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Voix de l’absence, voix absentes

Traum-A-Rhythmia On Debbie Tucker Green’s In-Yer-Ear Stage

Lea Sawyers


Dans une esthétique du trauma, debbie tucker green fait résonner des voix socialement marginales et politiquement mineures et les dirige « d’une plume de fer » à la manière d’un chef d’orchestre. Ses textes, au carrefour du poème, de paroles de chansons et de la partition musicale interrogent d’emblée la nature du théâtral. En tant que femme noire qui met en scène des personnages noirs pour un public majoritairement blanc, les stratégies de composition dramatique auxquelles elle a recours travaillent l’absence et le masque pour construire un théâtre en marge du didactisme dont ses « prédécesseures » britanniques et noires ont souvent été taxées. En effet, la représentation du débat lui-même est le grand absent de ce théâtre pourtant « politique ». SIDA, génocides, violences conjugales, incestes, guerres civiles, peine de mort s’abordent au travers de l’expérience humaine de l’enjeu politique (mort, souffrance, torture, trauma, révolte). Le personnage théâtral voit sa subjectivité saisie dans un entre-deux. Ni totalement spectral, ni ancré de façon univoque dans la situation dramatique, le sujet se livre en stéréophonie et laisse chaque spectateur, aux prises avec son empathie, négocier son propre chemin herméneutique entre voix solo ou chant choral, portée locale ou universelle. Paradoxalement, c’est donc par l’absence que tucker green redéfinit le théâtre « In-Yer-Face » du XXIème siècle. A contre-courant de la frontalité visuelle de Kane ou Ravenhill, l’écriture « coup de poing » de la dramaturge dirige son efficacité provocatrice vers l’oreille. Les personnages saignent, se déchirent et s’aiment dans une émotion exacerbée, mais c’est avant tout dans la langue qu’ils emploient que leur drame se joue. Armée de silences et de non-dits, tucker green grave une partition musicale faite de mélodies fantômes nées de motifs d’écriture relevant tantôt du contrepoint, tantôt de l’arpège ou encore du canon. Nous proposons de mener une réflexion sur les enjeux politiques de tels dispositifs musicaux. Quelles sont les modalités de la représentation du traumatisme sur la scène « In-Yer-Face » de tucker green et quel est le rôle poétique et politique joué par la musicalité du texte dans cette représentation ?

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1After her debut play, dirty butterfly in 2003, debbie tucker green quickly rose to prominence as one of the most promising voices on the British contemporary stage. As a black woman in a predominantly white male milieu her achievement and the fact that her plays appeal to a wide, ever-growing audience is remarkable. Praised for her experimentation on theatrical form, her work has been performed in major venues both in London and abroad. For her 2004 play born bad, she was awarded the prestigious Laurence Olivier award as most promising newcomer. She has since written 7 additional plays for the stage, 7 radio plays and 4 films, three of which she directed herself. debbie tucker green’s plays have in common a preoccupation with voices that speak from the margins of society. True to one of the primary missions of theatre, the playwright’s stage is mainly concerned with investigating beyond preconceptions, showing new facets of the unseen, making the invisible visible. Her theatre has been labelled In-yer-face but exception made of her debut play, she has opted for a theatre of shock and provocation which aims at the ear rather than the eye. Brutality, anger, profanity and provocation can be part of her aesthetics. But most of those effects are achieved through voice and language. This paradigm shift has led Pr. Elisabeth Angel-Perez, in a 2015 article on tucker green’s play random, to consider the appellation “In-Yer-Ear” (Angel-Perez, 2015).

2Voice and musicality are essential features of tucker green’s writing and this paper focuses on trauma in an investigation into the interplay of text musicality and the aesthetics of absence. Through analysis of stoning mary (2005) and random (2008) – with occasional references to born bad (2003) and generations (2005) – we hope to uncover the aesthetic, dramatic and political stakes of a musical poetics of trauma.

Motifs Of Absence: Silence As A Force Of Disruption

3The playwright’s use of words as “verbal artillery” makes language an instrument in constant need of refinement and adjustment to the characters’ struggles against one another. As they articulate the Beckettian duality of a language both glorious in its election as a weapon of choice and failing, the voices onstage break, stutter, repeat and re-elaborate in their relentless search for the right word, the optimal expression, the apt idiom. In the cracks and gaps of the text, language seems to concede defeat and its failure to accommodate the whole of the human experience. The proliferation of silence in both quantity and quality is symptomatic of a diseased “logos”, fraught with motifs of fragmentation such as slashes, dashes, blanks, beats, pauses, line breaks, commas, ellipses, intention and blackouts. This atomization of the very fabric of language is to some extent the correlative of the shattered psyches of tucker green’s characters who stand trapped in the grips of traumas the origins of which remain for the most part threateningly elusive and obscure. In this poetics of trauma and disruption, silence seems to eat away at language, a constant threat to the integrity of the play.

4In the 2005 plays stoning mary and generations, disease is thematised. In the first play, two characters named wife and husband have AIDS and only one prescription which they fight over in an ironic reversal of a love contest: each partner argues that their devotion to their lover justifies them taking the medicine the better to care for their dying “significant” other. In the second play, three generations of a loving black South-African family bicker over who can cook and who can’t, who taught whom, and what it means when a man asks a woman if she can cook. A black South-African choir is seated in the audience and at a determined point of the exchange it “calls” the name of a character. The character then leaves the stage and joins the choir leaving the rest of the family de-membered. The play then reboots from the top, its script carved out of the lines attributed to the missing character. One after the other from youngest to oldest, the characters die, leaving the grandparents alone onstage for the final scene which ends in “Oh God. Oh God. (blank) Oh God.”

5In these plays, voice is as much a mode of existence as it is a means of subsistence, to the extent that a dying voice amounts to a dying subject. In generations failure of bodies shapes the very structure of the play. As the characters are successively plucked from the drama, the haunting presence of silence casts its ever-growing shadow over the stage and through failure of dialogue, brings about the end of the play. In stoning mary, failing in language means losing the prescription and ultimately dying. Because it is at once “of the body” and separate from it, voice is able to articulate the “presence-absence” of bodies on the spectral stage. For the subject, voice is the new locus of coming-into-being, a metabody (un “métacorps”) (Cohen-Levinas, 2006).

6In tucker green’s plays, the subject’s pathological compulsive response to traumatic events inscribes itself in the rhythms of the text. The trauma of unnatural meaningless death (random), of rape and incest (born bad), of domestic violence (dirty butterfly), of the ravages of AIDS of genocidal proportions (generations), and the collective wound inflicted upon all when general apathy allows such violence to go unnamed, are all heard in the syncopated dialogue whose structure, spelling and punctuation subvert the rules of grammar and syntax. The overlapping cues are in themselves a challenge to the spectator’s ability to hear and make sense of what is being said and who said it. The point of overlap, often materialized by a slash, disrupts the necessary linearity of articulate speech, adds a harmonic dimension to the composition and releases the potential for a paradigmatic reading of the text.

7The superimposition of lines, each their own separate melody, amounts to a compositional technique similar to musical counterpoint. In these moments of sudden crisis, the audience must navigate an unexpected polyphony and try to both re-member the disrupted utterances and locate their points of origin. The musical organisation of the text becomes as decisive a hermeneutic code as syntax. The reduced range of vocabulary and the resulting necessary repetitions further confuses the spectator who hears the resonance of ghost melodies, born of the clashing and combining of separate overlapping cues.

8As Hélène Lecossois demonstrates in an article entitled « L’écriture du traumatisme de debbie tucker green ou la mise en jeu de la répétition », repetition (in the lines of a single character, from one character to another and sometimes across the span of the whole play) builds a network of associations which challenges linear and Cartesian perceptions of time and space and induces on the stage, the circular rhythmics of traumatism (Lecossois, 2012).

Dark Hole Of Trauma: Disruption Of Time-Space Continuum

9This maimed language, riddled in black holes of silence, shaky in the aftershocks of trauma, is nonetheless the keystone of the dramatic edifice as it signs a divorce from scientific, “objective” and western conceptions of time and space.

  • 1 In « L’écriture du traumatisme de debbie tucker green ou la mise en jeu de la repetition », Hélène (...)

10The sometimes claustrophobic aesthetics of the plays refuses to be contained solely in the stage directions1, but seeps into the obsessive speech patterns of the characters whose rhythms and rhymes take hold of the spectator, transforming the objective Cartesian vector space of the stage into a mental space, a window onto subjective and emotional response to a traumatic event.

SISTER:     And the su’un in the air –
                   in the room –
                   in the day –
                   like the
                   shadow of a shadow feelin…
                   off-key – I…
                   look the clock. Eyeball it.
                   It looks me back.
                   Stare the shit down –
                   it stares me right back.
                   … Till it blinked first – loser.
                   Then changes its time… 7.37.
                   a.m.              (random, 3)

11From the opening lines of the play, the figures of entrapment are apparent in the many anaphoras and re-elaborations which attest to the subject’s anticipatory inability to formulate in language the trauma to come. The chiastic rhyming patterns of “back” and “stare”, are but a formal expression of the semantics of reflexivity and circularity already contained in those words. The fixity of the staring match materializes in the many re-elaborations of the act (“look the clock”, then “Eyeball it” then “stare”) but also in the consonance and tautology of the expression “look the clock” (in British slang, to clock is to see, to notice) and even in the time shown by the clock, whose supposedly linear progression only leads to a palindrome (7.37).

12Meanwhile, the dissolution of the self is apparent in the isolation and sometimes elision of the grammatical subject and its potential assimilation through assonance with the action verb (Eyeball it). The strain the subject is under when she does try to assert “her/self” shows in the suspension points and dash that frame the only use of the first-person pronoun. The fact that the clock is said to change “its time” lets the audience know that “chronos” (objective linear time that can be measured) is utterly stranger to sister’s experience. This quote both epitomizes and perpetuates the joint deconstruction of time and space on the mental stage of a traumatized psyche.

13No point in time or space in the plots of stoning mary or generations stands out as a point of reference relatively to which we could reconstruct a linear sequence of events.

WIFE       ‘I you’d putcha hands – put your hands
                 on me –
                 If you’d put your hands on me then
                 you’d know –’
WIFE EGO   said.
WIFE          ‘Put your hands on me to know’
WIFE EGO   said
WIFE          ‘handle me to know’
WIFE EGO  I said
WIFE          ‘handle me. Handle me – handle me –
                    go on.’
                   WIFE shows her shaking hands.
                ‘Go on.                 (stoning mary, 3)

14At the start of the play, the lines of wife and husband are between quotation marks while the lines of wife ego and husband ego (the same characters but different projections in space) have taken on a role akin to that of a narrator and supply the reporting clauses, first in the past tense and in the present tense later on. Which mode, epic or dramatic, do these scenes subscribe to? Which time then is the play anchored in? The time of narration (that is to say the distantiated time of husband ego and wife Ego) or the time of discourse (husband and wife)? Are we seeing the exchange as it unfolds for the first time or are we looking back upon a past event?

15The difficulty in finding a reliable anchor in time is repeated on the macroscopic level. stoning mary is composed of three smaller apparently unrelated plays which progressively reveal how their plots intertwine. In “the prescription”, a couple sick with AIDS (wife and husband) are murdered by a boy called child soldier, who in turn was murdered by one of wife and husband’s daughters, mary. In “child soldier”, mum and dad are confronted first with child soldier’s death at the hands of mary, and later on with child soldier’s abduction by an unspecified “they” and finally his prodigal return home, his “head shaved down to a number one” (30), bloodied machete in hand. In the playlet “stoning mary”, older sister and mary, argue over mary’s impending execution for the murder of child soldier. However, understanding how the plays connect doesn’t allow the audience to re-establish a linear sequence of events that accommodates all scenes in the play without conflict. Reconciling the various contradictory markers of temporality is an impossible task. All layers of time seem to have collapsed under the action of trauma so that all parts of the story happen in synchrony. The performance of the intertwined plays consists merely in directing the spectator’s gaze from one layer of time to another, from one playlet to another and then back.

16The musical correlative to this is the canon, which presents two distinctive formal characteristics with a specific resonance to stoning mary. Firstly, the canon is a motif of infinity through circularity and therefore of stagnation. Secondly, it is a figure of fixity as, once all voices have entered the canon, it remains identical to itself throughout.

17In the polyphony and superimposition of scenes and themes – each playlet a separate musical theme in the greater canon that is stoning mary – unexpected connections are made. On a dramatic level, this leads to a plot which relies heavily on the musical and poetic potency of the text, as it progresses mainly by way of almost subliminal associations. For instance, the explicit mention of disease and contamination, repressed in “the prescription”, resurfaces repeatedly in “child soldier” and “stoning mary”. The playlets therefore not only inform one another and shine light on the modalities of their inter-action, they speak through one another. As the play unfolds, this structural ventriloquism leads to the playlets melding into one another. Characters from “the prescription” come under the title of “child soldier”, while older sister and boyfriend pick up wife and husband’s fight, and finally mum from “child soldier” brings about the end of the play by picking up the first stone in “stoning mary”.

18Strikingly in debbie tucker green’s theatre, a psychological, contextualised reading of the plays is always compatible with a broader, more universal, decontextualized global reading. The characters rarely have names. They are designated by their function (mum, dad, brother, officer, teacher, colleagues, corrections officer). If they have distinctive accents (Jamaican first generation for mum and dad in random, second generation for brother and sister) their conversations and speech patterns are mostly that of everyday people going about their everyday lives. In random, the grief of the black family speaks to every family’s grief, a whole community’s grief and hopefully through the action of the play, the grief of the whole audience, sample of the nation, who recognizes the world it lives in, outside the walls of the theatre.

Sounding Trauma

19The use of trauma onstage as a federative force is paradoxical but operates effectively on debbie tucker green’s stage. The playwright’s writing is able to accommodate highly sensitive uncomfortable questions without provoking general outright rejection. One may hypothesise that the fostering of a sense of communion in the audience, through a shared In-yer-face experience of trauma, has shielded tucker green from attacks of didacticism of which her black female predecessors were readily accused. Lynette Goddard writes, in Staging Black Feminisms: Identity, Politics, Performance:

“It is her ability with wordplay that lies at the centre of her accomplishments as a black woman playwright on the contemporary British stage. Black women playwrights have been criticised for being too angry in their plays and many stay on safe and familiar territory. tucker green’s plays are explicitly angry, even pessimistic, yet are celebrated rather than condemned (…)

The didacticism that 1980s black British women’s theatre was criticised for is largely missing from these twenty-first-century plays, whose politic is imported through complex human stories that engage with how we live now.” (196 – 202)

20Indeed, tucker green’s theatre isn’t a didactic one. Refusing the authority of formulating answers is part of a larger refusal of normativity and hierarchy. debbie tucker green writes her name in lower case letters. She favours variations of the theatre in the round setup and she refuses to have the performance entertain a teacher/student type of relationship with the audience. Instead, the spectator is engaged on a personal level in a profoundly self-reflective examination as he/she is confronted to the puzzle that is the play. Every step of the way, we are invited to examine our own interpretations with a critical eye and second guess what our understanding of the unfolding plot is. What are we seeing? The question not only addresses the issue of what we think we see or do when we go to the theatre in general, but more specifically what we infer of the play and how much of our understanding and assumptions stem from socio-political prejudice.

21A word that is often used by reviewers to describe tucker green’s work is “oblique”. Indeed, regardless of their individual dramatic structure, in the first half of debbie tucker green’s plays the spectator is usually confronted to characters whose pain and struggle are manifest, but the nature of which is left in the dark until the second half of the performance. In this first part of her plays, affects are very strong and various emotions wash over a confused and wary audience. In a pattern characteristic of traumatism, emotion comes first, decontextualized and “raw”, and scattered elements of the situation follow (or don’t). It is quite common at this stage to hear the audience laugh at jokes and to read reviewers underline the humour of the play. “There was also some fun in there. It’s not all doom and gloom,” reads one comment on a review in The Guardian (Clapp, 2015).

22In random, for instance, the nature of brother’s death isn’t specified. All we know is it was accidental (“random”), violent and unnatural (as attests sister’s fragmentary description of brother’s broken body), and that it left in his back a barely discernible “cut” or “hole” or “puncture” (37). As the audience was left to imagine the rest, a number of contrasted scenarios can be observed in the early reviews and comments on random (even though the general climate in London at the time meant most people would lean towards knife crime) (Goddard, 2009, 299). Brother was alternatively victim of an unspecified accident, gang violence, a hate crime, black on black crime, knife crime, a bullet in the back, police blunder, non-gang-related juvenile delinquency.

23debbie tucker green tells the story (or some of it) but “tells it slant”. Nevertheless, we may wonder what hope there is of resolving the traumatism, if by the end of the play much is still left open, unsaid, and hasn’t entered the realm of the symbolic. What indeed is the point of the performance?

24In Hip-hop, a musical genre readily cited as an influence by the playwright who feels she is more inspired by Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill than by Sarah Kane (Gardner, 2005), the beat (the instrumental and sometimes vocal basis on which rappers perform) comes before the lyrics (the flow). The beat is the rhythmic and melodic structure against, with and around which the flow of the rapper… wraps itself. Beat and flow are inextricably intertwined and co-dependent, but the beat comes first. Looking at tucker green’s plays, one may see silence and the various punctuation and fragmenting devices as holding the same structuring function as the beat. Starting this paper, we painted a picture of language being undermined by the devouring force of trauma and silence. But why not imagine the opposite? Instead of hollowness, I propose to consider the marks of extra-linguistic expression as points of density in the text around which speech gravitates. Silence is active; it is material; it is sound; it is voice. Speech therefore is there to underline and reveal the shape of the hollow. Instead of voicing over trauma, speech then becomes the sound box inside of which the voice of trauma can resonate.

25To use an analogy with photography, trauma becomes perceptible not because it has been put into words, but because it has been revealed by immersion in the developing bath that is language. The “point” of the play is then the acknowledgement of traumatism and not its resolution. It enables the spectator to stare the beast in the eye or rather hear the beast’s cry because the tangible manifestation of trauma is rhythm.

26It seems fitting that rhythm should be the voice of trauma on a postcolonial stage. In the history of slavery, rhythm (shaped and performed by “active silences” and voice) is at once a force of constraint, used to keep the slaves synchronized and going at a good pace, the mode of expression of both utmost pain and despair and fierce rebellious affirmation of life and subjectivity.

27debbie tucker green uses rhythm as a force of Artaudian cruelty, strong in its power to carry the spectator in the experience of “very Humanity”.

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Angel-Perez, Elisabeth. « Du In-yer-face au In-yer-ear: les « solo-symphonies » de debbie tucker green ». Coup de théâtre. n°29. 2015

Clapp, Susannah. “Hang Review – Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Terrible Choice in a Terrifying Space.” The Guardian 21 June 2015. Web. 16 June 2016.

Cohen-Levinas, Danielle. La voix au-delà du chant : une fenêtre aux ombres. Librairie Philosophique. Paris, France : Vrin, 2006. Print.

Gardner, Lyn. “Debbie Tucker Green on Why She’s Still Not Sure She’s a Playwright.” The Guardian, 30 Mar. 2005. Web. 9 June 2016.

Goddard, Lynette. “‘Death Never Used to Be for the Young’: Grieving Teenage Murder in Debbie Tucker Green’s Random.” Women: A Cultural Review 20.3 (2009): 299–309. Print.

Goddard, Lynette. Staging Black Feminisms: Identity, Politics, Performance. Basingstoke ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print. Performance Interventions.

Lecossois, Hélène. « L’écriture du traumatisme de debbie tucker green ou la mise en jeu de la répétition » in Page, Christiane (dir.). Écritures théâtrales du traumatisme : esthétiques de la résistance. Rennes : Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2012. p175

tucker green, debbie. born bad. London: Nick Hern, 2003. Print.

tucker green, debbie. random. Reprinted with revisions. London: Nick Hern Books, 2010. Print.

tucker green, debbie. stoning mary. London: Nick Hern, 2005. Print.

tucker green, debbie. trade & generations: Two Plays. London: Nick Hern Books, 2005. Print.

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1 In « L’écriture du traumatisme de debbie tucker green ou la mise en jeu de la repetition », Hélène Lecossois mentions the opening stage directions of born bad: “Once the characters are on stage they can never leave” (born bad, 2).

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Lea Sawyers, « Traum-A-Rhythmia On Debbie Tucker Green’s In-Yer-Ear Stage »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 25 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 19 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lea Sawyers

Lettres Sorbonne Université (VALE EA 4085)
Enseignante PRAG à à la faculté de Lettre Langue et Sciences Humaine de l’Université Paris-Est Créteil (Paris XII), Lea Sawyers prépare une thèse de doctorat sur le théâtre « In-Yer-Face » de la dramaturge britannique debbie tucker green. Par une approche musicale des textes, ses travaux visent à cerner les modalités d’un théâtre politique sur la scène britannique contemporaine et plus particulièrement les conditions d’expression politique par des voix minoritaires. La voix tient une place de choix non seulement au centre de son activité de recherche mais également de sa pratique musicale en tant que chanteuse lyrique.
Lea Sawyers is a doctoral student and teacher of English and American literature at the University of Paris XII (Paris-Est Créteil Val-de-Marne). Under the supervision of Pr. Elisabeth Angel-Perez, her PhD thesis, a monograph on debbie tucker green’s theatrical work, will investigate the new terms of political expression on the British stage at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Her professional practice of music on stage as an operatic lyrical singer has made voice and musicality core interests in her research.

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