I recently visited a site that George has on his blogroll: In-Yer-Face Theatre. After clicking on "What Is In-Yer-Face Theatre," I found this explanation:
In-yer-face theatre is the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. The phrase 'in-your-face' is defined by the New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) as something 'blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid'. The Collins English Dictionary (1998) adds the adjective 'confrontational'.
'In-your-face' originated in American sports journalism during the mid-1970s as an exclamation of derision or contempt, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang during the late 1980s and 1990s, meaning 'aggressive, provocative, brash'. It implies being forced to see something close up, having your personal space invaded. It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries. In short, it describes perfectly the kind of theatre that puts audiences in just such a situation.
In-yer-face theatre shocks audiences by the extremism of its language and images; unsettles them by its emotional frankness and disturbs them by its acute questioning of moral norms. It not only sums up the zeitgeist, but criticises it as well. Most in-yer-face plays are not interested in showing events in a detached way and allowing audiences to speculate about them; instead, they are experiential - they want audiences to feel the extreme emotions that are being shown on stage. In-yer-face theatre is experiential theatre.
WHY? My basic argument is really simple: in-yer-face theatre is contemporary theatre. What was distinctly new about 1990s drama, what could not have been written 20 years earlier, is the type of in-yer-face play which shocked and disturbed audiences, creating a new aesthetic sensibility. In other words, in-yer-face theatre is to the 1990s what absurdism was to the 1950s, or what kitchen-sink drama was to the Macmillan years.
HOW? How can you tell if a play is in-yer-face? Well, it really isn't difficult: the language is filthy, there's nudity, people have sex in front of you, violence breaks out, one character humiliates another, taboos are broken, unmentionable subjects are broached, conventional dramatic structures are subverted. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces you to react - either you want to get on stage and stop what's happening or you decide it's the best thing you've ever seen and you long to come back the next night. As indeed you should.
First of all, this manifesto is an excellent argument for the need for more theatre history in our undergraduate curriculum. While "In-Yer-Face Theatre" may, indeed, be what sets the 90s off from other drama, it is the 1890s not the 1990s. Or at least the early 1900s. Has the author every heard of Artaud? Jarry? The Dadaists and the Surrealists? Wedekind? Give me a break. The only thing that makes "In-Yer-Face Theatre" different is that our society allows "artists" to get away with a helluva lot more now. Although Wedekind, in Spring's Awakening (written in 1891) did have a group of young boys performing a circle jerk...
Now, over the months I have been blogging, when I have written about artists who have a hostile attitude toward the audience, I have been poo-pooed. Am I wrong, or is this not a pretty damn good example? If not, then we have very different definitions of "hostile."
My question is: is this really an advance? Aside from allowing young theatre artists the thrill of yelling "fuck" in a crowded theatre, does this do anything other than simply move our society even further toward the crassness, brutality, crudity, inarticulateness, objectification, and banality that permeates almost every inch of our world already?
Perhaps I am slipping into the role reserved for middle-aged men of being outraged by the young (I can hear in my mind's ear the voices of critics condemning the "open sewer" of Ibsen's Ghosts a century ago). If so, then I willingly assume the role, since it provides young people with something solid to push against. To that end, let me say that this idea of theatre seems adolescent to me, like it was created by angry teenagers who broke away from Grand Theft Auto and said, "Hey, let's do a show! My Dad's got a dildo!"
My reaction to In-Yer-Face Theatre is to shout "Get Outa My Fucking Face Until You Have Something Intelligent to Say, Punk!" But then, that's just me... Curmudgeonly. Cranky. Valuing intelligence... Man, talk about old-fashioned.