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  • The Contemporary Political Play: Rethinking Dramaturgical Structure by Sarah Grochala
  • Jennifer Pierce
The Contemporary Political Play: Rethinking Dramaturgical Structure. By Sarah Grochala. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017. Cloth $81.90, Paper $20.36. 264 pages.

In June 2008, two plays about child abuse opened in London: Anthony Weigh's 2000 Feet Away and Anthony Neilson's Relocated. Critic Michael Billington argued that 2000 Feet Away was the more effective play because it employed realism and advanced a thesis. In contrast, Relocated lacked a thesis, was non-linear, exhibited [End Page 171] illogical notions of time and space, and portrayed "fractured" characters (3). Neilson publicly rebutted Billington, noting that Billington and he differed on what constitutes a good play and on whether or not realism and linearity are necessary to make a "serious" play. Author Sarah Grochala preferred Neilson's play to Weigh's. "For me," writes Grochala, "a political play is not necessarily a play that addresses a political issue; rather it is a play that opens an audience's eyes to how the world could be different" (22). Grochala's organizing conceit is Zygmunt Bauman's theory of "liquid modernity," or the idea that reality has shifted under the aegis of neoliberal capitalism. Along these lines, the six chapters of The Contemporary Political Play: Rethinking Dramaturgical Structure are divided into two sections. The first section looks backward to the origin of "serious drama" and its accepted structure. The second section looks at the present and toward the future at "the more liquid dramaturgical structures" that can be included in how we think of a serious, political play. Grochala (like Susan Sontag before her) values artistry, structure, and form more than content for the power to change social relations outside the theatre. This is the organizing thesis of her book focused on contemporary British drama and inspired by Billington and Neilson's public argument.

In the first section, Grochala applies Frederic Jameson's three levels of textual analysis to serious drama to examine its efficacy as an agent of social change. The first level concerns content, the second level is class origin, and the third level is the text's form. Exploring serious drama's genesis in Shaw and Archer, she argues that serious drama passes the qualifying test for political engagement in content. Although serious drama was ostensibly formed in reaction to the perceived inadequacies of melodrama, melodrama, too, qualifies at the first level. However, when she arrives at the second level, class origin, she asserts that Jameson's analysis vindicates melodrama but not serious drama. In contrast to the popular reading of melodrama as capitalist commercial theatre and serious drama as socialist, Grochala contends that serious drama was the theatre of the intellectual middle class, while melodrama belonged to the working class. Chapter 2 analyzes serious drama at the third level, structure. Finding serious drama wanting at the third-level of Jamesonian analysis, she contrasts the structure of serious drama to the innovations in structure in Sam Holcoft's Edgar and Annabel, Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, and Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, finding them exemplary in capturing Bauman's liquid modernity in their signatory disregard for traditional structures of time, place, and action.

The remaining four chapters are less dense but nonetheless edifying. Chapter 3 analyzes serious drama's structures from a temporal perspective, revealing a linear progression of cause and effect, in stark contrast to the contemporary trend toward simultaneity. Tracing a nascent simultaneity to 1937 in J.B. Priestly's Time and the Conways, Grochala then jumps ahead to Nick Payne's meditation on the multiverse in Constellations, Caryl Churchill's Heart's Desire, and David Eldridge's [End Page 172] Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness. Grochala concludes that, while disrupted time may appear in serious drama, it still relies upon an "axis of succession" rather than true simultaneity (117).

Just as Grochala argues that serious drama relies on linearity in contrast to simultaneity, in chapter 4, "Space," she asserts that serious dramas rely on "solid concrete settings" in contrast to the liquid, multilayered space of some contemporary drama. Keir Elam is a dramaturgy scholar who has done extensive work on "proxemics...


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