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British Literature in the Present (Supplement)

Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness: Reinventing the Musical?

In the Republic of Happiness de Martin Crimp : un nouveau genre de comédie musicale ?
Aloysia Rousseau


Martin Crimp propose-t-il un nouveau genre de comédie musicale avec sa dernière pièce In the Republic of Happiness ou se contente-t-il d’offrir à son public, comme le suggère avec ironie le sous-titre, un « divertissement en trois parties » ? On s’intéressera à la contemporanéité de la pièce ainsi qu’à l’utilisation qui est faite de la musique populaire, contrapuntique plutôt qu’ « anempathique », selon l’expression de Michel Chion. Les chants ne suscitent en effet pas l’émotion dans la mise en scène de Dominic Cook au Royal Court Theatre mais créent un effet de distanciation typiquement brechtien dont on interrogera le caractère novateur.

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1Can Martin’s Crimp last play In the Republic of Happiness be deemed innovative, challenging, or to use an expression which has become very fashionable in Great Britain, is the play a specimen of ‘new writing’? If, as we are reminded by Aleks Sierz in his book Rewriting the Nation, British Theatre Today, the audience of a new writing play should be split, then the whole-hearted laughter shared by audience members on the night I attended Dominic Cook’s production of the play at the Royal Court Theatre would tend to suggest that Martin Crimp’s last play might not be an example of new writing. Should the subtitle’s claim that the play is ‘an entertainment in three parts’ be understood literally rather than ironically? Does Crimp’s text display or lack the daring style and experimental form that had characterized his previous plays? Remembering that a play’s value should not only be deemed according to audience reaction, Sierz gives a more precise definition of new writing as being ‘plays written in a distinctive and original voice which deal with contemporary issues, and sometimes experiment in form’ (Sierz 2011, 63). Crimp’s distinctive voice, the way in which he deconstructs the well-made play, his use of dark humour and his scathing satire can indeed be identified in this play. But does the playwright content himself with displaying his already known talents or does he offer an innovative play both in form and content? Is Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness a contemporary play and can it be dubbed a new kind of Musical?

2This is not Crimp’s first attempt at blending realistic and experimental drama, the most striking example being of course his groundbreaking play Attempts on Her Life (1997). Yet Crimp has confessed, on several occasions, to his not being satisfied with this combination. One might wonder, then, why he once again tries to bring these two trends together in his new play. In the Republic of Happiness opens with a naturalistic stage setting: a family is gathered around the dinner table for Christmas. This first part is followed with a second one which adopts a much more daring form since the characters’ names disappear and the cues are randomly attributed to the actors, this second part being composed of five so-called freedom speeches. In the last part of the play, diegesis gives way to mimesis: two named characters, Madeleine and Uncle Bob, are left on stage, having what sounds like an ordinary conversation but the dialogue becomes more and more disquieting since Uncle Bob appears as a mere puppet, complying with Madeleine’s rules. The critics reviewing the play have compared it to Attempts on Her Life or to Crimp’s 2002 play Fewer Emergencies, the latter also being a triptych and both plays resorting to the random attributing of cues to unnamed characters. But In the Republic of Happiness is in fact rather in the vein of The City which consisted in truly blending realistic elements with unsettling components. Crimp indeed adopts the same dramatic strategy in his last play whose opening is reminiscent of drawing room drama but Uncle Bob’s almost magical apparition soon invests the scene with an uncanny atmosphere.

3Crimp thus experiments with form in this play, alternating between representational drama and de-realization. Yet such experimentation already characterized his previous plays, therefore draining the word ‘experimentation’ of its meaning. What, however, distinguishes In the Republic of Happiness from Crimp’s previous plays is its flagrant contemporariness. Yet Crimp is perhaps trying too hard to be contemporary, a strategy which would in fact be counterproductive, as is suggested by Giorgio Agamben in his essay ‘What is the Contemporary?’:

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it, and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. . . . Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.
(Agamben, 41)

4Crimp’s play indeed coincides with its epoch but rarely steps back from it. The play is replete, for example, with allusions to computer lexicon: ‘You seriously think I can’t delete my own parents or alter the way I look? You seriously think I can’t make changes to my own body and save them?’ (44). The way in which words belonging to the semantic field of word processing infiltrate the characters’ speech seems to be a rather subtle means of highlighting how information technology has become part of our everyday life. Less subtle, however, are Crimp’s overt allusions to these high-tech gadgets which conspicuously mark out the play as contemporary, something that Dominic Cook has in fact chosen to underscore in his production with the use of iPhones and iPads. This is what Aleks Sierz calls the ‘curse of the now’, underlining that ‘the easiest way of making sure that your play will date very quickly is to fill it with contemporary references’ (Sierz 2008).

5Crimp’s innovation would thus lie somewhere else, neither in his combining naturalistic and experimental drama nor in the play’s conspicuous contemporariness, but perhaps in his use of music. The Musical is listed among the genres that, according to Aleks Sierz, do not belong to the ‘new writing’ category, being merely commercial playwriting. There might Crimp’s true innovation lie, in trying to reinvent the musical, transferring it from the West End to the Royal Court and investing it with a satirical purpose.

6Martin Crimp is a musician, more precisely a pianist, and a music lover, which accounts for music being an essential component of his work. Whatever the source, be it songs, instruments being played on the stage or music heard on the radio, its function is always the same: music is not illustrative but constantly ironic. In Crimp’s plays, the horror of the story we are being told is often emphasized by light-hearted background music. This technique, often used by filmmakers, can be identified in Crimp’s theatre in which music is never empathetic, that is to say ‘music whose mood or rhythm matches with the mood or rhythm of the action on screen’ (Chion 1994, 222). Crimp’s use of music is on the contrary anempathetic, that is to say music ‘that seems to exhibit conspicuous indifference to what is going on in the film’s plot, creating a strong sense of the tragic’ (Chion 1994, 221). This is why the label Brechtian is not entirely satisfying when describing Crimp’s use of music. In Crimp’s previous plays, the playwright’s originality lied precisely in his not trying to create an alienation effect but in attempting to arouse emotion, be it pathos or unease, through the use of popular music. This is the distinction that Michel Chion operates between anempathetic music and the didactic counterpoint: anempathetic music relies on emotion while the didactic counterpoint calls for an intellectual stance and breaks the identification process (Chion 1985, 134). I would like to contend that In the Republic of Happiness, contrary to Crimp’s previous plays, relies on didactic counterpoint rather than anempathetic music, and as such, fails to arouse emotion, this being attributable to both text and production.

  • 1 Songwriter and performer Roald van Oosten, who had already worked on Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, (...)

7The contrasts that are to be found within the songs typographically suggested by Crimp in the play’s text disappear in the Royal Court 2012 production. Such is the case with the song ‘Nothing Political’ in which Crimp’s use of capital letters and exclamation marks suggest a sudden outburst that disappears from Roald van Oosten’s song.1 This alternating between comedy and horror, between a light hearted tone and extreme violence is one of Crimp’s trademarks yet it is toned down here and fades away to nothing. Obstacles to the music having an anempathetic effect can be identified in Crimp’s text as well, the first element being the use of overtly Brechtian techniques. The songs are clearly separated from the rest of the text, as is the case in Brecht’s theatre, either through the use of an asterisk or being introduced by the characters, for example with Uncle Bob’s ‘Here’s our 100 % happy song’ (88). The songs moreover often end on a highly positive note, offering a form of escapism contrary to the false happy ending which usually characterizes Crimp’s plays. Such is the case in Madeleine’s ‘I Never Go Deep’ song which ends with Madeleine’s hopeful escape: ‘I’ve booked my ticket: I’m flying first class/ to a cool place thin as a pane of glass/ where I just have to swipe a security pass/ to swim in the milk of thick white stars’ (37). The main purpose of the play is in fact to denounce the individuals’ propensity to repress any unpleasant information, as is exemplified in the title of the fourth essential freedom: ‘The freedom to put it all behind me and move on’. The risk is for the audience to share the characters’ denial because of the optimistic, innocuous songs which create an empathetic effect rather than an anempathetic effect.

8It thus seems that Martin Crimp offers his audience a Musical more than he subverts the genre. Yet Crimp’s attempt, whether or not one deems it convincing, is a rather challenging proposal: that of investing mainstream theatrical genres with a more daring and even political significance. This is in fact what he has done, perhaps more successfully, with comedy. A new theatrical trend thus seems to be carving out a niche for itself, drawing its inspiration from the well-made play. Crimp is indeed not the only playwright taking an interest in what, until now, has been considered as commercial playwriting, as is exemplified in playwright Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a Musical. That playwrights renowned for their daring and thought-provoking works try to invest ossified theatrical genres, usually confined to the West End, with new significance, no matter the result, is very stimulating.

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Agamben, Giorgio, ‘What is the contemporary?’, ‘What is an Apparatus?’ and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stephan Pedatella, Stanford: Standford UP, 2009.

Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Columbia: Columbia UP, 1994.

Chion, Michel, Le Son au cinéma, Paris: L’Etoile, 1985.

Crimp, Martin, In the Republic of Happiness, London: Faber, 2012.

Sierz, Aleks, ‘New Writing in Britain: How Do We Define the Contemporary?’, The Sidcup Papers, 2008.

Sierz, Aleks, Rewriting the Nation, British Theatre Today, London: Methuen Drama, 2011.

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1 Songwriter and performer Roald van Oosten, who had already worked on Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, composed the music for In the Republic of Happiness.

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Aloysia Rousseau, « Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness: Reinventing the Musical? »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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Aloysia Rousseau

Université Paris IV – Sorbonne
Aloysia Rousseau teaches literature and translation at the University of Paris-Sorbonne where she specializes in contemporary British theatre. Her PhD, completed in 2010, aimed at identifying a revival of the comedy of menace in the second half of the twentieth century. Her research focuses mainly upon Martin Crimp’s disquieting comedies but she is also the author of several articles on a range of contemporary playwrights such as Dennis Kelly and Simon Stephens and has published a book on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (Paris: Atlande, 2011).

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