The "rude-brood" of new playwrights which emerged in the mid-1990s was meant to shake up theatre and bring in younger audiencesby Stephen Brown / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
It was london theatre’s equivalent of the art show Sensation. It was hip to be a playwright again. During 1995 and 1996, several young playwrights from Britain and Ireland premiered plays in London to great acclaim, transferred productions to the West End, were showered with awards and film deals and gathered labels such as “rude-brood” (The Guardian) and “shock-horror dramatists” (Daily Telegraph).
The story took off in January 1995, when Sarah Kane’s Blasted opened at the Royal Court. Patrick Marber’s first play, Dealer’s Choice, followed a month later-although it is really his second play, Closer (May 1997), which earns him his place among the shock troops. Jez Butterworth’s first play, Mojo, a tale of 1950s gangsters, opened in July 1995. March 1996 saw the London premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which won three theatre awards in London and another four after it opened in New York. Three months later, Conor McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower opened at the Bush, paving the way for The Weir, which had a long run in the West End. Finally, in September 1996, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking unleashed more sex, violence and black humour on to a fully suspecting audience.
These plays marked the arrival of a new generation. They were perhaps written in revolt against the liberal play: a theatre of ideas, populated by intelligent characters, pervaded by a certain calm seriousness. The first half of the decade had been dominated by David Hare’s trilogy about British institutions and plays by Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard. The year 1995 also saw the opening of Hare’s Skylight, a classically “well-made” play of post-Thatcherite uncertainty.
“New forms,” declares Arkadina in The Seagull, “are just bad manners.” Here were bad-mannered plays in every sense: rough, willing to knock you around, thrill you in new ways. They were aggressively frank about sex and violence. The writing was immodest too: highly subjective and revelling in its virtuosity. But were the “new forms” any good? Part of the hype was derived from the hope that these plays would bring a younger audience to the theatre. They were writers mining new seams-postmodern Hollywood gamesmanship, stand-up comedy, club culture. But do they succeed? Does their brutality simply titillate? Are they as daring as they seem?
McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first of a trilogy, is set in the grim town of Leenane in Galway. It is a black comedy, an emotional roller-coaster. The cruelty of the characters (one is tortured with cooking oil) is matched by often hilarious humour at the expense of lives thick with resentment and stupidity. McDonagh’s twisted version of rural Ireland and his self-consciously melodramatic plot toy with the audience’s feelings. It is pastiche with teeth.
What is moving about Beauty Queen is the genuine attempt to hold on to an emotional and social reality of stunted lives. But the melodrama itself seems progressively more strained as the trilogy progresses; the irony stretches beyond endurance. McDonagh’s semi-real Ireland comes to seem less a clever postmodern “Oirishness” than an arena purpose-built for thrills.
McDonagh offers style brilliantly adrift. Something similar is true of Jez Butterworth’s play Mojo, a 1950s tale of betrayal among gangsters, told with a familiar combination of high-energy dialogue and violent menace. The word-flinging is impressive, but the combination of period setting and virtuosity give the whole thing the air of an exercise.
Patrick Marber’s Closer, on the other hand, has been hailed for its unflinching dissection of the self-destructive energies of contemporary love. The action concerns the serial attachments, break-ups, re-attachments, jealousy and rage of two men and two women over the course of four years-Noël Coward spliced with Richard Dawkins. The dialogue is sharp and funny. The play thrills in the characters’ disabused emotional savagery. Love is a scab which must be picked.
Closer is stylised and abstract. The four characters have no history, relationships or interests beyond each other. It is a play with almost no “outside.” It is skilfully constructed as 12 scenes of similar length, mostly two people talking in short, return-of-fire lines. But though Closer’s clinical formalism conveys its vision of erotic compulsion, it ends up weakening its authority as a study of contemporary love. As with McDonagh and Butterworth, its brutality seems forced: more desired than real.
All these are chilly plays. And the swaggering brutality, knowing distrust of men, and occasional sentimentality which run through them belong with that styling of masculinity-melancholic and gleeful-which was a feature of the 1990s. McPherson is the only writer of this group who is capable of charm. He began by writing beautifully paced and funny monologues for men. His confused characters tell stories of crime, drunkenness and lust in a wayward digressive style. McPherson’s men are a conundrum of brutishness and tenderness. We are invited to judge them-but not too much. He is at his considerable best (This Lime Tree Bower, St Nicholas) when his characters most resist our pity.
McPherson’s unforced identification with his men could limit him. It leads him into a kind of reverse sexism. Women are seen sympathetically, but purely through male eyes: as victims of male brutality, as objects of anguished male desire. His first female character, Valerie in The Weir, is that play’s fatal weakness.
Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, unlike the rest of the group, are explicitly political playwrights, but they differ radically from each other in theatrical style. The critical and commercial success of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking-its title is its greatest achievement-is mysterious. It is a crude, confused play; alone among these playwrights Ravenhill seems formally incompetent. The plot is muddled: the characters and situations forced. The dialogue-gags apart-is standard issue. The play is littered with wild implausibilities (the man who goes mad when asked whether he wants cheese on his burger) and heavily signalled indications of modern alienation. In the final scene, Brian, a gangster, delivers a crashingly ironic monologue on the theme “Civilisation is Money.” Capitalism has rarely been so lucky in its enemies.
Along the way, Ravenhill manages to name-check just about every tourist landmark of “dispossessed modern living”: coke, heroin, porn, phone sex lines, snuff movies, child abuse, rehab, E, the internet, virtual reality and so on. Everything comes stamped: “This is the zeitgeist.” His three later plays-always relentlessly contemporary-have exposed all too clearly the weaknesses of his dramatic technique.
Sarah Kane, on the other hand, began her short writing career with a play which takes realistic stage brutality about as far as it can go and then beyond. Blasted begins in an anonymous hotel room in Leeds. Halfway through the play, the action takes a vertiginous turn, as a soldier arrives at the door with a rifle. Minutes later, Kane shows her respect for the realist stage by blowing it up with a mortar bomb. Leeds has become Sarajevo, it has become nowhere: the nowhere of a post-modern civil war seen from ground level, where there are no rules.
Crave, the last of her plays to be produced before she killed herself in February last year, demonstrates her continued willingness to experiment with theatrical form. Crave has no setting, just four actors on stage, identified only by letters, speaking to each other or to themselves (it is not always clear which), mixing memories, stories, sayings in other languages, clich?s, epigrams. Desperate love, loss, past abuse and psychosis emerge. It is a striking attempt to stage the enigmatic loneliness of troubled selves. The tragedy of Kane’s suicide, for the theatre, is that while her writing is more than “promising,” it was still in process. All her plays feel like one-act plays. They realise a bleak world stunningly well, but have little room for manoeuvre within it.
How daring are these plays? Kane’s experimentation makes the formal conventionality of the other writers all the more striking. Many of these plays are chamber plays. They experiment with dialogue and tone but are strongly narrative-driven, set in realistic, often highly detailed stage space-often in just one location. With the exception of Kane, these are writers without a powerful visual sense. More generally, beneath the surface daring of these plays, there is a deeper withdrawal-into shallow brutality, intellectual crudity, sentimentality. It is like watching men gambling ostentatiously over small stakes. The best writers-Kane, McPherson and Marber-are those most willing to break out of a screen-influenced realism.
The story, of course, is not over, but it would be fair to say that these writers do not, for now, cast large shadows over the theatrical scene. Acclaim for Ravenhill has steadily diminished and Butterworth has gone into movies. McDonagh has not produced a new play in three years. McPherson’s Dublin Carol, which opened in the renovated Royal Court, showed him struggling to escape the monologue form. Marber has not written another play since Closer, though he has been busy acting and directing.
None the less, these plays offer trailers for our theatrical future: small-scale, more private plays with a narrative realism and pacing borrowed from film and television; plays increasingly bound up with good PR; plays which are not, in Howard Barker’s words, “a declaration of loyalty to moral principles.”
By the end of the 1990s, even David Hare had fallen into line, producing the amoral couplings of The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman, and Via Dolorosa, a political play stripped down to a troubled monologue by Hare himself. Perhaps the new decade requires a new “new generation.”