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« The Brighter and more cheerful it is, the more it hurts » : l’inquiétante noirceur des comédies de Martin Crimp

‘The Brighter and More Cheerful It Is, the More It Hurts’: Martin Crimp’s Darkly Disturbing Comedies
Aloysia Rousseau


Dans le théâtre de Martin Crimp, l’humour est un vecteur de déstabilisation du lecteur-spectateur. Le dramaturge utilise pour cela deux stratégies dramatiques que sont l’oscillation générique et ce que Crimp qualifie lui-même de faux happy ending. Les intermèdes comiques qui encadrent les scènes d’horreur et les discours macabres n’atténuent pas l’atmosphère menaçante mais suscitent au contraire le malaise du spectateur qui perçoit son propre rire comme étant obscène. Le faux happy ending ne fait que renforcer cette détresse, comme le souligne Martin Crimp dans un entretien accordé à Aleks Sierz, cité dans le titre de cet article. On verra comment la lumière et les décors participent à la mise en place d’une atmosphère enjouée fallacieuse. La conclusion optimiste propre à la pièce bien faite n’est pas simplement rejetée, comme dans les autres dramaturgies contemporaines : le théâtre de Martin Crimp se fond dans le moule de la comédie pour mieux la miner de l’intérieur. Martin Crimp revitalise ainsi le genre traditionnel de la comédie, adoptant sa forme tout en la dénonçant comme obsolète. L’humour noir est poussé à son paroxysme, suscitant non pas la distanciation du spectateur mais son identification honteuse.

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1In an interview given in January 2008, Martin Crimp defined humour not as something which alleviates the spectator’s unease but on the contrary as a source of discomfort: ‘I think that it’s really important to have humour in the theatre whatever the subject because it’s a way of enabling the audience to enter into the world of the play, it’s a way of making people feel at ease, comfortable with what’s happening and then they begin to feel uncomfortable’ (Crimp 2008). In Martin Crimp’s plays, humour only serves to make the ensuing anguish more acute. The playwright achieves this purpose by using two specific dramatic strategies, one that will be described as generic oscillation, the other referred to by the playwright himself as the ‘false happy ending’. This paper will not focus merely on the tragicomic fusion of laughter and sadness, something which is not in itself innovative since we have already been told by Samuel Beckett’s Nell that ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ (Beckett 20). In Crimp’s theatre, nothing is funnier than horror and the laughter aroused is discomforting but not in any case alienating (in Brecht’s sense of the term), as this paper will try to demonstrate. Generic oscillation and the false happy ending can thus be identified as innovative not because they have never been used before but because of Crimp’s deliberate, systematic and trenchant use of such techniques, more particularly in his triptych Fewer Emergencies (2005), comprised of Whole Blue Sky, Face to the Wall and Fewer Emergencies, as well as in two of his previous plays Getting Attention (1991) and Dealing with Clair (1988).

  • 1 About the spectral nature of Attempts on Her Life which is built around the main character’s absenc (...)

2These plays revolve around violent events, albeit treated in very different ways in each case. Fewer Emergencies is part of Crimp’s experimental plays since there is no action as such on stage, as was already the case in his 1997 play Attempts on Her Life.1 Three unnamed characters (1, 2 and 3) are narrating the story of little Bobby, of his dysfunctional family and of the guerrilla warfare breaking out in the neighbourhood. Getting Attention and Dealing with Clair are on the contrary among Crimp’s more traditional plays yet the subject is equally grim. Dealing with Clair stages the disappearance and likely murder of the eponymous estate agent, while in Getting Attention a little girl is mistreated by her mother and stepfather, her death being suggested at the end of the play. Despite formal differences, these three plays thus tackle obviously dark issues whose bleakness is in fact enhanced by Crimp’s use of humour.

3Humour can rarely be perceived as creating comic relief in Martin Crimp’s theatre but rather ‘comic strain’, a term used by J. L. Styan in his essay on ‘dark comedy’, an expression he favours over tragicomedy: ‘In the two-toned twilight drama we are discussing there can be nothing that might be properly be called comic relief . . . . Any sensation of real discord in the tone of the play is a felt lack of equilibrium, and is no relief, but only strain’ (Styan 256). Such strain is to be felt by Martin Crimp’s audience. The comic interludes scattered throughout the plays enhance the spectators’ disquiet by making them deem their own laughter profoundly obscene. Crimp’s plays are neither comedies with a tragic sequel nor tragedies with a happy ending, according to Eric Bentley’s definition of tragicomedy (Bentley 316–53), but rely on constant generic oscillation. Comic moments are indeed always immediately followed by sheer horror thus bringing the audience to reappraise the so-called comic element as well as its own reaction to it. Such use of comic strain is specific to modern tragicomedy, as is underlined by Eric Bentley: ‘As for the comic element, its function is the exact opposite of comic relief, since it makes the tragic darkness grow still darker’ (Bentley 345). But as it has already been mentioned, Crimp’s distortion of comic relief is not aimed only at enhancing the tragic or dark aspect of his plays but more precisely at arousing the spectators’ unease, as is made obvious in his use of the adjective ‘uncomfortable’ quoted above. The playwright’s aim is to provoke the spectator’s shame since the latter is made to accept horror with a smile on his face.

4The very form of the triptych Fewer Emergencies reveals Crimp’s will to unsettle his audience. The triptych was first a play, Face to the Wall, performed for the first time at London’s National Theatre in 2002 in Katie Mitchell’s production. At his publisher’s request, Crimp then added Fewer Emergencies. When the French director Hubert Colas asked Martin Crimp to add a third play, the playwright decided to place Whole Blue Sky before the two other plays. The fact that he chose to start with this play which, apart from rather disquieting family feuds, has a relatively peaceful atmosphere and displays recurring irony and satire, is quite relevant. The spectators first drop their guard, thus being more vulnerable to the attacks launched in the following plays, Face to the Wall, in which the characters emotionlessly describe a massacre in a kindergarten, and Fewer Emergencies in which shots are fired and ‘one of those shots came through the kitchen window and caught poor Bobby in the hip’ (Crimp 2005, 47). Yet comic elements are still present in the second and third playlets. In fact, the aloofness of the characters towards the gruesome events they are narrating contributes to creating striking gallows humour. Highly macabre accounts are systematically inserted between comic interludes, as is exemplified in Face to the Wall. The characters are trotting out the list of unnamed children being cold-bloodedly shot when the narration suddenly gives way to small talk:

He moves on to child B. He shoots child B―in the head.
He moves on.
He moves on to child C. Child C tries to duck away. But to no avail.
But to no avail. He shoots child C―good―in the head.
And how’s life treating him?
Life―how’s life treating him?
Life’s treating him very well.
How’s his job?
His job is fine―well paid and rewarding.
And his wife?
Is charming and tolerant.
(Crimp 2005, 27–28)

5The conversation then revolves around the murderer’s job, his family, his house, the schools and craftsmen in the neighbourhood who sell ‘spare parts/ for cars’ when it once again becomes threatening, catching the spectators unawares:

Spare parts/ for cars.
I Spare parts for cars no longer manufactures but lovingly restored. He moves on. He
shoots child D―in the head.
So there must be blood.
I Well of course there’s blood―not just blood on the wall―not just blood on the
But blood in the air.
(Crimp 2005, 29–30)

6Crimp’s plays thus induce a ‘stifled laughter’, an expression which is used by Wolfgang Iser to describe Samuel Beckett’s use of comic elements. Despite differences that will be delved into later on, Crimp’s will to unsettle his audience is indeed in the tradition of Samuel Beckett whom Crimp greatly admires and often quotes as a source of inspiration. It is therefore not surprising that Iser’s comments on Beckett’s peculiar comedies should throw light on Crimp’s own plays and audience:

There are sudden bursts of laughter from the audience which end as abruptly as they began. Evidently the laughter cannot be enjoyed to the full, but is cut off, so to speak, in mid-guffaw. Even if one cannot say with certainty that the individual spectator is shocked at his own laughter, what is clear is that the laughter has lost its contagious nature. It cannot set off a chain reaction in Beckett’s theatre; it is the stifled laugh of the individual, and not the liberating communal laugh by means of which members of an audience confirm one another’s reactions. The feeling behind it is one of impropriety rather than confirmation.
(Iser 152–53)

  • 2 My translation of the French text: ‘La honte surgirait toutes les fois où quelque chose qui était p (...)
  • 3 It is in fact interesting to notice that such anonymity is identified by Freud as being a recurring (...)

7What Iser describes here is a feeling of shame which is induced by laughter which should have remained private but suddenly, and unwittingly, becomes public. As we are reminded by the psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, shame is eminently social. It is deeply rooted in a community and in the sense of belonging to such a community: ‘Shame appears each time something which was perceived by the subject as solely private—be it his behaviour, emotion or thought—becomes public’2 (Tisseron 9). Crimp’s use of generic oscillation and the inopportune laughter of the audience are all the more pernicious when the play is being performed rather than simply read (thus belonging to the public rather than the private realm) since the individual is within the other audience members’ earshot. The resonant nature of laughter, which is one of its prime criteria distinguishing it from a mere smile, is what makes the spectator’s reaction public, despite his sitting in the dark and escaping his fellow spectator’s gaze.3 This stifled laughter is thus the exact opposite of Henri Bergson’s definition of public laughter. Indeed, Bergson’s comment that ‘the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter’ (Bergson 6) cannot be applied to Martin Crimp’s plays. The unease felt by the audience is on the contrary heightened by its public nature. There is no inhibition that is lifted contrary to Freud’s description of laughter. No ‘internal resistance is overcome’ (Freud 1905, 118) since laughter cannot express itself fully.

8Our shameful laughter is moreover mirrored by the characters’ own stifled laughter conveyed through the numerous occurrences of the stage direction ‘faint laugh’ or ‘chuckle’. Crimp offers a satirical mise en abyme since the spectators are faced with characters laughing nervously at horrendous events, a perfect echo of the audience’s own response to the plays. This upsetting mirror effect is exemplified in Sal’s recurring faint laugh at the end of Getting Attention (173), or in Mike and Liz’s reaction to Clair’s disappearance in Dealing with Clair:

MIKE. . . . What are we supposed to imagine? Are we supposed to imagine he took her by the throat and dragged her off . . .
LIZ. No obviously not.
MIKE. Dragged her off in broad daylight—this was what, lunchtime—to his . . . whatever it was.

Both faint laugh. They relax a little. (Crimp 1988, 79)

  • 4 My translation of the French text: ‘Le spectacle de la honte rend honteux celui qui y assiste, même (...)

9Contrary to the characters in this excerpt, the spectators do not ‘relax a little’ since they become aware of their alter egos’ attempts at minimising horror and concealing their unease. The feeling of shame is, as we are reminded by Serge Tisseron, highly contagious: ‘At the sight of shame, the spectator becomes ashamed, even though he immediately tries to protect himself through defense mechanisms such as denial or projection. . . . The degradation of the other individual’s image throws us back to the potential degradation or our own image and shame necessarily ensues’4 (Tisseron 36). Therefore, not only is Crimp’s spectator made uncomfortable through generic oscillation but also through the dramatisation of his own embarrassed reaction which he would rather have kept buried.

10Stage directors have sometimes decided to highlight Crimp’s subversion of comic elements as is the case in Hubert Colas’s Parisian production of Fewer Emergencies (Face au mur) at the Théâtre de la Colline in 2008. The balloons which cover the stage in Colas’s production are a perfect metaphor for generic oscillation. A balloon is indeed a child’s prop, seemingly harmless and playful, yet likely to burst at any moment, something which in fact happened during the performance of the play. The balloons burst without warning, frightening the spectators when they least expected it. Distorted faces reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s Scream were furthermore sometimes projected onto the balloons, once again blurring the boundary between playful and disquieting elements. Such dismantling of clear-cut generic categories reaches its peak at the end of Crimp’s plays which offer particularly distressing yet seemingly cheerful denouements, as is the case in the last chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, ironically entitled ‘Happy Ending’.

11The happy ending traditionally has three functions—moral, aesthetic and structural. It ends on a moral resolution which procures the spectator’s satisfaction and puts an end to the story that we are being told. Martin Crimp’s original angle consists in debasing the happy ending by maintaining one of these functions while perverting the others. The happy ending fulfils its structural function by bringing the story to a conclusion but the moral and aesthetic criteria are dramatically undermined. The blatant contrast between the semantic horror and the seeming final state of bliss is once again a source of discomfort. The spectators are in fact offered an artificial happy ending relying mainly on an ironic use of light. Antiphrasis is displaced from a textual semiotic system to a visual semiotic system.

12In an interview given to Aleks Sierz in 2006, Crimp commented on his two plays Dealing with Clair and Getting Attention: ‘What these two plays have in common is a strategy that still makes me cheerful as a writer—the false happy ending. Both have a false happy ending. I don’t often like my own writing, but I do like that last scene in Getting Attention. The brighter and more cheerful it is, the more it hurts’ (Sierz 96). Although the playwright uses the adjective ‘bright’ as synonymous with cheerful, the word should also be understood literally as meaning ‘with more light’. In almost all of his endings, Crimp inserts stage directions in which he suggests a use of lighting as an ironic signifier thus deviating it from its codified function which is to complement the general atmosphere of the scene. In Dealing with Clair and Getting Attention, Crimp’s use of a warm and comforting lighting is without doubt out of tune with the gloomy endings.

13Dealing with Clair’s final scene stages Mike, his wife Liz and their estate agent Toby rejoicing without scruple at the sale of their house without sparing a thought for the previous agent Clair who has been abducted and probably brutally murdered. The scene opens with the following stage directions: ‘Mike and Liz’s garden. October evening sunlight. Mike, Liz and Toby. Mike and Liz are drinking wine. As the lights come up, the three of them are laughing. Anna sits by the vine, reading a book’ (Crimp 1988, 88). The soft light, the overall joyful atmosphere and the mention of the ‘wine’ and ‘vine’ as possible allusions to the Dionysian festivals and thus to the origin of comedy—the word ‘vine’ being in fact the very last word uttered in the play (98)—contrast with the violent blackout at the end of the previous scene. At that point, the supposed potential buyer but genuine psychopath James is talking to Clair’s mother on the phone, pretending that her daughter is still alive:

With a sudden gesture he holds the receiver out at arm’s length to the imagined Clair and remains rigid in this position to the end of the scene. Crescendo of approaching train.
She’s patting her hair with a towel.
She wants to speak to you.
At the moment of the train’s maximum impact, blackout. The rush and whine of the train continues—extremely loud—fading away as the light comes up on the final scene.
(Crimp 1988, 88)

14The transition from darkness to light is too abrupt to be convincing, making it very difficult for the spectator to adapt to the suggested happy ending and to accept it as authentic. No sooner has he been made aware of James’s perverse mind and of Clair’s disappearance than he is supposed to share the other characters’ glee. The stage directions should thus be scrupulously followed by directors staging the play since the smooth transition from darkness to light participates in intensifying the audience’s unease.

  • 5 According to Ann Ubersfeld, dark backgrounds construct an interior space while bright backgrounds e (...)

15The ironic use of lighting is also to be found in Getting Attention, a play which revolves around the ill-treatment of a little girl without it ever being made explicit. The infanticide is denied by all the characters in the last scene in which the social worker Sal has to check on Sharon and makes do with a hasty glance through the door’s pane. The lighting once again conveys an ironic joyful atmosphere, as is exemplified in these stage directions opening the last scene: ‘Bright light up on all areas: the garden, which has perhaps a child’s tricycle in it; the balcony, a string of colourful washing outside Milly’s door; and the flat, in which are Carol, Nick and Sal. The light is noticeably brighter than it has been previously. The flat in particular seems more spacious and airy, with no dark corners’ (Crimp 1991, 169). The light, the tricycle, the colourful washing and the absence of dark corners suggest happiness and tranquillity yet the spectator is not fooled. The horror of the situation is in fact enhanced by the jarring happy ending. The character’s disavowal of the little girl’s death is externalised, transposed from mindset to stage set through the use of bright light and other positively connoted props.5 The stage thus becomes the reflection not only of the character’s mind but also of the spectator’s mind whose denial is projected onto the stage and vocalised in the very last words of the play, ‘Good that’s very good. They all smile. Blackout’ (Crimp 1991, 175).

16Fewer Emergencies also exemplifies the technique of the deceptively bright happy ending. The repetition of the phrase ‘things are improving’ in the last playlet goes hand in hand with an improvement of the light, suggested through the characters’ speech instead of stage directions: ‘The light is improving day by day. . . . Getting brighter day by day? . . . Getting so much brighter, yes’ (Crimp 2005, 41). Yet speech is devoid of any performative function. There is obviously no real improvement, Bobby having been shot in the hip in his own house while his parents were away. The boy’s agony is related in a good-humoured tone, as though it were a sporting event. Bobby’s ascent of the stairs is described as that of an athlete trying to reach the finishing line:

What he’s losing in blood he’s gaining in confidence. Light’s flaring through the windows―flames―it’s getting brighter―he can see the key―
Things are improving.
Things are improving. He’s further up the stairs. He’s closer to the key.
See how it spins―no―correction―swings―see how / it swings.
See how the key swings.
That’s right, Bobby-boy. Watch the key. Watch the key swinging.
(Crimp 2005, 49)

17The simultaneity of horror and humour characteristic of dark comedy here reaches a climax since the story is told in a tone which is both didactic and nonchalant, thus doubly undermining the content of the speech. The use of the parallelism ‘what he’s losing in blood he’s gaining in confidence’ and of the term ‘correction’ indeed indicate a didactic stance while the expression ‘that’s right’ and the nickname ‘Bobby-boy’ betray the characters’ disinterest and sarcasm. The scathing irony of this closing scene is once again emphasised by the use of lighting. The putting out of the lights plunging the spectators into darkness at the exact moment when they are told that it is getting brighter, both literally and figuratively, obviously drastically invalidate this last assertion.

18Martin Crimp’s dark humour is thus constantly taken to extremes so as to arouse the audience’s unease. It is probably in this excessive use of discomforting strategies that Crimp departs from Samuel Beckett’s style. Crimp’s dark comedy is brought to a peak. It is everything but low-key, contrary to J. L. Styan’s reservation about an undue use of generic oscillation: ‘The risk here is that, even if the producer and his actors do hit upon the precise level of playing to keep the balance of the play, there can be no guarantee that they can hold the audience all the time. Audiences pricked too hard will kick’ (Styan 273). Crimp is obviously willing to take such as risk, arousing violent emotions on behalf of his audience. It thus seems rather problematic to categorise Crimp as a Brechtian playwright. Even though his use of dispassionate, matter-of-fact discourse can be identified as an alienation effect calling for the audience’s critical stance, Crimp turns away from Brecht’s principles in his use of empathy. Generic oscillation and the false happy ending indeed arouse laughter which does not betray the spectator’s feeling of superiority but his shame, identified as contagious. There is therefore an ‘automatic transfer of emotions to the spectator, [an] emotional infection’ which, according to Brecht, precludes the possibility of an alienation effect (Brecht 94). Yet the originality of Crimp’s theatre lies precisely in its being both dramatic and epic. In Dealing with Clair, Getting Attention and Fewer Emergencies, there is room for identification and reflection, for entertainment and unease.

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Angel-Perez, Elisabeth, Voyages au bout du possible. Les Théâtres du traumatisme de Samuel Becket à Sarah Kane, Paris: Klincksieck, 2006.

Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Bentley, Eric, The Life of Drama, New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Bergson, Henri, Laughter, an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900), trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, New York: MacMillan, 1913.

Brecht, Bertolt, ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting’ (1936), Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willet, London: Methuen, 1974.

Crimp, Martin, Dealing with Clair (1988), Plays 1, London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Crimp, Martin, ‘Face au mur, Martin Crimp, Hubert Colas’, interview with Marie Louchard,, January 2008, consulté le 12 décembre 2012.

Crimp, Martin, Fewer Emergencies, London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Crimp, Martin, Getting Attention (1991), Plays 1, London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Freud, Sigmund, Interpreting Dreams (1899), trans. J. A. Underwood, London: Penguin Books, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. VIII, trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth, 1960.

Iser, Wolfgang, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

Sierz, Aleks, The Theatre of Martin Crimp, London: Methuen, 2006.

Styan, J. L., The Dark Comedy. The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1962.

Tisseron, Serge, La Honte. Psychanalyse d’un lien social, Paris: Dunod, 1992.

Ubersfeld, Anne, Lire le théâtre II. L’École du spectateur (1981), Paris: Belin, 1996.

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1 About the spectral nature of Attempts on Her Life which is built around the main character’s absence, see Elisabeth Angel-Perez’s ‘Martin Crimp et la spectropoétique de la scène’ (Angel Pérez 2006).

2 My translation of the French text: ‘La honte surgirait toutes les fois où quelque chose qui était perçu par le sujet comme relevant de sa seule intimité—que ce soit un comportement, une émotion ou une pensée—se trouve rendu public.’

3 It is in fact interesting to notice that such anonymity is identified by Freud as being a recurring element in the typical embarrassment dream of being naked. The spectator’s feeling of shame in the dark theatre space can thus be compared to that of the dreamer: ‘The people in whose presence one feels ashamed are almost invariably strangers with faces left indistinct’ (Freud 1899, 258).

4 My translation of the French text: ‘Le spectacle de la honte rend honteux celui qui y assiste, même s’il tente de s’en protéger immédiatement par des mécanismes comme la dénégation ou la projection. . . . La dégradation de l’image de l’autre renvoie à la dégradation possible de l’image de soi et entraîne la honte dans son sillage.’

5 According to Ann Ubersfeld, dark backgrounds construct an interior space while bright backgrounds externalise feelings, constructing a social and political space: ‘Un fond noir ou très sombre fonctionne comme un fond d’œil, une camera oscura, et en tant que tel détermine un espace psychique, une intériorité; tout un fond noir intériorise le spectacle, le transporte sur la scène psychique. Inversement, le fond clair objectivise le spectacle, lui donne la lumière du dehors, c’est-à-dire lui confère un sens tourné vers le social, ou le politique; même si le passionnel et le psychique y sont présents, ils sont renvoyés à un monde de l’extériorité’ (Ubersfeld 88).

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Aloysia Rousseau, « « The Brighter and more cheerful it is, the more it hurts » : l’inquiétante noirceur des comédies de Martin Crimp »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Aloysia Rousseau

Université Paris IV — Sorbonne
Aloysia Rousseau est PRAG à l’université Paris IV — Sorbonne où elle enseigne la littérature et la traduction. Elle est l’auteur d’une thèse de doctorat intitulée « Réhabilitation d’un genre : la comédie de menace de David Campton à Martin Crimp (1957-2008) » et a publié plusieurs articles sur les théâtres de dramaturges contemporains tels que Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly et Simon Stephens. Elle est également l’auteur d’un ouvrage consacré à Arcadia de Tom Stoppard (Paris, Atlande, 2011).

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