- The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy by Sean Carney
Sean Carney has written a complex and reflective history of tragedy in English theatre since the post-war period. The scope of the book has substantial breadth and depth, beginning with David Hare, Howard Barker, and Edward Bond and continuing forward to the more contemporary plays of Caryl Churchill, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, and Jez Butterworth. Early on, Carney reassures readers that he will not apply a template of tragedy “in a formulaic manner,” relying instead on a more open conception of tragedy centred on the relationship of human individuals and communities to loss, the struggle to discover agency, and action under the weight of necessity. It is Raymond Williams’s arguments in Modern Tragedy that echo most strongly in the book, especially his location of twentieth-century tragedy within the contradiction of movements toward social change and individual transformation that are blocked, reversed, and turned against themselves.
One of the key characteristics of the book, and a quality that will make it particularly valuable to anyone who teaches British drama, is the detailed analyses of the plays under consideration. In discussing Bond, a writer who occupies a central position for Carney, he draws attention to the tragic within gestures toward humanity, sometimes unsuccessful but nonetheless moments of opposition to an increasingly bleak materiality. The Fool (1975), Bond’s ambitious play about the early nineteenth-century working-class poet John Clare, depicts the conflict between an artist’s commitment to creativity and a historical moment in which the English countryside was being transformed by emergent capitalism. Caught between the deep love of the land expressed in his poetry and the land’s reshaping and destruction, led by the very patrons who initially support his writings and then quickly abandon him, Clare must wrestle with, in Carney’s words, “the demands of poetry and the necessity of survival.” It is an irresolvable struggle that results in defeat, ending up with Clare in a lunatic asylum, silent and worn out. Produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London, The Fool, with an unusually large cast, represents a high point of post-war British drama and perhaps can be taken as a site of division between generations in theatre. The following generation—Churchill, Ravenhill, Kane, and Butterworth—foreground, in very different ways, the psychological distortions and devastating brutalities of the contemporary world: the young woman Cate in Kane’s Blasted (1995), repeatedly raped and struggling to survive in an English city wracked by civil war; the dystopian, disintegrating world in Churchill’s Far Away (2000), where nothing seems worthy of trust; the damaged Amy in Ravenhill’s Product (2005), clinging to her cellphone recording of her husband’s death in the World Trade Center attacks. Yet even here, within [End Page 325] the bleak emotional landscapes of these plays, there are flashes of unexpected humanity that problematize a world of one-dimensionality and cynicism.
When I finished reading The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy, one troubling question was inescapable. Why does the book contain no discussion of plays by writers of colour, especially black writers, who have created works that converge directly with the conceptions of new tragic writing that Carney elaborates? Two recent plays, both produced at the Royal Court Theatre, easily come to mind. debbie tucker green’s Random (2008), a play in an extended monologue about the un-provoked knifing of a young man on the streets of London and the devastation of his family and friends, explores the struggle to maintain and express humanity in situations that threaten to engulf it. Roy Williams’s Fallout (2003) investigates black-on-black violence in London, together with the pressures and conflicts of a black police officer who must return to his old neighbourhood. Williams and green depict an unforgiving England in which black men and women negotiate their lives, but, like the other writers Carney discusses, both include moments of humanity that reveal glimpses of different ways of living.
Carney has written a book that is...