- When the Night Has ComeImages of Dystopia and Catastrophe in Recent British Writing
When the night has come, and the way is dark.—Ben E. King, “Stand By Me”
The strongest images of catastrophe are often dystopian. In the Western imagination, these ideas of extreme collapse and utter immiseration seem to exercise an irresistible attraction. Near the start of the twentieth century, English Roman Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton understood what was happening. In his 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, he describes a tendency already common: people, he argues, are childishly willful, “They stoned the false prophets, it is said; but they could have stoned true prophets with a greater and juster enjoyment . . . . But the way the prophets of the twentieth century went to work was this. They took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened.” That extraordinary thing was often dystopic, or catastrophic. The word dystopia, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.” An antonym of utopia, it is a “bad place,” but a fictional one. There are plenty of bad places in reality; dystopias are the very bad places of fiction, of invented reality. As such they are the products of a human desire to fantasize about extremity.
It is this embrace of the extreme that gives dystopian theatre its cutting edge, and maybe its appeal. If the Second World War taught us anything it was that there were no limits to bad stuff. So the theatrical imagination was set free to think the very worst about what humans could be capable of. Yet, with only a few exceptions—Samuel Beckett maybe, some of John Whiting’s plays, the occasional absurdist or female visionary, such as Ann Jellicoe or Jane Arden, moments in the work of Edward Bond or Howard Barker—dystopias or catastrophes have been rare in British theatre until comparatively recently. If you want a demonstration [End Page 28] of the power of naturalism and social realism you need look no further. These twin attitudes of mind have effectively, for many decades, exiled the very worst stuff from our stages.
Eventually, global events such as the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and, more gradually, awareness of climate change, have changed the theatrical imagination. While the end of the Cold War might have made us all safer, some, admittedly rare, stage plays suggested otherwise. For example, 1991 saw the premiere of Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney (Bush Theatre). It offers a strange mixture of gothic and post-apocalyptic sensibility from a writer who pioneered the in-yer-face style. Although set in a familiar place, a rather shabby room in London’s East End, the situation of the two characters—twenty-eight-year-old twins Presley and Haley—is extreme. Since the death of their parents ten years earlier, a catastrophic event that has defined their lives, they have lived in total isolation, existing on a diet of chocolate and medicinal syrup. They look like vampires, they barely leave the house: clearly this is not a realistic account of young people in the early 1990s. But the really dystopic material comes from their descriptions of where they are living: both twins tell stories as a ritual to help them survive their agoraphobic fears. Their idea of their house is bleakly fictional: they imagine that they are the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust in which the “world is a wasteland.” Their incantations are positively Beckettian: “No heaven visible. No stars, no moon, no sun. Nothing.” All is black and empty.
Even when they are visited by two strangers—the flashy entertainer Cosmo Disney and his hooded henchman Pitchfork Cavalier—the tone of the play remains rooted in fantasy. Haley tells a long story, full of gross physicality, of being hunted by feral dogs and ending up in the arms of a life-size Christ on a church crucifix; Presley has a five-page monologue about the Pitchfork Disney, a handsome but murderous...