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British Literature in the Present (Supplement)

Back to Verbal Theatre: Post-Post-Dramatic Theatres from Crimp to Crouch

Retour au théâtre verbal : les théâtres post post-dramatiques de Crimp à Crouch
Élisabeth Angel-Perez


Après l'ère du In-Yer-Face Theatre, le début du xxie siècle voit le retour d'un théâtre de paroles, qui agresse l'oreille plus que la vue. Dans les pièces récentes de Dennis Kelly, de Simon Stevens ou de debbie tucker green, pourtant souvent placées sous le signe du post-dramatique par la critique, rien n'advient que le langage. Les nouvelles constellations de la scène anglaise contemporaine permettent de comprendre comment la post-dramaticité ne se définit pas tout entière par sa résistance au logos et au drame mais peut-être aussi surtout par la déconstruction de l’opposition entre fiction et réalité. Cet article revient sur Atteintes à sa vie de Martin Crimp, qui dès 1997, pose les bases du post-dramatique, et analyse L’Auteur de Tim Crouch (2009), qui exacerbe le concept de Hans-Thies Lehman. Je montre que sur la scène contemporaine, un nombre de pratiques post-dramatiques consistent paradoxalement à re-théâtraliser ou à re-dramatiser cela même qu’elles se sont fixé pour mission de déconstruire.

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  • 1 Debbie tucker green, possibly refusing all hierarchy, spells her name without capital letters.

1The second 20th century has been placed under the sign of the In-Yer-Face theatre (Sierz) with frontal tragedies such as Edward Bond’s Born or Sarah Kane’s Blasted literally bombing the theatre and its traditional ingredients, or else with Howard Barker’s ‘Theatre of Catastrophe’. However, the beginning of the 21st century is marked by a revival of the verbal theatre: a theatre ‘In-Yer-Ear’ rather than In-Yer-Face. Most of the plays of this category are decisive attempts to regenerate political theatre: Verbatim theatre, mostly represented by David Hare, delineates new contours for political and satirical theatre while putting forward the question of the relation between the stage and truth. One should also keep in mind the plays of Dennis Kelly, Simon Stephens, Mike Bartlett, Jez Butterworth or Nick Payne. On the other hand, Martin Crimp, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane or more recently debbie tucker green,1 relocate the political sphere at the heart of the intimate sphere and therefore regain catharsis and emotion (vs Brecht’s distance).

2In all these plays, nothing actually takes place but language, yet this verbal theatre nevertheless collides with the 1999 critical concept of ‘post-dramaticity’ brought about by Hans Thies Lehmann. The new constellations currently mapping out today’s English stages definitely help us understand how post-dramatic is not only concerned with the downfall of logocentricity but with the deconstruction of the frontier between fiction and reality. I shall concentrate on Crimp’s Attempts on her Life (1997), because it defined the bases of the post-dramatic play and on Tim Crouch’s 2009 play, The Author, because, twelve years later, it brings postdramaticity to its most extreme form.

3I will try to show that on the contemporary stage, a number of experiments belonging to the so-called ‘post-dramatic theatre’ which is also a (post-)deconstructionist theatre, eventually, end up redramatising whatever it was they strove to un/de-dramatize and that therefore post-dramatic theatre may well have to be conceived of more as a continuity than as a rupture.

  • 2 On this poetics of the attempts, see Bernard.

4In Crimp’s Attempts on her Life, one of the unnamed speakers defines what he sees as ‘post-dramatic theatre’: ‘It’s theatre that’s right for a world in which theatre itself has died’ (Crimp 50–51). This statement can obviously apply to the play itself. Indeed the play deconstructs the fixed binary oppositions at the basis of traditional dramaturgy. The play tells us about a woman, Anne, who never appears on the stage. Throughout seventeen scenarios, her kin or friends or admirers try to ‘re-member’ her verbally. If Kane literally bombs the theatrical space (Blasted), Crimp’s methodically deconstructs it. First the structure: instead of linearity, Attempts very postmodernly proposes rhapsodical fragments, ruins, ‘attempts’ (17 fragments to be read as confessed failures to construct yet also as larvae-like promises ready to expand);2 then the idea of character: the play is lipogrammatic or lipoprosopic (a stage version of as Georges Perec’s e-less novel: A Void), as its main character—Anne—never appears. In these seventeen blazons or anti-blazons, with the elision of Anne, the character is replaced by a ‘post-character’—‘a lack of character, an absence . . . of character’ [25]—, and allows Crimp to thematize the extinction of drama. Because Anne is only narrated and never shown, the play also deconstructs the opposition between drama (action) and epic (narrative) by epicizing the drama: the main action of the play consists in the act of speaking so that the would-be suspense of the diegesis is as much that of the diegesis as that of the story being in the process (or not) of being told.

5Crimp’s play lays the bases of post-dramatic theatre. Yet even being resolutely deconstructionist, post-modern and focused on the dislocated and fragmented subject the play still offers a multiplicity of possible fictions and fails to deconstruct the ‘real life vs fiction’ binarism. The text hinges on an all the more fictional character since Anne never appears and as the caricatural and satiric presentation of the speakers foregrounds fictionality too:

She’s a terrorist threat
She’s a mother of three
She’s a cheap cigarette
She is Ecstasy. (Crimp 59)

6This reads as a series of aborted fictions yet as seeds for further fiction. Definitely deconstructionist, the play still rests on a text as ‘fictional textual cosmos’ (Lehmann) and therefore fails to be post-dramatic.

  • 3 Issue 21.4 of Contemporary Theatre Review (2011) is entirely devoted to the play. It gathers articl (...)

7This is when Tim Crouch’s The Author comes into the picture as a more radical version of post-dramaticity.3 The Author requires a cast of four including the Author (Tim Crouch himself) and the actors who say they acted in a former play by Tim Crouch (a play that involved hyperviolent incestuous sexuality): actress, actor, spectator.

This is a play that happens inside its audience. As the audience enter the space, they encounter two banks of seating, facing each other, comfortably spaced apart but with no ‘stage’ in between. This must not be a confrontational configuration. . . . When the audience is asked questions, these are direct questions that the audience are more than welcome to answer—but under no pressure to do so. (Crouch 18)

8The play unravels three threads at the same time and superimposes as many temporalities: that of being there (present/1st temporality), in the hic et nunc sharing with the traumatized actors of that previous play of Crouch’s and listening to the Author telling us how it went (past/2nd temporality) all the way to the final dinner party at the end of the adventure. The actors embody actors; the author is the author and we, the spectators are very welcome to take part in the scene so that the play comes close to stage writing. The play rests on autofiction (for all of us—the author of course, and the actors, but willy nilly for us too, spectators), a genre so far almost reserved to novel and poetry writing. The third temporality is that of the ‘Author’—‘a prize winning playwright’ telling us of his current suicide ‘entombed in the basement of a building. On the outskirts of a city’ (Crouch 27). He tells us of how he weeps and bleeds himself to death in a sarcophagus full of warm water. The narrative is in the present tense and on the mode of hypotyposis:

I hold on to the grips on either side and lower myself down. I reach up for the handles of the trap-door hatches and bring them together, closed above my head. Like this.
The actor demonstrates the action.
Can you see? (26)

And later

I press the blade into my neck.
Do I continue? . . . (59)

9This narrative delivered by the author immediately conjures up a simultaneous vision of what is NOT shown onstage and therefore of what is not taking place (fiction) although we are made to experience it as though it was (unreal present/semi 3rd temporality or present to come/near future) because it’s the Author himself speaking of himself and showing what he ‘does’ but in fact ‘does not’: we’re in the presence of an epic theatre (narrative-based sort of theatre) introducing the possibility of fiction, with ‘effets d’attente’ and suspense. There is no better deconstruction of the opposition between reality and fiction than this double present time that both negates and re-founds the possibility of fiction.

10The narrative is punctuated by such gentle questions as ‘Is it Ok? Is it OK if I carry on?’ (24), giving us the choice not to have them (unlike a ‘dramatic play’ such as Bond’s Born or Kane’s Blasted). At the end of the play, the Author (Tim) walks out after apologizing for the ‘unforgivable’ paedophile sex he had while watching suggestive images on his computer screen with the Actress’s baby sleeping in his study:

I apologise.
I continue.
The writing is leaving the writer.

The death of the author.
TIM leaves the auditorium.
The houselights come up. The doors of the theatre are opened.
CHRIS remains.
Space. More space.

11There is a deliberate deconstruction and blurring of the frontier between fiction and reality as the spectator no longer knows whether to believe his eyes (‘the offending articles’, Crouch 59) or his ears. As such, it is a perfect example of what Lehmann calls ‘post-dramatic theatre’.

12Unlike dramatists even like Beckett or Brecht whose theatres are deemed ‘dramatic’ by Lehman because they are based on the premise of a ‘fictional textual cosmos’, Crouch’s play deconstructs the opposition between representation and presentation and threatens double enunciation (and is therefore post-mimetic, as there is no need to mimic the diegesis by a praxis), as well as the difference between theatre and performance.

  • 4 The term is used by Sarah Kane in 4:48 Psychosis (1999).
  • 5 Anne Montfort, Après le postdramatique: narration et fiction entre écriture de plateau et théâtre (...)

13Yet, while explicitly claiming to disrupt the ‘fictional textual cosmos’, the play nevertheless re-dramatises—i.e. turns into methodically plotted events—what it was it claimed was part of ‘real’ life. I would therefore argue that these deconstructionist post-dramatic techniques somehow inject some drama back into postdrama. Being post-mimetic somehow also means being pre-mimetic. In the play, the narrative while dismantling the drama relegitimizes fiction: not only because it opens unlikely prospects but on the contrary because no sooner does the subject construct ‘hermself’4 in words, than it becomes a fiction. As remarked by Anne Montfort in a seminal article about post-dramatic theatres,5 such plays that thrive on the deconstruction between reality and fiction in the narration of the self may well expose a fundamental condition of the human being in general. Anne Montfort very rightly refers us to Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (2005) in which Butler argues that the narrated self is necessarily fictional because it is determined by the addressee: ‘ . . . at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers’ (Butler 78). Butler reckons that there is no predetermined authenticity of the ‘I’ which the speaker constructs as he or she speaks and according to the nature of his or her addressee (Montfort 22). Post-dramatic practises are making a show of what constitutes the condition of the subject constructing itself through words: it makes us understand the intrinsic fictionality of the construction and therefore re-founds drama within post-dramaticity.

14The author on the stage, whether a character in his own play or not, takes us beyond the post-dramaticity which has been held to be the hallmark of deconstructionist drama at the turn of the Millenium and takes us towards a neo-dramatic theatre (Monfort) or a post-post-dramatic theatre. The author on the stage delineates a new sort of lyrical subject, half way between theatre and performance and, albeit on the mode of autobiography, relegitimizes fiction at the heart of post-dramatic theatre and therefore somehow recreates the drama. Such radical plays as Tim Crouch’s The Author create new theatrical configurations enjoining us to reconfigure the spectatorial compact in the light of the erased frontier between fiction, autofiction and authenticity.

Bernard, Catherine, ‘L'art de l'aporie: penser l'impensable avec Adorno et Benjamin’, Études anglaises 1 (2005): 31-41.

Butler, Judith, Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University, 2005.

Crimp, Martin, Attempts on her Life, London: Faber, 1997.

Crouch, Tim, The Author, London: Oberon, 2009.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre (1999), trans. Karen Juers-Munby, London: Routledge, 2006.

Montfort, Anne, ‘Après le postdramatique: narration et fiction entre écriture de plateau et théâtre néo-dramatique’, Trajectoires 3, 2009, [en ligne], (7 février 2013),​392.

Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre, London: Faber, 2001.

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1 Debbie tucker green, possibly refusing all hierarchy, spells her name without capital letters.

2 On this poetics of the attempts, see Bernard.

3 Issue 21.4 of Contemporary Theatre Review (2011) is entirely devoted to the play. It gathers articles by Stephen Bottoms, Chris Goode, Helen Iball, Helen Freshwater, a smith, Seda Ilter and Tim Crouch. My thanks to Liz Tomlin for her help and for her own luminous yet still unpublished analysis of the play.

4 The term is used by Sarah Kane in 4:48 Psychosis (1999).

5 Anne Montfort, Après le postdramatique: narration et fiction entre écriture de plateau et théâtre néo-dramatique’, Trajectoires 3, 2009, [en ligne], mis en ligne le 16 décembre 2009, consulté le 07 février 2013,

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Élisabeth Angel-Perez, « Back to Verbal Theatre: Post-Post-Dramatic Theatres from Crimp to Crouch »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Élisabeth Angel-Perez

Université Paris-Sorbonne
Elisabeth Angel-Perez is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She is associate chief editor of the journal Études anglaises and the director of a Research Group on English and American Literature (VALE-Sorbonne). E. Angel-Perez is a specialist of contemporary British theatre. Her recent publications include Voyages au bout du possible: Les théâtres du traumatisme de Samuel Beckett à Sarah Kane (Paris: Klincksieck/Les Belles Lettres, 2006), and, with Alexandra Poulain, Endgame: Le théâtre mis en pièces (Paris: PUF/cned, 2009). She has also published extensively on Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill or Howard Barker. She has edited or co-edited several volumes among which New British Dramaturgies, The European Journal of English Studies vol. 7.1 (April 2003), Howard Barker et le Théâtre de la Catastrophe (Paris: Éditions Théâtrales, 2006), Le Théâtre anglais contemporain 1985–2005 (Paris: Klincksieck, 2007), Hunger on the Stage (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar P, 2008) or Things on the stage (special issue of Études britanniques contemporaines, 2008). She has also translated plays and theoretical writings by Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Nick Gill or David Mamet.

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