- The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy by Sean Carney
In 1960, a young Caryl Churchill lamented the previous decade’s English drama: ‘“[W]e don’t think much of man’s power, but we don’t think his inadequacy matters. We don’t even despair; we mope’” (qtd. in Carney 8). Over the next several decades, Churchill would produce work whose elliptical formalism would wring from despair what Sean Carney might call a Dionysian power: the “affirmation of pure negativity into pleasure” (181). Carney’s The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy offers a wide-ranging and close analysis of Churchill and other post-Brechtian political playwrights, classing them as contemporary tragedians responding to a postmodern English society that no longer countenances tragic experience.
Carney’s study persuasively traces the emergence of the tragic as a structure of feeling, across the formally experimental English drama of the last half-century. What is lost in postmodernity is the experience of loss itself – the sense that loss, in Churchill’s word, “matters.” In a late-late capitalist reversal of classical tragedy, the tragic, in this body of work, mourns the neo-liberal expulsion of authentic tragic experience from present-day English life. All these works, Carney argues, enact fantastic alternatives to a post-war ideology of Englishness that disavows negativity and otherness. By acknowledging and creating a dramatic space for non-realist, tragic experiences, these works harbour a “humanizing” impulse at the heart of their anti-mimeticism (16).
Carney opens with David Hare, whose Antigone-like protagonists provide a tragic centre within plays that are otherwise aesthetically aligned with dramatic realism. These “tragic refuseniks … find themselves at a remove from the conventions of the society in which they live” and are ultimately martyred to their ideals (28). Carney presses upon the theatricality of these protagonists as a character attribute that opens the plays up to a non-realist formal register. If Hare’s characters appear insincere in their theatrically outsized sincerity, it is not only that they are insufferably dogmatic and unable to “get along”; their incongruence with the world inhabited by other characters shows the world of realism to be aligned with a capitalist ideology that ruthlessly excises perceived misfits. [End Page 273]
Ultimately, Carney contrasts Hare’s quasi-formalism with the thoroughgoing expressionism of Howard Barker and the Theatre of Catastrophe, where the tragic is seen to emerge through the anti-mimetic staging of ecstatic experience. Barker’s theatricality allows for the representation of that which cannot be depicted realistically: desire and the unconscious. Accordingly, his tragic figures are characters whose “agency is inseparable from the fates to which they succumb” (83). Embedded in catastrophic, dehumanizing situations, they respond by willing catastrophe and voiding themselves of recognizable humanity. Carney rightly theorizes the strange, lyrical beauty of Barker’s often grotesquely violent conceits in materialist terms. Beauty is dialectically bound to pain, and desire constitutes, not a psychological attribute, but a “tragic self-division,” a shattering forfeiture of self-coherence and agency that paradoxically elevates the possibilities within human experience (94, 96).
The following chapter extends this dialectical reading of tragic violence to Edward Bond. Carney finds a Promethean impulse toward life in Bond’s concept of “radical innocence” – a “capacity for extreme responsibility, an imaginative sense of connectedness to the cosmos” (158). The Promethean lies beyond rational thought; it belongs to drama, and specifically to what Bond calls Theatre Events – moments of “paradox and impossibility” that reveal the fissures within the larger social world (146, 171–72). Again, Carney points to acts of violence that are inexplicable within a psychologically realist framework. These existential actions dramatize the unavoidable implicatedness of the “right to exist,” the impossibility of mere survival within a post-lapsarian world (169). In the avowedly socialist aesthetics of Bond’s tragic theatre, hope can be enacted only as despair, and humanity be expressed only through the abnegation of recognizably human acts.
As Carney turns to Churchill, his attention to the staging of ethical, emotive, and phenomenal...