you so much, you have done a fantastic job!
Compared to other, more recent media, the traditional theatrical setup seems curiously outdated, almost quaint: both actors and audience are actually physically present in one room, the audience is (for the most part) silent, passive, and receptive, and the actors perform something previously written, re-written, studied, and rehearsed over a considerable period of time. How does this time-honoured layout fit into a fast-moving, globalised world, in which people’s need for interactive social self-construction is manifested in Facebook identities, and in which Twitter satisfies a predilection for quick, short, snappy, fast-travelling responses to events? How can theatre keep pace with social debates that can unfold and spread within seconds of a single event or just in a casual tweet? How can it continue to be a relevant site of collective self-reflection in Britain?
Because, curiously, it is still relevant, and very much so. The original and creative contributions to the stage by new talents as well as by more experienced writers bear witness to the “rude health of current playwriting” (Sierz, “Introduction”, xvii). The theatre is still a vital part of British culture. In fact, Andrew Haydon even testifies to “something of a qualified ‘golden age’ [of British theatre] in the 2000s, both artistically and economically” (40).1 Media attention to first nights and theatre awards remains extensive, and provocative performances continue to spark heated debates. Reviewing a number of such contentious responses, Aleks Sierz concludes: “In each of these cases, the controversy proved that theatre could be a powerful way of showing us who we are, and that disagreement about such depictions were arguments about our national identity.” (Rewriting, 144) Theatre, in other words, remains a significant diagnostic tool in tackling the challenges Britain faces in the new millennium.2 It has proven particularly apt to negotiate the topic of national and cultural identity or the ever-contested concept of ‘Britishness’. The editors of The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights hence argue that “British playwriting has historically had a close affinity […] with the structures of British society, and especially with a more general discussion of economic, social and political issues” (Middeke/Schnierer/Sierz vii). This affinity certainly continues into the 21st century, and the essays contained in this collection propose to explore what drama can specifically contribute to this discussion.
This collection of essays considers drama as a site of social debate, focusing on the unique ways in which plays participate in public discourses about the most pressing concerns of the new millennium. We believe that the dramatic form is singularly equipped to bridge the ever-widening gaps between different other sites of discourse, such as highly specialised, academic institutions and those sites open to a wider field of contributors, such as the social media. Referring to recent black British plays, Lynette Goddard makes a similar point:
These plays raise debates that would otherwise mainly be accessible through long government policy tomes and/or in ethnographic and sociological research studies. Staging these issues through playwriting renders them accessible and open to scrutiny from those who might not otherwise gain access to the complexities of these issues. (16–7)
In other fields, such as science, finance, and politics, playwrights can also distil their ideas and research into dramatic forms that are more easily intelligible but still knowledgeable and well-balanced. While plays cannot react as directly and spontaneously to events as other media, they create more serious and sustainable links between their audience and specialised discourses, without constraining the complexity and accuracy of these.
And then, of course, there is the creative and aesthetic factor, or the question of form. Lynette Goddard slightly overshoots the mark by suggesting “that we can […] look at these plays as quasi-sociological treatises of our times” (16). While plays can certainly mediate information from sociology and other fields to their audience, they will always add something more to it. Plays transform abstract issues into particular situations and plotlines and map them onto dramatic space and characters that allow or demand sympathy or some other form of emotional engagement. They present national or global matters in the light of their consequences for individual people, and they may foreground the ambivalence of moral choices. Beyond the basic, traditional dramatic ‘ingredients’ of characters, stage, and language, contemporary playwrights have incorporated various media, new types of venues, and different forms of engaging with the audience in order to shape and convey their topics in ways that are both emotionally and cognitively relevant to the individual observer. Indeed all traditional features of drama mentioned above have been challenged by introducing experimental alternatives.3 In the words of David Lane, many playwrights “are breaking through the staid and restrictive image of being simply autonomous providers of a list of lines” (1) for the benefit of “moving closer towards what we might refer to as ‘performance writing’: a space where writers explore and develop their work in a direct and active relationship with other practitioners and spaces” (ibid.). Among the plethora of different forms, verbatim theatre stands out as a particularly productive subgenre at present, but playwrights take their inspiration and techniques from a variety of different genres (cf. Adiseshiah/LePage 3).
While this volume of essays focuses on the connection between current public concerns and drama, its central question of what and how contemporary plays contribute to the current debates inevitably includes the aspects of dramatic form and genre. Because the fusion of a topic with a dramatic subgenre in one particular work is always unique and complex, each essay in this volume analyses only one play in depth. This volume does not attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of all forms and themes of British theatre since the year 2000;4 its aim is to present comprehensive analyses of selected key topics, each within one particular play, in a selection that is representative of theatre’s ongoing and creative engagement with matters of public interest. We believe that it is precisely the aptness of playwriting to explore the complexity, contradictions, and aporias of its topics which distinguishes the dramatic treatment of social concerns from other media.
What, then, are the most pressing and dominant public concerns in post-millennial Britain? While perceptions and priorities may vary, the incisive moments of 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005 as well as the credit crunch of 2007–08 and the recession of 2009 loom large in the short history of the new millennium, entailing political consequences and decisions that continue to fuel public controversies. Scientific developments such as the Human Genome Project (2000–03), which unravelled the structure of human genes, and the increasing “confidence – some say overconfidence” of neuroscience (Rebellato 25) also inspire hopes and fears and encourage debates about the benefits and dangers of science. Technological progress in the field of computers, tablets, smartphones, and the internet has not only sparked controversies but also changed the very nature of public debates, providing new platforms for disseminating (and shaping) information, for exchanging views, and for interacting socially in a virtual space. Besides these issues, debates about social structures and social (in)justice in Britain, and particularly about immigration and the integration of different cultural identities, are also close to the heart of the British public and played a central role in the ‘Brexit’ decision in 2016 (cf. Travis). These are the wider contexts for the topics and plays discussed in the present volume.
The essays in this collection are grouped into four main sections: ‘Politics’, ‘Finance and Austerity’, ‘Science and Technology’, and ‘Cultural Identity’. All of them focus on plays that originated in the British literary scene and were first performed in Britain, but not necessarily written by authors of British nationality. Under the rubric of ‘Politics’, Merle Tönnies discusses Mike Bartlett’s 13 (2011), demonstrating how its blending of dystopian elements with the Theatre of the Absurd raises questions about political power in a way that denies any clear answers, emphasising instead the ambiguities and complexities in modern machinations of power as well as the importance of personal responsibility. Peter Paul Schnierer shows that Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice (2009) offers an intriguing tour de force through the history of immigration in the tradition of farce, including shocking, excessive forms of humour and jarring discrepancies, but ultimately presenting immigration as a natural and beneficial process. In her essay on Mark Ravenhill’s cycle of plays Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat (2007), Ariane de Waal analyses how its broad scope, Brechtian elements and complex use of intertextuality, condensation, and displacement present the topic of terrorism in combination with a critique of neoliberal values and rhetoric, pitting the ‘hypernormality’ of Western reality and consumer culture against the realities of war, terror, and torture, and challenging the simplifying binary opposition of ‘them’ against ‘us’.
The section of ‘Finance and Austerity’ begins with Caroline Lusin’s analysis of Nicholas Pierpan’s You Can Still Make a Killing (2012). This essay investigates Pierpan’s representation of the financial crisis and the more overarching process of the increasing financialisation of different spheres of life; in the world depicted in the play, this process goes hand in hand with a strong focus on competitiveness and a striking lack of ethics and responsibility. Returning to some of these issues, Annika Gonnermann takes a closer look at corporate culture in her reading of April De Angelis’ Wild East (2005) to illustrate how the play dissects the Hobbesian ethics of ‘homo homini lupus’ at work in corporate environments today. Closely linking the central arguments of Wild East to Hobbes’ theses, Gonnermann shows how De Angelis uses his notion of a ‘perpetual state of war’ as a sounding board to criticise the way in which the ruthless agents of 21st-century capitalist culture are bent solely on economic gain. Dorothee Birke then engages with the flipside of the financial system and its crisis, the social problems of poverty and homelessness and the debate about ‘Broken Britain’ as presented in Home (2013) by Nadia Fall, analysing how the form of verbatim theatre, combined with aspects of engaged theatre and a specific use of music, serves to give a voice and individual stories to the marginalised, who are often summarily dismissed as the ‘underclass’ in public discourse.
The division of ‘Science and Technology’ starts with a contribution by Christine Schwanecke on Jules Horne’s Gorgeous Avatar (2006), which deals with the effects of data streams and virtual realities on (post)human lives. Exploring the ways in which the proliferation of multiple realities in the information age impinges on human interaction and identity, Schwanecke reads Horne’s play as a critical appraisal of the virtues and drawbacks of the digital. The next contribution by Maurus Roller resumes the discussion of identity in the 21st century by tackling the problem of human cloning as Caryl Churchill represents it in A Number (2002). Inscribing herself into the critical literary discourse about science, Churchill examines the effects of modern science and technology to critically appreciate the role of individuality in leading a meaningful life. Adding to this assessment of the limits and possibilities of modern science, Stefan Glomb then investigates the stance which Nick Payne’s Incognito (2014) adopts on science, and on neuroscience in particular. Enlarging on the philosophical as well as the scientific debate on the conflict between freedom and determinism, Glomb provides a detailed analysis of Payne’s meticulous exploration of the ‘brain’ versus ‘mind’ dichotomy, which particularly highlights the complex connections of selfhood, consciousness, and freedom.
In the concluding section on ‘Cultural Identity’, Lisa Schwander begins by exploring how Tanika Gupta functionalises reminiscences of the Victorian British Empire in The Empress (2013) to shed light on contemporary debates about multiculturalism. Focussing on different forms of cross-cultural relationships, the play advocates a re-engagement with (imperial) history as an important step in arriving at a more inclusive notion of what it means to be British. Continuing this debate on cross-cultural identities from a different point of view, Kerstin Frank’s reading of Gone Too Far! (2007) by Bola Agbaje analyses how the genre of social comedy helps to confront and playfully destabilise existing stereotypes concerning young immigrants’ lives in urban estates both in the real world and in so-called ‘ghetto plays’, challenging artificially constructed choices between cultural identities. In the concluding essay, Abir Al-Laham examines the complex treatment of religious belief in Hassan Abdulrazzak’s Love, Bombs and Apples (2016), the most recent play discussed in this book. She shows how Abdulrazzak employs the form of stand-up comedy to explore the diverse and ambivalent roles of the Islamic faith in relation to other concerns, such as sexuality, family, consumerism, and politics.
The essays and plays discussed in this volume thus not only present a variety of topics but also a number of different dramatic genres that significantly shape the treatment of the topics, ranging from verbatim theatre (Home) over dystopian elements (13 and Wild East) to social comedy (Gone Too Far!), history play (The Empress), and farce (England People Very Nice). In their in-depth analyses, the authors of the essays reveal how the playwrights employ and creatively modify specific genre traditions in order to shed light on different aspects and inherent paradoxes of the respective topic.
However, despite the thematic and formal variety of the plays, the analyses reveal that questions of identity – national, cultural, or personal – play a significant role in all of them. Of course, this has to do with the specific strategies of theatre to address topics by transferring them onto characters and character constellations. All the plays discussed here present characters whose sense of self and belonging is challenged, be it by the pressure of corporate workplaces on the employer, religious deliberations or cultural clashes. But to our mind, the persistent undercurrent of identity in all these texts also encapsulates a general post-millennial trend in British society and culture: an almost obsessive engagement with the self that continues the way in which the 20th century questioned the very concept of identity (cf. Bruder; Hall 1–17), further exacerbated by the various social, political, and technological challenges of the new century. Most recently, a range of further crucial events tested our conception of what this world is like – the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the election victory of Donald Trump in the U.S., the 2017 terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, and the setback for Theresa May in the 2017 election will all have consequences that are now hard to foresee, but they will certainly be addressed and subjected to rigorous critical analysis on the British stage.
Adiseshiah, Siân, and Louise LePage (eds.). Twenty-First Century Drama: What Happens Now. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
—. “Introduction: What Happens Now.” Twenty-First Century Drama: What Happens Now. Eds. Siân Adiseshiah and Louise LePage. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Bruder, Klaus-Jürgen. “Das postmoderne Subjekt.” Zwischen Autonomie und Verbundenheit: Bedingungen und Formen der Behauptung von Subjektivität. Eds. Hans Rudolf Leu and Lothar Krappmann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999. 49–76.
Goddard, Lynette. Contemporary Black British Playwrights: Margins to Mainstream. Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Hall, Stuart. “Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity’?” Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. London: Sage, 1996. 1–17.
Haydon, Andrew. “Theatre in the 2000s.” Modern British Playwriting 2000–2009: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. Ed. Dan Rebellato. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013. 40–98.
Lane, David. Contemporary British Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010.
Middeke, Martin, Peter Paul Schnierer and Aleks Sierz (eds.). The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights. London: Methuen Drama, 2011.
—. “Introduction.” The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights. Eds. Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Aleks Sierz. London: Methuen Drama, 2011. vii-xxiv.
Sierz, Aleks. Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today. London: Methuen Drama, 2011.
—. “Introduction.” The Methuen Drama Book of Twenty-First Century British Plays. Ed. Aleks Sierz. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2010. vii-xviii.
Rebellato, Dan (ed.). Modern British Playwriting 2000–2009: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Rebellato, Dan. “Introduction: Living in the 2000s.” Modern British Playwriting 2000–2009: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. Ed. Dan Rebellato. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013. 1–39.
Tönnies, Merle (ed.). Das englische Drama der Gegenwart: Kategorien – Entwicklungen – Modellinterpretationen. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2010.
Travis, Alan. “Fear of Immigration Drove the Leave Victory – Not Immigration Itself.” The Guardian. 24 June 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/24/voting-details-show-immigration-fears-were-paradoxical-but-decisive. Accessed on 22 April 2017.
Wilkie, Fiona. “The Production of ‘Site’: Site-Specific Theatre.” A Concise Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Drama. Eds. Nadine Holdsworth and Mary Luckhurst. Malden et al.: Blackwell, 2008. 87–106.
The General Election on 6 May 2010 put an end to 13 years of Labour government and brought David Cameron’s coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to power. The British deficit had been represented as the crucial problem of the country in the Conservatives’ election campaign (cf. Clarke et al. 3), and consequently the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne introduced an ‘emergency budget’ on 22 June 2010, which comprised a number of measures to reduce the debt purportedly incurred by the previous government and win back the confidence of the global markets (cf. Osborne). The approach of reducing welfare spending and public expenditure in general, freezing public sector pay for two years and raising VAT, quickly came to be subsumed under the label ‘austerity’ – a much disputed concept that has been defined as “a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness” (Blyth 2). Researchers have not only been critical of whether such measures make sense for achieving economic recovery (cf.e.g. Blyth 4f.; Clarke et al. 36–40), but austerity is frequently understood still more negatively as a discursive “excuse to engineer a fundamental restructuring of the public sector” (Atkinson/Roberts/Savage 10), challenging the basic understanding of welfare and the state’s relationship with its citizens (cf. Farnsworth/Irving 2, 36). In this way, the status of the concept in British politics of the early 2010s approaches that of a “myth” (ibid. 14), hiding its ideological implications under a surface of “‘simple’ economics” (ibid. 35). Such mythical naturalisation processes (according to Roland Barthes’ understanding of the term) were also supported by the “progressive mathematicisation” (Atkinson/Roberts/Savage 6, emphasis in original) of economics, which gave austerity a seemingly objective foundation in figures. What this veiled and what researchers were quick to point out, however, is the concept’s close link with existing social power structures. Kevin Farnworth and Zoë Irving have emphasised the “hegemonic qualities” of austerity, which are intensified by the ambiguities associated with it and succeeded in making it “the organising logic of public spending” in Britain from 2010 onwards (12–3). Similarly, Mark Blyth has stressed the close relationship with power by calling austerity an “ideology immune to facts and basic empirical refutation” (226, my emphasis). Indeed, it is easily possible to understand austerity as part of the much broader ideology of neoliberalism, which increasingly gained ground in the UK and beyond in the 2010s (cf. Atkinson/Roberts/Savage 4–5; Harvie 192).
The actual austerity policies as well as the power structures which this concept supported entailed an intensifying sense of alienation among those who felt (and often were) excluded in Britain (cf. Clement 121). Large-scale protests first flared up in November and December 2010 with the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, as students unsuccessfully tried to oppose the increase in the maximum tuition fees implemented by the coalition government. However, as the rhetoric of the Conservative government built on the 1990s underclass debates (cf. Atkinson/Roberts/Savage 10), prominently establishing metaphors of breakdown as a way of referring to sections of society which were perceived as problematic (cf. McKenzie 9–11), even more violent opposition made itself felt in inner-city areas. The widespread anger caused by the web of austerity measures and by discursive exclusion erupted most notably in the riots of August 2011 (cf. Clement 118–20). Initially triggered by the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham and the perceived reluctance of the police to provide information, rioting and looting spread to further parts of London and to other cities between 6 and 9 August 2011. Far beyond their factual consequences, these events deepened the general ‘unease’ highlighted in Michael Billington’s review of 13, “a sensation that we are sleepwalking into some kind of disaster”. In October 2011 the sense that something needed to be changed then crystallised in the Occupy movement. The ‘Occupy London’ protests were sparked off by ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the US and led to the setting up of a camp next to St. Paul’s Cathedral on 15 October, as protesters were prevented from camping outside the London Stock Exchange. Further camps followed in different parts of London, with the last site being cleared in June 2012, while the camp at St. Paul’s Cathedral had already been closed down in February 2012. Again, the significance of these events as both an expression of and a contribution to a deep sense of unease went far beyond their actual scope and duration.
Apart from austerity and the policies related to it, the widespread dissatisfaction with established political institutions and procedures was also connected with a fundamental discursive shift that predated the 2010 coalition government by some 15 years. From his party leadership in 1994 and especially from the 1997 election campaign onwards, Tony Blair and his ‘New’ Labour Party had continuously moved political rhetoric away from the discussion of real issues and from any structured, argumentative approach. Instead, the focus was on a fairly limited set of isolated keywords which constantly recurred in speeches in ever-varying combinations and absorbed the listeners’ attention (cf. Fairclough 17–9, 40f., 58–60). This effect of veiling any potential political content by an impenetrable discursive web was supported by the destruction of syntactic complexity through ellipses and the overwhelming predominance of paratactic constructions (cf. ibid. 28). Moreover, the striking combination of terms which would traditionally have been associated with Labour (like ‘community’ or ‘together’) with others which had pronounced Conservative connotations (for instance ‘choice’, ‘strength’, and ‘Britain’/‘the nation’) most effectively contributed to evacuating any remaining meaning from these words.
This rhetoric became more and more widespread in Britain throughout the first decade of the 21st century, influencing the discourse not only of the Labour Party but increasingly of the Conservatives as well. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that Cameron as the new Prime Minister used the same discourse as his predecessors, also suspending structure and logical cohesion in his speeches by prioritising very small syntactic units which are apparently randomly strung together. He also employed extremely simplified vocabulary and often reproduced typical Blairite keywords. This is for instance demonstrated by the added italics in the following excerpt from Cameron’s 2010 “Big Society Speech”, where he juggles especially with Blair’s well-established semantic fields of ‘newness’ and ‘community’:
You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.
The Big Society is about a huge culture change… […]
It’s time for something different, something bold – something that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.
The Big Society is that something different and bold.
It’s about saying if we want real change for the long-term, we need people to come together and work together – because we’re all in this together. (Cameron, my emphases)
If anything, the sense that real problems like deprivation and growing social unrest were not addressed by politicians but instead hidden by a smokescreen of rhetoric thus intensified at the beginning of the 21st century, and the change of government did not seem to help at all, on the contrary. On the whole, it was thus a rather fraught situation to which Bartlett’s play responded in October 2011 – premiering literally just a few days after the beginning of Occupy London and staging events which evince striking similarities with actual reality (cf. Megson 53–4).
After Earthquakes in London of August 2010 and Love, Love, Love of October 2010, 13 is another large-scale drama by Mike Bartlett, with which he even made it to the National Theatre’s Olivier theatre. Bartlett (born in 1980) had only had his professional debut in 2007, with My Child at the Royal Court Theatre. Accordingly, the negative review of 13 in the Express stressed critically that he was “the youngest writer in 10 years to have work commissioned for the National’s main […] auditorium” (Edge).
After growing up in Abingdon and studying at Leeds University, where he already gained a lot of practical theatrical experience, Bartlett participated in the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group under Simon Stephens and was a member of The Apathists. This ironically named group (cf. Bartlett in Hoby) ran for a year from March 2006 to March 2007 and was committed to producing short pieces of new writing for the Battersea Theatre 503 (cf. Haydon 60). In 2007, he was Pearson Playwright-in-Residence at the Royal Court Theatre and in 2011 Writer-in-Residence at the National Theatre. Bartlett’s plays for theatre, radio, and television have won a number of awards, including the Olivier Awards for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre for his 2009 Royal Court play Cock and for Best New Play for King Charles III, which was first performed at the Almeida Theatre in April 2014 and then went on to a successful West End run. The topics of his works vary from personal relationships to climate change or surveillance and media criticism in Game of 2015, which returned to a smaller scale again. Generally, Bartlett’s plays tend to contain some kind of challenge to the spectators, often inciting them to question seemingly ingrained certainties or – as Deborah Bowman has put it – “to consider the nature of allegiance”.
In 13, this probing and the desire to activate the audience prominently involve the nature of political power and the means of influencing the attitudes of the population. The play was first performed at the National Theatre on 18 October 2011 and had rather mixed reviews. While in The Guardian, for instance, Michael Billington on the whole approved of the “powerful, disturbing play” (“Review”), in which the author “pinned down, in a way few dramatists recently have, the unease that is currently in the air” (ibid.), Charles Spencer of The Telegraph talked about a “credibility-straining play [which] adds up to less than the sum of its parts”. Moreover, Bartlett’s work has been given very different and even diametrically opposed interpretations, which may of course be connected to the critics’ diverse ratings. From a certain time distance, the play and the interpretative controversies surrounding it can be seen as highly representative both of its social and political context and of the theatrical situation in the early 2010s.
Questions of political power and ideology had frequently been addressed on the stage from the mid-1950s (with Look Back in Anger of 1956 often cited as a starting point) to the early 1990s – as summed up in Michael Patterson’s definition of traditional British political theatre: “a kind of theatre that not only depicts social interaction and political events but implies the possibility of radical change on socialist lines” (3f.). The exact format of the plays varied, but the basic approach remained very constant from agitprop and social realism to the state-of-the-nation plays of the 1980s. At the beginning of the 1990s, however, this established form seemed to disappear rather suddenly (cf. Middeke/Schnierer/Sierz xiii-xiv; Kritzer 24; Saunders 3, 5f.), with well-known ‘political’ writers turning to foreign affairs or only addressing political issues obliquely as mirrored in private relationships. This also holds true for the most obvious new theatrical form of the decade, In-Yer-Face Theatre, which employed very graphic shock tactics from the mid-1990s onwards, but approached the traditional ‘political’ questions as indirectly as the more subtle psychologically oriented drama for instance of David Hare (cf. also Middeke/Schnierer/Sierz xiii). A possible explanation for this turn away from the political can indeed be found in the rhetorical developments outlined above, which made it more and more difficult for playwrights to break through the pervasive discursive veil to address fundamental questions of power imbalances and ideology (cf. Tönnies, “New Lingo”, 174, 181–3; Tönnies, “Immobility”). At most, this worked for concrete issues and case studies, which may explain the rise and lasting popularity of documentary and verbatim theatre from the mid-1990s onwards (cf.e.g. Kritzer 24; Haydon 45; Rebellato 13). Keeping close to actual events, even down to the level of the words used by the participants, apparently offered playwrights a point of orientation in an increasingly blurred and linguistically uniform political landscape.
In the first years of the 21st century, this development was more widely recognised and often perceived as problematic. Thus, The Guardian for instance launched a series in spring 2003 in which the role of political theatre was scrutinised by a number of leading dramatists (cf. especially Edgar on the “meagre” theatrical response to New Labour in the 1990s). At about that time, however, there was also a sense that maybe things might be changing for the better again, with Billington’s December survey of that year stressing that the theatre finally seemed to be paying attention to “the big issues” again. Playwrights indeed managed to return to the traditional interest in unequal power relations in the 2000s (cf. also Angelaki 60; Adiseshiah 104–5; Middeke/Schnierer/Sierz xiv), but it cannot be stressed enough that many of the new works left out a salient element from Patterson’s above-quoted definition: Instead of ‘implying the possibility of radical change’ in a specified direction, they approached their subject matter in a rather abstract way, refusing to establish a direct, unequivocal relationship with the spectators and to offer any clear-cut solutions. This tendency was particularly pronounced in a form which may be labelled ‘absurdist dystopia’ due to its combination of certain established genre characteristics, and of which Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000) is probably the most frequently discussed example (cf. Tönnies, “Immobility”).1 This form seemed to constitute one of the few approaches by which the theatre could bypass the smokescreen of political rhetoric in the early 2000s and return to fundamental issues of power and ideology that extended beyond concrete cases. The plays were usually characterised by pronounced minimalism as far as their length and cast was concerned and produced intense experiential effects on the audience along the lines of the Theatre of the Absurd, while at the same time preserving a typically dystopian distance from contemporary Britain.
When one now turns to Barlett’s 13 against the social and political as well as the theatrical backgrounds outlined so far, it is immediately recognisable that this play about a “popular protest movement” (Billington, “Review”) in London – crystallising around John, a charismatic leader figure – picks up on many developments of its time. Specifically, there are references to underfunded universities (21),2 student protests against tuition fees (9) and a general longing for change (e.g. 58f.), which is increasingly acted out in the streets. With hindsight, it seems almost uncanny that the play’s premiere more or less coincided with the beginning of ‘Occupy London’ (18 and 15 October 2011 respectively). After all, the protests in 13 are pointedly peaceful (apart from the chaotic response to the discrediting of John at the very end, 128) – in contrast to the August riots, which would have suggested themselves as the most likely reference point before 15 October. Bartlett’s stage directions foreground the peaceful element by making the crowd’s chanting “[b]eautiful, choral” (125) instead of threatening or even demanding and stressing the protesters’ “good-natured” “[e]nergy and conviction – passion” (91). Despite the suggested size of the crowd, visible instances of violence do not go beyond Amir exasperatedly hurling a shopping trolley at the police, who have taken hold of his girl-friend Rachel (12), and Holly’s grandmother throwing probably the same trolley into the window of her bank for taking too much money and not showing her respect (74f.).
For the play’s first audiences, John’s use of the word “occupy” with regard to the fictional protesters’ movement into Trafalgar Square (99) will certainly have seemed like a topical allusion, and reviewers repeatedly documented a sense that 13 was set in “a parallel universe” (Sierz; cf. also McGinn), “a not-so-alternative present-day world of street protests and economic misery” (Taylor). This impression is strengthened by the fact that the crowd in the play confronts a Conservative government whose Prime Minister, Ruth, worries about and finally consents to taking part in a US military strike against Iran after that country has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.3 Showing a female Prime Minister here invites obvious comparisons with Margret Thatcher, and Stephen – an atheist teaching “at a London university” (12)4 and an old companion of Ruth – indeed makes that connection in the play (cf. 38 and also Edith’s hostile comparison, 75). From today’s perspective, one is of course almost irresistibly reminded of the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, especially as the fictional politician seems to be quoting another prominent political figure from the contemporary world as well in professing her determination to “make this country great again” (29). In the play, the three central figures John, Ruth and Stephen are surrounded by a whole range of very diverse characters, many of whom come to join John’s protest movement in the course of the plot. In the end, the movement collapses after a shrewd (and highly unfair) tactical move on Ruth’s part.
Despite its pronounced realistic elements, 13 pointedly does not follow the prominent documentary and verbatim trends of the 2000s, and it also responds to the topical situation more indirectly than for instance the playwrights involved in the anti-austerity project ‘Theatre Uncut’ did in March 2011 (cf. O'Thomas 135f.; Brennan et al.). Instead, Bartlett builds on the form of absurdist dystopia, which had developed in the early 2000s, thus very much situating his work in a particular theatrical as well as a social and political context. Reviewers repeatedly noted a certain dystopian quality of the play (cf.e.g. Spencer; Benedict), and a plot element like the huge crowd of protesters all receiving a text message from the government at the same time (128) is indeed reminiscent of the rulers’ control of the population in classical dystopias like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).1 Along those lines, the realistic references in the play could then be linked with dystopia’s genre characteristic of starting out with the author’s actual world and then distancing the fictional situation from it by intensifying the tendencies that the readers are supposed to recognise as dangerous (cf. Zeißler 31f.; Booker, “Dystopia”, 5). Generally, this distancing is less pronounced in 13, compared not only with classical dystopias, but also with the absurdist dystopias of the 2000s, which toned down contemporary allusions and made the inequality inherent in their political systems much more explicit at the same time. Some critics indeed explicitly complained about a lack of realism in the Prime Minister being able to decide about going to war without any parliamentary influence (cf.e.g. Taylor), instead of reading this manifestation of absolutist power as a typical dystopian trait.
Similarly, the play’s use of techniques deriving from the Theatre of the Absurd is more muted than in the earlier absurdist dystopias and has therefore often been overlooked. Reviewers have regularly denounced the characters as “two-dimensional illustrations of ‘types’ rather than complex individuals with rich stories” (Bowman; cf. also Taylor) and have bemoaned the impossibility of audience identification with them (cf. Bowman). The connection with the figures put on stage by the Theatre of the Absurd looms large here, especially as in contrast to other theatrical forms working with reduced characters (like for instance farce) 13 has a strong disturbing effect at the same time. As is typical of the 2000s absurdist dystopias (cf. Tönnies, “Impossibility”), the spectators are at a certain distance from the characters but cannot really escape from the impact of the play as a whole. Fittingly, lexical items from the word field of ‘unease’ abound in the reviews (cf.e.g. McGinn; Benedict; anon.), and as in Michael Billington’s statement quoted at the beginning of this paper, there is often a sense that this reaches beyond concrete grievances to a far more fundamental and irrational sense of being under threat.
The recurrent nightmare, which is shared by most of the people on stage and starts off the first three acts of the play, strengthens this indefinable, Pinteresque menace, especially as the Laurie Anderson song “Someone Else’s Dream” indicating this dream’s presence runs for a shorter period each time (cf. 7, 13, 72). This creates a deepening sense of time running out (cf. Megson 51), mirrored in Ruth’s ominous impression that it “is getting darker”, which seems to apply to far more than the bad weather (68). This effect is still intensified by the uncanny recurrence of the number 13, which turns into a veritable leitmotif from the title of the play onwards (cf. Megson 50). The instances themselves are often unimportant and seemingly coincidental (as for instance the number of steps listed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 41), but the number’s connection with the nightmare from the very beginning of the play onwards (with the dreamers waking up in shock at 7.13 am each time) foregrounds its conventional ill-omened connotations. Moreover, at least readers of the play will certainly notice that the killing of eleven-year-old Ruby by her own mother – reminiscent of Ionesco in its pointedly unrealistic staging – takes place in the 13th scene of act two. As in the whole of the Theatre of the Absurd, the vagueness of the perceived threat heightens its intensity and broadens its scope, potentially widening it to the fundamental sense of exposure inherent in the human condition “in a world of shattered beliefs” (Esslin 23).
It fits in well with this that the overall approach of the play is deliberately irrational, repeatedly leaving events unexplained by a logical context. In the last scene of the first act for instance images of “the people of London” dancing in the streets blend into “a nuclear blast” before the blackout ending the act, and the stage directions pointedly refuse to give a clear-cut explanation: “The student party after the protest maybe, or a dream, a memory …” (40) – or indeed, one may add, a sudden direct insight into the recurrent nightmare, about which the audience otherwise receives only little information (34, 42). Generally, 13 has a pronounced episodic structure, which has been criticised as “meandering” (Orr) and lacking “focus” (Shuttleworth). The suspension of conventional narrative logic is highlighted by the increasing interconnections that establish themselves between the different narrative strands seemingly of their own accord, especially through scenes blending into each other, taking place simultaneously and/or through the actions and statements of different characters mirroring each other (cf.e.g. 80–5, 90). This can create a “spooky” (Sierz), “ominous” (Taylor) sense of a world following its own strange rules, completely “out of harmony” with human rationality (Esslin 23, cf. also 24), as is often the case in the Theatre of the Absurd. Just as Martin Esslin famously observed about that theatrical form, 13 makes the audience experience its unsettling world directly instead of arguing about it rationally (cf. 24–6). In the first production of the play at the National Theatre, this effect was also supported by the stage design. While Bartlett’s first stage direction in the published playtext states ambiguously that “[t]he play should be performed with a circle” (6), the production worked with a large black cube structure. Critics have stressed the intense effect of this design and its role in the overall atmosphere created by the play, calling the structure on stage “ominous” (Orr) or “sinister” (McGinn) and stressing its “abstract” (ibid.) quality that refused to mirror any of the contemporary details and concrete London locations which feature in the plot. Yet again, one can thus observe a parallel with the experiential approach of the Theatre of the Absurd, where intense stage images play a pivotal role as well (cf. Esslin 25f.).
What distinguishes 13 from the Theatre of the Absurd and may well have contributed to the reviewers’ tendency to judge (and criticise) it according to the rules of realist drama is its “immense scale” (Bowman). Written for the large stage of the Olivier theatre and using the traditional number of five acts (though refusing to keep to the even, symmetrical structure conventionally associated with this form), the play demands recognition much more graphically than the minimalist absurdist dystopias of the 2000s (and probably also more than Bartlett’s 2010 five-act play Earthquakes in London, which was staged at the National’s much smaller Cottesloe Theatre). In this respect, 13 seems to conform to the demands of the so-called ‘Monsterists’ – a group of young playwrights of which Bartlett was not a member but whose 2005 “Manifesto” called for the “elevation of new theatre writing […] to the main stage”, including a “[l]arge scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast” (Eldridge). With this context of confident assertiveness, it is not surprising that Bartlett’s play has been situated in the tradition of state-of-the-nation drama (cf. Megson 52), potentially even widened to “state-of-the-globe” (Trueman). From this angle, one might indeed expect more clear-cut points, a more straightforward plot and greater audience involvement than Bartlett chooses to provide.
With its approach of dystopian distancing and absurdist abstraction and irrationality, 13 definitely manages to push a critical attitude to political power and social inequality past the smokescreen of rhetoric and also beyond the widespread focus on concrete case studies. Like other absurdist dystopias, the play poses fundamental questions about the validity of power and the values that it should be based on. In the course of the first three acts Ruth, who has been Prime Minister for two years at this point (107), and John, who has gradually turned into the leader of the popular protest movement after first appearing more like a social outcast (7f., 22), increasingly come to embody two diametrically opposed positions in this respect. After the interval, the fourth act then leads to a personal confrontation between these two central characters in what is by far the longest scene of the play (IV.9). On the face of it, this exchange is about John trying to persuade Ruth not to take part in the American attack on Iran, but it is clear throughout that the real confrontation is about concepts of political power and their moral implications. For part of the discussion, the binary opposition is complemented by Stephen, whom Ruth has asked to join them “for a while”, because – in keeping with the uncanny interlocking of different plot strands in the play – not only Ruth and Stephen but “all [of them] know each other” (106). As transpires in the course of the scene, this does not simply refer back to endless political debates in the past, before John suddenly vanished, but the reason for his disappearance actually seems to have been his presence at and potential involvement in the death of Ruth’s son. At the same time, the spectators already know from an earlier scene where Stephen chances upon one of John’s speeches in the park that the two of them used to be lecturer and student (65) and (as is highlighted when a speech by John is intercut with Stephen’s Oxford Union polemic against the Iranian government, 88–90) that their opinions are diametrically opposed to each other.
In the climactic exchange between the three characters, John clearly stands for the movement that has crystallised around him, with his supporters waiting both in front of 10 Downing Street and in Trafalgar Square. While the protests originally started out from concrete grievances like student fees, John rarely addresses actual issues. His topics are much more abstract (cf. Megson 52), urging the importance of dreams, feelings and – most importantly – belief (“through believing in the impossible you might just make it happen”), and move on from empty everyday routines to reaching idealistic and seemingly unrealistic goals (63, also 91f.). This character’s success with the people of London is clearly connected with the fact that everyone is left free to fill in his or her own concrete desire for change here – as John says explicitly in the end: “[I]t’s not the object of belief that’s important but belief itself.” (128) Moreover, it is also the caring sympathy that he seems to radiate which successively turns very different kinds of characters (and finally even the seemingly blasé Mark, 100f.) into his devoted followers. John apparently pays genuine attention to people’s individual problems, intuiting with dazzling accuracy what is wrong with them and what they need most at the moment. As Rachel (who at first responded rather critically to John’s return, 20) tells Amir, whom John has just seemingly miraculously freed from detention: “I mean actually of all people he was the one we needed but – […].” (32) In this respect, the focus increasingly shifts from factual problems to people’s emotional situation both in John’s speeches and in his personal contact with other characters, highlighted by the question: “[H]ow do you feel?” (89) The hope that he spreads is also closely connected with the community spirit that he preaches to counter the prevalent sense of loneliness (e.g. 90), condensed in the almost liturgical slogan “In our name!” (92), which the protesters come to chant.
In terms of the play’s experiential approach, the growing interweaving of the characters’ stories may well mirror this sense of community – though (as was discussed above) these seemingly uncontrollable interconnections also transport rather uncanny associations in the play. Indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) John’s sway over the great majority of the people on stage, the play finally does not encourage the audience to see him as an unambiguously positive force. His progress until act four clearly has messianic overtones (cf. Sierz), with the gathering of disciples from all social groups and the healing effect he seems to have on his followers. This group at first sight seems to be equivalent to “The Twelve” in the cast list (3), with obvious apostolic associations – but one has to note that this list includes Ruth and Stephen, who pointedly do not fall under John’s influence. Factually, the number ‘twelve’ here singles out those susceptible to the nightmares, which possibly undercuts John’s role as a new messiah in the subtext. Nevertheless, the term ‘disciples’ is promoted by the press in the play (101), and the first of this group, Holly, is fittingly a woman who – in the leader’s own words – “has sex for money” (65). Moreover, John apparently knows the future and is able to see through surface appearances, correctly predicting rain (64–6) and pointing out Stephen’s as yet not completely diagnosed cancer (106). His constant patience and willingness to turn the other cheek may almost seem too good to be true, and the coincidences associated with him also elicit critical comments in the play (32, 115), thereby potentially bringing in the uncanny connotations of the growing interconnectedness of all the individual stories. Indeed, the title of 13 pointedly foregrounds that the addition of the leader figure to the biblical number of disciples results in negative connotations which are spread still further by the related leitmotif. Like the coincidences, the link between John and ‘thirteen’ is also explicitly commented on in the play when Zia explains to Shannon that counting the letters in John’s speeches “in the right way” results in that number “again and again” (77). The unease pervading the responses to the play may thus also relate to this charismatic leader and his power, the source of which finally remains obscure.
In marked contrast to John, Ruth as his key counterpart is shown to stand alone at the point when they confront each other directly. Visually, she is the only one of ‘The Twelve’ left standing – and “centre stage”, too – at the end of the previous act, when the other characters bend down in the face of an overwhelming finding or realisation in their lives (90). At this moment, John, who is giving a speech, has just asked his audience whether they feel “[a]lone” (ibid.), while two scenes earlier Dennis, the US President’s special envoy, had already told Ruth: “[Y]ou’re on your own […].” (84) In the first scenes of Act Four the spectators then see her team (with the exception of one small gesture of support) refusing to back her decision to talk to John (97, 101f.), leaving her to conclude: “I understand, I’m on my own.” (102) For about half of the exchange with John, Stephen is still present at Ruth’s side, but the audience will be aware long before he is taken to hospital that his health is too bad to allow him to be a real help to Ruth. After all, he, too, was seen to collapse in the final scene of the third act, but in contrast to the other characters very obviously for physical reasons, tellingly not allowing him to finish his Oxford Union speech (88–90).
Nevertheless, for the first half of the pivotal conversation, Ruth hangs back a little and leaves much of the grappling with John to Stephen, which gives the former a lot of scope for expounding his views on the basis of political power and the ways in which it should be used. John again stresses the importance of “dreams” in politics instead of “compromise” (108, 110) and urges Ruth to take radical decisions (like raising taxes or refusing to join in the strike against Iran) based on “Purpose. Conviction, Belief” (114), the last of which is reiterated as John’s fundamental value (115). According to him, “the people” (whom Stephen denounces as too unreliable to be trusted with power, 116f.) would back such a course (114, 108–10), because his “generation isn’t apathetic, we’re voting every second of the day”, as “millions of views, opinions, solutions” are constantly available on the internet (114). Thus, John argues for relying on an empowering sense of community both in Britain and with the Iranian people, whom he wants to trust to bring down their government themselves (114f.). At one point, it even seems as if he might be able to reach Ruth with these arguments (116), but that moment passes again very quickly.
As Ruth only really enters the discussion once Stephen has left, John’s views are already well-known to the audience as a contrastive foil then. While earlier on she admitted to believing in God again privately (37), she explicitly juxtaposes the underlying basis of her politics to John’s here: “compassion and feeling and emotion” are necessary (123, emphases in original), but the “solution to a nasty world” is “[h]ard work, opportunity, and in the end, yes, self-interest” (ibid.). Accordingly, “compromise”, “discussion and thought” (126, emphasis in original) should take precedence over “ideologies” (ibid.) as well as John’s dreams: “We dream of things that don’t exist all the time.” (127) With her rational approach, the ideal leader of the country is the “manager” (126) explicitly rejected by John earlier on (110). Ruth even goes a step further and denies her interlocutor what he considers the most important justification of his own and any political power, as she asserts that in contrast to him, her son, who died from drunkenly jumping off a bridge in John’s presence, “had real belief in the people” (118). With regard to her, the principal value on which power and political decisions are based can be described as responsibility, as recognised by Stephen (108). While Ruth does not use the term itself, she repeatedly accuses John of lacking this quality, in relation to both her son’s death and the conversation that he had with Sarah, Ruby’s mother, before she killed her daughter: “I think you make people do stupid things. I think you encourage them to take the brakes off […].” (125) Indeed, just like belief (cf. Megson 42, 55), the importance of personal responsibility runs through the play like a leitmotif (cf. Sierz; Bowman), with the characters (including John’s followers) regularly blaming each other for shirking responsibility (31, 95). From this perspective, John clearly falls short, as his disappearance is understood as irresponsibility from the first scenes of the play onwards (16) and he apparently has no arguments against this charge (106f.).
Indeed, if one believes Holly’s report in act five, he ends up doing exactly the same thing again after his movement has collapsed: after checking all possible directions, John could have taken on that night and drawing a blank each time, the loyal follower is only left with “looking” and “wait[ing]” (131). However, Ruth’s position, too, is to some extent discredited in the end: she wins the struggle with John through the unfair gambit of releasing a video where Sarah links her murder of her daughter to John’s messages (124f., 128), so that he is no longer in a position to call for the planned general strike. It seems to fit in well with this course of action that in contrast to John’s idealism, Ruth’s concept of responsibility is closely connected with a pragmatic approach to politics. She stresses that “[t]o any difficult problem, there is never a right solution, there is only ever the best solution” (
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