In-Yer-Face Theatre: A Contemporary Form of Drama

4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane
Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis performed at the 2008 Edinburgh festival. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

‘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.

Phaedra's love by Sarah Kane
Phaedra’s love by Sarah Kane, Arcola Theatre Sept/Oct 2011. Photo credits: Simon Kane

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.

'Yard Gal' by Rebecca Pritchard, Clean Break Theatre Company, Royal Court Theatre, 1998
Yard Gal‘ by Rebecca Pritchard, Clean Break Theatre Company, Royal Court Theatre, 199

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’.

The Coronation of Poppea, Mark Ravenhill
The Coronation of Poppea, Mark Ravenhill

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.’

Works Cited

– 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.)

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20 Comments

  1. I suppose in-yer-face theatre also has some similarities to Jacobean revenge tragedies: they are littered with scenes of carnage and overt theatricality that reflect a world where the traditional codes of morality seem irrelevant, changing or imprisoning.
    On a slightly more critical note, the excessive irony and cynicism of many of the plays refutes any serious politics and often refuses to illuminate any of the issues evoked. As Benjamin R. Barber put it, the self-conscious irony of in-yer-face playwrights “is complacency’s rationalization, disengagement’s excuse, the alienated spectator’s self-justification”.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      Thanks for your insighful comment Christopher, and I completely agree with you. It is hard for the audience to cope with such overtly violent stage practices, and the excessive cynicism diminishes the political and cultural message of the plays.

  2. Lorene Moran
    0

    Alfred Jarry has always been an fascinating individual to my boyfriend and I when we were theatre majors and first read Ubu Roi, but our university library had very little information on him.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      I feel like Alfred Jarry has greatly influenced in-yer-face writers. Ubu Roi is fascinating in terms of its political satire and its renewal of drama practices. It was such a sudden change for theatre at the time, heading towards absurdism and a new abstract form of theatre. Actually, Jarry wrote this as a joke, basing the main character on his high-school physics teacher 🙂

  3. Avant-garde/experimental theatre does not equal facilely shocking an audience. Challenging a spectator’s idea of narrative structure, character or any other theatrical convention doesn’t depend on in-your-face staging. Requiring increased attention is key. Sitting still, intently tracking both onstage action and internal responses is very active. Merely following a site-specific (for example) performance while still in everyday consciousness is passive.

    • When live performance sets out to be avant-garde or to shock, it frequently seems to do so on the basis of nudity or violence. When audiences become immune to the latest trend in this, the nudity or violence simply tries to push back the boundaries of the fourth wall or even dispense with the fourth wall altogether.

      I find this dull thinking.

      We have plenty going on in the world that is shocking in a conceptual sense. The theatre that I like to see is the work that explores these ideas. And that can be done in many ways, so it does not mean an end to comedy, for example. Good theatrical comedy can be as emotionally uncomfortable as it is humorous.

      But giving theatre-goers even more bodily fluids and genitalia? That’s hardly original now, is it?

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        Long dead are the days where something like Rite of Spring could incite a riot…it’s a shame, I guess. I wish you were right when you say “We have plenty going on in the world that is shocking in a conceptual sense,” but I think post-post-…-modernism kind of ruined these things for us.

    • Earnest Clayton
      0

      Many “avant garde” artists in history were very surprised when audiences reacted with shock and bewilderment to their works. This is because they weren’t trying to shock audiences, just to create the best art they could. The shock came from the audience being confronted with something hitherto unimagined.

      • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

        This is true Earnest, but the case is a little different for in-yer-face. Their main claim is provocation, they want to shock the audience (thus the name in your face). It is just another approach to contemporary theatre.

  4. Jane Aguilar
    0

    I think that first of all there is a lot of modernist and high modernist theatre which would still shock today’s audiences in that the drama diverges from the usual fare of rep and Shakespeare. There has been a convergence of art and drama in the performance and installation genres -here the shock was through exposure to the body, the carnal and to violence. I believe this today is embarrassing and one should aim towards a theatre that is creative and innovative within the traditional restraints of the canon. There we can shock, we can twist and turn. Unlike the earlier periods in the UK today there is no ideological or theoretical platform to support or give credentials to innovative art – no real movement exists. Unless you know different.

  5. Kane is a legend. Her plays are raw, brutal, and yet beautiful in an ironic way.

    • She was one of the strongest women writers that lived, she revolutionised theatre and her departure was unfortunate robbed theatre of her potential.

  6. I have never encountered this type of British theatre. I am frankly not as well-versed in this period of British theatre. I am only well aware of Shelagh Delaney and ‘kitchen-sink,’ dramas. I applaud your style of writing. It engaged me into this article. I saw read some of these authors and plays.

    I believe that theatre like films should shock the audience. The Europeans have always done a masterful job with drama. Americans are just catching up now to the Europeans. Directors and writers like Mathieu Kassovitz have always found ways to knock the audience out cold. British screenwriters like Steve McQueen do this job wonderfully. I like to address his films “Shame,” “Hunger,” and most recently “12 Years a Slave.”

  7. PerkAlert

    Interesting read! The only drama I’m familiar with is Shakespeare, so forgive me if my comments are off-base. It seems that In-Yer-Face theater is part of the general arts evolution in challenging the norm. It would have been nice to see more specific examples to compare the changing trends though. And I would have been interested in seeing an example of how it first originated in sports journalism! Overall however, I feel like you did a great job analyzing the “Who’s” and “What’s” of In-Yer-Face theater. I definitely have a better inkling of this genre that I previously knew nothing about! I wonder… would Angels in America be a form of In-Yer-Face or is it too recent? Or what about Spring Awakening, with its explicit sex scenes and other ‘scandalous’ plot points?

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      Thank you PerkAlert!
      To answer your question, in yer face theatre did not first originated in sports journalism, but the colloquial expression ‘in your face’ was used for the first time by sports commentators, and that’s when the expression became popular. Later on, this new wave of British playwrights decided to use the term to describe their theatre, but the theatre itself didn’t originate in sports journalims at all!
      Spring Awakening is definitely not part of in-yer-face as it was written in 1891, and in-yer-face is specifically a contemporary form of theatre from the 1990s/2000s. The style is very different as well, and it is not because Spring Awakening includes scenes of sex and violence that it is definitely part of in-yer-face. These themes don’t define in-yer-face, they are just used as illustrations and examples to convey crude violence. As for Angels in America, I have never heard of it before so I cannot tell, but the playwright is not listed in the in-yer-face group on their website. If you are interested in in-yer-face, I suggest you check out their website as it is very complete, and some youtube videos to see how specific their art is :)hope I’ve answered your questions, and thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

  8. This also reminds me of a theatre movement that deals with overwhelming the senses. The audience stands for the entire show, music is blaring, and there are multiple performing at once in different areas of the theatre. It’s designed to make people feel like the engulfed and overwhelmed by the performance.

  9. Mallagray

    Good Job Rachel!

  10. O.A. & C.S.

    Excellent article, thanks! It perfectly condenses the “In yer face” theatre history and its thematic background. I am personally conducting a study on the increase in the number of plays staged in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the last decade (noticeable Sara Kane’s, but nearly all the most representative plays have been presented so far).

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