In-Yer-Face Theatre: A Contemporary Form of Drama
‘In the 1990s, a revolution took place in British theatre. Out went all those boring politically correct plays with tiny casts portraying self-pitying victims; overthrown were all those pale imitations of European directors’ theatre; brushed aside were all those shreds of self-regarding physical theatre and long-winded, baggy state-of-the-nation plays.
In their place, came a storm of new writing, vivid new plays about contemporary life by a brat-pack of funky young playwrights. For a few heady years, theatre was the new rock ‘n’ roll – a really cool place to be. At last, here was drama that really seemed to make a difference. It sweated newness out of every pore.’ Aleks Sierz
In-yer-face is a form of drama that first appeared during the 1990s in Great Britain, and is often regarded as a direct response from Thatcher’s children to their own sociopolitical and sociocultural context. In his book, Aleks Sierz, a faculty member of Boston University London and co-editor of Theatre Voice, describes In-Yer-Face theatre as the work of young playwrights who break with conventional theatrical codes to confront the vulgar and the shocking. They present aggressive material to affect the audience and arouse public consciousness. By exceeding all limits, they challenge representational norms and place the spectator out of his comfort zone. Sierz presents this new type of drama as an ‘explosive new writing scene’.
‘In-your-face’ is a perfectly adequate expression to convey the writers’ intentions to surprise and disturb the British public. As Sierz puts it on his website, ‘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 mise-en-scène and the dialogues literally blow up in the audience’s face. The Oxford English dictionary defines the slang term as an ‘exclamation of scorn or derision’, ‘bold or aggressive, blatant, provocative.’ Its first employment can be traced back to 1976 in the United States, mainly within the field of sports journalism. But its first use to describe contemporary theatre practices originates in Simon Gray’s Japes, which premiered in February 2001 in London. In this play, the main protagonist, a middle-aged author, tempers against a new kind of writing that he describes as ‘in your face’. Here is an extract:
‘And you know—you know the worst thing—the worst thing is that they speak grammatically. They construct sentences. Construct them! And with some elegance. Why? Tell me why? (Little pause.) Actually, I know why. So that the verbs and nouns stick out—in your face. In your face. That’s the phrase, isn’t it? That’s the phrase! In your face!’
In-yer-face theatre achieved further recognition at a 2002 conference organised by the University of the West of England, and where Sierz, main speaker of the event, already acknowledged the new art as a ‘historical phenomenon’. He stated that it was not a movement, but an ‘arena’ or a ‘sensibility’ that described only ‘a part of the body of works during the 1990s’.
When confronted to the difficult issue of conceptualization and categorisation, a play or a form of theatre can easily find itself crushed under expectations and responsibilities generated by its attribution to a specific genre. The report on the conference published by Writernet stipulates that ‘it disrupts the artistic integrity through preconceived notions of a play because of a simplified label. Plays and playwrights risk being annexed or ‘ghetto-ised’ when given a superficial monolithic focus.’ Thus critics have contemplated the works of the people associated with in-yer-face theatre through the lenses of different pre-established theories, such as metaphysical theatre, postmodernism, Artaud’s theatre of cruelty and Lacan’s post-structuralism. But in-yer-face theatre desired to claim its own existence outside any previous literary and cultural thesis. Yet Sierz accepted the restrictions of the label and recognized in-yer-face theatrical practices as London-centric and limited in their scope. Thus, it has mainly remained a British experience, and although it has expanded abroad, its international impact is quite narrow, mostly reaching Anglo-Saxon countries. Many well-known places have welcomed in-yer-face plays, such as the Royal Court Theatre, the Bush Theatre, the Hampstead Theatre, the Soho Theatre, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Tricycle, the Finborough and the Almeida, all based in London. It spread in other English cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Bolton and West Yorkshire, and widened to Edinburgh and to America.
But how do we recognize in yer-face style? First, one must bear in mind Sierz’s words: the language and images are meant to shock the audience by its extremism, unsettle them by its emotional frankness. The playwrights question moral norms and focus on a more experiential theatre, where the audience has to feel the profound emotions displayed on stage. And they go as far they can get, allowing all sorts of moral deviations and forbidden behaviours. People have sex in front of you, nudity is over-present, violence breaks out, taboos are broken, language is obscene. The themes of the plays evolve around humiliation, abuse, dehumanization and unmentionable subjects. Social structures are disrupted, conventional dramatic devices are subverted, and the powerful, visceral voice of youth forces you to react to such decadence. They do not consider the theatrical experience to be a source of pleasure at all costs: entertainment is not its primary objective. They want us to abhor in order to reflect, just like Greek tragedies perceived the tragic hero as a cathartic figure, inspiring fear and forcing the spectator to reflect on cruelty and inhumanity.
Although this kind of drama is quite unique and holds a very specific aesthetic, we cannot help but connect it with earlier theatrical practices and theorists. Even Sierz mentions several inspirations and related playwrights on his personal website. He goes all the way back to Nemirovitch-Danchenko, who would have said to Stanislavski that ‘new plays attract audiences because they discover in them new answers to the problem of living’. A purpose set by this emerging group of writers, who confronts the problem of living through an outburst of theatrical creativity and controversy, conveying their answer to the audience through crude dialogues and a new type of violence. Sierz also mentions Alfred Jarry (theatre of the Absurd) and Antonin Artaud (theatre of Cruelty) as major influences. Both have tackled the subject of violence, and have critiqued men’s stupidity and modern life through a new kind of writing. Artaud once wrote that ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theatre is not possible’. He praised the experiential sense of theatre; that is to make the audience fully engage with the emotions presented on stage, just like the writers of in-yer-face want to achieve:
‘The theatre will never find itself again except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior. […] If theatre wants to find itself needed once more, it must present everything in love, crime, war and madness.’
In 1964, Peter Brook wrote an introduction to Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade which already formulated ideas later claimed by in-yer-face writers, and echoed the need to make audiences face violence. ‘Starting with its title, everything about this play is designed to crack the spectator on the jaw, then douse him with ice-cold water, then force him to assess intelligently what has happened to him, then give him a kick in the balls, then bring him back to his senses again.’ Isn’t that what in-yer-face theatre achieves? Ten years later, Howard Brenton asked contemporary theatre to become a place for ‘really savage insights’. Notice the similar lexical field of violence, savagery, and brutality. The stage becomes a confrontational space; a boxing fight takes place between the author and the audience, and the actors have carte blanche to carry out the playwrights’ critique of modern life. Pugnacious and limitless, the works of these authors gravitate around issues of violence, masculinity, the myth of post-feminism and the futility of consumerism.
At least twenty people are closely connected to in-yer-face theatre, and Alex Sierz provides a detailed list of names on his website. Yet the names of two playwrights stand out: Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Kane’s work deals with themes such as sexual desire, death, pain, redemptive love and psychological and physical suffering. The poetic intensity of her language explores the use of extreme violence in a new form of theatre, which deconstructs conventional stage practices. Kane suffered from severe depression through many years of her life, but kept writing, and her own life experiences acted as a reservoir of inspiration for her plays. She originally wanted to be a poet, but found herself unable to express her feelings through poetry . Theatre allowed her to convey her deepest thoughts because, as she once wrote: ‘theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts’.
Mark Ravenhill is famous for his play Shopping and Fucking, and for his involvement at the heart of the new British playwriting landscape of the 1990s/2000s. Yet he has expressed his respect for historical theatre several times, wishing more directors would concentrate on the classics. He has stated that today’s directors force themselves into the ‘eternal present’ instead of enriching their work with past influences. Still Ravenhill’s plays inhabit in-yer-face’s style, anchored in the same violence of words, and his later work has become even more experimental.
Many other works and artists could be associated to (or paralleled to) in-yer-face’s straightforward and disconcerting style. For instance, Krystian Lupa, Polish director, envisions theatre as an instrument to explore and transgress the boundaries of individuality. Looking at the ethics of art and breaking theatre’s traditional conventions, he presents scenes of extreme psychological, sexual and physical violence to shock the audience, in the same way as Kane or Ravenhill. Nudity, crudity, rape, porn, drugs and death: Lupa represents the world in its boldest and most cruel aspect. Just as in-yer-face writers do.
George Devine, first artistic director of the English Stage Company, has once said: ‘I want theatre to be continuously disturbing’. Theatre in the 21st century seems to be all about disturbing, shocking and confusing the spectator, shake him off his comfortable seat. He has to take an active part, even if he is not willing to, and has to, more than simply watch, LIVE the terrible events that occur on stage. Thus theatre becomes an experiential moment, where you can defy your social and personal boundaries, where you test the limits of being a spectator and go beyond what you can bear emotionally. In that sense, the spectator is completely free of interpretation. As Kane has stated:
‘If a play is good, it breathes its own air and has a life and voice of its own. What you take that voice to be saying is no concern of mine. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.’
– Artaud, Antonin. Theatre of Cruelty: First Manifesto, (1932)
– Eldridge, David. “In-Yer-face and After”. Intellect 23.1 (Mar. 2003): 55–58. (Abstract.)
– Gray, Simon, Japes, (premiered in London Feb. 2001)
– Sierz, Aleks. In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. London: Faber and Faber,( 2001)
– Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre, Website. 5 Oct. 2000, last modified in 2010.
– “In-Yer-Face? British Drama in the 1990s”. University of the West of England, Bristol.( 6–7 September 2002), Writernet 2003. (Conference report posted on writernet.co.uk, in both HTML and PDF versions).
– “News 2002: Shocking Plays Have Academic Appeal.” Press release. University of the West of England (30 August 2002.)
What do you think? Leave a comment.