- The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy by Sean Carney
Steve Carney’s monograph, The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy, provides a comprehensive survey of six contemporary British playwrights, each of whose body of work encompasses both a political project and a sense of tragedy. Carney focuses on the work of David Hare, Howard Barker, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Mark Ravenhill, and Sarah Kane, and uses detailed plot summaries to drive his discussions of the plays and analysis, looking at how each play responds to the contemporaneous politics through the use of a tragic form. Carney states up front that his study is neither a piece of theatre history nor a theoretical study; instead, “it finds its object of study in plays themselves” (4). Carney’s approach allows him to focus in on the play itself, noting the playwright’s response to politics via the style and content.
Carney’s work joins previous studies of the intersection of British theatre and politics, such as Janelle Reinelt’s The Political Theatre of David Edgar, Catherine Itzin’s Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968, and Rebecca D’Monté and Graham Saunders’s co-edited collection, Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s. Unlike these works, which examined the various political projects of British playwrights, often via a Brechtian framework, Carney starts on the individual and personal levels by looking at the “structure of feeling” of the specific play (3), and then broadens out to the playwright’s larger body of work. Borrowing from Raymond Williams, Carney defines “structure of feeling” as “the work’s own unique way of responding to its time, the unconventional aspect of it that may seem incomprehensible, not a sign of technique but rather that which is personal, isolating, alienating, setting the author apart, the feeling” (4). Carney uses this play—and playwright—centered approach of reading the plays to trace [End Page 94] the changes in political and social beliefs in English culture through “a series of possible, emergent structures of feeling within English society from the mid-1960s to the present day” (4). Carney argues that by looking at the individual structures of feeling present in each play and then between the different plays and playwrights, scholars can attain a better grasp on the political shifts in England and, as a result, the structure of feeling associated with “English-ness.”
Carney opens by contextualizing his study within existing scholarship and explaining how he approaches the concept of the tragic—broadly, as the “human relationship to loss” (3). Carney sees the use of a tragic form as a way to balance the social content of these playwrights and this expansive definition of tragedy as a way to shape the term to the needs of the playwrights he discusses. Beginning with a discussion of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) as a quintessential example of naturalism, Carney draws the reader’s attention to the play’s intensity of emotion. It is Look Back in Anger’s socio-political message combined with this emotional intensity that Carney identifies as politicized formalism, a style that is also clearly realized in Edward Bond’s Saved (1965). Carney explains: “Saved was deliberately artificial and formal when mere naturalistic mimesis would defuse the social significance of a moment. It was the birth of a new theatrical language of political theatre out of a merging of social realism with the European formalism of Brecht” (7). The rise of political formalism ultimately leads to Carney’s characterization of contemporary English tragedy—a mixture of realistic and political content presented in a theatrical style. Thus, Carney is concerned with both the politics and the poetics of the plays he is studying. After establishing his definition of tragic, Carney situates his work within the existing theoretical discussion on tragedy and political theatre by drawing on the work of a wide range of theoretical perspectives on tragedy and aesthetics, including Aristotle, Nietzsche, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, and Jacques Lacan, as...