Wednesday, February 01, 2006

And the Point Is...???

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.


Devilvet said...

Is the hostility you are perceving hostility towards the audience, or just towards everyone and everything?

Cut In-Yer-Face some slack. If everybody believed that the experiment already happened then they wouldn't get out of bed to create.

Yes, the emperor isn't wearing any clothes, so what let me rant and rave.

You're arguement about contextuality of theatrical history is on the money. But let the kids be kids.

Alison Croggon said...

You made me go and look at the site, Scott. And the site seems quite well-informed about theatre history: they mention Artaud, Howard Brenton, Peter Brook's production of Marat/Sade, indeed, a whole bunch of people from the 60s and 70s.

It's a British site about contemporary British theatre, not a theatre company. The In-Yer-Face stuff they are talking about seems to be people like Sarah Kane, who certainly qualifies as an in-yer-face 90s playwright...

Freeman said...

Did anyone ever tell you that you look fetching when you're absolutely furious?

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, I had a further look: the site is based on a book, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, published by Faber and Faber (and reprinted twice since) in 2001.

From the blurb: "The book contains extensive interviews with playwrights, and examines their work, giving a real feel of what’s like to watch cutting-edge drama come alive on stage. Writers discussed include Simon Block, Jez Butterworth, David Eldridge, Harry Gibson, Nick Grosso, Sarah Kane, Tracy Letts, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber, Phyllis Nagy, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Rebecca Prichard, Mark Ravenhill, Philip Ridley, Judy Upton, Che Walker, Naomi Wallace and Richard Zajdlic." There's a list of contents as well. Looks like one for the library.

The site also has an extensive bibliography on new British playwrights, listing books, websites and theatres which stage this work.

Now, you might have an argument, say, with the aesthetic of playwrights like Sarah Kane (whom I admire) or Mark Ravenhill (whom I don't); but what he's talking about is really not naive, nor ignorant of theatre history. Nor unintelligent...

George Hunka said...

I've read that book, and as Alison notes, it is one of the most interesting books about late-20th-century British theater, comparable in its scope, its knowledgability of theater and aesthetic history, and its supple considerations of many major artists to Martin Esslin's "Theatre of the Absurd," which Sierz's book most resembles. Sierz certainly is not unaware of theater history; his 33-page first chapter includes a lengthy consideration of the role of confrontation in both avant-garde and conventional theater.

One thing is for certain: "In-Yer-Face" theater has produced perhaps the most interesting work of all kinds from a wide variety of writers since the last great explosion of British drama in the 1950s/1960s. While I find the "In-Yer-Face" label clumsy and disagree with many of Sierz's judgments, the book is well-written and well thought-out, and has remained in print since Faber & Faber, a major general publishing house, issued it. What's more, Sierz's book served to define perhaps the most important and visible trend in English-language drama since the absurd; the Royal Court Theatre revitalized its season and its audiences as it produced this work through the 1990s.

What I find surprising, Scott, is that, in your position as a teacher of theater and drama at a major state university, this is the first you've heard of it.

(And just to stand up for Mr. Sierz himself, well, in my personal correspondence with him, he's never been less than witty, considerate, thoughtful, knowledgable and sensitive.)