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The Tragically Hip
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On the cover, Patrick Stewart in Bingo by Edward Bond at the Young Vic, 2012.

Photo by Jane Hobson, courtesy of University of Toronto Press

In “Not Ordinary, Not Safe: A Direction for Drama,” written in 1960, and quite early in her career, playwright Caryl Churchill castigated English drama for a particular, and particularly English, superficiality: “At the moment everything we have is at the expense of something else: poetry without plots, songs and stylisation without observation, naturalism without imagination, character without action, slice of life without form.” Churchill continues, “Form is in itself a means of expression, and a good play is like music in the reappearance of different themes, changes of pace, conflicts and harmonies; and fuller use of form should make plays not less but more true to life” (qtd. in Roberts, xxvi–xxvii). Plays, then, in Churchill’s opinion, should not be stylized representations or aestheticized reproductions of a mollifying existence, but rather should function, methodologically, as a means by which one might experience and process significant events within a more comprehensive scope of social and political life. Or, as Sean Carney writes, drawing on Churchill’s essay in the introduction to his new book, The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy : “[T]heatre is, at its best, not simply a distraction from life but an essential participant in social existence” (8).

In this treatise on the evolution of tragedy on the contemporary English stage, a period he marks through his analysis of such (modern) canonical playwrights as David Hare, Howard Barker, Edward Bond, and Caryl Churchill, as well as those of the more confrontational “In Yer Face” school, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, and Jez Butterworth, Carney posits tragedy not only as the primary (formalistic) “means of expression” of these playwrights, but, in itself, as an intrinsically dialectical project. Initially defining “the idea of the tragic” as “the exploration of the human relationship to loss, be it in literal death, or in acts of mourning, or alternately and crucially in the human confrontation with that which lies outside of the self and which negate the human” (3), Carney explores in great depth, first, the ways in which contemporary dramatic tragedy is informed by the political field between 1965 and 2009, and, second, the aesthetic parameters of the tragic within this recent historical period–ultimately synthesizing how these related facets, the eponymous political and poetic, result in a re-envisioning of tragedy as contemporary political theatre.

Carney begins with an introduction that offers a fairly extensive primer on the development of the tragic within mid- to late-twentieth-century drama. He politically demarcates the period through the “post-class, post-propaganda politics of the New Left,” the May 1963 student and worker strikes in Paris, the rise of Thatcherism, and the inevitability of what Frederic Jameson identifies as “late capitalism’s globalization of advanced industrialization” (8–9), while also putting these developments and the plays that emerged out of them in conversation with such theoretical interventions as Raymond Williams’ structure of feeling (demonstrated, as Carney notes, most aptly by Trevor Griffiths’ 1973 The Party [10]), as well as with Derrida, Lacan, and, of course, Nietzsche, among others. While Carney denies that the book is critically motivated–though he does acknowledge that “it is informed by theoretical ideas about the tragic” (12)–the introduction’s emphasis not only on the individual theoretical approaches one might read contemporary drama (whether tragic or not) through but also on how each approach might and should, like the playwrights Carney considers, be read in relation to each other strengthens his thesis that these plays are always already interwoven into a broader social, political, and intellectual fabric.

That such fabric is fundamentally English is of vital importance to Carney’s project–specifically in the sense of what comprises “a uniquely English sense of national identity” (16). As he interrogates the discursive and performative constructions of an Englishness predicated, as most national identities are, upon a “disavowal of Otherness,” Carney reads each of the playwrights he engages here through some metaphoric relation to the Greek figures Oedipus, Antigone, Prometheus, and Dionysus as a means to demonstrate “four different attitudes...


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