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Théâtre et nation

Jeffrey Hopes
Héléne Lecossois

(Re)définitions du mythe de la nation

Deconstructing the nation? British Theatre in the Age of Postmodernism

Élisabeth Angel-Perez

Texte intégral

1“Storm over the Channel… Europe isolated”: this famous joke continues to epitomize the way the British see their country. Britain has been quite a reluctant player in the current European Union and continues to assert its Britishness. Britain is not part of the Schengen space. British people continue driving on the left, even if they go holidaying in France or Spain. They have not (yet) opted for the single currency. Faced with the menace of Europe and globalization, the minutest national object becomes a bastion of British identity worth clinging to: the milk bottle, the tea-cosy, the Russell Hobbs kettle, the thick-cut marmalade, the Craven A, the trilby, Boots’cold cream, etc. Yet, for all these emblems of British identity, the British subject does recognize a vast number of equals, not all of them being ginger-haired. Britain is a welcoming country. One is British if one recognizes the Queen. The model of integration is based on accepting differences and not on wiping them off.

  • 1 Habermas J., The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001

2Is the concept of Nation obsolete in the age of globalization? Is the concept of nation compatible with that of the new, therefore supranationalist, Europe? Has European supranationalism defeated the traditional sovereignist conception upheld in the UK? Has the national British citizen collapsed in front of the universal post-national individual? All these questions, addressed by sociologists, politologists and philosophers such as Habermas1 are very much present in the representation that a country gives of itself through its artistic production. The threat of the disappearing nation has shaped and reshaped political drama at the beginning of this new millenium.

3It will be my contention here that although the nation is methodically debunked or conceptualized differently by contemporary avant-garde or experimental (i. e. non commercial) dramatists, it remains, if only spectrally and in ruins, in the fragments of theatre that even the most postmodernist playwrights give us to see. The nation is therefore oxymoronically de-constructed.

Voicing the nation: Satirizing the nation/recognizing the nation

  • 2 State of the Nation is precisely the title of a book recently published by Michael Billington, ( (...)

4Ever since the Bard’s celebration of desecrated national icons (Richard III, Richard II, Lear, Macbeth), England has been the country of satire, a country in which the nation builds itself against the nation. Yet the satirical play, in the form of a “state-of-the-nation play,”2 has been undergoing a profound radicalisation since the 1950s and post-war reconstruction. Such plays belong either to the socio-realistic approach or/and to the satirical or more openly political approach developed for the theatre by such dramatists as David Hare, notably in his trilogy Racing Demons, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. In other words, the nation, whether symptomatically debunked or methodically attacked seems to be a die-hard concept.

State-of-the-Nation plays

  • 3 –«De l’ère du consensus jusqu’à sa rupture, de l’après–guerre, jusqu’à la fin du siècle, le théâtr (...)

5From 1956 onwards, John Osborne sets the tone with Look Back in Anger and above all with The Entertainer and its ironical catchphrase “God Save the Queen” which works as a sarcastic reminder of the pseudo-stability embodied by the Royal family. Theatre in the 1980s reaches an apex in terms of satire: the state-of-the-nation play, one of Britain’s specificities, is at its best. Nicole Boireau describes the state-of-the-nation play as the “English specialty” and asserts that in England, the stage is the place where political oppositions are voiced.3 Brenton and Hare, but also Steven Berkoff, continuously satirize the nation whose major icons constitute dominant targets. Berkoff’s description of “Maggot Scratcher”’s Britain in Greek (1980) is a purple patch:

  • 4 Berkoff S., Greek, London, John Calder, 1982, p. 27.

“Eddy: So I was spawned in a Tufnell Park that’s no more than a stone’s throw from the Angel/a monkey’s fart from Tottenham or a bolt of phlegm from Stamford Hill/it’s a cess pit, right… a scum hole dense with the drabs who prop up corner pubs, the kind of pub where ye old assholes assemble… the boring turds who save for Xmas with clubs… my mum did that… save all year for her slaggy Xmas party of boozy old relatives in Marks and Sparks’ cardigans who stand all year doing as little as they can while they had one hand in the boss’s till and the other scratching their balls… they’d all come over and vomit up Guinness and mum’s unspeakable excuse for cuisine all over the bathroom, adjust their dentures,… rage against the blacks, envying their cocks, loathe the yids, envying their gelt… hate everything that walks under thirty and fall asleep in front of the telly…”4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 51.

6The play concentrates on the character of Eddy/Oedipus and tells the story of the modern British nation (“Hitler’s just topped hisself. It’s hot. Churchill’s in command, there’s peace at last. Twenty million dead/including my two boys, the radio plays we’ll meet again”5) as that of a definitively yet enthusiastically postlapsarian nation that comes to life with the breaking of the first original (and highly hamlettian) taboo—oedipean incest: Eddy/Oedipus will end up marrying his mum but won’t punish himself for it. The play ends with an orgasmic speech that expresses the bliss of taboo-breaking:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 52.

“My dearest wife and now my mum, it seems… Yeh I wanna climb back inside my mum. What’s wrong with that. It’s better than shoving a stick of dynamite up someone’s ass and getting a medal for it. So I run back. I run and run and pulse hard and feet pound, it’s love I feel it’s love, what matter what form it takes, it’s love I feel for your breast, for your nipple twice sucked/for your belly twice known/for your hands twice caressed/for your breath twice smelt, for your thighs, for your cunt twice known, once head first once cock first, loving cunt holy mother wife/loving source of your being/exit from paradise/entrance to heaven.”6

7Such hilariously transgressive satirical plays (very much in the wake of Joe Orton’s), redynamise the theatre of opinion. Along with other political satires of various forms—from the plays written by light-headed Alan Ayckbourn to those by pre-catastrophist Howard Barker (The Love of a Good Man, Claw, The Hang of the Gaol)—, the state-of-the-nation play escapes the pathos-prone yet more serious studies such as journalistically-minded David Hare’s trilogy (1993) about institutions (The Absence of War, about Parliament, Racing Demon, about the Church of England, and Murmuring Judges about the judiciary). With such plethoric and successful plays, England confirms that to deride the nation is to maintain the nation at the top of one’s preoccupations: satirizing the nation means recognizing the nation.

Post-Brechtian deconstruction

  • 7 –Several paragraphs of Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) deal with this idea of a nat (...)
  • 8 –See Itzin C., Stages in the Revolution, London, Methuen, 1980.

8Concomitantly to the development of the state-of-the-nation play, post-Brechtian political dramatists, ready to depart from the well-made play so as to reshuffle the rules of dramaturgy, denounce the vanity of national(ist) thought and develop the utopia of a denationalized world. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Marxist heritage looms large, as is made perceptible in Bond’s early humanist Brechtian approach: workers have no nation. The proletariat must constitute itself as a nation, not in the bourgeois meaning of the word, but as an international nation, so to speak.7 We can bear in mind such extremist experiments as Albert Hunt’s Revolution in the Streets of Bradford, whose aim was to reproduce the October Revolution in the English streets of Bradford.8

9The story of how the nation came to exist seems to thrive in post-Brechtian epics (John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, Edward Bond’s Lear, Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (an epic Brechtian parallel between the Romans in Britain and the British in Ireland), David Rudkin’s The Saxon Shore, Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom or Cloud Nine. Yet here again, most of these plays are busy bringing down the national icons: Shakespeare commits suicide in Bond’s Bingo:

  • 9 Bond E., Bingo in Plays 3, London, Methuen, 1987, p. 65.

“Shakespeare: (taking more tablets) How long have I been dead? When will I fall down? Looking for rings on beggars’ fingers. Mistakes… mistakes… was anything done? (He takes another tablet.) Years waiting… fed… washing the dead… was anything done? Was anything done? (He looks at a tablet in his hand.) Dead sugar. (He swallows it.) Was anything done?”9

10Peasant-poet John Clare becomes mad in The Fool because he cannot fulfil his function as an artist (“I am a poet and I teach men how to eat”), Queen Victoria is turned into an anthropopathic lesbian in Early Morning (having an affair with Florence Nightingale) and the only kings summoned back onto the stage are those who contributed to destabilizing the sense of the nation: Lear, whose tragic mistake (hamartia) is palimpsestuously rewritten by Bond (Lear) or Barker (7 Lears), George III (The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett), Charles II, permanently masturbating or fornicating onstage in Howard Barker’s Victory. These icons no longer buttress, let alone uphold, the national feeling. Yet, here again, and despite post-Brechtian distancing, the dominant discourse at work in these plays is critical, most of the time satirical and satire is ideologically nation-prone: one builds the nation by the deconstruction of the nation. In Britain, in the country of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the freedom one has to criticize the nation confirms a national identity: satire is a national sport.

The voice of the nation: verbatim theatre

11This penchant for self-analysis is seldom better illustrated than in the staging of the idiosyncratic British voice to be heard in the recent developments of docudramas. In the 1990s, verbatim theatre emerges as one of the most interesting attempts at regenerating political theatre. Verbatim consists in going beyond the concept of (political) representation (considered obsolete because forever insufficiently representative) and in voicing the people in the street. David Hare is one of the figure-heads of this new aesthetics: The Permanent Way (2003) or Stuff Happens (2004) are stylistically clever alternatives to the more traditional satires Hare had so far given his audience or even to the far less conformist theatre-lectures that he himself has recently given a voice to on the English stage (Via Dolorosa, Berlin/Wall).

12What Hare pioneers with verbatim theatre is a form of drama made, for more than 60% of the play, of the words of real people:

  • 10Hammond W. and Steward D. (eds.), Verbatim, Verbatim: Techniques in Contemporary Documentary Thea (...)

“The term verbatim refers to the origins of the text spoken in the play. The words of real people are recorded or transcribed by a dramatist during an interview or research process, or are appropriated from existing records such as the transcripts of an official enquiry. They are then edited, arranged or recontextualised to form a dramatic presentation, in which actors take on the characters of the real individuals whose words are being used. In this sense, verbatim is not a form, it is a technique; it is a means rather than an end.”10

13In 1991, the British government decided to privatise the country’s railways. The Permanent Way reads as a parable of national decline, epitomized or metaphorized by the story of this national mismanagement. Incidents covered in the play include the passing of the Railways Act 1993 setting out the structure of rail privatization, and the survival and bereavement stories resulting from the rail crashes of Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and Potters Bar. The play is based on numerous interviews with the people who were involved in these rail crashes and on the opinions heard and collected in trains by Hare. All these verbatim dialogues are collated with very little linking or bridging narrative added:

  • 11 Hare D., The Permanent Way, London, Faber and Faber, 2003, p. 3-4.

Nine people, once passengers, now customers, come on.
Passenger 1: Britain, yeah, beautiful country, shame we can’t run a railway. Passenger 2: This is what I feel. I feel we’re doing our best, but it isn’t working. That’s how it feels. Every day, everywhere. Everyone’s trying terribly hard. Everyone wants it to work. They have an idea what it might be like if it worked. People are told all the time they have to change their ways. ‘It’ s essential we change our ways. We’ve got to work harder. The way we’ve worked is wrong.’ People arrive with new schemes. But, mysteriously, things don’t get better. Why not?
Passenger 1: The most basic thing you want to do anywhere is move. And in England you can’t move. We’re useless at it.
Passenger 4: The thing with the trains and the Labour Government is interesting, I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you why it’s interesting. Because the Labour government does everything except address the fucking problem. That’s why. They did everything except address the fucking problem. They did everything except the one fucking thing they need to do. And why wouldn’t they do that? Why wouldn’t they do that? Why wouldn’t they do the one thing that might put everything right? Because they might get a bad review in the Daily Mail. I mean, think about that. Just think about it. Please.
Passenger 1: Why can the French do it? I was brought up to believe the French can’t do anything. But the French can run a railway. And we can’t. Passenger 5: Man next to me, next door neighbour in Oxfordshire, works for Warburgs, lovely house. So: Warburgs are the bank who handled the privatisation of the railways. This man made a fortune — no, I wouldn’t say he made a fortune, more John Major walked him into the fucking Bank of England and said, ‘Take as much as you like. Just take it.’ An avalanche of money, that’s what he got. Doesn’t really need to, but still travels up to the City every day. The only thing he talks about? Going there, coming back. His sole topic of conversation? The state of the railways. How the trains don’t run on time.
Passenger 4: I mean, take London, what about London? The whole thing about London. Ought to be a beautiful city? Why not. But nothing works. The transport doesn’t work, the garbage doesn’t work, the streets are filthy, there isn’t a road with no hole in it, and the prices are twice anywhere else in the world. Everything’s here. Everything you could ever want is here, but for one thing. It doesn’t work.
Passenger 1: Even I can see what to do. Even I can see it. And I’ve got a brain like a sparrow’s nest. All shit and sticks. But even I can see what to do.
Passenger 2: We’re all doing our best but it isn’t working.”11

  • 12 Hammond W. and Steward D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 74.

14The nation is here, on stage, present in its diversity yet federated around the same complaint, in a “spectrum between reality and fiction”.12

  • 13 Billington M., State of the Nation Play, op. cit., p. 384-385.
  • 14 –Hammond W. and Steward D., op. cit., p. 62.

15The effects of such a technique are ambiguous. On the one hand, this technique contributes to a reinforcement of naturalism and verisimilitude; what one gets is “the real thing” and the effect achieved is one of empathy and emotional involvement. The nation (and you’re part of it) is on the stage: the actors on the stage hold a mirror to us, “look at us, we are you”; verbatim serves the same aim as docudrama. On the other hand, the verbatim technique gives out a sense of increased prefabrication: one of the theatrical implications of using verbatim theatre is that most of the cues are directly addressed to the audience, with very few exchanges between the actual characters onstage, turning this kind of theatre into something technically quite close to Agit-Prop theatre. The “real thing” is being ironized and the docudrama oriented so as to serve a definite political discourse, that of the author (or arch-author). In this case, verbatim both voices and analyses the nation. Stuff Happens, whose title refers to a comment by Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld about the inevitable looting in Iraq, makes the most of this journalistic mission. Hare uses verbatim to bring out the position of the English Nation vs. Blair’s pro US attitude. Hare seems to invent a theatre technique, also used in the US by such dramatists as Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight, on the 1992 Los Angeles riots), that could compete with journalist and film director Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 that has monopolized that void in a way no play so far could hope to do (see Moore’s use of verbatim in Bowling for Columbine). It is important to note that several of the most successful verbatim plays have been written by journalists and David Edgar’s theory is that verbatim theatre fills the hole left by the current inadequacy of TV documentary and of the media usually devoted to information and debate. Michael Billington speaks of a resurgence of the fact vs. fiction debate and of factual theatre that could be accounted for by the fact that “… people felt a growing distrust with politicians, press, and the new rolling news outlets in which an endlessly repeated ‘Newsak’ replaced the aural wall-paper of Muzak. Feeling that once-reliable sources of information were either tainted or untrustworthy, audiences increasingly turned to theatre for raw public information about public event”.13 Theatre therefore replaces journalism: “Do you see verbatim as having a journalistic function?/Hare: It does what journalism fails to do.”14 Voicing the nation has seldom been more direct.

16For all their capacity to redynamize political theatre, satirical or verbatim theatre remain forms of modernity, not of postmodernity. They do not question the concept of nation as a hegemonic screen that slyly conceals the plurality and reality of the contemporary— i. e. hybrid—individual. Whether satirical or verbatim, these plays cling to a unified—or at least hegemonic—conception of the nation. It is precisely this discourse that postmodernism rejects.

“Constellation of (postnational) identities”15

The nation as a defeated grand narrative: from multiculturalism to nomadic subjects

17Postmodernism consists in coding negatively the principles of modernity including the concept of nation, which constituted one of the grand narratives of liberal or republican humanism. Modernity (hence modernism) thinks of the nation as instrumental in order to conceptualize the ideas of sovereignty and of the emancipation of peoples: the revolution founds the nation. For postmodernism, the concept of nation has to disappear because it is apprehended as an ideological screen (a lie, almost) that conceals dominance-subservience relationships both internal and external, in other words, as some sort of ideological diktat for a hegemonic identity.

18Postmodernism advocates two other options: on the one hand, multiculturalism, i. e. the conception of several juxtaposed identities (that would not be organised into a hierarchy), and on the other hand, the idea of a nomadic or hybrid (anti-universal, anti-essentialist) subject. This is what Habermas conceptualizes in The Postnational Constellation by analysing a new dialectic between homogenized societies and centrifugal identities within the nation-state. Both these options are illustrated in the theatre of some of the most stimulating contemporary dramatists.

  • 16 Donesky F., David Hare: Moral and Historical Perspectives, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 199 (...)
  • 17 Ibid., p. 163.

19It seems that multiculturalism is asserted on the British stages precisely at a time when the sense of the nation is somewhat jeopardized. The 1990s are a period in which British identity and institutions are said by everyone to be in a state of crisis16 and a moment of weakness in the monarchy (Lady Di’s death in 1997; the process of devolution begun for Scotland and Wales in 1997), while “Britain’s role in the future Europe is still very much an open question”.17 Parallel to plays that denounce racism in Britain, multicultural authors focus on the modalities of integration of a genuinely bi-cultural population. Such is the concern reflected in plays by such writers as Hanif Kureishi (Outskirts, 1981; My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985), Ayub Khan-Din (East is East 1995) or Tanika Gupta, for the Anglo-Indian or Anglo-Pakistani community. The style developed by these authors is one that relies on neonaturalism, even if some structural distortions can be said to alter the protocol of the well-made play (Kureishi’s Outskirts has 12 scenes to cover 12 years in a very non-linear way). The multicultural subject asserts itself through the staging of an Indianized English, chiastically reflecting the Englishized Indian way of life. The nation here is reconstructed differently.

20Most stimulating perhaps as to the construction of a multicultural subject, is the work of Afro-Caribbean British dramatist Debbie Tucker Green. Her plays go for a very distinctive mixture of poetry and politics through which she poeticizes major societal issues. Her plays, which concentrate on Aids in a married couple with just one prescription, on women’s lapidation (Stoning Mary), on the question of child-soldiers, or the police accidentally killing a teenager in England (Random), import African problems into England. With Debbie Tucker Green’s plays, the frontiers of the nation burst apart: we are no longer in the presence of plays about Commonwealth identity, but of plays elaborating a concept close to that of “globalized” identity. Most of the issues tackled work as both foils and threats to those of the UK. Tucker Green uses Brechtian geographical distancing so as to illuminate close-to-us issues; yet, this Brechtian device seems to be outgrown as globalization turns these apparently far-away-problems into ethical questions that are our responsibility. The language used in these plays, in which Caribbeanisms and Britishisms coexist, shows the paradox of a subject who defines itself as both other and British. The English language used in these plays is multicultural yet distinctly English (and not American or Australian, for instance):

  • 18 Tucker Green D., Random, London, Nick Hern, 2008, p. 3-4.

“… And the su’un in the air—
in the room—
in the day—
like the
shadow of a shadow feelin…
off-key—I …
look the clock. Eyeball it.
It looks me back.
Stare the shit down—
It stares me right back.
… Till it blinded first—loser.
Then changes its time… 7.37.
So I—
Give it my back—
Roll on my front—
Flex under the duvet—
An lie there on the reluctant to get up—
A rubbish night’s sleep
A restless night’s sleep
For no reason at all.
Birds bitchin their birdsong outside.
People already on road.
Dogs in their yards barkin the shit outta
The neighbourhood.
This ent a morning to be peaceful
And the somethin in the air—
In the room—
In this day—
Mekin mi shiver—
Even tho my single duvet
Is holdin onto me like my man—
Who still don’t phone—
Should be.”18

  • 19 – My special thanks to Monica Michlin (Paris-Sorbonne) and Kerry-Jane Wallart (Paris-Dauphine) for (...)

21The text bears typical marks of hybridization that both blurr the concept of nation while reasserting it. The text is clearly Jamaican: such phrases as “mekin me shiver” signal the erasing of the diphtongs in Caribbean prononciation and in particular in Jamaican pronunciation. Such double vowels as in “su’un” or such transitive construction as “look the clock” would, according to Monica Michlin, very seldom appear in Afro-American English, and the elision “feelin” would, in Afro-American or Afro-Caribbean English, often be marked by an apostrophe, even, Monica Michlin says, “if women tend not to use the apostrophe so that the word appears as a full word and not as an amputated one (‘feelin’)”. Similarly, such words as “duvet” or “rubbish” (“quilt” and “trash” in Afro-American or American-Caribbean), or spelling such as “ent” (“aint” would more often be used in Afro-American), are distinctly British Caribbeanisms. Yet such lines as “A restless night’s sleep/For no reason at all./Birds bitchin their birdsong outside./People already on road./Dogs in their yards barkin the shit outta/The neighbourhood” could have been written by an Afro-American poet.19

22At a time of globalization (in all the domains of identity markers such as clothes, for instance), what remains of the nation is the idiolect, to be traced in the distinctly British twist that the Brits (natives or of Commonwealth origin) give to the English—i. e. universal—language: see the female guide in Tim Crouch’s England: “I have no languages. Everyone speaks English.” Yet, not everyone speaks British.

23It appears that the deconstruction of the grand narrative of the nation (felt as hegemonic and a screen for minorities) induces new ways of speaking. Yet, in these new ways of speaking, Britishness is reasserted. However, this layering of idiosyncrasies—Afro (“in’”), Caribbean (“mekin”), British (“duvet”), etc.—seems to promote a nomadic, cosmopolitan subject rather than an essentialist protean subject. It does not insist on the right to be different but on the right to belong to different subjective identities at once.

From nomadic to postnational subjects (beyond Habermas)

  • 20 – On this point, see Appadurai A., Après le colonialisme: les conséquences culturelles de la globa (...)

24This anti-essentialist vision of the nomadic subject relies on the ideal of a culturally hybrid subject, i. e. an unstable, deterritorialized, multi-identitied subject, circulating freely across the geographical areas. The nation, in this context, is synonymous with closure, confinement, constraint, or potential yet intolerable exclusion. Again, with Yves Bonny, let us sum up the ingredients that help in figuring out what this nomadic ideal is made of: radical freedom of choice, abolition of frontiers, non-unified subjectivity, ambivalence: not the multicommunity-prone society but an open network of nomadic, hybrid and crossblooded subjects. Not the right to be different, but the right to belong to several diasporas20 according to affinities (emotional, intellectual, economic, etc.) for a subject that is always somehow in exile.

25Such a definitely postnational orientation which insists on constitutive mobility appears clearly in both the shape (the play is a promenade performance) and the metaphor chosen by Tim Crouch in his play England: an English guide is kept alive thanks to the importation within her own chest of the heart of an Arab from Arabia called Hassan. In exchange for this heart, she wants to meet her donor’s widow and offer her a piece of English (he) art that she could keep or sell for money. The resuscitated guide, English-born but alive thanks to an Arab heart, invalidates the national concept of the subject and confirms the subject’s nomadic identity, corroborated by the choice of a promenade performance:

  • 21 Crouch T., England: A Play for Galleries, London, Oberon, 2007, p. 39.

“There was me and then there was not me.
In Munich.
In Madrid.
In Osaka.
In Oslo.
In Rotterdam.
In Berlin.
In Kabul.
In Edinburgh.”21

  • 22 – “— She says she’s not a real character, not a real character like you get in a book or on TV, bu (...)

26Yet, from a poietic point of view, Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane are perhaps the two playwrights that immediately come to mind when it comes to staging postmodernist postnational subjects: in Crimp’s plays, the stage becomes a laboratory to experience globalization. In Attempts on her Life, 17 scenarios for the theatre (1997), the central character—or “absence of character” as he calls it22—is called Ann, Annie, Anya and is surprisingly ubiquitous:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 26.

“—Then of course she’s off round the world. One minute it’s Africa, the next it’s South America or Europe.
—Somewere in Europe.
—Europe, Africa, South America, you name it. Brazil.
—Cuba. Brazil. Romania./Nigeria.
—Romania. Cuba. Florida. Australia.
—That’s right. Australia. New Zealand. The/Philippines.
—Morocco. Algeria. Tunisia. The Sahara desert.
—The Kalahari desert. The foothills of the Himalayas.
—The foothills of the Alps.
—That’s right—that’s what’s it called—

27Parallel to this ubiquity, Ann’s unstable being is insisted upon: is Ann a woman, a car, a TV set?

  • 24 Ibid., p. 59.

“—She’s a terrorist threat
She’s a mother of three
She’s a cheap cigarette
She is Ecstasy…”24

28She is a dislocated, ubiquitous postmodern subject, that the 17 scenarios (that come very close to an “exercice de style” in the fashion of OuLiPian Raymond Queneau) precisely, yet aporetically, try to encompass.

29A similar attempt at seizing this “absence of character” is to be found in Sarah Kane’s last play.

  • 25 Kane S., 4.48 Psychosis, London, Methuen, 2000, p. 25.

“—I gassed the Jews, I killed the Kurds, I bombed the Arabs, I fucked small children while they begged for mercy, the killing fields are mine, everyone left the party because of me, I’ll suck your fucking eyes out send them to your mother in a box and when I die I’m going to be reincarnated as your child only fifty times worse and as mad as all fuck I’m going to make your life a living fucking hell I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE LOOK AWAY FROM ME.”25

  • 26 –See Katz D., Saying I no more, Evanston, Northwestern UP, 1999.

30We are no longer in a Beckettian universe in which one cannot say “I” anymore,26 but in a world in which the identity has lost its stability. Kane’s testamental play makes it clear that the frontier between the postmodern ubiquitous subject and the schizophrenic subject is paper-thin. The play reads as an intertextual illustration of Crimp’s definition of what this new theatre could be:

  • 27 Crimp M., op. cit., p. 50-51.

“—It’s theatre—that’s right—for a world in which theatre itself has died. Instead of the outmoded conventions of dialogue and so-called characters lumbering towards the embarrassing dénouements of the theatre, Anne is offering us a pure dialogue of objects: of leather and glass, of Vaseline and steel; of blood, saliva and chocolate. She’s offering us no less than the spectacle of her own existence, the radical pornography—if I may use that overused word—of her own broken and abused—almost Christ-like—body.”27

31Still, these plays are written in English. The defeated idea of the nation may well lead to multilingual plays and less text-oriented plays. At the very end of a seminal article, Janelle Reinelt notices that the defeated idea of the nation inevitably leads to what she calls a

  • 28 Reinelt J., “Performing Europe: Identity Formation for a ‘New’ Europe”, Theatre Journal 53, 2001 (...)

“certain homogenization [that] creeps into productions touring this circuit. Diminishing the importance of the text, for example, is compatible with multilingual audiences who may not understand the fine points of a particular language, even English. But as language slips away, pressure becomes stronger on non-text-based forms of theatre to do more, to mean something, to mean differently. We need new dramaturgy which can respond to this trend, but the challenge is to avoid replacing a deadly verbal text with a physical text that slips into imprecision and political ambivalence. British theatre will need to produce new forms of theatrical representation, perhaps ‘Europeanizing’ itself by drawing (as does Complicite) on the rich tradition of physical performances from Artaud to Lecoq without losing its own tradition of engaged political writing and muscular discursivity.”28

32Martin Crimp’s plurilingual attempts go precisely in this direction:

  • 29 Crimp M., op. cit., p. 30.

Each speech is first spoken in an African or Eastern European language. An
English translation immediately follows.
—The car twists along the Mediterranean road.
—It hugs the bends between the picturesque hillside villages.
—The sun gleams on the aerodynamic body.
—We see the new Anny snake along between the red-tiled Mediterranean rooftops…”29

  • 30 Ibid., p. 65.

33This fragment is echoed by fragment 16, entitled “Porno”, where “the principal speaker is a very young woman. As she speaks her words are translated dispassionately into an African, South American, or Eastern European language”.30 The simultaneous translation of the English into an “exotic” language or vice versa gives concrete existence to multilingual reality, yet it also states that the verbal language has evolved towards a fossilized existence (which is here reinforced by the use of clichés) and that it needs being subsumed by less text-based systems.

  • 31 –Reinelt J., op. cit., p. 375.

34Complicite, in Mnemonic, offers a less text-based alternative which therefore asserts the prevalence of a postnational subject. The play contains 38 fragments exploring memory and our quest for origins through two parallel stories: one private—the story of Alice’s search for her own origins, for her father and information about her father’s life in eastern Europe; the other universal, through the story of the iceman and of the scientists around him. What the play emphasizes through its fragments is a very essentialist definition of man. In technical terms though, the postmodern treatment of the subject turns the play into a perfect example of a postnational show. Mnemonic, with its combination of multimedia, complex sound systems, movement, story, imagery, and emotional metaphors, is the golden exemplar of Complicite’s work. The productions of Complicite are always extremely physical, highly visual, and constantly juxtapose the most high tech of technologies alongside traditional performance techniques. “Space and place dissolve and reform instantaneously. The various ‘stories’ are played through and across the spaces of other stories. The transformation of objects and bodies is central to the idea that we humans carry pasts concretely within our container-selves, in our brains, our postures, our nakedness.”31 Escaping or at least mixing verbal language with other non-verbal systems of signs may be the only solution if theatre is to condemn the concept of nation in its form as well as in its themes.

35British contemporary experimental or «intellectual» theatre very often questions the concept of nation and seems to prefer tackling the issues specific to post-modernist humanity, i. e. those of a humanity that claims multiple identities. Yet the nation is (in) the language and a play, unless it is entirely physical theatre, remains written and voiced in a language. Even the most post-modern plays retain the idiosyncrasies of the English language, not to mention this propensity of a number of “po-mo” writers to cling to a number of ultra-national symbols (why does Barker write about Gertrude when what supposedly arouses his interest is the epitome of Tragedy: why not Phaedra or Jocasta?). One can only assert the paradoxical relationship between postmodernism—that defeats the patriotic grand narrative—and the presence of the nation that steals back into these postnational texts, turning postnationalism into the opposite of de-nationalism. Theatre remains the place of a point of view: the nation, although deconstructed in British contemporary texts, constantly finds a way to reassert itself, not as a unit of confinement or community of thought, but as one of the ingredients that compose contemporary multilayered and nomadic identity.



Appadurai A., Après le colonialisme: les conséquences culturelles de la globalisation, Paris, Payot, 1996, 2001.

Berkoff S., Greek in Decadence. Greek, London, John Calder, 1982.

Billington M., State of the Nation, London, Faber and Faber, 2007.

Boireau N., Théâtre et société en Angleterre; Des années 1950 à nos jours, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2000.

Bond E., Bingo in Plays 3, London, Methuen, 1987.

Bonny Y., “Postmodernisme et postmodernité: Deux lectures opposées de la fin de la nation”, in L’Identité nationale face au postmodernisme: Controverses, Paris, Éditions de l’Eclat, 2006, p. 135-151.

Crimp M., Attemps on her Life, London, Faber and Faber, 1997.

Crouch T., England: A Play for Galleries, London, Oberon, 2007.

Donesky F., David Hare: Moral and Historical Perspectives, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1996.

Habermas J., The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001.

Hammond W. and Steward D. (eds.), Verbatim, Verbatim: Techniques in Contemporary Documentary Theatre, London, Oberon, 2007.

Hare D., The Permanent Way, London, Faber and Faber, 2003.

Hare D., Stuff Happens, London, Faber and Faber, 2004.

Kane S., 4.48 Psychosis, London, Methuen, 2000.

Reinelt J., “Performing Europe: Identity Formation for a ‘New’ Europe”, Theatre Journal 53, 2001, p. 365-387.

Tucker Green D., Random, London, Nick Hern, 2008.


1 Habermas J., The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001.

2 State of the Nation is precisely the title of a book recently published by Michael Billington, (London, Faber and Faber, 2007).

3 –«De l’ère du consensus jusqu’à sa rupture, de l’après–guerre, jusqu’à la fin du siècle, le théâtre serre au plus près les éléments constitutifs du monde britannique. Les inébranlables pivots du système que sont la couronne, le Premier ministre, l’Establishment, figurent parmi les cibles privilégiées des dramaturges–aucun parti politique n’ayant leur faveur–et servent de point de départ à une vision critique. Conformisme ambiant, clivages sociaux et crises inspirent un théâtre tantôt figuratif tantôt plus abstrait, qui renvoie au public l’image des vices de sa société; souvent satirique, donc réformiste, il poursuit un but moral. La spécialité anglaise de la “State-of-the-Nation play”, qui s’appuie sur le réalisme social, traverse les décennies pour caricaturer les mythes fondateurs de la grandeur britannique. On ne cessera de répéter qu’en Angleterre l’opposition se joue sur les planches. » Boireau N., Théâtre et société en Angleterre; Des années 1950 à nos jours, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2000, p. 51.

4 Berkoff S., Greek, London, John Calder, 1982, p. 27.

5 Ibid., p. 51.

6 Ibid., p. 52.

7 –Several paragraphs of Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) deal with this idea of a nationless proletariat.

8 –See Itzin C., Stages in the Revolution, London, Methuen, 1980.

9 Bond E., Bingo in Plays 3, London, Methuen, 1987, p. 65.

10Hammond W. and Steward D. (eds.), Verbatim, Verbatim: Techniques in Contemporary Documentary Theatre, London, Oberon, 2007, p. 9.

11 Hare D., The Permanent Way, London, Faber and Faber, 2003, p. 3-4.

12 Hammond W. and Steward D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 74.

13 Billington M., State of the Nation Play, op. cit., p. 384-385.

14 –Hammond W. and Steward D., op. cit., p. 62.

15 –What follows takes much from sociologist Yves Bonny’s «Postmodernisme et postmodernité: Deux lectures opposées de la fin de la nation», in L’Identité nationale face au postmodernisme, Controverse, Paris, Éditions de l’Eclat, 2006, p. 135-151.

16 Donesky F., David Hare: Moral and Historical Perspectives, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 160.

17 Ibid., p. 163.

18 Tucker Green D., Random, London, Nick Hern, 2008, p. 3-4.

19 – My special thanks to Monica Michlin (Paris-Sorbonne) and Kerry-Jane Wallart (Paris-Dauphine) for their help in this analysis.

20 – On this point, see Appadurai A., Après le colonialisme: les conséquences culturelles de la globalisation, Paris, Payot, 1996, 2001.

21 Crouch T., England: A Play for Galleries, London, Oberon, 2007, p. 39.

22 – “— She says she’s not a real character, not a real character like you get in a book or on TV, but a lack of character, an absence, she calls it, of character”, Crimp M., Attemps on her Life, London, Faber and Faber, 1997, p. 25.

23 Ibid., p. 26.

24 Ibid., p. 59.

25 Kane S., 4.48 Psychosis, London, Methuen, 2000, p. 25.

26 –See Katz D., Saying I no more, Evanston, Northwestern UP, 1999.

27 Crimp M., op. cit., p. 50-51.

28 Reinelt J., “Performing Europe: Identity Formation for a ‘New’ Europe”, Theatre Journal 53, 2001, p. 385.

29 Crimp M., op. cit., p. 30.

30 Ibid., p. 65.

31 –Reinelt J., op. cit., p. 375.


Professeur à l’université de Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). Elle est rédactrice en chef associée de la revue Études Anglaises et directrice adjointe de l’équipe d’accueil VALE. Son domaine de spécialité est le théâtre anglais contemporain. Elle est notamment l’auteur de Voyages au bout du possible : Les théâtres du traumatisme de Samuel Beckett à Sarah Kane (Paris, Klincksieck/Les Belles Lettres, 2006) et, co-signé avec Alexandra Poulain, de Endgame : Le théâtre mis en pièces (Paris, PUF/Cned, 2009). Elle a également dirigé de nombreux volumes collectifs comme Howard Barker et le Théâtre de la Catastrophe (Paris, Éditions Théâtrales, 2006) et, avec Nicole Boireau, Le Théâtre anglais contemporain 1985-2005 (Paris, Klincksieck, 2007) ou avec Alexandra Poulain, Hunger on the Stage (Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). Traductrice de pièces de Martin Crimp, de Caryl Churchill et de Howard Barker, elle a également coordonné la traduction des Arguments pour un théâtre de H. Barker (Besançon, Solitaires Intempestifs, 2006) et co-traduit La Mort, l’unique et l’art du théâtre (Solitaires Intempestifs, 2008) ou encore Vrai et Faux de David Mamet (L’Arche, 2010).

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