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ARAGAY Mireia and Martin MIDDEKE, eds. Of Precariousness: Vulnerabilities, Responsibilities, Communities in 21st-Century British Drama and Theatre, CDE Studies 28

Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017 (241 pages), ISBN 978-3-11-054674-3
Adeline Arniac
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Aragay Mireia and Martin Middeke, eds. Of Precariousness: Vulnerabilities, Responsibilities, Communities in 21st-Century British Drama and Theatre, CDE Studies 28. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017 (241 pages), ISBN 978-3-11-054674-3

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1This issue of the journal of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English, edited by Mireia Aragay and Martin Middeke, brings together the work of their two research groups, respectively based at the Universities of Barcelona and Augsburg. The volume focuses on the questions of precariousness and vulnerability in recent British plays and develops an argument on the ethical dimension of drama and theatre. As a whole, it relies heavily on theory to build its argument and revolves around four main references, as spelt out by the editors in the introduction: Levinasian ethics, Judith Butler’s work on precariousness, Jacques Derrida’s reflection on hospitality, and Jean-Luc Nancy’s study The Inoperative Community. After this theoretical overview, the editors offer a binary definition of the precarious by distinguishing ‘precarity’ as a sense of uncertainty and instability that originates from a social and economic political environment, and ‘precariousness’ as ontological and shared by all human beings. If the title of the volume suggests they will focus on ontological precariousness, they acknowledge an overlap between the two forms and admit an urgency ‘to underline the ethical and even political significance of (ontological) precariousness’ (3). It is actually this urgency that lays the foundation of the argument made throughout: precariousness is to be thought beyond the individual and is always intertwined with questions of hospitality and community as well as their potential failings. As Mireia Aragay and Martin Middeke put it: ‘the aporia of hospitality and the inoperative community complement each other and become ciphers of precarious being’ (6). The fourteen chapters that follow develop this argument by analysing a wide range of plays, demonstrating the ubiquity of precariousness in contemporary British theatre and its potential to trigger ethical reflection.

2In the first chapter, Mireia Aragay offers a stimulating analysis of Simon Stephens’s Pornography, Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and David Greig’s The American Pilot. Relying on Derrida’s concept of hospitality, she highlights the tension between hostility to the other and a form of utopian desire that demands hospitality. She proposes to look at the plays as offering a utopian alternative where hospitality would be possible. In the next essay, Enric Monforte adopts a darker perspective on Pornography, considering it along with Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. By focusing on how the plays stage terror and precariousness, he shows that conventional modes of representation are subverted and that the predominance of fragments ‘underlin[es] […] the necessity for connectedness and relationality in a world fractured by the effects of war and globalisation’ (44). Interestingly, both articles point at a form of utopia or connectedness which is negated in the plays or only hinted at, but which is left for the audience to take up and appreciate.

3The next two chapters concentrate on how some plays conjure up and displace mythical elements. Christian Attinger focuses on Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, reading it as a contemporary displacement of the ‘ancient myth of Theseus into a near-future dystopian version of London’, which puts forward how little common framework or cultural memory our society holds (47). David Kerler’s analysis of Johnny Byron, the main character in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, presents him as a threshold figure who is both inside and outside of society, both a host and a guest. Kerler’s analysis of the carnivalesque dimension of laughter is particularly enlightening, as he delineates a type of precarious laughter which relies on ambivalence and always hints at the fact that ‘we will soon be laughing on the other side of our face’ (72).

4Tim Crouch’s The Author is the main focus of the following essays. In his analysis, Christoph Henke counters the view that the play is an example of participatory theatre and demonstrates how limited the options actually are for the audience, concluding that leaving the auditorium would be the only way to display a form of agency. Cristina Delgado-García agrees with Henke on the limited powers of the spectator in the play but proposes to situate Crouch’s work in a more specific political context. She relates the play to recent conflicts in the UK where various forms of resistance were ‘eventually nullified by authority and preconceived plans, despite a persuasive rhetoric of equality and concern’, thus interpreting the play as a critical comment on the illusion of agency (103).

5The next two chapters focus on more explicitly political plays. Bettina Auerswald discusses verbatim theatre, going back to the definitions of the genre before moving on to Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists. She underlines how the play stretches the notion of ethical solicitation to the extreme by asking the audience to acknowledge terrorists as vulnerable beings for whom they are ethically responsible. Destabilisation also proves to be a driving force in José R. Pradi’s exploration of the Theatre Uncut phenomenon. He considers the openness of the movement as a productive from of precariousness, where destabilisation becomes the means to protest and the first step of change.

6In her article on Tomorrow’s Parties, Adina Sorian further develops the idea that precariousness may initiate a creative form of change. Drawing on Catherine Malabou’s notion of plasticity, she demonstrates how ‘exploring various options about what the future may hold for us’ can raise questions about our own present situation, and even be the basis of a form of optimism (141). Verónica Rodríguez’s analysis draws attentions to the plasticity of bodies themselves. She demonstrates how porous the boundaries of bodies are by looking at occurrences of ecstasy or ‘bleeding across’ in the work of David Greig and Suspect Culture, thus showing that precariousness goes beyond the individual.

7The final series of essays centre on the question of community and responsibility towards the other. In ‘Precariousness of Love and Shattered Subjects in Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money’, Elzbieta Baraniecka highlights the fact that love implies a form of risk and an exposure to the other that the characters are not ready to take, even though they seem to be craving the sharing and happiness brought about by love. In her article, Clara Escoda reflects on the attitude towards the other in debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly, Laura Wade’s Posh and Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, concentrating on inequality in the distribution of precarity and on the necessity to endorse responsibility for the other. Drawing on Cavavero’s work, she claims that this responsibility can take the form of an ‘inclination’, similar to the one of a mother with her child. In his analysis of David Greig’s The Events, Martin Riedelsheimer argues that even though precariousness pervades the play, the choir offers a positive response to this form of vulnerability by allowing for the creation of a potential community of the precarious. In the final essay, Martin Middeke focuses on the same play as well as on Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go. He goes back to a more ontological understanding of the precarious and concludes that mortality may be the only thing shared by all individuals, whatever their ideas or convictions, thus providing a form of community.

8The essays draw a useful overview of contemporary British theatre and provide valuable insights into its exploration of precariousness. One of the strengths of the volume is that most articles strive to consider both text and performance, thus offering ways to understand the aesthetic means used on stage to reveal precariousness. The articles shed light on how the plays ‘formally address and reconfigure the topic of precariousness in that they lay emphasis on ambiguity, indeterminacy, liminality, elusiveness, uncertainty and even contingency’ (11). The fourteen chapters thus offer a multifaceted exploration of the precarious, taking into account its ethical dimension as well as its aesthetic one.

  • 1 This is reminiscent of the work of French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc, which has not been transl (...)

9Even though questions of ethics have become widespread in criticism, the extent of the theoretical sources summoned and the approach adopted in this work make it a very welcome addition to the critical landscape. By tackling the question of precariousness through the angle of community and its failings, the volume generates a productive dialectics which raises the burning questions of inclusion and exclusion as well as of hostility and hospitality.1 The individual dimension of precariousness is thereby linked to a wider interconnected dimension, where precariousness is seen as shared and inherently linked to a call for responsibility towards the other.

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1 This is reminiscent of the work of French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc, which has not been translated into English yet and must have been unavailable to the authors.

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Adeline Arniac, « ARAGAY Mireia and Martin MIDDEKE, eds. Of Precariousness: Vulnerabilities, Responsibilities, Communities in 21st-Century British Drama and Theatre, CDE Studies 28 »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Adeline Arniac

Univ. Paul Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA EA741, F34000, Montpellier, France

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