Introduction (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Contemporary drama in Britain reinforces a lengthy and strong theatrical tradition, while employing innovative strategies and themes that reflect recent developments in British society and culture. Many of those dramatists who achieved success in the 1960’s and 1970’s continue to produce remarkable work. At the same time, a number of historical factors have influenced the work of a new generation of playwrights. British drama throughout the twentieth century frequently challenged social norms, but the political and cultural impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, which dominated the 1980’s, continued to be felt in the years following her tenure. The entrepreneurship, unemployment, economic upheaval, dismantling of the welfare state, and Thatcher’s seeming insistence on “Victorian values” generated explicitly political drama in the 1980’s, much of which criticized the prevailing values of radical conservatism. This is evidenced most obviously in the plays of David Hare and Howard Brenton.
In the 1990’s, the aftershocks from the preceding decade were felt in the form of attacks on the new consumerism encouraged by Thatcher and on the “political correctness” response emanating from the Left. At the same time, tensions in Northern Ireland continued to confront Britain, and a number of new Irish playwrights emerged not only to address these issues but also to consider the condition of Ireland as a whole. One...
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Continuity in Dramatists (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
British playwrights whose names were already well established continued to produce some of the most remarkable plays of the twentieth century’s last decade. Harold Pinter ’s highly political absurdist impulse underscores his The New World Order (pr. 1991), which implicates the promotion of democracy in acts of political torture. Ashes to Ashes (pb. 1996) exemplifies Pinter’s abiding concern for uncertainty and, in typically Pinteresque fashion, portrays two characters whose superficial exchanges merely emphasize the silence of that which is unsaid. Celebration (pr. 2000) returns to the familiar territory of his The Room (pr. 1957), in which the menacing and the banal merge in sinister comedy. Tom Stoppard ’s own brand of absurdism, his passion for the metahistorical and the metatheatrical, and his phenomenally playful and intelligent linguistic agility all find expression in Arcadia (pr. 1993), which alternates between the early nineteenth century and the present, and in The Invention of Love (pr. 1997), which imagines the afterlife of poet A. E. Housman as he confronts the River Styx. Stoppard reached an even wider audience with his screenplay, cowritten with Marc Norman, for the academy award-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), an invigorating and imaginative portrait of Shakespeare’s life in London, full of witty dialogue and comic anachronism.
Britain’s foremost female playwright, Caryl Churchill, has continued to examine feminist and other political issues. Mad Forest: A Play from Romania (pr. 1990) emerged from her experiences with Romanian acting students in exploring the fall of ruthless dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. The themes of devastation, repression, and transformation examined in this play are explored in a less realistic vein in Skriker (pr. 1993), a surreal drama focusing on the constant metamorphoses of the title character, a mythical Celtic figure who haunts two young women as they travel to urban London. Of particular interest in this play is Churchill’s Joycean linguistic profusion of puns and allusions.
Although their sheer numbers preclude further consideration, many other notable and long-established playwrights, from Sir Alan Ayckbourn to David Hare, from Pam Gems to Peter Shaffer, have continued to produce diverse and successful works of drama for the contemporary British stage.
A Theater of Shock (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Undoubtedly, one of the most significant developments on the British stage in the 1990’s was also the most controversial: that which Alex Sierz and others have called “in-yer-face theater.” Determined to challenge directly audience expectations and sensibilities, as Samuel Beckett had done two generations earlier, the work of a number of young British dramatists suggested that nothing was “obscene” or unsuitable for the stage. Among this group, the most significant are Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson, Martin McDonagh, and Sarah Kane.
The plays of these dramatists transgress taboos of all kinds and refuse the audience the position of the detached spectator, aiming willfully—and judging from various reviews, successfully—to offend. Clearly a response to a certain tendency toward nostalgia and revivals in the British theater, as well to the heavy emphasis on morality on one side of British politics in the 1980’s and the knee-jerk political correctness on the other, “in-yer-face” theater must be seen in this contextual light.
Ravenhill ’s body of work, which includes Shopping and Fucking (pr. 1996), Faust Is Dead (pr. 1997), Some Explicit Polaroids (pr. 1999), and Mother Clap’s Molly House (pr. 2001), is calculated to attack social conventions and consumerism with shocking and explicit stage imagery. Neilson is the most confrontational exponent of what has been termed “experiential...
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Women Dramatists (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Kane’s success hinted at a broader truth: To a degree greater than at any time during its history, modern-day theater in Britain features the work of women playwrights. In addition to Churchill and Gems, a new generation of female writers has produced highly successful and influential drama. Their numbers abound and between them they have placed feminist issues firmly at the center of the contemporary British stage. Among the most important are Sarah Daniels, Debbie Isitt, and Judy Upton, each of whom presents feminist issues with varying degrees of frankness.
Daniels ’s powerful and complex female characters respond to the demands and the traps of a male-centered culture. In 1983’s Masterpieces, the representation of women in the media is examined: A woman who has just viewed graphic images of sex and torture at the cinema is approached by a man in the subway; acting instinctively, she pushes him to his death on the tracks. Neaptide (pr. 1986) portrays a lesbian mother forced to conceal her sexual identity to keep her job as a schoolteacher and to protect her daughter, while Head-Rot Holiday (pr. 1992) examines the impact of prison life on young mothers. The title of Isitt ’s The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband (pr. 1991) offers a clue to the consequences of a middle-aged man’s philandering. Isitt’s hallmark is her keen eye for suburban bitterness and her biting humor. She founded the Snarling Beasties company and often acts in and directs productions of her own plays, including both the theatrical and the cinematic versions of Nasty Neighbours (pr. 1995, 2000). Upton most fully belongs to the “in-yer-face” spirit of the turn of the twenty-first century in portraying angry and powerful young women whose language and behavior conventionally are deemed outrageous; in other words, her characters are often “girlz,” to borrow the title of one of her plays (The Girlz, pr. 1998). From Ashes and Sand (pr. 1992) to Sliding with Suzanne (pr. 2001), Upton offers brutally honest and highly successful portraits of marginalization and exploitation and, in doing so, exposes a great deal of social hypocrisy.
Drama in Two Irelands (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
No writer in Northern Ireland can escape what are somewhat euphemistically called “the Troubles,” but if the Troubles are largely seen from a male point of view, Christina Reid’s plays offer a valuable corrective. Reid combines an obviously strong dramatic tradition in Ireland with a concern for the ever-present dangers of life in the North. Her first play, Did You Hear the One About the Irishman? (pr. 1982), takes its title from the typical opening line of jokes about the stupidity of the Irish. The joke here, though, is less the improbably idealistic relationship between a Catholic and a Protestant, neither of whom can comprehend the dangers they face. Rather, it is the backdrop to this naïveté: Representatives from both of their families have suffered imprisonment and death because of the endless cycle of violence. The juxtaposition is typical of Reid’s dark humor. Subsequent plays, including the gritty and grimly realistic Joyriders (pr. 1986) and The Belle of Belfast City (pr. 1989), explore the poverty and misery faced by the inhabitants of Belfast as a result of the political conflicts.
Among the many Irish playwrights to emerge from the Irish Republic, one of the most celebrated is Conor McPherson, whose Olivier Award-winning and internationally acclaimed The Weir (pr. 1998) is a worthy successor to the great dramatic tradition in Ireland. Set entirely in the local pub of a rural village, the play turns on the arrival of Valerie, an educated and attractive outsider who generates awkward and futile sexual interest among the regulars. Soon the men turn to ghost stories in a bid to impress the newcomer, and Valerie herself reveals that the house she has purchased is haunted. The ghosts and hallucinations in these stories become an emblem of rural Ireland, which, McPherson suggests, is also haunted by its past and its isolation.
Drama in a Multicultural Age (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Large-scale immigration to Britain began after World War II and continued as former colonies gained their independence. First-generation immigrant playwrights such as Michael Abbensetts and Mustapha Matura established reputations in the 1970’s. Abbensetts’s work for the theater and television is notable for its realistic representation of the black experience in Britain. His most important play, Alterations (pr. 1978), offers a microcosm of the immigrant condition in Britain, portraying a West Indian tailor struggling to complete an order that will allow him to acquire his own shop and a measure of independence. Matura , who immigrated from Trinidad in 1961, uses Britain as a geographic and artistic vantage point to explore Trinidadian life and culture in such plays as Rum an’ Coca Cola (pr. 1976) and Independence (pr. 1979). His early works documenting the West Indian immigrant experience in Britain were groundbreaking, and in the 1980’s, his ebullient The Playboy of the West Indies (pr. 1984) and The Trinidad Sisters (pr. 1988) transformed canonical plays by John Millington Synge and Anton Chekhov, respectively, by setting them in Trinidad and employing the locutions of the Caribbean.
Caryl Phillips, who arrived in England from the West Indies before he was a year old, examines the sense of geographical and cultural dislocation deriving from migration. Strange Fruit (pr. 1980) focuses on the children of a single immigrant mother who are drawn, despite their English education, to the culture of the West Indies. The Shelter (pr. 1983) addresses one of the most abiding racial and sexual taboos; here, the growing relationship between a shipwrecked black former slave and a white widow in the eighteenth century is balanced by the subsequent exploration of a...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Berney, K. A., ed. Contemporary British Dramatists. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1994. This collection offers brief analyses of more than 150 writers for the stage, radio, and television, and of thirty-four of the most influential and representative plays of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Drama critic Michael Billington offers a useful general introduction.
Boireau, Nicole, ed. Drama on Drama: Dimensions of Theatricality on the Contemporary British Stage. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Boireau’s compilation of critical essays share a common theme: the self-reflexivity of contemporary British theater as exemplified in...
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