British Drama of the 90s

In-yer-face theatre

Exam Revision, 2005

14 Pages



1. What is in-yer-face theatre?
1.1. Characteristics of in-yer-face theatre: sensation, shock, confrontation, taboo breaking, disturbing, provocative, attacking
1.2. Distinguishing elements: language, themes, taboo words, nudity, sex scenes, disgust, pain
1.3. Immediacy of theatre performance

2. The history of provocative theatre
2.1. Ancient Greek Theatre
2.2. Jacobean Theatre
2.3. Experimental Theatre from 1960s
2.4. Censorship

3. How in-yer-face theatre works (principles, techniques, themes, formal structure)
3.1. Shopping and Fucking
3.2. Blasted
3.3. Cleansed
3.4. Closer
3.5. Yard Gal
3.6. Trainspotting
3.7. Penetrator
3.8. Blue Orange


Siertz, Aleks. 2000. In-Yer-Face Theatre. British Drama Today.

Innes, Christopher. 1992. Modern British Drama. 1890-1990. Cambridge UP.

1. What is in-yer-face theatre?

"The wildest definition of in-yer-face theatre is any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message." (Aleks Siertz)

The most frequently used characteristics of in-yer-face theatre are sensation, shock, confrontation, taboo breaking, disturbing, provocative, attacking. It is a theatre of sensation, both actors and spectators are kicked out of the orbit/domain of conventional reactions, touches nerves, provokes alarm. Often such dramas employ shock tactics, or is shocking because it is new in tone or structure, or because it is more experimental than what the audience is used to. It questions moral norms and affronts the dominating ideas of what can or should be shown onstage. It also works with more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort.

How can one tell if a play is in-yer-face? It isn't really difficult. The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each other, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. The audience exposed to such scenes where it plays the part of the voyeur feels duly uncomfortable and uneasy and is forced to react, they either leave the theatre immediately, or are convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen. This kind of theatre usually inspires to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.

Shock is a way to wake up the audience since the plays deal with disturbing subjects and explore difficult feelings. Through such provocations and confrontations writers intend to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. They question current ideas of what is normal, what it means to be human, what is natural and what is real. In other words, they use shock as part of a search for deeper meaning, as well as part of a rediscovery of theatrical possibilities, to see just how far they can go.

There can be distinguished the hot and the cool versions of in-yer-face theatre. The hot version is often performed in smaller theatres and uses the aesthetics of extremism: the language is blatant, the action explicit, the emotions heightened. The aggression is open and the experience remains unforgettable. Cooler versions appear more distanced in comparison. They are played to a larger audience, are more traditional in structure and means. Comedy is often used to ease unpleasant feelings since laughter is a common reaction to terror (the other is ignoring it).

Most in-yer-face theatre challenges the distinctions we use to define who we are: human vs. animal, clean vs. dirty, healthy vs. unhealthy, normal vs. abnormal, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, just vs. unjust. These binary opposition are central to our world view – so questioning them can be very unsettling. However, only by seeing the other side of all things "good" and by comparing them can we better realise what we really are and what our "goodness" is worth. Therefore, this type of theatre forces us to face ideas and feelings we would normally avoid because they are too painful, too frightening, too unpleasant, or too acute. They remind us of the awful things human being are capable of and of the limits of our self-control. In theatre we can safely explore such emotions. Thus, it is the violation of this sense of safety that makes the experimental theatre so powerful.

Provocative: either unconventional subject matter in conventional structure (the well-made play), or more traditional subjects in an unfamiliar theatrical structure.

How can theatre be so shocking? The main reason is its immediacy and live character. When we are watching a play, it is mostly in real time with real people acting in the same room. So when we find ourselves reacting and others are reacting too, and are aware of our reaction. So subjects that might be bearable when we read about them in private suddenly seem disturbing when shown in public. Situations that are essentially private, such as sex, seem embarrassingly intimate onstage. When taboos are broken in public, the spectators often become complicit witnesses.

Moreover, live performances heighten awareness, increase potential embarrassment, and can make the representation of private pain on a public stage almost unbearable. The audience does not know how far the action will go to shock it and there is always the risk that something unexpected might happen since every performance is different. This increases the tension.

Theatre depends not only on the suspension of disbelief but also on empathy. Although no one believes in what is shown onstage, many spectators invest emotionally in it. Although what is shown is make-believe, they take it close to their hearts.

Words seem to cause more offence than the acts to which they refer. Taboo words, such as 'fuck' and 'cunt', work because we give them certain magic power which makes them more than simple signs that describe an event or a thing. Like all taboo words, they are a way of guarding against imagined infections, a way of drawing a line that must not be crossed. Swear words become a verbal act of aggression, and in theatre, where they are used openly, they appear even stronger.

Nudity onstage is more powerful than nudity in other visual media because the real person is actually present. Moreover, nudity is often culturally loaded with metaphorical significance, it can be an act of power or an expression of helplessness, etc.

What most affronts us can sometimes be what most fascinates us. Because in-yer-face theatre treats difficult subjects, it touches what we want to know about ourselves but are too afraid to find out. The public staging of secret desires and monstrous acts both repels us and draws us in.

Disgust – new source of catharsis in the 20th century through fear and disgust, both emotions are linked to taboos of sex and death Fear of random violence, distinctions between public and private spheres are blurred Disgust – border concept: marks the border between 'me' and 'the other', "the abject has to be othered" (Julia Kristeva "The Abject", "Powers of Horror" 1980) from 1980's onwards disgust has been used in art to attack the ego boundaries, to shock since the shock threshold has become lower

Pain – predominant emotion; ways to overcome it; is the end of pain death? the only way to connect to reality other aspects of pain - violence to others/oneself – pity/emotion; is pain part of compassion?

2. The history of provocative theatre

In-yer-face drama looks back on a rich history of theatre of provocation.

The greatest of the ancient Greek tragedies deal with extreme states of mind: brutal death and terrible suicides, agonising pain and dreadful suffering, human sacrifice, cannibalism, rape, incest, mutilation and humiliation. Most tragedies are built on the waywardness of fate and most intimate fears. Their intention was to purge the bad feelings of the audience. The idea of putting yourself through hell in order to exorcise your inner demons is at the root of experimental theatre.

The Jacobean theatre deals with horrible murders, painful tortures, wanton acts of cruelty and vicious vengeance. Murder is depicted in all details, with mutilations, incest. Audience was delighted by horrible stage images and thrilled by depictions of evil. To the end of the play all wrong-doers are dead – the triumph of justice in the 'tragedy of blood'. It was the expectation that morality (Christian moral) would be finally restored that gave the audience permission to enjoy such unnatural acts. John Webster The Dutchess of Malfi, John Ford 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633).

However, uncontrolled emotions were often seen as dangerous, and the best way of making theatre safe for audiences was censorship. Introduced in Britain in 1737, strict rules have been controlling the nation's stages. The Lord Chamberlain read and licensed all plays, forbidding the showing of material that was indecent, blasphemous or otherwise offensive. The list of things banned included swearwords; nudity; risqué stage business; representations of God, the Royal family or anyone living; and homosexuality. Victorian and Edwardian theatre was censored even stricter. As late as 1909, Edward Garnett could not describe the condition of the heroine of his play as 'pregnant' because it was considered vulgar and likely to inflame lascivious thoughts. He had to use the French word 'enceinte'; if you were classy enough to speak French, presumably you were immune to sudden lust.

The early sixties saw the emergence of a truly confrontational theatre in Britain. Inspired by Antonin Artaud ('The Theatre of Cruelty: First Manifesto' 1932 – "the truthful precipitates of dreams"), Jerzy Grotowski, Herman Nitsch (Theatre of Orgy and Hysteria, rituals, from the use of blood and excrement through disgust to catharsis), Peter Brook founded together with Charles Marowitz an experimental group 'Theatre of Cruelty'. Brook's innovation is based on the ancient Greek theatre, Shakespeare, non-european theatre, rituals, collective experiment as well as exposition of human body. One of the most articulate productions of Brook's workshop was Marat-Sade (1964) after the play by Peter Weiss The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, which also served as a plot summary for the piece (joke!). Artaud's concept of 'cruelty', however, had less to do with sadism than with the exploration of the possibilities of the actors' bodies, their non-verbal resources, to regain the absolute freedom of expression onstage, like a writer when experiencing on paper. The ultimate aim was to purge Western society of its materialistic morality, to reach the audience directly through a 'necessary cruelty' in exposing the audience to deliberate violence. The expressive means employed breaking all sorts of taboos like nudity, close bodily contact, shouting, spitting, imitation of defecation, copulation, imitation of blood or excrement, etc. were extremely unsettling for the audience. However, these rituals were set within an explicitly theatrical frame.

(Theater of the Absurd: power is the subject matter – dominance, control, exploitation, subjugation, victimisation; Beckett, Harold Pinter The Caretaker, Tom Stoppard)

Quite a number of plays in the 1960's were outrageous in their content which moved Lord Chamberlain to abolish censorship in 1968. Besides the Angry Young Men plays and Kitchen Sink Dramas which expressed social anger among the working class, the poor and the disadvantaged (John Osborne Look Back in Anger 1956, Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Edward Bond), there are other, more brutal plays. David Rudkin's work aimed to exorcise unconscious demons by assaulting audience sensibilities. His plays show animal copulation, guards sodomising prisoners, dismemberment, demented and deformed characters, and other mutilations. Edward Bond's Saved includes the scene where a baby in a pram is stoned to death by a gang of youths. Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) and Loot (1966) affront the audience by the explicit treating of incest.

Political and social issues, racism of the plays' content were juxtaposed with the images of nakedness, perversities, violence, the cacophony of sounds.


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British Drama of the 90s
In-yer-face theatre
University of Cologne  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
British Drama of the 90s
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british, drama, in-yer-face
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LL.M., MA Irina Giertz (Author), 2005, British Drama of the 90s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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