The influence of absurdist theatre on in-yer-face theatre in the 1990’s as exemplified by Beckett’s "Endgame" and Ravenhill’s "Shopping and F***ing"

Term Paper, 2017

11 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theatre of the Absurd and In-Yer-Face Theatre: a Comparison
2.1. In-Yer-Face Theatre
2.2. Theatre of the Absurd
2.3. Comparing Absurdist Theatre and In-Yer-Face Theatre

3. Analysing Beckett’s Endgame and Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing
3.1. Characters conception
3.2. Language and dialogue
3.3. The expression of the body

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“ In-Yer-Face Theatre is to the 1990s what absurdism was to the 1950s ”

In the following paper I’d like to investigate whether this statement is true or if both movements should be seen as two different theatre forms without any connection.

As a basis of my investigations serves Agnes M. Kitzler’s study about the influence of Absurdist Theatre on Contemporary In-Yer-Face Theatre (Kitzler, 2011) as well as Aleks Sierz’ book on In-Yer-Face-Theatre (Sierz, 2001) and Martin Esslin’s book on the Theatre of the Absurd (Esslin, 2001). I will mostly try to give a general overview about similarities and differences between absurdism and In-Yer-Face Theatre before I give distinct examples of Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing and finally come to an conclusion if In-Yer-Face Theatre is to the 1990s what absurdism was to the 1950s or not..

I firmly believe that as this paper is limited to seven until eight pages it is more important to give a general overview which is more effective to answer the question whether both movements show similarities or not. However I think it is important to undertake several aspect a closer examination in a broader study, which could be, for example, a bachelor thesis.

2. Theatre of the Absurd and In-Yer-Face Theatre: a Comparison

As Agnes M. Kitzler already mentioned it might seem difficult at first sight to compare In-Yer- Face Theatre to the Theatre of the Absurd as they appear to be quite different (Kitzler, 2011:3). In-Yer-Face Theatre on the one hand is a type of drama which is aggressive and merciless including certain scenes of sex and violence ”to explore the extremes of human emotion“ (Sierz, 2001:110) together with dirty language, drug abuse or vomiting on stage it is written by young and wild adults in their twenties (Kitzler, 2011:3). On the other hand, we encounter a theatre, produced by men over the age of forty, who create ”abstract but expressive images of absurdity and stagnation” (ibid.). The producers use dry humour, according to Esslin they try to incline “toward a radical devaluation of language, toward a poetry that is to emerge from the concrete and objectified images of the stage itself” (Esslin, 2001:26). Before comparing these kinds of theatre it appears to be essential to define the basic motives of In-Yer-Face Theatre and absurdist theatre more precisely.

2.1. In-Yer-Face Theatre

According to theatre critic Alekz Sierz the name ‘In-Yer-Face Theatre’ accentuates “the sense of rupture” (Sierz, 2001:109) in which the focus is on the unfamiliar dramatic voices which weren’t received before. Another fact which Sierz mentioned is that the name implies a relationship between play and audience, this relationship manifests itself whilst a spectator goes to the theatre and watches “extreme plays” which produce a feeling in which “your personal space is threatened” (ibid.). As a final point Sierz points out that the name ‘In-Yer-Face’ resembles everything which embraces the zeitgeist of the 1990s and in this way the name combines “theatre to the wider culture of that decade” (ibid.). In summary, it can be stated that in-yer-face theatre was a new and offensive movement which confronted the audience with an unfamiliar feeling of publicity and closeness.

To sum this up Sierz specifies three different characteristics of In-Yer-Face Theatre: The first characteristic he described accounts for the type of drama which usually operates which certain scenes of violence and sex to “explore the extremes of human emotions”, the type is further portrays by stage images that illustrates acts such as anal rape, child abuse, drug injection, cannibalism and vomiting. Moreover it has a “sense of life being lived on the edge” (cf. Sierz, 2001:110). As a second characteristic Sierz is indicating the “breaking of taboos” which utters in an extreme use of vulgar language, pornography or blasphemy and showing “deeply private acts in public” with the intention to appall the audience and to test the “boundaries of acceptability” (ibid.). Lastly Sierz discussed as a third characteristic of In-Yer- Face Theatre the basic aesthetic of it which is that of experiential theatre, meaning that if the theatre is performed at its best, the performance will be so profound that the audience emotionally feels that they have “lived through the events shown on stage” due to the fact that In-Yer-Face theatre is not “debating issues” but establishes “its actions and ideas on the audience” (ibid.).

2.2. Theatre of the Absurd

Just as the basic motives of In-Yer-Face Theatre, the prevailing idea of Absurdist Theatre was also established by a theatre critic by the name of Martin Esslin. In his study ‘The Theatre of the Absurd” which was first published in 1961 he declares that the Absurdist Theatre is a return to “old, even archaic traditions” (Esslin, 2001:327) which were then displayed in “new and individually varied combinations” (Esslin, 2001:328). According to Esslin the main characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd are that there is no hope because of the unavoidable absurdity of men efforts which lead to the essentially meaninglessness of life that consequently will be miserable. Because of this meaninglessness there is no action or plot in absurdist plays as only very little happens because there simply is nothing which would be sufficiently meaningful to happen. Another characteristic Esslin mentioned is that reality is unbearable, it can only be relived during dreams or illusions but not at alert mind, moreover are men always fascinated by death which will sooner or later replace all dreams and illusions and thus the possibility to receive reality in any way. The ending scene of an absurdist play is regularly absurd or comic and there won’t be any solution at the end of the play as absurd drama is not purposeful nor specific (Esslin, 2001:327ff.). An additional essential characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd is that the play is merely presented on stage without paying particular attention to the audience (Kitzler, 2011:5). It should not be forgotten that furthermore the Theatre of the Absurd represents a social criticism, it denounces an “inauthentic, petty society” (Esslin, 2001:401). Furthermore Esslin is referring to a major aspect of Absurdist Theatre, which he labeled a “more positive aspect”, he suggests that the Theatre of the Absurd is confronting to a “deeper layer of absurdity - the absurdity of the human condition itself in a world where the decline of religious belief has deprived man of certainties” (ibid.). From this we can conclude that absurdist theatre tried to restore the significance of myth which is related to religion by shocking the audience in confronting it with the limits of human condition.

To provide a better understanding of the motives of absurdist plays we must bear in mind that absurdist plays emerged after World War II in the 1950s. After two horrible wars many people tried to find a way which would give them strength to face a world without a centre and without any clearly discernible purpose - the world became absurd after these two devastating wars (Esslin, 2001:399). As an expression of this longing, how to face this absurd world, one can regard to Absurdist Theatre. “It bravely faces up to the fact that for those to whom the world has lost its central explanation and meaning, it is no longer possible to accept art forms still based on the continuation of standards and concepts that have lost their validity.” (ibid.)

2.3. Comparing Absurdist Theatre and In-Yer-Face Theatre

Referring to the basic motives mentioned in the previous paragraphs, several basic differences are discernible, for example how both theatres differently interact with the audience or the different forms of shocking the audience. Nevertheless do both characteristics also show similarities.

Both movements neglect traditional approaches, such as plot, characterisation or dialogue. Whereas Absurdist Theatre depends on images instead of a plot and also refuses arguments and “discursive thought”, In-Yer-Face Theatre on the other hand neglects plots in creating a direct contact with the audience to acquire an emotional response (Kitzler, 2011:5). Kitzler quotes two citation by Esslin and Sierz which both summarise perfectly the defiance of traditional approaches. Aleks Sierz remarks:

if a well-made play has to have a good plot, much provocative drama prefers to have a strong sense of experiential confrontation; if a well-made play has to have complex characters, much new drama has types rather than individuals; if a well-made play has to have long theatrical speeches, nineties drama usually has curt televisual dialogue; if a well-made play must have a naturalistic context, in-yer-face drama often creates worlds beyond mere realism; if a good well-made play has to have moral ambiguity, in-yer-face drama often prefers unresolved contradictions. (Skierz, 2002:243f.)

Surprisingly Esslin makes a very similar comparison of the traditional and the new:

if a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these [absurdist plays] have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manners and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings. (Esslin, 2001:21f.)

What’s compelling about both quotes are the “striking parallels between Sierz’ and Esslin’s descriptions”, these correlations show, that both theatre forms try to deny traditions in the same way (Kitzler, 2011:6).

The next point to be considered are the characters, which are most commonly outsiders who are emotional cripples which aren’t able to show, feel let alone talk about any kind of emotion. The characters fail in the search for a meaning and are finally confronted with the frivolity of humanity; they are condemned to live in existential fear in a senseless, jumbled world without any meaningful nor identity-establishing love. Thus the only way to show kinds of emotion for the characters in absurdist and in-yer-face plays are through the abuse of drugs, the sonication of media, mass consumption etc.. In addition to that a change in the function of dialogues took place in both In-Yer-Face and Absurdist Theatre, dialogues have no longer the function of “advancing a plot” (ibid.). As Kitzler claims language can now be seen as a meta- level on which language is used to describe itself’s lost function, it is no longer used for communication but is reduced to sound. Kitzler further discusses several other parallels including the importance of non-textual elements such as settings, which develop into an “expressivity of its own”, or the body on stage. On the one hand we have In-Yer-Face Theatre in which violence plays a big role. Rape, drug abuse or anal sex is enacted publicly and unequivocally, “right in front of the audience” (Kitzler, 2011:7). This accuracy of violent acts accentuates the “act itself” and as a consequence also to the bodies involved. On the other hand we have the Theatre of the Absurd in which violence is less common. Nevertheless does it depend heavily on “the presence of the body” but in a slightly different way, as it counts on the “comic effects”, these effects are established through interactions with characters and objects or bodies become part of the setting (ibid.). Both types of theatre letting the body undergo mutation, which brings the body itself into attention.

As a matter of fact there are quite a few more similarities between In-Yer-Face Theatre and the Theatre of the Absurd, such as the dramaturgical focus, a general tradition in the 20th century, the zeitgeist etc. however I’d like to focus on the above mentioned similarities and skip the other aspects as this would go beyond the scope of this paper. My main focus on the further structural analysis will be on the characters conception, the Language and Dialogues used in the plays as well as the expression of the body in both movements.

3. Analysing Beckett’s Endgame and Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing

Before analysing the similarities in more detail we should shortly consider the backgrounds and the plots of both plays.

Endgame, written by Samuel Beckett and first published in 1958 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, is an absurdist drama about the final stages of life. These last steps as well as the title ‘Endgame’ can be related to chess, where the term ‘endgame’ is used to describe an ending where the outcome is already known. The plot of Endgame is basically whether Clov will leave Hamm or not. It is a frantic play about despair where nothing really happens at all. Hopelessness can be seen in the fact that the protagonists Hamm and Clov are only waiting for death during the play.

Shopping and F***ing, written by Mark Ravenhill and first published in 1996, is an In- Yer-Face drama about five young adults trying to steal and sell whatever, sex, drugs, food etc., they could, Ravenhill took the names of the main characters from pop stars.The play tries to show how the society especially the youth of the 1990s is slashed to consumerism. One of the main motives in the play is as well as in Endgame Hopelessness as the characters are waiting to find a solution, which will end their hopeless situation, without getting near to it.

3.1. Characters conception

The overviews given above help to introduce a structural analysis of both plays, as they both give a broad idea about the main motives of them. These motives also help to understand the conception of the characters.


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The influence of absurdist theatre on in-yer-face theatre in the 1990’s as exemplified by Beckett’s "Endgame" and Ravenhill’s "Shopping and F***ing"
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel
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ISBN (Book)
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Literatrwissenschaft, Literatur, Englisch, Anglistik
Quote paper
Anne Katrin Fack (Author), 2017, The influence of absurdist theatre on in-yer-face theatre in the 1990’s as exemplified by Beckett’s "Endgame" and Ravenhill’s "Shopping and F***ing", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: The influence of absurdist theatre on in-yer-face theatre in the 1990’s as exemplified by Beckett’s "Endgame" and Ravenhill’s "Shopping and F***ing"

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