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Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Theatre: British Drama, Violence and Writing

Dan Rebellato


La question de la représentation de la violence est au cœur de plusieurs moments clés du théâtre anglais d’après-guerre. Au 21ème siècle, la représentation de la violence a toutefois évolué d’une nouvelle manière, caractérisée par une intensification de la violence, jusqu’à un point que l’on pourrait qualifier d’apocalyptique, tout cela allant de pair avec une sortie du réalisme sur le plan dramatique et dramaturgique. Cet article se propose d’analyser ces phénomènes comme étant les deux facettes d’une même volonté de résister à l’emprise du capitalisme néolibéral sur notre expérience du réel et d’imaginer l’inimaginable, à savoir la fin du capitalisme.

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It is easier to imagine the end of the world
than the end of capitalism
Slavoj Žižek (maybe)

1The standard histories of postwar British theatre are told as a series of battles with authority over the representation of violence.

2The story begins, typically, with the verbal aggression of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), the excess of scornful rhetoric often spoken of in violent metaphors: the blows, the attacks, the stings. From there it would take in the premiere of Edward Bond’s Saved (1965), in which a baby is stoned to death by a group of young men, and the subsequent court battle over the play was a milestone in the abolition of stage censorship. Two decades later, the National Theatre’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (1980) had a homosexual rape scene at a key moment in its first half, leading to a private prosecution of the play’s director on the peculiar charge of ‘conspiracy to procure an act of indecency’, a law that had hitherto mainly been used to imprison the owners of brothels. This case presumed that there is no legal distinction between an indecent act and its representation and it marked the end of a period of large-scale socialist playwriting and (arguably) a reduction in the theatre’s revolutionary intensity.

  • 1 For more on these four moments, see Dan Rebellato. 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British (...)

3Violence was a key feature in the renaissance of British playwriting in the mid-1990s, the first shot to be fired being Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995) which opened at the Royal Court’s small studio, the Theatre Upstairs, and generated shocked press and television attention for its graphic depiction of sex, violence, defecation, masturbation, cannibalism and rape. In a contemporary interview, Sarah Kane defended her work, arguing, ‘If you are saying you can’t represent something, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence’ (quoted Saunders 2002, p. 24). While there is a powerful anti-censorship argument at work here, it seems again to rest on an elision of representation and reality, which has a by no means straightforward connection to Kane’s own play, as we will see1.

4The twenty-first century has seen a further evolution in the representation of violence. This is marked by both the avoidance of directly realist visual representations of violence and a hypertrophic escalation in the scale of violence represented, to a point one could reasonably call apocalyptic. I will argue that this anti-realist apocalyptic tone is a response to the redundancy of realism under neoliberal capitalism.

Retreats from Violence

5In the last few years, although there have been controversies over racial and religious representation in plays as diverse as Jerry Springer the Opera (2003), Behzti (2004), Seven Jewish Children (2009), England People Very Nice (2009), and Homegrown (2015), however, controversies over the representation of violence have been much rarer. Indeed, one might say the graphic representation of violence has fallen from fashion among British directors and playwrights.

6Among directors, a decisive influence was the production of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms (2012). This was an international collaboration between three men: the British playwright, Simon Stephens, the German director, Sebastian Nübling, and the Estonian designer, Ene-Liis Semper. Three Kingdoms putatively follows the police investigation of an act of violence: a sex worker has been beheaded and her body thrown into the River Thames. The investigation takes us from Britain, to Germany, to Estonia. But while the production begins in a roughly realist mode, the further we move from Britain, the more the production’s values drift from realism into something more dreamlike, even nightmarish. While Stephens’ text is superficially the most realistic of the three components, the production picks out a pattern of linguistic imagery that cuts across its realist narrative; the detective quest itself founders – by the final act, it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is imagined, what is literal and what is metaphorical – and the source of that original act of violence remains unknown (at least, so it seemed to me). The displacement of theatrical realism also displaces the full explanation of the violence, a motif to which we will return.

7The production played in the three territories marked out by the creative team and the play: Germany, Estonia and Britain. While the production was in London at the Lyric Hammersmith, the theatre’s artistic director, Sean Holmes, invited a group of young directors to the theatre to work with Sebastian Nübling in an attempt to encourage them to address the production’s implicit challenge to British theatre’s entrenched realist staging practices. The influence of this workshop has rippled out into the theatrical community, with several of these directors and others going on to create anti-realist forms of mise en scène that cut sharply across the ingrained British practice of subordinating the production to the play.

8Blanche McIntyre’s touring production of Chekhov’s The Seagull for Headlong played on a bare stage dominated by a see-saw and a concrete wall and with a radically modern text by John Donnelly. From the outside, that might not seem like a daring step, but Chekhov in Britain has been identified for so long with a particular mode of theatrical production that any step away from that is considered by some to be an act of violence in itself. (When Katie Mitchell directed the same play at the National Theatre, moving the action to the 1920s and bringing in Martin Crimp to modernise and cut some of the language, one regular theatregoer sent her his copy of the programme with the word ‘RUBBISH’ scrawled on every page.)

9In 2014, Carrie Cracknell directed Simon Stephens’s play Birdland at the Royal Court. The play is based loosely on Brecht’s Baal, and follows a global rock star on a debauched world tour. As he slowly loses touch with reality, the production slowly lost touch with realism. Ian MacNeil’s design kept the stage open, exposing the Royal Court’s own walls, while the stage area was dominated by a concrete arch, while and through the play the stage slowly flooded with black water, into which large inflated spheres floated.

10Ellen McDougall, another of the new generation of directors, offered a production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus (2014) at the Gate Theatre. Responding to the play’s complex investigation of Greek myth and the demands of tragic linearity, McDougall offered a provisional and deliberately non-literal account of the action, in which the devices were all laid bare in a children’s party of water fights, spilled ink, and balloon monsters. She was perhaps prepared for this by her production for the Unicorn Theatre of Henry the Fifth by Ignace Cornelissen in which the events of Shakespeare’s similarly-named play are recast as a play for children and apparently by children, Henry’s rivalry with the French told theatrically through a battle in a sandpit over a cardboard crown.

  • 2 A key figure, already mentioned, is Katie Mitchell, one of the few British directors to gain a Euro (...)

11It is striking that both of these plays were by European playwrights and that Simon Stephens’s conversion, we might say, to postdramatic playwriting came through a sustained collaboration with a German director. Although European theatre has a vast plurality of staging practices, it – and German theatre in particular – holds a place in the British theatrical imaginary that stands for a certain scenic anti-realism, directorial auteurism, the text not as the dominant signifying system, but one set of signs among others2. It is tempting to see these recent developments as Britain embracing Europe, and indeed they are discussed in those terms by enthusiasts and detractors alike, but it is perhaps less a matter of embracing Europe itself than an internal dialogue about an imagined Britishness and an imagined Europeanness.

12This could perhaps be seen in Michael Longhurst’s production of Simon Stephens’s Carmen Disruption at the Almeida theatre in 2015. Stephens’s play is a moment-by-moment response to Bizet’s Carmen (1875); writing the text, Stephens used Halévy and Meilhac’s original libretto as his guiding structure, trusting its shape but ‘riffing’ off it, finding analogies and echoes of each event and episode, transplanting the action to the present, and placing it in an anonymous (deliberately unnamed) European city. Europe figured as an imagined location in the mind of the characters or maybe of the author and Carmen Disruption stood in relation to Carmen like a complicated and intricate scaffolding placed around a building that has since disappeared. The production took its cue from this imagined, empty Europeanness, brilliantly evoking it through a kind of pastiche of an imagined European production, with no realist settings, performers playing at the edge of actor and character, with a huge gored bull in the centre of the stage that appeared slowly to die during the performance.

  • 3 It is oversimplifying to describe the original production of Saved as simply realistic; its directo (...)

13Henry the Fifth, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, requires an audience to imagine the events it describes through manifestly, proudly inadequate theatrical means. ‘Think,’ asks the Chorus of Shakespeare’s play, ‘when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’th’receiving earth’ (Prologue, l. 26-17) and McDougall’s production offered a complex series of mediated steps by which I watched a particular performance (16 November 2013), that represented a theatrical production (McDougall’s), that represented a play (Henry the Fifth), that represented another play (Henry V), that represented some violent events in fifteenth-century European history. The intentional multiplication of those events, their splintering through the multiple layers of the production was a very different process of theatrical signification than the broadly realist3 strategies of Saved.

In Yer Mind

14In one of the most important plays of the last decade, theatrical representations of violence are a central concern, yet violence is never seen. The audience for Tim Crouch’s play The Author arrived at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs to discover two seating units facing each other. The play begins when one member of the audience starts to talk to us; then another, then a third, and then a fourth, until we start to realise we are hearing an account of another play, performed some time before but in the same theatre. The people telling us about that play are its apparent author, two of its apparent actors, and one member of its apparent audience.

15As the show goes on we discover that this previous play was very much in the violent style of the British plays of the mid-1990s, sometimes referred to as ‘In Yer Face’ theatre after the 2001 book by Aleks Sierz. Indeed the play they are remembering seems like a parody of a Sarah Kane play with moments of extreme and graphic violence – in this play, we discover, a young woman was repeatedly raped (Crouch 2011, pp. 175, 181) and at one point her womb was ripped out (p. 191). Sarah Kane’s defence of violent representation quoted earlier is echoed almost word for word in The Author by Tim Crouch who defends his use of graphic violence with the words ‘How can we not? [...] If we do not represent them then we are danger of denying their existence’ (p. 178). Crouch’s defence of ‘the visceral, er, experiential quality of the writing’ (p. 193) is surely a mischievous echo of Aleks Sierz’s definition of ‘In Yer Face’ theatre as ‘experiential not speculative [...] so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react’ (Sierz 2001, pp. 4-5)

16Of course, this earlier play is only represented to us through the words spoken by the actors sat amongst the audience. We also come to realise that this earlier play never took place; the referent is a fiction. Instead Tim Crouch is inviting us to think about the relationship between seeing and hearing, between visual and verbal representation. Those banal defences of extreme imagery are placed in a grim context when Tim Crouch – who we now realise is playing a fictional playwright called Tim Crouch – recalls after the last night of the play, slipping off to his room and masturbating to images of child pornography on his computer (Crouch 2001, pp. 201-203). As Crouch delivers this long and horrifying speech, the lights slowly go down, placing us in the dark. It could not be further from the graphic representation of violence: we literally see nothing. At the same time, though, we are left alone with our mental images and this made those among the most testing and upsetting few minutes I’ve spent in a theatre this century. (During the original run and the subsequent tour, several audience members walked out at this point.)

17In creating this elaborate meta-theatrical structure, Crouch is asking some difficult questions about the reasons why we want to watch acts of violence in the theatre: is it for noble ends – fearlessly facing the dark extremes of human experience, the better to comprehend and end them? Or is it for more voyeuristic, even atavistic, reasons? The play provocatively suggests that realistic representation may be an act of violence in itself, one that degrades the imagination.

18Tim Crouch has been one of the most exciting and challenging theatremakers of the twenty-first century, his work always asking difficult and puzzling questions about the nature of theatrical representation and the relationship between the theatre and the world. The Author is a typically paradoxical and unsettling play and it perhaps gets closest to explaining why the more interesting recent British theatre artists have avoided direct representations of violence.

19It is worth, however, taking a moment to put some pressure on The Author’s apparent use of Sarah Kane as a champion of graphic violence on stage. In some ways, she is a misdirected target. Although she is well-known for the graphic images of violence in her work, this is to forget three things. First, she was a writer. She does not present visually graphic images of anything, only a matrix of words: a pattern of more-or-less indeterminate and incomplete verbal instructions for illimitable variant performances. It is the directorial choices that have made her work graphically explicit. There is a complex triangular relationship of non-identity between the actuality of physical violence, the linguistic representation of violence in a dramatic text, and the graphic representation of violence on stage.

20Second, one could easily see her work is engaged in an unfolding battle against graphic realism. The ‘blast’ that shatters her first play Blasted also seems to damage the play’s moorings in a clearly-demarcated reality. The location of the hotel in which the play is set seems to change, from the outskirts to Leeds to somewhere outside the UK; the outside world and the passage of time, which have been fairly carefully established in the first half of the play, become scattered and indeterminate. Indeed, there are hints that some of what we are seeing may take place in one or other of the main characters’ heads (and one might plausibly make the same case for Cleansed and Crave [both 1998] and 4.48 Psychosis [2000]). Ian’s work as a tabloid journalist also emphasizes the play’s focus on images of violence as a topic of attention rather than a mode of production. At one moment, Ian uses the telephone to dictate a news story about a serial killer’s latest victim; the coldly technical dictation with its formatting instructions interlaced with the prurient prose (‘Samantha’s heartbroken mum said yesterday colon quoting, we pray the police will come up with something dash, anything comma, soon point still quoting’, [Kane 2001, p. 13]) adds an extra level of distance that produces a double mediation; the technical words represent a sensationalist news story which in turn represents the violent events. As we are forced to work imaginatively through the levels of mediation, the effect is to make the ‘real’ event imaginatively, but not graphically, vivid.

21In addition, the images of graphic violence in Kane’s plays are so extreme that one might see them as deliberately unperformable: famous stage directions like ‘a vulture descends and begins to eat his body’ (Kane 2001, p. 103) or ‘the rats carry CARL’s feet away’ (p. 136) or ‘out of the ground grow daffodils. / They burst upwards, their yellow covering the entire stage’ (p. 133) seem to force directors and designers away from conventional realism (except in Germany where Peter Zadek reputedly tried to train his rats).

22In depicting graphic violence on stage there is always a certain ambivalence in the theatrical signification, between the act being represented and the means used. The more realistic the representation, the more an audience is likely to ask questions about the way the effect was created, rather than focusing on the violent act depicted. Tim Crouch acknowledges this in The Author as one of the actors talks about meeting the audience after the brutally violent production: ‘The first question everyone would ask is, “What’s the blood made out of?”’ (Crouch 2011, p. 178), the remark showing less interest in referent than sign.

23Third, patterns of production of Kane’s work suggest that directors have increasingly seen her plays as engaging critically with – rather than embracing - British theatre’s realist tradition. The first production of Blasted by James Macdonald was perhaps limited by the small space available in the Theatre Upstairs and it began and ended in a mode of dowdy realism (the theatre’s small dimensions preventing them from realizing the lavishness of this ‘very expensive hotel room in Leeds’ [Kane 2001, p. 3]); as a result, though the play set off a detonation in the wider culture, the intra-dramatic blast was a controlled explosion that remained legible only at the level of content and did not bring down the mode of theatrical production. It was a production that reflected the first draft of Sarah Kane’s reputation, when the play was more striking for the extremity of its violence than the sophistication of its dramatic form.

24A more complex rethinking of Blasted’s semiosis was offered by disability theatre company Graeae. Under its longstanding artistic director Jenny Sealey, Graeae have sought to integrate the access languages and technology (sign-language interpretation, audio description, and more) with its theatrical aesthetics. Their 2006 touring production of Blasted had a disabled cast who performed on a largely bare stage with hardly any props. The sign-language interpreters had been videoed and were projected against the rear wall, one interpreter for each character Sometimes the words were ‘signed’ on video; sometimes lines of dialogue or stage directions were projected directly onto the screen; sometimes actions that we were to understand were taking place in the fictional reality were performed by the interpreters only. Indeed, the signers were furnished with more props (guns, glasses of whisky, etc.) and more ‘realistic’ costumes than the on-stage actors. The effect was a kind of spatial and temporal displacement of the visual image; we were required to imaginatively compile a single fictional reality from at least two separate performances taking place at quite different times and places.

  • 4 He may also have been influenced by Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Blasted (Zerbombt), which pla (...)

25In Sean Holmes’s production of Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, the first half of the play was intensely realistic, the hotel room achieving the lavishness imagined by the stage directions. The quotidian naturalism was emphasized by a low, wide, horizontal stage, bounded by ceiling and floor, with windows at the back and a large ominously central bed. But after the blast, the set was almost entirely dismantled; the horizontal orientation of the stage was replaced by an awesome verticality, a dimly-lit framework suggesting – but not representing – a bombed-out high-rise building (images of the World Trade Centre from September 2001 came to mind), the stage lights visible and offering, in place of the first half’s realism, a new metaphysics that placed us beyond real life, in which the violent acts were freed to become metaphors. Sean Holmes was the director who brought Three Kingdoms to the Lyric Hammersmith two years later and one can see his production of Blasted as a key moment in the promulgation of this new anti-realist aesthetic4.

26In many ways, then, Sarah Kane was a key figure in British theatre’s move against realist representation.

Apocalypse Now

27Blasted’s blast reveals or produces a devastated world. All of the external reference points offered by the first half (the waiter outside the door [Kane 2001, p. 3], the immigrants outside the hotel [p. 4], Cate’s brother and his day centre [p. 5], the advertising agency to which Cate has applied [p. 8], Ian’s hospital (p. 18], Elland Road [p. 19, the home ground of Leeds United Football Club], etc.) seem to be erased from the play’s fictional landscape. By building up a detailed world and then erasing those references, Kane has imagined – and forced us to imagine - a kind of apocalypse. And it was far from the only or the most recent apocalypse to unfold in the British theatrical imagination. While there has been little graphic violence in recent British theatre, the violence alluded recently to has been extreme and total: an apocalyptic tone has recently been adopted in British theatre.

28The director of the original production of Blasted, James Macdonald, also directed the premiere of Cleansed and his production took a strong step away from visual literalism in a way that has had a huge impact on his later work. In 2014, he was back in the Theatre Upstairs, directing a new play by Rory Mullarkey, called The Wolf From the Door. This remarkable play follows an aristocrat, Lady Catherine, who encounters a young man called Leo and, in consequence, masterminds a hugely violent and bloody revolution that wipes out the England that we know. But in Macdonald’s production the extreme violence is never quite shown: the opening act of the revolution involves the decapitation of a supermarket manager. As the act was about to take place, the lights went out and an abstract image is projected on a screen; when the lights come back up the actor is lying on the floor, his head obscured by a cloth. Each of these acts of violence is abstracted in this way, foregrounding the means of representation and choosing the non-literal path.

29This reduction of violent graphic representation seems to go hand-in-hand with a hypertrophy of violent imaginative representation. The Wolf From the Door imagines an apocalyptic uprising against the established order by the middle classes of middle England, a revolution carried out by members of church choirs, Morris dancers, and the Women’s Institute. Scene 14 is entirely stage directions and tells us that:

A women’s fencing association pull down Nelson’s Column.
Buckingham Palace is raided by an over-seventies golf team.
A life-drawing class sets fire to all the trees in Green Park.
Westminster Abbey gets napalmed by a ceilidh group. (Mullarkey 2014, 42)

30The scene is given its own title – ‘The Sights’ – and yet in James Macdonald’s production these sights were not seen; the stage directions were spoken chorally by the actors. Nonetheless, these verbal images of violence, somewhat like those of Sarah Kane, push at the edges of realism; they are absurd, comic acts of violence and yet make claims on our imaginations.

31One of the most thrilling plays of the last decade had its premiere in late 2014 at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, West London. The play is Pomona by Alistair McDowall. Pomona is a strip of disused industrial land in the centre of Manchester: a non-place, a strange blank in the middle of a highly populous city. It is in this void that McDowall has set his play. Its multi-stranded narrative tells a story about a young woman trying to find her missing sister; it seems as though the sister becomes a prostitute, gets involved in violent pornography and then stumbles on a scheme to conduct experiments on missing people. But the story is fragmented and chronologically disordered so it is difficult to know exactly what the sequence of the story really is. In addition, a parallel story concerns a young man who constructs role-playing games and it is possible that much of the story is simply an RPG being imagined in one character’s head (as, I have already suggested, Kane’s plays could be). Again, games are being played with realism and reality; there are characters who seem unreally extreme (like Zeppo, a gangster/businessman who begins the play with an enormously long monologue describing the finale to Raiders of the Lost Ark) and there are occasional appearances by the evil God Cthulu from H. P. Lovecraft’s fantasy stories. There are moments in the play that appear to be supernatural and its atmosphere (as was its production) is grim, grimy, uncanny, unsettling. The missing sister declares at one point:

I think I hate everyone
It's like a sickness I can feel in my guts.
I think I’d sleep a lot easier if I knew none of us would wake up tomorrow.
Do you feel that?
One day I'll come back to this city on fire.
I'll have flames pouring from me.
And I'll keep walking through the streets in circles until everyone and everything is just ash.
I'll bring the end to everyone. (McDowall 2014, p. 62).

Again, the imagery is apocalyptic, the violence extreme and world-ending.

32In Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014, the play systematically tries both to revolutionise the world and to revolutionise the writing of plays. In the first act, each scene tries to apply some kind of revolutionary principle to language, marriage, work, the body and more. The first scene, for instance, shows a man and a woman talking about sex, but trying to find a language for it that is non-violent, that does not prioritise men over women. The results are extremely funny, as the man continually blunders over the potentially violent implications of phrases like ‘making love to’ and words like ‘peeling’, ‘spreading’, and even ‘putting’. In the second, a woman reacts to a man’s marriage proposal with horror, seeing it as an act akin to terrorist violence. Each scene is somewhat separate and the play formally recalls Martin Crimp’s 1997 play Attempts on Her Life – indeed Alice Birch’s play was originally called Attempts on a Revolution until she wisely decided to revolutionise the form of the play title as well. The second act seems to test all of the first act’s collected revolutions on a single set of characters. The third act brings together all of the scenes we have seen so far in a chaotic theatrical collage. And finally, in the fourth act, a single, two-page scene, four women calmly discuss how they are going to take over the world, remarking that they’ll ‘dismantle the monetary system [...] overthrow the government [...] take over the airwaves, the televisions, the Internet, etcetera’ and ‘eradicate all men’ (Birch 2014, p. 100). Again, the tone is apocalyptic and, at the same time, comic. The casualness of the ambition, the refusal to be realistic - in both the theatrical and political senses of the word – this is what seems to me a characteristic tone of new British playwriting. It is a profound withdrawal from realism and an imagination haunted by apocalyptic violence.

33Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000) begins with a conversation at night between a young girl and her aunt about the violent acts that the girl has seen outside the window. The play’s second and third sections take us from the domestic to the national and eventually to the global. In the final scene, Churchill imagines the world is at war but it is a world of all against all: nations, animals, even the plants are at war with each other. In the apocalyptic final speech, Harper describes her journey back home and now we find that everything but everything is at war:

It was tiring there because everything’s been recruited, there were piles of bodies and if you stopped to find out there was one killed by coffee or one killed by pins, they were killed by heroin, petrol, chainsaws, hairspray, bleach, foxgloves, the smell of smoke was where we were burning the grass that wouldn’t serve. The Bolivians are working with gravity, that’s a secret so as not to spread alarm. But we’re getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar. Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence? that’s what I wondered in the night. (Churchill 2008, p. 159)

34In 2016, Churchill has updated and transformed this vision in her play Escaped Alone, also directed by James Macdonald. The play begins with an elderly woman, Mrs Jarrett, being invited to join three other elderly women in a garden. The play is made up of several scenes in which the four women talk and argue and sing and describe their obsessions. But in between the scenes, Mrs Jarrett delivers a series of monologues that describe a world in preposterous chaos:

Fire broke out in ten places at once. Four cases of arson by children and politicians, three of spontaneous combustion of the markets, two of sunshine, one supposed by believers to be a punishment by God for gender dysphoria. It swept through saplings, petrol stations, prisons, dryads and books. Fires were lit to stop the fires and consumed squirrels, firefighters and shoppers. Cars sped from one furnace to another. Houses exploded. Some shot flaming swans, some shot their children. Finally the wind drove the fire to the ocean, where salt water made survivors faint. The blackened area was declared a separate country with zero population, zero growth and zero politics. Charred stumps were salvaged for art and biscuits. (Churchill 2016, p. 37)

35In Macdonald’s production for the Royal Court, when Mrs Jarrett delivers her monologues, the exquisitely realist evocation of a English garden on a summer’s day disappears and out of the darkness Mrs Jarrett appears standing amid two large glowing frames, that resemble burning hot razor wire; it is again displaced, outside space and time.

An apocalyptic tone

36How to explain this concentrated burst of apocalyptic violence in the twenty-first-century cultural imaginary? And in particular, how to explain the curious inseparability of these images with a resolutely non-realist dramaturgy and mise en scène?

37On one level, one can perhaps see the refusal of graphic representation as a response to the phenomenon that so much violence in this century has taken place on the level of images; not just images, of course, but many recent atrocities on all sides have come accompanied by iconic, spectacular graphics, videos, photographs, amounting to a form of specular violence in itself. While Sarah Kane’s Blasted was certainly in part responding to the invisibility of the Bosnian genocide, the failure of the media to focus on it, by trying to place violence squarely in our sightline, surely no one can have failed to see the footage of 9/11, the Abu Ghraib photographs, an image from an ISIS/Daesh online video, that Charlie Hebdo cover. In some of the work we have discussed here, most particularly Tim Crouch in The Author, there is evidence of a deep questioning discomfort at partaking in this brutal economy of specular violence.

38As for the apocalyptic landscape, though, the keenness of these plays to offer worlds in total convulsion, images of chaotic destruction, another explanation must be sought. It is tempting to see this imagery as nihilistically apolitical, as a turning away from political engagement in favour of wilful destruction, even self-destruction (even as a theatrical version of Brexit!); to understand why this is not the case, it is important to recognize these images as a response – and a constructive response - to a key feature of contemporary neoliberal capitalism: its totalizing absorption of realism.

39A well-known and widely cited provocation has been resonating through this essay: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. The idea is often associated with Slavoj Žižek, but also with Fredric Jameson, though it is sometimes attributed to J. G. Ballard or to an essay on Ballard by H. Bruce Franklin.

  • 5 There is an unofficial transcript of his remarks at Slavok Žižek Speaks at Occupy Wall Street: Tran (...)

40Who precisely said this first is interestingly difficult to ascertain. Bruce Franklin’s 1979 essay on Ballard criticises the novelist for expressing a narrow class outlook in his apocalyptic visions and of therefore ‘mistaking the end of capitalism for the end of the world’ (p. 103), asking at the end of the essay ‘what could Ballard create if he were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?’ (p. 105). A decade later, Fredric Jameson, in ‘The Antimonies of Postmodernism’ (1989) is reflecting on the difficulties of imagining the end of our current mode of production and, perhaps echoing Franklin, whose essay he surely knew, suggests: ‘it seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’ (Jameson 1998, p. 50). Žižek first uses the phrase six years later, in ‘The Spectre of Ideology’ (1995), attributing it at this point to Jameson: ‘as Fredric Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer, whereas popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming “breakdown of nature”, of the stoppage of all life on earth – it seems easier to imagine the “end of the world” than a far more modest change in the mode of production’ (Žižek 1999, p. 53). By the beginning of this century, Jameson seems unsure who first said it; in his essay ‘Future City’ he remarks vaguely, ‘someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’ (Jameson 2003, p. 76). By our own decade, Žižek has claimed it as his own, for instance in a speech to Occupy Wall Street in September 2013, remarking: ‘Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism’5. We will return to the curiously rootless roots of this political fragment.

41The debate that links all of these writers is the imaginability or otherwise of a life after capitalism. This theme has been developed with particular force by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). In this short book which ranges from political theory to popular culture, from Žižek to Supernanny, he argues that part of capitalism’s function has been to produce in the minds of its subjects the sheer unthinkability of a world beyond neoliberal capitalism. Citing and amplifying the mantra we are discussing he suggests that the end of capitalism can be contemplated less easily than the end of the world because ‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable’ (p. 8). He explores the way in which capitalism’s contradictions and bureaucratic frustrations, its boom-and-bust business cycles and its critical instabilities have psychological effects in the ‘hedonic depression’ of the young, an epidemic of bi-polar disorders, and myriad forms of mental distress (pp. 35-36) – but all treated by capitalist society as strictly individual disorders without social causation. On a macro-level, he notes the ‘business ontology’ in which it has becomes ‘simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business’ (p. 17). One might see this the work of Mark Ravenhill, who is, in fact, cited in the book (p. 74) and whose work has been populated from the beginning with medicated, therapy-raddled, historyless figures for whom revolution remains stubbornly unthinkable, even if the plays themselves hint at its possibility.

42The unthinkability of a world without capitalism is key to understanding why realism may seem a compromised mode for some contemporary theatremakers. Notably, observes Fisher, the greatest crisis in capitalism for eighty years – the global recession of 2008 onwards – has been turned into another opportunity for capitalism to reassert itself because ‘allowing the banking system to disintegrate was held to be unthinkable’ (p. 78)’. As such, capitalism reproduces itself at the level of our ability to comprehend reality. It becomes reality. As he explains, ‘Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism itself’ (p. 4).

  • 6 I offer a concise account of this process in my Theatre & Globalization (2009, pp. 23-26) but a mor (...)

43This may begin to explain the theatre’s disenchantment with realism as a method of responding theatrically to the world. It recalls the late sixties, politically and theatrically. Perhaps this is unsurprising, since the intervening period between then and now was precisely that which saw the re-assertion of global neo-liberalism and the dismantling of the postwar consensus about employment, the welfare state, socialized industry and so on6. In numerous books and essays, culminating in those two classics of the 1960s, Negative Dialectics (1966) and Aesthetic Theory (1970), Theodor Adorno argued compellingly that capitalism’s grip on every corner of daily life was becoming more and more totalized: ‘The network of the whole is drawn ever tighter,’ he wrote in 1949, ‘modelled after the act of exchange’ (Adorno 1981, p. 21). The network of exchange that formed the model for capitalism is a system that assigns one single system of value for everything – capital – reducing the complexity of all things and the relations between them to their simple economic value: ‘In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one’ (p. 34).

44Against this totality Adorno posed art. For him, art’s radicalism lies not in its explicit political commitments (which he describes as a ‘catastrophe’ [1992, p. 76]) but in its doubleness, its citation of elements of the language, images and substances of ordinary life, but transformed aesthetically: ‘An artwork is always itself and simultaneously the other of itself’ (1997, p. 283). As a result, it cannot reproduce the totalized ‘one-ness’ of capitalist realism (to use Fisher’s term) and instead undermines this process of destruction: such art works are ‘determinate negations of empirical reality; they destroy what destroys’ (1992, p. 89). In doing so they re-open the dialectic, even if momentarily, and give us an experience of the otherwise unthinkable life beyond capitalism: ‘aesthetic splendour is not just affirmative ideology; it is also the reflected glimmer of life free of oppression’ (1997, p. 296).

45Simultaneous with the development of Adorno’s late thought were the writings of Guy Debord, particularly The Society of the Spectacle (1967) which sets out a claim that contemporary capitalist society was engaged in the production of a seamless surface of images that mediate all of our relationships, through which situationist strategies of détournement, dérive and so on, designed to penetrate in non-identical, non-logical ways, through carnivalesque disruption and deliberate the spectacular regime of pseudo-events and universal mediation. Situationism had an influence on British theatre, and Debord’s work was an inspiration for parts of the counter-cultural movement. Among playwrights, Howard Brenton might be singled out for his adoption of certain situationist strategies; in Magnificence (1973), the form of the play changes with each scene, from realism to satire to farce to epic, the jarring juxtapositions hoping to create rents in the fabric of everyday life and allow us to see beyond the spectacle. The Wolf from the Door bears some vague resemblance to Magnificence in its giddying shifts of tone and its helter-skelter irrational development.

46These ideas may indeed still be at work in the apocalyptic theatre of our time. There is an Adornoan refusal to make explicit the political affiliation of these plays: Pomona has no evident political ambitions for itself; The Wolf from the Door’s politics seem to function at the level of satire, perhaps even of political aspiration in itself; in the chaos of Blasted or Escaped Alone one might see a kind of nihilism more than anything more expressly political; Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., rather as its title implies, suggests a kind of compulsive repetition of revolutionary strategies that are as much an artistic creed as anything. At the same time the jagged dramaturgical experiments of these plays might suggest a situationist disrupting of the spectacle, as we lurch, in Pomona, between comedy and horror, urban thriller and Lovecraftian fantasy. In Escaped Alone, as Mrs Jarrett steps outside the proscenium with its expertly composed pastoral scene to deliver her apocalyptic monologue, there perhaps is a homographic evocation of someone piercing the spectacular unity of society’s surface.

47But I want to evoke one more thinker to explore the place of the apocalyptic recently adopted in our theatre. In August 1980, at a conference to celebrate his work, Jacques Derrida delivered a lengthy paper with the title ‘Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy’ [D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie]. The paper is a reading of Immanuel Kant’s relatively obscure essay ‘On a recently prominent tone of superiority in philosophy’ (1796) [Von einem neuerdings erbobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie]. Kant had taken exception to a group of neo-Platonists, led by one Johann Georg Schlosser, who claimed to gain knowledge of the ultimate metaphysical realities of the universe through processes of intuition and revelation. For Kant, no such knowledge can be acquired, because, by definition, the super-sensible cannot be an object of sensible experience. Kant’s aim is to banish this bogus philosophy and he takes particular delight in scorning the ‘superior tone’ of these writers; that is, their tendency to look down on ‘the Herculean labor of self-knowledge from below’ [Kant’s own method of philosophising] and instead philosophising by ‘soaring above this, by an apotheosis (which costs him nothing)’ (Kant 2002, p. 432). This kind of intellectual ‘poverty and arrogance’ (p. 434), Kant says twice, is the ‘death of all philosophy’ (pp. 438, 444).

48Here is the apocalyptic tone that Derrida wants to discuss. He begins by noting that the Hebrew word gala in the Old Testament suggests an exposure, an unveiling, but in the New Testament become the Greek word apokalupsis which is often translated as ‘revelation’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:7; Galatians 1:12). There is, then, in the history of these words, a connection between revelation and the apocalyptic. Derrida notes that Kant, in wishing to banish a philosophy of revelation, nonetheless brings it back by evoking the apocalyptic (‘the death of all philosophy’).

49Derrida’s paper was provoked more immediately by the habit, then very current, of calling an end to things; as he puts it himself:

the end of history, the end of the class struggle, the end of philosophy, the death of God, the end of religions, the end of Christianity and morals [...], the end of the subject, the end of man, the end of the West, the end of Oedipus, the end of the earth, [...] the end of literature, the end of painting, art as a thing of the past, the end of psychoanalysis, the end of the university, the end of phallocentrism, and phallogocentrism, and I don’t know what else? (Derrida 1984, pp. 20-21)

50As the final clauses of that passage suggest, Derrida is placing himself among the apocalyptics. In the last part of his essay he asks the political question, which we might also ask these apocalyptic theatremakers: what is the end of the end? To what end do these harbingers of the end aspire? It might, after all, be what Jameson calls a ‘weakness in our imaginations’ to imagine such an undifferentiated end as those presented in Pomona, or The Wolf from the Door, or Escaped Alone rather than something more nuanced, more intimately connected to the real economic, environmental, security threats that we face? To present such quasi-Biblical catastrophes might be the work of what Kant calls ‘mystagogues’: bogus mystics offering messianic revelation rather than careful analysis and detailed work.

51Mark Ravenhill once noted that the phrase ‘late capitalism’ always sounds like wishful-thinking, yet it is tempting to note the parenthetical nature of our theatrical apocalypse with Kant’s own apocalyptic essay, bookending, one might hope, the capitalist mode of production: Kant’s ‘early capitalism’ reaching across to the theatre’s ‘late capitalism’. Kant’s essay indeed bears all the signs of the bourgeoisie’s struggle to be born. The images he uses to condemn Schlosser bear the traces of being written in the aftermath of a European revolution: Schlosser and his followers are described as ‘the old nobility’ (Kant 2002, p. 445), those ‘who have enough to live on [... and] consider themselves superior in comparison with those who must work in order to live’ (p. 431); and throughout the essay he insists on his philosophical insights as the earned product of hard work, describing it as ‘handwork’ (p. 444), ‘industry’ and ‘labor’ (p. 432), and finally, explicitly, comparing his own writing to a merchant filling out his order books (p. 445). Perhaps all this apocalyptica is at root rather bourgeois, perhaps even aristocratically conservative?

52Not for Derrida: ‘Nothing is less conservative than the apocalyptic genre,’ he declares (1984, p. 29). His argument hangs, not on the apocalyptic content, so much, as its tone. Derrida is very taken with Kant’s philosophically rare interest in ‘tone’ and he proceeds by putting deconstructive pressure on the opposition between Kant and Schlosser. Kant is criticising Schlosser’s superior tone as hiding mystical obfuscation and suggesting that his own critical method is a more honest, precise and truthful form of philosophical enlightenment. Derrida suggests that Kant’s attempt to identify a ‘tone’ in Schlosser’s work as the root of what is objectionable in this philosophy undermines his own stance too, since his own essay has – or can be read as having – a multiplicity of tones, from analytical to satirical. Attempting to banish ‘tone’ from philosophy (Derrida doesn’t call this a de-ton-ation but he should have done) may be to banish philosophy altogether. Meanwhile, he notes that it is Schlosser with his pompous claim to having direct intuition of the higher realities, his direct communication with ‘the voice of the oracle’, who makes the strongest claim to receiving pure atonal speech.

53In other words, by some pressure, it seems that in this apocalyptic debate, the two men appear to have swapped positions, each (like Jameson and Žižek) speaking the other person’s lines. For Derrida, here there is a key to what is distinctive in apocalyptic speech. He illustrates his case with a lengthy analysis of the play of writing, speaking, speaking for, dictation, citation, narration, sending and receiving (1984, pp. 25-27), concluding that:

No longer is one very sure who loans his voice and his tone to the other in the Apocalypse; no longer is one very sure who addresses what to whom [...indeed] as soon as one no longer knows who speaks or who writes, the text becomes Apocalyptic (p. 27)

54In other words, as anyone familiar with Derrida’s writings will see, the condition of apocalyptic writing is the condition of all language: ‘the dispatches [envois] always refer to other dispatches without decidable destination’ which is ‘the structure of every scene of writing in general’ (ibid.). What the apocalyptic disrupts is precisely the assuredness of language, the unity of meaning, the clarity of expression.

55What is at work in these plays, then, is not simply apocalyptic content and imagery, but apocalyptic speech as such. One notices a persistent pattern of linguistic negation at work, in which parts of these plays are offered, as Derrida might say, under erasure. Most literally we can see this in the second act of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., at the end of which, the family who have struggled to communicate with each other through a series of torrid scenes are given this closing stage direction: ‘GRANDMA and AGNES pick up their knives and forks. They chop their tongues out’ (Birch 2014, p. 85). For a different kind of linguistic negation, one thinks of the characters in Pomona: Zeppo, Ollie, Fay, Keaton, Gale, Moe, Charlie, which are names from old silent comedies (the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Lauren and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Chaplin and more). Ravenhill did something like this in Shopping and Fucking (1996), by giving his characters the names of members of the boyband Take That. But while there it suggested a contemporaneity and a plastic homoeroticism, here it seems to negate the characters, thin them out, encourage us to doubt their ontological status. In The Wolf From the Door, the final scene takes place after the revolution in ‘A huge throne room. Garish colours, glitter and gold. Two bizarrely dressed COURTIERS stand flanking a gigantic throne. A very, very weird fanfare plays. LEO enter, rubbing his eyes. He is dressed in a bizarre kind of cape, carrying a sceptre and wearing a monstrous crown. There is a massive portrait on the wall of LEO wearing exactly the same outfit’ (Mullarkey 2014, pp. 45-46). The concluding scene is set up as absurd, unreal, grotesque, excessive (‘huge... garish...bizarre...gigantic... monstrous...massive’); Leo’s image is uncannily doubled within the scene; it seems dreamlike, although Leo is rubbing his eyes as if everything beforehand was the dream and he has just woken up. The scene concludes the play by not concluding, giving us a scene under erasure that it is almost impossible to situate within the fictional world.

56A different kind of negation takes place in Escaped Alone. In Far Away there is a clear sense of shape to the whole play – the three scenes take us from the domestic to the national, to the global and, in the final scene, there is a gradual escalation of the forces being drawn into the war starting with humans and animals and ending, as quoted above, with darkness and silence. But in Escaped Alone, the apocalyptic violence is placed beyond structure; there seems to be little order or shape to the various acts of brutality and suffering; verbal images pile unsystematically on top of each other. It is as if Churchill wants to present chaos chaotically.

57Churchill’s writing is fully apocalyptic in Derrida’s sense. During the decade it seems to me to have been aspiring to a kind of anti-authorial quality, a blank quality that is freed from affect, that imposes itself as cleanly and lightly as possible on the actor: writing that is freed from tone, one might say. The opening line of Escaped Alone illustrates this well: ‘I’m walking down the street and there’s a door in the fence open and inside are three women I’ve seen before’ (2016, p. 3). The line has a flatness to it, like a young child’s school composition; it flirts with banality. And yet, even so, it has an unmissable strangeness, the simplicity generating immense complexity that seems barely to issue from the words themselves so much as from their sheer existence, from their seeming failure as theatrical writing. Of course, ironically this toneless tone is unmistakeably Churchill’s tone. Her reduction of herself, her stripping out of everything unneeded in dramatic writing, even to the point of refusing to impose her writerly presence in the text, is her distinctive writerly presence. Escaped Alone negates itself as an act of ferocious political despair, underlined by Mrs Jarrett’s final monologue, spoken very shortly before the end, which consists simply of the phrase ‘terrible rage’ repeated 25 times, an apocalyptic breakdown of linguistic invention that sears anguish and fury into the flesh of the play.

58What the apocalyptic tone recently adopted in British theatre does is offer a counter-strategy to capitalist realism. It offers images of the end of the world that are images of the end of capitalism. It does so in terms that reject conventional forms of graphic violent representation and instead invites a play of the imagination, language and the aesthetic as a way of inviting us to make the end of capitalism, of its current, apparent totality, thinkable again.

59Realism then may have fallen, for a while anyway, into political obsolescence. And a counter-strategy is to address the totality itself. I’d suggest that the apocalyptic tone in these plays is an attempt to imagine the end of totality. As such, these are not mystagogic evasions of the real, but glimpses of how far capital has come to duplicate and replace reality. To effect fundamental political change is to want to tear down reality and put something new in its place. Apocalypse, therefore, is a new kind of revolutionary theatre. As Fisher puts it, ‘The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect’ (pp. 80-81).

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Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms. Translated by Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1981.

Adorno, Theodor W. Notes to Literature. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. European Perspectives. edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Vol. Volume Two, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Contemporary European Thinkers. edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. London: Athlone, 1997. 1970.

Birch, Alice. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. In Midsummer Mischief: Four Radical New Plays. London: Oberon, 2014, pp. 43-101.

Bond, Edward. Plays: One. World Dramatists. London: Methuen, 1977. [contains Saved]

Boon, Richard. Brenton the Playwright. Modern Theatre Profiles. London: Methuen, 1991.

Brenton, Howard. Plays: One. World Dramatists. London: Methuen, 1986. [contains Magnificence]

Brenton, Howard. Plays: Two. World Dramatists. London: Methuen, 1989. [contains The Romans in Britain]

Chekhov, Anton. The Seagull. Translated by John Donnelly. London: Faber and Faber, 2013.

Churchill, Caryl. Plays: Four. London: Nick Hern, 2008.

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Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero, 2009.

Franklin, H Bruce. ‘What Are We To Make Of Ballard’s Apocalypse?’ In Voices for the Future, Vol. 2, edited by T. D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1979, pp. 82-105.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. ‘Future City.’ New Left Review. 21 (May-June 2003): pp. 65-79.

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1 For more on these four moments, see Dan Rebellato. 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama. London: Routledge, 1999; Philip Roberts. The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage. Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; Richard Boon. Brenton the Playwright. Modern Theatre Profiles. London: Methuen, 1991; Graham Saunders. ‘Love me or kill me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

2 A key figure, already mentioned, is Katie Mitchell, one of the few British directors to gain a European reputation, who has been regularly criticised by the custodians of the play-first British tradition for her suspiciously continental auteurism. In fact, for much of her career she has been an unapologetic realist, employing Stanislavskian techniques with actors in a way that is ferociously radical, a reminder of the abrasively shocking nature of realism on stage. However, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in 2006 (as Waves) at the National Theatre took a surprising step away from visual realism, in its use of live Foley and video composition, whereby sound and visual images were created artificially in front of us and projected, live, onto screens above the stage, the two kinds of artifice juxtaposed in a way that also seems to require the work of the audience to hold together different fictional spaces in their imagination. She has continued to work with this technique in productions like Attempts on Her Life (National Theatre, 2007), some trace of her (National Theatre, 2008), and many productions since in Germany. With this work, as well as her implacable rigour and seriousness about theatre work, she has also been a huge influence on young – particularly female – directors in Britain.

3 It is oversimplifying to describe the original production of Saved as simply realistic; its director, William Gaskill, was one of the great champions of Brecht in Britain and while his production did not go the full Brechtian distance, it offered an open, uncluttered, starkly simple staging that allowed for a cooler appraisal of the events of the play than a more intensely detailed naturalistic mise en scène would have allowed.

4 He may also have been influenced by Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Blasted (Zerbombt), which played the Barbican Theatre, London, in late 2006. Ostermeier’s production began with an even more lavish three-dimensional hotel room, surrounded in glass and offered a detailed, slow, often lengthily silent account of the first half of the play. When the blast happened, all of those realist trappings were replaced by a slowly revolving platform against an upstage bank of fluorescent tubes that, in their non-referentiality, emphasized a sense of anti-realist void in which the characters were now moving.

5 There is an unofficial transcript of his remarks at Slavok Žižek Speaks at Occupy Wall Street: Transcript [Don’t fall in love with yourselves] 17 September 2013 20 November 2015.

6 I offer a concise account of this process in my Theatre & Globalization (2009, pp. 23-26) but a more substantial account can be found in Harvey 2005.

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Dan Rebellato, « Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Theatre: British Drama, Violence and Writing », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 22 | 2017, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2017, consulté le 18 janvier 2019. URL :

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Dan Rebellato

Royal Holloway (London)

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