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I Know How that Sounds and I Do Not Mean that as an, but I Mean Christ”: The Disturbance in the Symbolic Order in Dennis Kelly’s Theatre



Selon Jacques Lacan, le « parlêtre », déterminé par la chaîne signifiante, n’a accès qu’à des noms, jamais aux choses, et se structure de cette perte irrémédiable. Dans la lignée de Beckett, le théâtre de Dennis Kelly met en scène une véritable défaillance du nom, ravalé au rang de « débris », dans une exploration fantasmatique et transgressive du statut d’orphelin (Orphans). La syntaxe se voit subvertie, les niveaux de langue (les langues mêmes) se mélangent, les interruptions se multiplient dans ce théâtre marqué par l’aposiopèse ou l’anacoluthe... L’inadéquation entre signifiants et signifiés, la perte, la chute (voire la Chute) sont mis en relief, ce qui a pour effet d’hypertrophier l’axe Imaginaire, comme pour cerner le Réel au plus près sans avoir à en passer par la nomination. Ainsi, les écrans de télévision prolifèrent, de même que les images scéniques saisissantes, comme le « cruxicide » du père de Michael dans Debris. Nous nous interrogerons sur ce qu’il en est de ce théâtre de l’hypotypose, de l’image, dans un tel contexte de désintégration de l’ordre Symbolique.

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1Dennis Kelly’s plays immediately fascinate their audience. Indeed, the contemporary British dramatist exploits the resources of language in his own peculiar manner while renewing traditional dramaturgy, in a lineage that owes as much to Beckett and his concern for the representation of an essential lack as to a more recent dramatic trend that Aleks Sierz called “in-yer-face theatre.” Kelly’s unidentified literary objects leave his critics in a state of admiration tinged with what reads as embarrassment: Michael Billington admits to a “talent to disturb,” while Charles Spencer seems to admire his “rare skill” and his “profound understanding of the way we live now.” As for Louise Brierley, she points out his “dark style of writing.”

2The titles of his plays may take us some way along the path of a better understanding of his dramatic universe and the contradictory responses it inspires. His theatre stages a world in which temporalities are blurred, in which the beginning borders on the end, as anamnesis gradually blends with fading memories in a Pascalian awareness of a humanity located at “a middle point between all and nothing” (Pascal 90). From Taking Care of Baby, DNA, or Orphans to Debris or After the End, such dialectical tension between anteriority and posteriority, between antecedence and aftermath, indexes an absence, a lack, a fundamental loss that seems to directly affect a world in which landmarks appear unstable, a world in which love and money have become equivalent (the words are equated with a coordinating conjunction in the very title of the play Love and Money), where a terrorist can turn into a hero (Osama the Hero), while the identity of the human subject is reduced to a molecule (DNA).

  • 1 The notion of “Symbolic order” was introduced very early in Lacanian theory. It is already develope (...)
  • 2 In Le Triomphe de la religion, Lacan uses the French term “parlêtre” and elaborates on the fact tha (...)
  • 3 Original quotations: “l’aliénation réside dans la division du sujet que nous venons de désigner dan (...)
  • 4 In French: “théâtres du traumatisme”. See Angel-Perez.

3I wish to contend that such a context of general disorganisation and confusion follows on from a distorted relationship to language. Dennis Kelly’s theatre appears tormented by the motif of naming, labelling, to the point where disorder often threatens to take over. In the absence of a stable source of enunciation, denomination becomes problematic and along with it, the Lacanian Symbolic order.1 This order is produced by the signifying cut of language conjoined with the ‘No’ of cultural limits. Once named, the “speakingbeing” is situated within the signifying chain. The human being, a “speaking animal” 2 (Le Triomphe de la religion, 88), thus finds itself condemned to resort to signifiers in order to find his or her bearings in a world that, from then onwards, will appear more or less organised according to the structural logic of the signifier. In “Position de l’inconscient,” Lacan insists on a fundamental “alienation,” a “division of the subject,” to the point that the psychoanalyst wrote that a signifier is what “represents a subject for another signifier”3 (320-21). He thus emphasises the fact that speech traps the subject in a network of signifiers that at the same time constitutes his or her only means of giving fantasmatic shape to reality. In that respect, Dennis Kelly’s theatre proves stimulating insofar as it conjures up, or intimates, a universe in which this inaugural step, this positioning within the law of the Symbolic order through the “Name-of-the-Father,” has not given the subject any sense of stability of being. In the wake of other post-Shoah, British dramaturgies that Elisabeth Angel-Perez has called “trauma theatres,”4 Dennis Kelly’s theatre seems concerned with finding new modes of expression to escape the representational dead-end of the ultimate experience of trauma. This poetry of the aftermath strives to account for our forefathers’ inheritance: a horror-laden world where a place like Auschwitz has actually existed. In fact, in the dramatist’s universe, names prove powerless to order the world.

4Landmarks are unstable. The circulation of signifiers does not seem to be oriented by a structured discourse. Metaphors no longer make sense, for meaning has become a questionable category of experience. Symbols, statuses, traditional hierarchies and values pose problems. The Beckettian revolution is pushed to its ultimate limits, for not only is language questioned, but so are all the Symbolic landmarks it involves, which (used to?) give some consistency to the world. We are thus presented with several puzzling questions: what are the modalities of this dramaturgy of the Symbolic disorder? What dramatic aesthetics does the acute awareness or the experience of such disturbance allow to stage?

5Identifying the remains or the “debris” of the Symbolic order in Dennis Kelly’s plays will allow me to highlight the modalities of the Symbolic disorder on stage. I will then make use of some of Lacan’s later topological tools, such as the Borromean knot and the Real-Symbolic-Imaginary triad so as to characterise the effects of the uncertain status of the symbol during these unsettling performances.

The Vestigial Symbolic Order

6One of the first observations we make when faced with Dennis Kelly’s theatrical universe is its Beckettian lineage, with a considerable importance of the waste or the litter. Both dramatists share a fascination for what Beckett called the “meremost minimum,” which takes the most repulsive forms on Kelly’s stage. In Debris, Michael finds a baby in a pile of rubbish made up of “rotting leaves, coke cans, syringes” (27), and “UncleArry”’s breath is defined by an evocative portmanteau word: a “cloud of Johnnywalkerfaggarlicgas” (Debris, 24). Despite the vivid arousal of disgust caused by the use of synaesthesia in such depictions, the dramatist’s works keep following a movement that could be referred to as genealogical.

  • 5 Lacan uses the phrases “lituraterre” and “faire litière de la lettre” (translations mine).

7Indeed, the text pertains to the question of origins. Dennis Kelly regularly stages characters who talk about their childhoods or their parents. In Debris, Michael and Michelle relate traumatising scenes in great detail: their father’s suicide by what could be called “self-crucifixion,” their mother’s death (“a dying dinosaur,” 18) after inadvertently swallowing a chicken bone (another piece of waste) and choking on it. In Our Teacher’s a Troll, the main characters are actually children. The macrostructure of After the End is based on four parts, placed in a chronological order and respectively entitled: Beginning, Middle, End, After the End. This anamnestic dynamic conjuring up the origin first appears susceptible to provide some explanation for a world that does not make sense. It accounts for the dramatic progression in plays such as Our Teacher’s a Troll, in which a group of children drive their schoolteacher crazy by keeping up an incessant chant of “why? why? why?” that initiates a virtually infinite series of causes. The same backwards movement informs the mock verbatim play Taking Care of Baby, whose fourth part stages an unidentified character – a journalist? Dennis Kelly himself? – asking questions of the different protagonists of a sordid case of infanticide so as to discover if the mother of the murdered children is guilty. The playwright seems to be concerned with the explanation for all those dramas, for all the imperfection of the world he stages in his “lituraterre” – the Lacanian neologism finds itself particularly accurate in reference to Dennis Kelly in this attempt “to turn the letter into litter” (Lacan, Séminaire XVIII 113).5

  • 6 It can be traced back to Hegel, who makes a distinction between “pure thought” (or “eternal spirit” (...)

8Following the very movement of the dramatist’s plays, let us now concentrate on the origin of this absurd and somewhat arbitrary world in which human beings emerge, in order to try and explore this feeling of being an abandoned child (on which a play like Orphans hinges, as we shall see further on). It all starts with the initial perception of the irrevocable presence of the word between the thing and us. In the New Testament, the Gospel of John starts with the following phrase: “[in] the beginning was the Word.” Similarly, a whole philosophical tradition underlines the fundamental hiatus between the signifier and the signified.6 This essential characteristic – that of the non-identity of signifier and signified – can be seen in the very title of the section “Divorce” in Debris, where Michael evokes a tender scene he secretly watched. His account is written like a calligram on the page as he depicts this vision of a mother with her son:

MICHAEL. (...)
I saw him talking, talking on the phone. I saw him talking to her. I saw. I saw. And
In her
I had seen this before. Through windows of TV shops I had seen this on TVs through the windows of TV shops before.” (19-20)

9The vertical layout on the page directly opposes the horizontality conveyed by the vision itself – the lying boy – underlined by the very verb “lying,” as if to emphasise this fundamental divorce between the evocation of the perceived phenomenon and its actual reality for the reader of the play. In other words, any essentialist aspiration of speaking the “truth” must be renounced, since words shape the reality they name. Dennis Kelly exploits this fundamental characteristic of the Symbolic order, this necessary alienation of the speaking subject, in his theatre. The ability to conjure up a reality with mere words is emphasised in this textual calligram, presenting the stage director with a stimulating challenge: how to visually represent this discrepancy between signifier and signified? Toying with the properties of the Symbolic order allows Kelly to enhance theatricality, hence his use of hypotyposis in Debris. In the opening scene, Michael recounts his father’s “cruxicide” (13), a form of suicide by self-crucifixion. The stage directors’ dilemma can easily be imagined, when confronted with deciding how to dramatize such scenes that reveal the disturbance of the Symbolic order, allowing for the proximity of the Real.

10By dramatizing this necessary “divorce,” the British playwright has his audience hear the original linguistic magma deprived of punctuation that Lacan, in his Seminar XX, called “lalangue” (126), a sort of linear series of phonemes liable to all sorts of caesurae. Such “lalangue” can be traced in some of the characters’ names, for instance “UncleArry” (Debris, 21). The “troll” language invented in Our Teacher’s a Troll also proves interesting, since it relies on a unique word, “ak”, associated to various punctuation marks. Interestingly enough, such alternation between a vowel sound and a consonant sound (/æk/), such primary distinction between two phonemes, constitutes the most elementary prerequisite for a language to be spoken. By experiencing a language reduced to its most basic conditions of possibility (one word), the spectator witnesses the very first steps of the emergence of language.

11Not only are the origins of the symbol made manifest on stage, but so is the very process of signification. In Saussurean linguistics, the sign articulates sound material (the signifier) to the concept (the signified) according to the following algorithm (Saussure, 100):

signified (in which the signified prevails over the signifier).

  • 7 See Lacan, L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud424.
  • 8 See Lacan, Séminaire V: Les Formations de l’Inconscient.

12In Dennis Kelly’s theatre, those signs still conjure up familiar elements for the audience. When at the beginning of Orphans, Liam appears on stage covered in blood, Helen asks the expected question: “Has there been an accident?” (19). Here, blood becomes a visual and ominous clue, so that the traditional dramatic artifices seem to work. Right from the outset, death looms in the opening romantic dinner scene between Helen and Danny. The action grows more and more tense as a bloody Liam disrupts it and gradually loses his nerve. The structural distinction between signifier and signified was taken up by Lacan, who insisted on the bar that separates them in the algorithm. For the psychoanalyst, this bar dissociates two flows; he reverses Saussure’s algorithm and gives precedence to signifiers, the signified sliding underneath the signifier (represented by a capital S) in his topology.7 Meaning proves a secondary construct resulting from moments of stabilisation of the two flows (signifiers and signifieds) due to a number of cuts, of vertical caesurae, more or less placed at the same level for two interlocutors. Alluding to a traditional upholstery technique, Lacan uses the phrase “points de capiton” in the seminar he gave on November 6 1957,8 and likens such a process of attaching a button to a fabric on a mattress to tying together the signifier and the signified. The signifying chain thus finds itself stabilised, and Kelly’s language does appear properly “padded.” Common symbols, such as blood in this example, remain valid and when characters speak, they make sense. The characters engage in what sounds like ordinary, demotic dialogue about clearly defined topics (such as the construction of an alibi to account for Adam’s disappearance in DNA, or the exchange of emails between Sandrine and David, whose growing tension culminates in the unexpected revelation of David’s wife’s death in the first scene of Love and Money…). Stichomythia, or the rhythmical alternation of short, sharp lines, is often employed, as in the last part of Taking Care of Baby, in which investigative questions asked by a journalist to find out more information about a case of infanticide alternate with Martin’s answers. Thus, in spite of the unusual aspect of some dialogues (Martin, for instance, insists on answering the questions he is being asked only by “yes” or “no”), a mimetic concern still informs Kelly’s theatre and it remains possible to trace a conversation thread (though loose at times).

  • 9 C’est l’ordre symbolique qui est, pour le sujet, constituant” “la détermination majeure que le s (...)

13If some meaning persists, if the signifying chain remains oriented, then it can be concluded that a Symbolic order has actually been established. In his seminar on “The Purloined Letter” (1955), Lacan tries to identify the conditions in which this order appears. In fact, it necessarily implies the presence of laws. The psychoanalyst first shows that the Symbolic order covers over the fundamental impossibility of naming the Real, since the Real is defined precisely as that which escapes the net of the signifier: it is the “impossible,” in the sense of the very beyond of meaning. This fantasmatic covering up is what we call “reality.” But in a more decisive way, Lacan poses the predominance of the signifier over the subject himself, determined by the fundamental displacement of the signifiers.9 Indeed, in Kelly’s works, onomastics pertains to this vision of the name as defining characters. In Debris, Michael and Michelle are brother and sister with quasi-homophonic names, so much so that a deadly rivalry leads Michael to try and strangle his sister, suddenly embodying a threatening, specular double. The play Osama the Hero also illustrates the predominance of the signifier over the signified, for the oxymoronic title immediately conjures up a comparison between the status of a heavy signifier – “laden” with meaning - and the reality that is associated with it. Indeed, how could Osama bin Laden possibly be called a hero? At the beginning of the play, Gary, a teenage misfit, declares: “I’m thinking of becoming a terrorist,” before being locked up and tortured by his seemingly right-minded neighbours. The circulation of the signifier “terrorism,” implicit in the title of the play, constitutes the heart of the play: if the first occurrence applies to Gary, it ends up defining the other characters’ brutal attitude. The “terror” or “fear” on which Aristotle bases a definition of katharsis (Aristotle, 17-18) spreads to the spectators of the play, confronted with a feast of cruelty towards the teenager. Thus, the play seems to bring out an essential law of language: the displacement of the signifier.

  • 10 The Holy Bible. King James Version. Matthew 27-46. Psalm 22-1. ”My God, my God, why hast thou forsa (...)

14Even if in Dennis Kelly’s theatre, the Symbolic order retains its ability to impose its laws, it merely appears in a vestigial, ghostly state. As a matter of fact, the father, as the embodiment of the letter of the law, is often destabilised. At the beginning of Debris, Michael’s father crucifies himself, offering the vision of a rather debased phallic power: “his penis had been made tiny by adrenaline and pain” (15). The biblical intertext is also subverted by the wrong quotation: “My son, my son, why have you forsaken me?” (16), replacing the original “my God”10 by the earthly “my son.” As Symbolic foundations are gradually undermined, in a context where sons supplant their fathers, it becomes legitimate to wonder if disorder itself does not ultimately dominate the scene, and if so, according to which modalities it does.

Portraying the Symbolic disorder

15Dennis Kelly’s ability to amaze partly stems from his rendition of the process of naming. At this stage, it is worth pointing out that the word “name” derives from the Indo-European root *nem, shared by both Greek words onoma (name) and nomos (law). The manifest disorder on stage can thus be ascribed to a poetics of “de-nomination,” involving damage to both name and Symbolic law.

16In fact, the proper noun receives special attention in Kelly’s theatre, even if, on the face of it, nothing appears extraordinary. The first lines of Orphans read as a typical expository scene in which the characters’ identity is presented to the audience:

HELEN and DANNY’s flat.
A candlelit dinner, interrupted.
HELEN dressed up, DANNY dressed up.
LIAM stands there having just come in.
He has blood all down his front.
Pause. They stare at him.
For a long time.
LIAM. Alright, Danny?
DANNY. Liam.
LIAM. Helen.
HELEN. Liam.” (17)

17The play thus conveniently opens on the use of the main characters’ names as greetings, artificially introducing them to the audience. In the traditional dichotomy between theatrical illusion and denegation, the scales are tipped in favour of the latter in this introductory exchange, in which names are equated to “hello” or “good evening,” emptied out and used in their phatic value. Names are constantly maimed. In DNA, they are reduced to diminutives like Phil or Cathy and in Our Teacher’s a Troll, they become a troll’s roars. Instead of sustaining an individual’s identity, they are used and recycled in different plays from Kelly’s corpus, so that the reader can legitimately wonder if Louise and Mark in Osama the Hero are supposed to be the same as in After the End, or if the David in Love and Money is not the one who reappears in Orphans. Yet, no clue comes to confirm the hypothesis of a potential network, of a (questionably signifying) chain. At times, characters don’t even have a name, and the source of enunciation remains unknown. In Taking Care of Baby for instance, no stage direction indicates the identity of the character who investigates and keeps asking questions. This enunciator is only distinguished typographically by the use of italics, which leads us to wonder about the very presence of a subject to assume the words staged in this faux verbatim play, presented as a collection of quotations from ordinary people heard on the street, on television... In Love and Money, the characters are not named but instead they are numbered. Without any indication of sex or age, casting the roles of 1, 2 and 3 represents a challenge for the stage director.

18Common nouns also undergo the effects of the dismantlement of the Symbolic order, so that they emerge as anything but common. Dennis Kelly resorts to numerous neologisms, often stemming from an absence of cut in the signifying chain, such as “Unclearry” in Debris (21), or the word cluster “endjustifiesthemeans” (113) that contaminates the third part of Osama the Hero. Words agglutinate, and the traditional proverb according to which “the end justifies the means” thus becomes unfamiliar, alienated from the necessary conditions of intelligibility of the Symbolic order (the presence of breaks between words). Such disorder reaches its peak in the opening stage directions in each of the four parts of Taking Care of Baby. The semantic content is supposedly the same, and actually makes sense in the first part: “The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence. Nothing has been added and everything is in the subjects’ own words, though some editing has taken place. Names have not been changed” (5). But as the play unfolds, Dennis Kelly gradually substitutes letters and words, makes unusual cuts in this initial stage direction, to the extent that the last occurrence is utterly incomprehensible for the reader: “Te foling has beelown takhen wormed for wspoord frondrm intews and cughorrevieence. Nothything has been odded and evering is in the subjts’ awn wongrds, tho sam editing hoes keplan tace. All nas havece been chaed” (87). The traditional function of the stage direction is indeed “odded,” redefined, for only its nonsensical quality materialises for the reader. In the first performance of the play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, these peculiar directions even had a proper part on stage, as they were displayed on little screens. Kelly’s poetics of de-nomination therefore presents specific challenges when it comes to staging the text and revealing its defacement, for both the reader and the spectator.

19Language totters, and the Symbolic order, though seemingly established, disintegrates. In “The Clinic of the Borromean Knot”, Skriabine writes that “the Symbolic comes undone when the psychotic subject encounters the deficiency of the Symbolic” and refers to “errors” stemming from “the paternal failure” (256). Such collapse, such loss, is enacted on stage as fragmentation and interruptions abound in Dennis Kelly’s theatre, leading it to the verge of psychosis. Apart from the recurrence of in medias res openings plunging the audience into the middle of a chain of events, the dramatist also toys with hints and signs, appealing to the spectator’s ability (and desire?) to reconstruct some meaning. Aposiopeses, which suspend the meaning of a given statement, become a way of manifesting the fundamental loss at the heart of language, just as when David explains, in the same scene of Love and Money: “I just got this award for” (230), leaving out the rheme of his sentence. This figure of speech emphasising a cut, or an interruption, is visually duplicated by a peculiar use of typography, and more particularly dashes and line breaks, ubiquitous in the different plays of Dennis Kelly’s corpus. The dramatist repeatedly resorts to ellipses and subverts the conventional syntax by favouring anacolutha and a subversion of grammatical laws, as in the following excerpt from Love and Money, in which 2 claims: “You want to do something you feel, okay, and you’re kind of, but… proud of” (241). Even in the written text, the punctuation does not help to produce meaning here, since for instance a comma separates the verb “feel” from what reads like an attribute of the subject, “okay.” Additionally, an adjective seems to be missing between “of” and the conjunction “but,” and replaced by a comma. Thus, the multiplication of commas, erratic cuts in the fabric of this sentence, cannot make up for meaning. Even the word, the smallest unit of meaning, is affected by this process, and when it comes to the written text, letters sometimes fall for the sake of a mimetic concern for spoken (broken?) English. This can be observed in the same play, for example in Duncan’s question: “S’that a jumper?” (263). Here, the verb “to be” itself is distorted, and along with it the question of the identity of an actual prop. This process of generalized disjunction comes to affect the subject of speech, as can be elucidated in the profoundly unsettling dialogue between Helen and Danny in Orphans:

HELEN. Thank you for this. You know, for being so... with all this
DANNY. What? Jesus, no, I mean it’s, it’s Liam. I mean he’s... part of us...
HELEN. And sorry I’m a bit... you know.
DANNY. No, no, god, no, you’re not, not at all.
HELEN. Oh, I am. I am a bit. (30)

20Here, Helen apologises for protecting her brother Liam, who might actually have killed someone. In the first occurrence of the clause “I am a bit…” the suspension marks clearly point at the ellipsis of an adjective. Yet, in the second occurrence of the same clause “I am a bit.”, the final full stop leads the spectator to experience a process of demetaphorisation or a literalisation of speech, in which Helen refers to herself as a fragment, “a bit.” In Kelly’s theatre, the subject is perceived as disintegrating right before our eyes. It appears cleft, and the disturbance in the stability of the signifier/signified relation contributes to revealing this sense of loss.

21Having explored Dennis Kelly’s unique poetics of disorder, how can we characterise the universe he creates, a theatre in which the Symbolic order is constantly destabilised? What are the effects of such dynamics?

The effect of the disruption of the Symbolic order

  • 11 De cette béance du nom propre – de cet empêchement à être nommé, c'est-à-dire réduit le personna (...)

22Strikingly enough, the presentification of a fundamental lack of meaning in the dramatist’s works reintroduces play (in both the theatrical and the mechanical senses of the word) and it re-emerges in the form of excess. The deterioration of proper and common nouns transforms them into disjectae membrae, producing waste that materialises on stage under the form of all sorts of rubbish (in the wake of Beckettian plays such as Breath). Proper names are now equated to commercial brands and lose their dignity by joining the system of market values. The reduplication of possible referents lowers them to the level of common nouns: it is the case of Phil’s favourite “Mentos Fruits,” recurring in DNA, or the “Monster Munch” and the “Johnny Walker” mentioned in a play whose title proves significant: Debris (23-24). Rubbish proliferates in this universe in which words have lost the ability to stabilise meaning. Such a downfall paradoxically entails a logorrhoea that takes the form of numerous repetitions, as if to ensure an actual inscription of the words and the speech that the characters fail to attain. The following lines, uttered by Michael in Debris, provide a telling example: “a pile rubbish, a pile of rubbish, in the in the in the in the in the, a pile of rubbish, in the in the in the in the in the, a pile of rubbish” (21). Sarrazac evokes a phenomenon that bears some resemblance to what happens in Kelly’s theatre, namely the “gap of the proper noun” as an “impediment to being named, in other words reduced” (88).11 Indeed, the dramatist’s characters manifest an absence of boundaries and limits, a particular form of excess. As they speak, language registers mix, “fucks,” “shits” and “cunts” abound. Dennis Kelly even explores foreign linguistic spaces, and toys with languages, as in the scene from Taking Care of Baby in which Jim pays tribute to Donna and celebrates her political victories by enthusiastically exclaiming “Bravo, vino!” and taking up the same signifier in the phrase “In vino veritas!” (27), mixing Italian, Spanish and Latin and confusing the chronotopes. Moreover, the distinction between oral and written texts becomes blurry right from the first part of Love and Money, which stages an exchange of emails, a written medium in which oral language frequently surfaces under the form of nominal sentences such as “The taste of England” (209) or abbreviations like “’coz’” (209). Finally, it is worth noting that such excess is prone to generate a festive atmosphere. In Totem and Taboo, Freud presents celebrations as a regular reproduction of the sacrifice of the venerated figure, the totem, an equivalent for the father, followed by a shared meal that allows the “appropriation of the paternal attributes” (145). Once the source of the Symbolic order has been executed, crucified (or self-crucified as in Debris), all the excesses associated with parties are allowed and unleashed. In DNA for instance, the character of Phil speaks little but eats plenty on stage, as if he were having his own “private party” while his classmates are trying to cover up the crime of one of them, Adam (a significant name when it comes to disrespecting the Father). In the children’s play Our Teacher is a Troll, in keeping with Freud’s remarks, the Head Teacher representing strong authority, the aptly named Mrs Spike, is driven crazy by the young twins Holly and Sean. A Troll is then nominated to replace her, and new, nonsensical rules are created, such as holding victims of mischievous actions responsible and punishing them, or eating Brussels sprouts and peanut butter only. Moral codes are subverted, and the children soon realise that even if they can misbehave with their new Troll teacher, they remain obedient to the former order they have originally overthrown.

  • 12 Original quotation: “l’impossible, c’est le réel.” Lacan used the same definition later in the less (...)

23At this stage of our analysis, a tool introduced by Lacan at the end of his teaching proves precious in the attempt to understand what is at stake in this excess: the Borromean knot, referred to in his seminars Les Non-dupes errent, RSI and Le Sinthome. This particular, three-ring knot unties if any one of the three rings is severed. Such topological representation aims at accounting for the structure of the subject, which remains stable as long as the three rings that constitute it are more or less tightly knotted and intertwined. According to Lacan, the three essential dimensions of our experience or the “three registers of human reality” (“Le Symbolique, l’Imaginaire et le Réel” 4) include the Symbolic, the Real and the Imaginary. The Symbolic, as previously observed, refers to the access to language, and leads to wording, so that human beings become “speakingbeings.” The Imaginary derives from the constitution of the image of our bodies as perceived in the mirror. It pertains to the representation we have of reality, based on a fundamental division in two. Finally, the Real, as opposed to reality, is not accessible to us. Lacan maintains that it is the “impossible” (Lacan, Séminaire XIV 371).12 It cannot be symbolised by speech, nor apprehended by intellectual speculation. It is always missed. Yet, it can be experienced for instance in anxiety, in which a lack becomes palpable, entailing a threat of fragmentation for the subject. Thus, what can possibly happen when, as in Kelly’s theatre, the Symbolic ring finds itself repeatedly submitted to cuts, to the point where its very stability is jeopardised?

24At the level of the Imaginary, the consistency of the reality the audience is presented with is altered. In such reality, the logical law of non-contradiction according to which one cannot be doing two things at the same time, since p should automatically exclude non-p, is under threat. In this respect, the stage direction in the sixth part of Love and Money, proves edifying:

Suddenly he gets up.
He goes to bre the CDs. Doesn’t.
He goes to walk out. Doesn’t.
He goes to grab his hair. Doesn’t.
He goes to throw the CDs. Doesn’t.
He goes to say something. Doesn’t.
He goes to almost hit her. Doesn’t.
He goes to sit down. Doesn’t.
He goes to put the CDs down. Doesn’t.” (276-77)

25Dennis Kelly challenges the stage director to represent David’s very intentionality, included in the operator “to” that conventionally indicates an aim. The field of representation extends, the ring of the Imaginary loosens a little, for potentiality itself is now also taken into account. As if to make up for the deficiencies of the Symbolic, the Imaginary is hypertrophied. In fact, the dramatist often resorts to a multitude of powerful scenic images, such as the ekphrastic “cruxicide” of Michael’s father at the beginning of Debris. The conversation between Phil and Leah in the second act of DNA also appears significant in this respect, for the female character starts to literally strangle herself to the verge of death to make him react. For Our Teacher’s a Troll, Dennis Kelly worked with the illustrator Joanne Nethercott who actually drew the words (“Ak” and its variations) used by the fictitious creature. The British dramatist himself has consistently tried to multiply the modes of address to his audience, exploring the potentialities of the radio (with The Colony), television (with for example the series Pulling or Spooks), and even the music scene with Matilda, the Musical. The Imaginary expands and amplifies on stage for example with the proliferation of the dramatist’s favourite prop: the television set, Kelly’s “telly,” giving birth to images just like a belly would with rubbish (excrements, or even children, since the eponymous title of a play like Debris potentially refers to both). Finally, not only are bodies maimed, divided and fragmented before our very eyes (Osama the Hero, in addition to its actual violence, opens on a stage divided into three parts), but division also occurs in the macro-structure of those dramatic works. The very body of these plays appears like a mosaic. Debris is subdivided into nine scenes, whose titles evoke different episodes of Michael and Michelle’s childhood. In After the End, the presence of the Aristotelian “well-put-together story” (Aristotle, 24), that the philosopher compares to the perfect organicity of a living animal, can be traced in the structure of the play, divided into several parts clearly labelled “beginning,” “middle” and “end”. Yet, the play is based on a fourth part, “after the end,” a sort of monstrous excrescence throwing such beautiful harmony off balance.

26Finally, focusing on the third ring in Lacan’s nodal topology to read Kelly’s theatre, the Real, which can never be represented as such, is made present through its anxiogenic effects in a world in which the consistency of the Symbolic is under threat. This third dimension is made audible in the dramatist’s peculiar invention of punctuating his scenes with a “beat.” This recurring rhythm can be traced in almost all his plays. It seems to echo the movement of contraction and distension of the heart, the vital alternation between systole and diastole at the core of the dramatic works, as if to convey the writer’s attempt to inscribe the non-symbolised residue in the very body of the play. Neologisms also point to the insistence of the Real as resistant to symbolization. The disturbing signifier “Unclearry” is used as the title of the fourth scene of Debris, but also refers to a character in the play, “Uncle Harry,” provided that the reader restores the fallen consonant “h” (or the phoneme /h/ for the spectator). Yet, the agglomerate could be cut differently, and it becomes possible to read “unclear,” an adjective that would appropriately describe Dennis Kelly’s theatrical object. Confronted with this original pre-linguistic material, the actor would have to make a choice about where to place the cut and how to voice this cluster of phonemes. Finally, a last attempt to suggest the threat of the pressure of the Real lies in the violence that occurs on stage, in the wake of “in-yer-face” dramatists like Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill. This brutality spreads beyond language, and is prone to affect the spectator directly. One of Osama the Hero’s stage directions reads for example: “LOUISE takes the hammer from MARK and hits GARY in the face. He reels back in pain but is silent” (95). The very introduction of a hammer as a stage prop could be construed as a giveaway of this inclination to destroy the Symbolic structure so as to apprehend what lies beyond it. A question then arises as to the border between theatre and performance, between artistic representation and actual presentation. Indeed, the provocative title of the play led the police to be on guard outside the theatre on the night of the first representation of the play at the Young Vic Theatre. Violence, even necessarily sublimated on stage, even stylised, can be so intensely felt as to break the Fourth Wall and blur the limit between the world of the play and the real world for the audience. In an interview, Dennis Kelly thus admits to having been told off by “a little old lady” “during the run” (“In Pursuit of Monsters”). In the fourth scene of Debris, “MICHAEL is strangling MICHELLE,” whose “face is turning red, then purple, then blue” (21). To what extent should the actors follow such a stage direction? How far should they physically be involved in the process of representation? In After the End, the audience is made to witness an overtly obscene exhibition, when Mark masturbates and ejaculates on stage, before “[sitting] there panting, cock in hand” (177). How is it possible to have the human body adopt such postures without brutalising it nor drawing attention to the body of the actor as an actual individual, thereby effacing the Symbolic markers that traditionally code what the character can interpret as a fictional entity? Such stage directions push to the limits the problems of theatrical representation.

27In the end, Dennis Kelly clearly stages a world in which the Symbolic order finds itself ineffectual. In keeping with some of his contemporaries’ aesthetic concerns about the very possibility of representation in a post-Auschwitz world, he destabilises language, and neither words nor names can help to organise or make sense out of this universe that seems to be bound to collapse. As for the theatrical Imaginary, it does not seem to be able to enforce its power of representation due to the insistence on the limits imposed by the reality of the actor, which gives theatrical presence to the Real of the embodied character. The audience is left with the experience of crudity, in language just as much as in stage images. Dennis Kelly’s theatre illustrates that the disturbance in the Symbolic order has far-reaching effects. The contemporary form of theatre and, more broadly speaking, of representation or even artistic performance being inaugurated here, instils in the viewer a violent, anxious apprehension of an unveiled Real, a world of utter disorder and chaos.

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1 The notion of “Symbolic order” was introduced very early in Lacanian theory. It is already developed in his very first seminar. See Lacan, Séminaire I: Les écrits techniques de Freud 1953-1954, 245.

2 In Le Triomphe de la religion, Lacan uses the French term “parlêtre” and elaborates on the fact that human beings are speaking beings (“le fait que l’homme est un animal parlant”). (Translations mine)

3 Original quotations: “l’aliénation réside dans la division du sujet que nous venons de désigner dans sa cause,” “Le registre du signifiant s’institue de ce qu’un signifiant représente un sujet pour un autre signifiant.” (Translations mine)

4 In French: “théâtres du traumatisme”. See Angel-Perez.

5 Lacan uses the phrases “lituraterre” and “faire litière de la lettre” (translations mine).

6 It can be traced back to Hegel, who makes a distinction between “pure thought” (or “eternal spirit”) and “representation” (630) (in the French translation: “pur penser,” “esprit éternel,” “représentation”). Similarly, Bergson claims that “we do not see the actual things themselves”, but that on the contrary “we mostly limit ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them” (117).

7 See Lacan, L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud424.

8 See Lacan, Séminaire V: Les Formations de l’Inconscient.

9 C’est l’ordre symbolique qui est, pour le sujet, constituant” “la détermination majeure que le sujet reçoit du parcours d’un signifiant” (Lacan, “Le séminaire sur ‘La Lettre volée’” 12).

10 The Holy Bible. King James Version. Matthew 27-46. Psalm 22-1. ”My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

11 De cette béance du nom propre – de cet empêchement à être nommé, c'est-à-dire réduit le personnage tire le bénéfice d'une stature qui excède largement celle du personnage individualisé” (translation mine).

12 Original quotation: “l’impossible, c’est le réel.” Lacan used the same definition later in the lesson of March 11th 1975 of his seminar RSI : “Le Réel, faut concevoir que c’est l’expulsé du sens. C’est l’impossible comme tel.”

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Julien ALLIOT, « I Know How that Sounds and I Do Not Mean that as an, but I Mean Christ”: The Disturbance in the Symbolic Order in Dennis Kelly’s Theatre », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 21 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3990

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Université Paris IV-Sorbonne

Julien Alliot is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the Université Paris IV-Sorbonne. Holder of the Agrégation of English and a Masters in English literature from the Sorbonne (focusing on the advent of nothingness in Beckett’s “playlets”), he currently teaches classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (lycée Raspail, Paris). His thesis aims to engage the multiplicity of theoretical works (be they philosophical, sociological, anthropological, psychoanalytical) on the phenomenon of festivals and parties with their aesthetic representation on the British contemporary stage (from Beckett onwards) to delineate the new features of what could be called “paradoxical parties.”

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