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  • Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s
  • David Walker
Rebecca D'Monté and Graham Saunders, eds. Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s. Houndmills, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. x + 251. $65.00 (Hb); $24.95 (Pb).

Rebecca d'Monté and Graham Saunders's collection is at once more narrowly focused and more interesting than its generic-sounding subtitle might suggest. It does not present a survey of British political theatre of the nineties (playwrights as various as Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, [End Page 417] David Hare, and David Edgar receive only passing notice); nor does it pay attention to Brecht, the theatrical touchstone for their generation. Rather, the editors take as their starting point the aggressive, visceral, emotionally lacerating work of the generation of younger dramatists – including Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Joe Penhall, Martin McDonagh, and Jez Butterworth – described in Aleks Sierz's landmark, 2001, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. Sierz's frankly personal and polemical account describes the London theatre scene of the early nineties from the perspective of a working journalist, weaving the details of dozens of disparate performances into a broad cultural narrative. The explicit aim of d'Monté and Saunders's collection is to reappraise that narrative in order to widen Sierz's definitions and to explore their implications.

Saunders's introduction quotes playwright David Eldridge's account of his generation's formative experiences:

Clearly, a generation [that] had grown up in the UK fearing the five-minute warning, watching the Berlin Wall come down,. . . was finding a voice. This generation had had its youthful optimism pickled by the new horrors that visited their imaginations in the shape of atrocities in the Balkans and by a sense of outrage at the erosion of the UK's notion of community and society by the mean-spirited Thatcher and Major malaise. We responded to that shifting culture with dismay and anger.


The response, in Sierz's terms, was often a full-frontal assault on the audience's sensibilities, a politics expressed as unmediated images of disillusionment and violence. Saunders emphasizes the ironic disparity between the often-brutal content of in-yer-face drama and the cultural context in which it was produced: Cool Britannia, New Labour's rebranding of London as "the coolest city on the planet" (according to Newsweek). In light of these tensions and uncertainties, Saunders suggests, the theatre of the nineties embodies a more varied and complex political response than existing accounts suggest.

The first three essays constitute an overt reconsideration of Sierz's narrative, and the first is written, bravely, by Sierz himself, who both defends and revises his earlier analysis. Describing his book as "both a report from the front line and an advocacy argument" (27), he acknowledges that it "tells a seductive story which offers the consoling illusions of coherence and closure" (32). He now recognizes that, in focusing on a group of dissenting new writers "fiercely, sometimes ferociously, critical of consumer capitalism, social inequality, sexual discrimination, violence and war" (26), he created "the impression that they are all in-yer-face shock-artists, all equally radical and all joined in a common purpose – to change the world" (29). This totalizing myth, he concedes, led to marginalization and exclusion, particularly of writers of colour and of those whose work was produced outside London. But while recognizing the complexities revealed by hindsight, [End Page 418] Sierz remains a passionate advocate of the energies and conviction of the work he champions.

The next two essays are among the most vital of the collection. Focusing on Kane and Ravenhill, Ken Urban's "Cruel Britannia" shrewdly and precisely evokes the cultural project of playwriting in the midst of Cool Britannia, using "cruelty as a means of both reflecting and challenging the despair of contemporary urban life, shaped by global capitalism and cultural uniformity" (39). Mary Luckhurst's compelling essay begins by using David Hare's 1997 diatribe against the nineties generation to reflect on the changing meanings of politics and culture: she argues that the tension between Hare's commitment to the state-of-the-nation play as a model for political engagement, on the...


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