- The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy by Sean Carney
It is hard to overstate the centrality of theatre to discourses of English national identity, or, for that matter, the ubiquity of the state-of-the-nation play in English drama as both a genre of composition and an interpretive convention. The innovation of Sean Carney’s new study of tragedy emerges from the relationship he draws between the various elements of his title: tragedy becomes the meeting ground of politics and poetics, form and history, the contemporary condition and the self-fashioning of Englishness. The tragic appears at the core of state-of-the-nation plays because it confronts and subverts the “empiricist discourse” of Englishness, “of common sense built upon a rigid binary logic of clear oppositions” (287). Ranging from the mid-century work of the English Stage Company to Jez Butterworth’s 2009 Jerusalem, this volume responds to John Orr’s argument that tragedy was largely absent in an era of British social realism. Carney’s complex stance on the tragic, echoing Raymond Williams, persuasively claims that modern British tragedy is not only widespread, but also a “hybrid birth” of the midcentury’s dual fascinations with realism and “formal theatricality” (7), situating his volume alongside the work of Dominic Shellard, Dan Rebellato, and Luc Gilleman in articulating new narratives and genealogies of nation and theatrical influence.
Tragedy is, in Carney’s astute reply to Orr’s argument about the waning of the form, the crisis of necessity that is erased by the late capitalist rhetoric of boundless individualism and choice. Contemporary tragedy takes as its subject the loss of the tragic itself, “the peculiar and unique human experience in which loss and gain become, however fleetingly, indistinguishable from one another” (15). What is lacking is loss, and with it, access to the metaphysical. Tragedy forces a confrontation with loss, with the radically other in all its forms. This confrontation undermines the commonsense binary of Englishness by “asserting an identity of opposites between the material and the metaphysical, to infuse the profane with the sacred” (287).
The dual structure to Carney’s argument is first organized around the gravitational pull of biography. Chapters trace the trajectory of the tragic mode in individual authors’ careers, carving out for each a distinctive relationship to loss and the metaphysical. The difficulty of this structure, however, is that distinctions between these authorial approaches to the tragic blur considerably over their long and varied careers, sometimes defying coherent ideological arcs or easy summary, and Carney astutely notes the convergences and variations that make this biographical structure so thorny. Thus his argument also traces a second, historical trajectory of tragic sensibility across the chapters: starting with the disintegration of postwar optimism and the failure of consensus, moving through a sense that socialist tragedy was becoming the tragedy of socialism to a sense during the 1980s that the tragic was the catastrophe of rampant capitalism, and culminating in the toxic emotional landscape of the 1990s, which were defined by a radical “repression of the other,” “disavowal of the unconscious itself,” and denial of the metaphysical (286).
In the first chapter, Carney finds in the work of David Hare a problematic metatheatre of middle-class consciousness: “the middle-class self as a form of theatre, a constant repetition and re-enactment of one’s humanity,” striving for a chimerical authenticity (51). He also, however, identifies in it, particularly in the post-Thatcher plays, a striving toward the “affirmative tragic” of saintliness, an almost beatific attitude toward suffering and failure that defines many of his characters (40). Thus begins Carney’s persuasive charting of contemporary tragedy’s quest to confront the metaphysical without explicit recourse to discourses of transcendence. The next chapter, on Howard Barker’s “Theatre of Catastrophe,” continues this examination of “the necessity for spiritual gestures without the possibility of metaphysical fulfillment of said gestures” (70), identifying the metaphysical in Barker’s ecstatic confrontation with the unconscious, encountered in a crucible of pain.
The next two chapters, on the tragedies of...