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Contemporary Theatre Review

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(Post)Modern Subjectivity and the New Expressionism: Howard Barker, Sarah

Kane, and Forced Entertainment
Karoline Gritzner

Online Publication Date: 01 August 2008

To cite this Article Gritzner, Karoline(2008)'(Post)Modern Subjectivity and the New Expressionism: Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, and
Forced Entertainment',Contemporary Theatre Review,18:3,328 — 340
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/10486800802123617


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Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 18(3), 2008, 328 – 340

(Post)Modern Subjectivity and the

New Expressionism: Howard
Barker, Sarah Kane, and Forced
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Karoline Gritzner

ABSTRACT In this article, postmodernism is defined as an extension and

problematization of modernist questions to which the problem of subjectivity
remains a central concern. The concept of subjectivity is considered a redundant
category in much of postmodernist theory; however, this is not the case in
contemporary drama, theatre and performance, as is demonstrated in analyses of
the work of Howard Barker, Sarah Kane and Forced Entertainment.
The theoretical framework of this discussion is based on the work of Frankfurt
School member Theodor W. Adorno who drew attention to the diminishing
possibilities of subjective experience in late-capitalist (postmodern) society. For
Adorno, resistance to the reification of the self in post-Auschwitz culture can only
be found in an encounter with the aesthetic or, as is argued here, in an encounter
with the distinctively theatrical. The examples of ‘new-expressionist’ theatre and
performance discussed here engage with the crisis of subjectivity (a modernist
trope) in a late-capitalist context, using aesthetic approaches which heighten the
‘damaged’ nature of the subject (Adorno). Subjectivity is articulated in a series of
confrontations with outer and inner limitations, in experimental theatrical form,
and in the particular immediacy of the performance event.

A casual observer of postmodernity might assert that it leaves the human

subject or self dissolved or in pieces, an empty signifier for a series of roles
or socially constructed positions. However, in this article I argue that in
the theatre there is no escape from the self, or from the subject’s
encounter with others (both onstage and in the audience). Rather than

Contemporary Theatre Review ISSN 1048-6801 print/ISSN 1477-2264 online

Ó 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/10486800802123617

accepting that postmodernity erases the significance of the subject, I

follow an Adornian Marxist understanding that postmodernity itself is a
continuation of modernity, and the crisis of the subject is as pertinent, if
not more urgent, within the contemporary cultural logic as it was at the
height of modernism in the earlier twentieth century. The development
of a capitalist ideology has led to different nuances of the relationship
between the individual and society, but it has not altered their
fundamentally antagonistic dialectic. Such an understanding of moder-
nity and postmodernity engages with historicity and the social constitu-
tion of culture, it does not pretend that culture has become a free-
floating aesthetic devoid of dialectical materiality.
Ever since its ostensible ‘birth’ in modernity, the concept of
subjectivity has found expression in the performing arts, and its theatrical
trajectory is conventionally summarized, very broadly, along the
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following lines: early-modern theatre constructs subjectivity according

to the ideologies of humanism and enlightenment (Shakespeare and
Racine); modernist theatre redefines subjectivity to prepare its liberation
from totalitarian politics (Brecht and Artaud); and postmodernist theatre
(performance) considers the category of the self redundant. This
simplified account of the relationship between subjectivity and theatre
derives from the assumption that the socio-historical and cultural
conditions of the postmodern age (postmodernity) are distinctively
different from those pertaining to modernity. The category of the subject
(self, selfhood) has been an issue of contention for much of
postmodernist theory in this debate. Influenced by structuralist and
poststructuralist methodologies, postmodernist theory denounces the
notion of autonomous subjectivity as an illusory humanist category that
has dominated the western philosophical discourse of modernity since
the Enlightenment (Descartes). The theories of Althusser and Foucault
(especially in The Order of Things), for example, attempt to de-centre the
subject by conceiving it as a mere reflex of language, social discourse and
power. Taking the logic of de-centring to an extreme, the notion of a
‘death of the subject’ has emerged, notably in Baudrillard’s dystopic
theory of simulacra, which suggests an absence of the subject from
1. See Jean Baudrillard, representations without origin or reference to reality.1 However, the
Simulations, trans. by postmodernist deconstruction of the self is problematic and misleading if
P. Foss, P. Patton, and
P. Beitchman (New it implies and encourages a theoretical redundancy of the category of
York: Semiotext(e), selfhood. As Derrida, the principal philosopher of deconstruction, said:
‘The Subject is absolutely indispensable. I don’t destroy the subject; I
2. Jacques Derrida, situate it’.2
‘Structure, Sign, and One of the major philosophers of the twentieth century whose work
Play in the Discourse was primarily concerned with the question of subjectivity and its
of the Human
Sciences’ [1966], in historical development is Theodor W. Adorno, leading member of the
The Structuralist Frankfurt School of critical theory.3 His model of subjectivity takes the
Controversy. The
Languages of Criticism principle of domination (of the outer and inner world) as a central force
and the Sciences of in the development of self-definition, suggesting that the Enlightenment
Man, ed. by Richard
Macksey and Eugenio
enthronement of rationality as an absolute has led to an increasing
Donato (Baltimore, reification of subjectivity and a radical reversal (regression) into barbarism
MD: Johns Hopkins (epitomized by the Holocaust). According to Adorno’s critical theory,
University Press,
the manifestations of mass culture in the ‘culture industry’ present

1970), pp. 247–72 (p. further negatively advanced forms of regressive subjectivity – that is,
forms of subjectivity that have internalized the reifying structures of a
3. The Frankfurt capitalist commodity ideology which ‘impresses the same stamp on
Institute for Social everything’.4 It will be argued that the attention given to the complexity
Research was founded
by Marxist German of the subject in new-expressionist drama, theatre and performance
intellectuals in 1923. demonstrates the continuation of a modernist preoccupation with
After World War II explorations of subjectivity, but now under the conditions of post-
Adorno and Max
Horkheimer rebuilt modernity or late capitalism which, according to Adorno, have
the institute and irrevocably diminished the possibilities of the individual. The new-
Adorno’s work on
sociology, music and expressionist dramatists and practices under consideration here engage
mass culture provided with the crisis of subjectivity (a modernist trope) in a late-capitalist
contributions to the
context, using aesthetic approaches which heighten the ‘damaged’
revival of German nature of the subject (Adorno).
intellectual life. Having survived its postmodernist demise, the concept of the self
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continues to be decentred and re-imagined on the contemporary stage

4. Theodor W. Adorno
and Max Horkheimer, where it functions like a residual reminder of the unrealized (utopian)
Dialectic of promise that was once central to the categories of subjectivity and
Enlightenment, trans.
by John Cumming
modernity – namely, the promise of freedom.
(London: Verso,
1997), p. 120.
Expressionism and the Performing Self

Postmodernism is an extension and problematization of modernist

questions to which the problem of subjectivity (in particular subjective
experience) remains a central concern. The major critics of modernity
have drawn attention to the reifying, de-personalising effects of
capitalism (Karl Marx), the disenchantment of the world (Max Weber)
and the withering of experience (Walter Benjamin). What is characteristic
about modernism is its ability to lend aesthetic expression to this modern
5. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘crisis of experience’.5 The crisis of experience and the experience of crisis
Aesthetic Theory, trans. are articulated in modernist art through the use of reflexive, meta-
by Robert Hullot-
Kentor (London: theatrical techniques that question the possibilities of art (theatre).
Athlone Press, 1997), German expressionist drama, in particular, manifested a series of early-
p. 34.
twentieth-century attempts to articulate the pain of the world, and
subsequently led to a variety of aesthetic explorations, ranging from
theatrical rehearsals for revolutionary protest (agit-prop and Brechtian
theatre) to dramatic expressions of existentialist despair. The expressio-
6. Walter H. Sokel, The nist ‘revolution of poetic form and vision’6 in the work of Frank
Writer in Extremis Wedekind, Oskar Kokoschka, and Franz Kafka, for example, did not aim
(Stanford, CA:
Stanford University to suggest a resolution of social or personal conflict but emphasized the
Press, 1959), p. 227. ‘fragmentariness, indeterminacy, and ambiguity’7 of the modernist vision
of subjectivity. The modernist techniques of expressionist drama in many
7. Ibid., p. 232.
ways pre-figured the deconstructions of the self in postmodernism, which
lends support to my contention that the value of subjectivity has been
reformulated but by no means eliminated in contemporary theatre and
The ‘performing self’ paradigm of modernism, which found experi-
mental theatrical articulation in expressionism, continues to resonate in
the cultural climate of postmodernism where the unresolved problematic
of a modernist sense of cultural crisis continues to be reflected in the

8. See Albrecht Wellmer, endgames of subjectivity.8 This idea of an extension of modernist

Endgames: The questions in a seemingly different cultural reality is also implied by
Irreconcilable Nature
of Modernity, trans. by Fredric Jameson, who describes postmodernism as yet another reflex of
David Midgley capitalism or, as he calls it, the contemporary ‘logic of late capitalism’.9
(Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1998). Jameson, broadly speaking following an Adornian historicist line of
thought, emphasizes the continuity between modernism and postmo-
9. Fredric Jameson, dernism in an endeavour to preserve the possibilities of a radical politics
Postmodernism, or The (and aesthetics) in the context of global consumer capitalism. The loss of
Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism (Durham, individuality and the waning of authentic subjective experience that
NC: Duke University Adorno ascribed to the totalising ‘culture industry’ (his early recognition
Press, 1991), p. xii.
of the conditions now known as postmodernity) diminish the possibility
of resistance to the status quo. Such resistance is predicated on the
preservation of an independent subjective standpoint from which the
commercial mediation and abstraction of the self in modern culture can
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be criticized. Adorno, being aware of the utopian implications of his

model of subjective autonomy and resistance to totality, nevertheless
holds on to the idea of freedom and locates it in the realm of art and the
aesthetic. For Adorno it meant that resistance to the reification of the self
in post-Auschwitz culture could only be found in an encounter with the
aesthetic, or, as I would like to argue, in an encounter with the
distinctively theatrical.
The theatre provides an imaginary space for subjects-in-process
10. See Julia Kristeva, ‘Le (Kristeva)10 – speaking and moving subjects (characters, performers,
sujet en procès’, in her spectators) whose experiences of becoming are linked to the theatrical
Polylogue (Paris: Seuil,
1977). Reprinted as negotiations of alterity. An Adornian approach to theatre would suggest
‘The Subject in that the theatrical space can provide the conditions for subjective
Process’, in The Tel
Quel Reader, ed. by freedom only if the aesthetic principles employed create a world that is
Patrick Ffrench and sufficiently removed from the social and moral prescriptions of objective
Roland-François Lack
(New York:
reality. In criticizing the modern subject’s growing ‘decay of experi-
Routledge, 1998), pp. ence’11 as a result of the suffocating effects of the (Enlightenment)
133–78. Kristeva rationality principle, he prepares for a philosophical and aesthetic
challenges the unitary
and autonomous recovery of the possibility of subjective experience and expression in
(male) subject of art. In the examples of ‘new-expressionist’12 theatre and performance
western thought with
her model of
discussed here, subjectivity is articulated in a series of confrontations with
subjectivity as an outer and inner limitations, in experimental theatrical form, and in the
energetic and particular immediacy of the performance event.
contradictory process
of language.

11. Adorno, Aesthetic Howard Barker: Tragedy and Desire

Theory, p. 235.

12. David Ian Rabey

The Theatre of Catastrophe, Howard Barker’s unique aesthetic
employs the term reformulation of the tragic genre, explores the category of individuality
‘New Expressionism’ as an experience of transgression and transformation. Barker’s engage-
with reference to
Howard Barker, David ment in the 1970s and 1980s with the fraught legacy of political
Rudkin, Caryl socialism already revealed a clear interest in the complexity and
Churchill, and
contradictions of individuality.13 His subsequent work paid increasing
Wertenbaker in whose attention to explorations of sexuality, and Barker’s current work seems to
work the subjective is foreground to an even greater extent the (catastrophic) intersections
the domain of
powerful ‘active between erotic desire and death.14 Barker’s vision of transgressive
transformation’. See subjectivity finds aesthetic articulation in his ‘art of theatre’ – a rejection

David Ian Rabey, of the humanist ideology of much mainstream theatrical activity (‘the
English Drama since
1940 (London: theatre’) which seeks to entertain and enlighten by offering the audience
Longman, 2003), a clear message of some sort. More importantly from my point of view,
p. 128. The
description ‘neo- however, his work throws a bourgeois understanding of the autonomous
expressionist’ finds an subject into crisis without accepting that the subject can be ignored or
earlier application in
Baz Kershaw’s
bypassed as a problematic concept, despite a rejection of humanist
characterization of ideology. His artistic practice, notwithstanding its resistance to
certain alternative rationality and its questioning of the concept of ‘truth’ (which therefore
theatre groups that are
‘committed to the makes Barker a fitting candidate for the theatre of postmodernism in
subjective as the Charles Lamb’s view)15 is deeply informed by an Adornian cultural
determining domain
of theatrical
criticism which is articulated in passages such as this:
conventions’; see Baz
Kershaw, The Politics
of Performance:
Radical Theatre as I would like to propose that the value of works of art, in social
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Cultural Intervention circumstances such as the present, lies not in their entertainment value,
(London: Routledge,
1992), p. 178. nor in their ability to ‘change perceptions’ in pursuit of some common
purpose, but in their power to devastate the received wisdom of the
13. See Chris Megson, collective, which conspires to diminish individual experience at all levels.16
‘England Brings you
Down at Last’, in
Theatre of Catastrophe,
ed. by Karoline Barker’s diagnosis of modern culture as a context in which individual
Gritzner and David
Ian Rabey (London: experience is diminishing echoes a key argument that has defined the
Oberon Books, 2006), discourse of artistic modernism – namely, the critique of the alienation of
pp. 124–35. experience resulting from societal modernization. Adorno also argues,
from the historical point of view of late capitalism, that the possibilities of
14. See Karoline Gritzner,
‘Catastrophic authentic subjective expression are radically undermined by bourgeois
Sexualities in Howard society, but he determinately holds on to the concept of the subject as a
Barker’s Theatre of
Transgression’, in possible agent of social transformation. Barker locates the possibility of
Genealogies of Identity: authentic individual experience in the realm of the tragic, which he
Interdisciplinary considers to be sufficiently enigmatic and powerful enough to act as a
Readings on Sex and
Sexuality, ed. by counterforce against the dominant liberal-humanist ideology of mass
Margaret Sönser culture. Barker’s position in this respect is less dissimilar than it might
Breen and Fiona
Peters (Amsterdam: appear from the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton’s view of tragedy. Tragedy
Rodopi, 2005), pp. matters for Eagleton because it sharply opposes the status quo of
bourgeois conformism and restores the possibility of subjective agency
15. See Charles Lamb, The
and liberation. In Eagleton’s view, recognition of tragedy not only offers
Theatre of Howard us an experience and understanding of social contradictions but it might
Barker, rev. edn also lead to social transformation.17
(London: Routledge,
2006), especially the For Barker, tragedy offers a ‘return to individual pain’ by ‘divid[ing]
chapter the audience into its individual components’.18 The tragic, as character-
‘Postmodernism and
the Theatre’, pp. 24–
ized in Death, The One and the Art of Theatre,19 presents an opening to
42. death and explores the myriad operations of desire, making the individual
(character and audience member) aware of their limitations, but also
16. Howard Barker, their possibilities. The tragic individual places herself in opposition to the
Arguments for a
Theatre (Manchester: moral consensus of the collective by means of a passionate effort of will.
Manchester University Dancer, the protagonist of Hated Nightfall (1994), is a good example of
Press, 1997), p. 93.
an individual who is compelled to continually re-define himself through
17. See Terry Eagleton,
dangerous encounters with the other. The play articulates a tragic sub-
Sweet Violence: The jectivity on the level of dramatic action and characterization as a symbol
Idea of the Tragic for resistance, negation and implied (but non-utopian) transcendence.

(Oxford: Blackwell, Barker’s theatre of catastrophe, with its poetic re-visionings of a tragic
drama without reconciliation or redemptive value, constitutes a form of
18. Barker, Arguments, resistance to the transparency and instrumental (means – end) rationality
p. 59. of ‘the world’ (or late capitalism, in Adornian terms). Barker does this by
exploring the disorientating effects of the individual’s collisions with the
19. Howard Barker,
Death, The One and
unsatisfactory prescriptions of the world; effects which become manifest
the Art of Theatre in dramatizations of linguistic, physical and emotional disarray, and often
(London: Routledge, involve displaced historical locales and surrealist theatrical images.
Hated Nightfall dramatizes the mystery surrounding the murder of
the Russian Imperial family by communist revolutionaries. The Party has
officially endowed Dancer, the children’s tutor, with revolutionary power
and the duty to kill the Romanoffs but his persistent refusal to submit to
any ideology (be it monarchic or communist) compels him to a
precarious (but wilfully accepted) existence on the edge of political
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reason and moral action. Dancer rejects the ‘forced reconciliation’

20. Adorno uses the term (Adorno)20 of inevitable social and political contradictions imposed by
‘forced reconciliation’ totalitarian Party rule, and is driven by a need, a compulsion, a desire for
in his critique of the
Hungarian Marxist a form of love which recoils from suggestions of domesticity and sexual
philosopher Georg morality. Dancer is drawn to Queen Caroline and at one point for a brief
Lukács’ belief that art
should offer an image moment imagines their union in a world ‘beyond’ conflict and damage,
of a resolution of class but even such a possibility is rejected as too harmonious and suffocating
conflict and social
contradiction that
to his catastrophic imagination. He is driven by a need for negativity,
does not exist in which is articulated in terms of absolute refusal. He refers to himself as a
present society. ‘transient phenomenon’ and recognizes a powerful desire without feeling
Adorno believes, in
contrast, that such the impulse to define its nature or direction. Like many Barker
conflicts and protagonists, Dancer experiences his condition as abject; he is rejected
contradictions enter
the form of art and
by ‘the world’ and he considers this his destiny, indeed he insists on the
need to remain perpetuation of his abjection even when the possibility of a practical
unresolved in order for escape from the crisis emerges (by means of a car journey across the
art to retain a
perspective of critique. border). Such real possibilities of escape are ludicrous to Dancer’s cruel
More generally, imagination, which becomes more discriminating and unrelenting in the
Adorno uses the term
to denote capitalism’s face of death. His sacrificial gesture towards the end of the play (when he
ideological tendency is physically abused by a female Party comrade) contributes to a
to conceal and even heightened sense of subjective freedom despite (or because of) the death
falsely resolve the
underlying that it implies. Yet as Dancer maintains, he is afraid that ‘death even [. . .]
antagonisms of its will be poorer than my imagination predicted [. . .]’ (47), thus using the
system. See Theodor
W. Adorno, intrusion of death as yet another stimulus for the performance of self.
‘Commitment’, in Hence, Barker’s theatre professes to disturb and contradict, rather
Aesthetics and Politics:
Debates Between Bloch,
than celebrate, affirm and explain; it is difficult and intellectual and resists
Lukács, Brecht, ‘easy consumption’; it ‘complicates life’,21 exposes suffering, discovers
Benjamin, Adorno, ed. the beauty of pain and the violence of love. By confronting the spectator
and trans. by R. Taylor
(London: New Left with images of terrifying beauty, irrational actions and complex poetic
Books, 1976), pp. language, this Theatre of Catastrophe seeks to disrupt an audience’s
moral certainty and ideological security. Barker’s work suggests that the
21. Barker, Arguments,
experience of tragedy is essentially a subjective, solitary experience; it
p. 97. confronts the spectator with ‘the unbearable – literally, what cannot be
borne’.22 His theatre ‘prefers darkness, if only to separate the audience
22. Ibid., p. 144. from itself and oblige the individual to confront their pain in isolation’.
By turning the stage into a platform where ‘wrong actions are
23. Ibid., pp. 147, 57. passionately performed in pursuit of self-consciousness’23 and where

contradictions remain unreconciled, this speculative theatre instils, in

Barker’s view, a sense of anxiety in its audience, which might lead to a re-
valuation and potential re-organization of the dominant ethical land-
scape. By confronting the spectator with the irrational and unsettling will
of stage characters in an unashamedly direct, expressive, and intimate
manner, Barker allows the spectator to become a privileged witness of
forbidden actions and ‘criminal’ thoughts.
Barker’s dramatizations of self-definition allude to a Nietzschean ‘will
to power’ as an instinctual energy or transformative urge that is both
constructive and destructive, leading the individual ‘beyond good and
evil’. However, the largely positive, world-affirming attitude of the
Nietzschean hero is counteracted by Barker’s own ‘negative’ characters
who, like Dancer, refuse to articulate or embody any useful new values.
The revaluation of values on Barker’s stage might be devoid of (moral
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and political) directionality but it certainly does not lack emotional and
libidinal intensity. Self-transformation is pursued with a passion, which
in many cases leads to (wilful) self-damage and an embrace of the
possibility of death. However, even death does not constitute an
endpoint for the imagination, but merely another stage, another
possibility for subjective transformation. As Istvan in Dead Hands
(2004) exclaims when confronting the dead body of his father: ‘I make
his death another pretext for self-laceration self-examination self-
intoxication self self self I am so tired of self I am so sick with I this
24. Barker, Dead Hands I my I’.24
(London: Oberon But there is no escape from the problem of the self in Barker’s theatre,
Books, 2004), p. 19.
only a compulsive return of our attention to its irrational, fragmentary
and irreconcilable nature. Rainer Friedrich suggests that modernism is a
more complex phenomenon than postmodernism, ‘sustaining as it does
the unresolved tension that results from the opposing strivings in
modern subjectivity for self-assertion and self-cancellation; while post-
25. Rainer Friedrich, ‘The modernism simply dissolves the tension by opting for one of its poles’25 –
Deconstructed Self in namely, that of self-cancellation. The theatrical expression of subjectivity
Artaud and Brecht:
Negation of Subject as unresolved tension and restlessness places Barker’s work within the
and tradition of European modernist (in particular, expressionist) theatre,
Forum for Modern and continues to offer radical aesthetic critiques of (post)modern culture
Language Studies 26 which, as Adorno warned us, is ‘a phase when the subject is capitulating
(1990), 282–97
(p. 283).
before the alienated predominance of things’.26

26. Theodor W. Adorno,

Minima Moralia: Sarah Kane: The Presentation of Self and the
Reflections from
Damaged Life, trans. Development of Theatrical Form
by E. F. N. Jephcott
(London: Verso,
1974), p. 76.
Sarah Kane has been celebrated as the leading British playwright of the
1990s and many critics agree that her brief theatrical career has given
27. See Graham Saunders, expression to a new aesthetic sensibility in modern British theatre.27 Over
‘Love Me or Kill Me’: and above the experiential qualities of her work, her plays can be read as
Sarah Kane and the
Theatre of Extremes experimentally aesthetic (theatrical) responses to the contradictions of
(Manchester: late-twentieth-century global capitalism, a dominating model of reduc-
Manchester University
Press, 2002); Aleks
tive simultaneity that was only just emerging when Adorno was writing in
the 1960s. Kane’s presentation of the self is in many ways more radical

Sierz, In-Yer-Face than Barker’s treatment, because she explores the possibilities and limits
Theatre: British
Drama Today (Faber of self-construction in a way that reveals the extent to which subjectivity
and Faber, 2001); Dan has become instrumentalized and therefore almost extinguished within
Rebellato, ‘Sarah
Kane: An late-capitalist consumer society. Whereas for Barker the self, while
Appreciation’, New compromised, is still capable of constituting a locus of theatrical meaning
Theatre Quarterly
XX.3 (1999), 280–81.
and dramatic action, for Kane even the minimal self that Barker appears
There is a consensus to accept is potentially put into question.
that Kane’s theatre is Kane’s interest in experimentation with dramatic form is already re-
provocative, visceral
and emotionally flected in her first play Blasted (1995), which begins in a naturalist fash-
honest, and that its ion that is later rejected. Ian (a middle-aged journalist) physically and
experiential aesthetic
mentally abuses his ex-girlfriend Cate (a young girl, prone to epileptic
disturbs habitual fits) in a posh hotel room in Leeds. The entrance of a soldier and
audience expectations the explosion of a mortar bomb radically change this realist setting of
and responses.
the Leeds hotel room into a war-torn, absurdist space in which the
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unthinkable crimes of war unfold. We seem to enter a Beckettian domain

that rejects naturalist conventions of geographical space and chronolo-
gical time. The striking uses of explicit and violent visual images, actions
and sound-scapes intensify the oppressive atmosphere of prolonged
suffering and endless despair which engulfs the characters. At the end of
the play, the stage directions tell us that Ian has died – ‘He dies with
relief. / It starts to rain on him, coming through the roof. / Eventually. /
28. Sarah Kane, Complete Ian: Shit’28 – but then he continues to exist and interact with Cate. The
Plays (London: proposition that Ian has apparently died problematizes any theory that he
Methuen, 2001),
p. 60. has suffered and learnt something from his pain in a humanist fashion.
This treatment of Ian suggests how even in her earliest performed play
Kane puts into question the representation of the human subject in her
29. Edward Bond, quoted Edward Bond claimed he was moved by ‘the humanity of Blasted’29
in Saunders, ‘Love Me and its apparent ability to alter our attitudes to the world around us. It is
or Kill Me’, p. 25.
indicative of Bond’s humanistic and rationalising perception of drama to
interpret Kane’s work in terms of its wider political (in the sense of moral
and consciousness-raising) potential. However, from an Adornian
perspective Bond’s reading may be seen as misjudged because, as well
as maintaining a humanist perspective, he is only paying attention to
what is happening at the level of the content of the play; whereas for
Adorno the dislocated and fragmented form of Blasted would carry its
political significance. Bond’s reading of Kane as a humanist playwright
largely depends on addressing an implied moral context for the content
of her work, in which the dramatization of the characters’ relationships to
the external world, however fraught, problematized and devoid of
psychological realism, nevertheless articulates a sense of moral conflict, or
a judgement on the moral ills of society. However, Kane’s later work
(Crave and 4.48 Psychosis) is characterized by the thematic flights of the
self from the world, which is reflected in the plays’ experimental dramatic
forms. More than her previous work, these plays refuse any clearly
identifiable social or political context of reality and for this reason can be
best described as abstract, internally directed, or ‘closing in on
30. Saunders, ‘Love Me or themselves’.30
Kill Me’, p. 156. Kane’s plays are not ‘issue plays’ with identifiable (and easily
consumable) social messages. Rather, her experimental treatment of

theatrical form suggests a movement towards aesthetic abstraction, which

approached realization in her later work where the experience of
alienated and fragmented subjectivity is closely associated with a collapse
of dramatic form. According to Adorno’s definition of art as negation,
autonomous aesthetic form provides a critical statement on the
(administered) social reality, precisely by shutting itself off from reality’s
utilitarian concerns. The socio-political relevance of aesthetic abstraction
is therefore not denied but emerges as an ‘allegorical reaction to a world
31. Adorno, Aesthetic that ha[s] become abstract’.31 Kane’s later work is no longer dominated
Theory, p. 22. by a logic of dramatic mimesis, but takes on characteristics of Lyotard’s
concept of an ‘energetic theatre’. ‘Energetic’ aesthetic form embraces a
libidinal and irrational economy of energies and intensities, which
transfigure linguistic structures and decentre subjectivities by ‘produ-
32. Jean-François Lyotard, c[ing] events that are effectively discontinuous’.32 The explosion of
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‘The Tooth, The narrative development and character description in Kane’s work suggests
Palm’, in Mimesis,
Masochism, and Mime, a commitment to experimentation with theatrical constructions that
ed. by Timothy reveal the intersections between subject and form. The subjective voice
Murray (Ann Arbor:
University of speaking in Kane’s work cannot be reduced to the author’s, nor can it be
Michigan Press, projected entirely onto the spectators’ responses. The subjective
1997), pp. 282–88
(p. 287).
dimension of her texts merges within the theatrical aesthetic in which
it seeks and finds an objective expression, thus most clearly representing
Adorno’s conception of art which locates the subjective domain (the
subjective ‘spirit’) of a work of art, and thus its potential for critique, at
the level of aesthetic form (rather than social content).
Such experimentation with dramatic form, which entails a distinctive
de-centring of the self, is carried out most radically in Crave (1998) and
4.48 Psychosis (2000), where language assumes a quasi-autonomous
function in relation to character, action and narrative. Kane’s later work
moves beyond drama in the sense that it eschews a direct relationship
between character and the created illusion of a stage fiction. Here we
have plays for voices rather than characters, language ‘scapes’ or layers
that do not immediately signify recognizable realities. However, it would
be misleading to assume that for this reason subjectivity is erased within
the theatrical space that is transfigured by language; rather, one is
confronted with the challenging proposition that the self is no longer a
direct agent of, or vessel for, meaning, but is constituted as an effect of
language, space and movement. Although this might appear a confirma-
tion and perhaps celebration of a de-historicized generic postmodernist
treatment of the self, in fact it testifies to the acuteness of the crisis of the
33. Adorno applies the subject in the latest turn of reification in global late capitalism.33 In 4.48
Marxist theory of Psychosis the breakdown of linguistic control goes hand in hand with a
reification to his
analysis of the collapse of the speaker’s reality. Meaning multiplies and fragments,
commercial mediation intention remains ambiguous, not sufficiently articulated, deliberately
instrumentalization of bewildering but painfully emphatic. Kane’s project embodies a Beck-
consciousness in the ettian challenge to dramatic meaning yet nevertheless works in the
‘culture industry’.
Reification denotes
tradition of expressionist theatre which physicalizes the emergence of
the commodity subjective desire as a critical urge (irrational, compulsive, self-destructive)
character of art and that blasts the forms of linguistic and physical movement in time and
the alienation of
human relations. See space. The self is nevertheless articulated, indeed insists on its damaged
‘The Culture articulation, as a riddle, a wound, a distorted form which invites

Industry’, in Dialectic contradictory emotional responses (from performers and spectators).

of Enlightenment, by
Max Horkheimer and What Kane dramatizes so effectively through her experimental approach
Theodor W. Adorno, to theatrical form is the extent to which late-capitalist reification has
pp. 120–67.
effectively produced a failed subject. Placed in the context of Adornian
negative dialectical thought, the operations of deconstruction apparent in
Kane’s ‘theatre of extremes’ (Saunders) may suggest that ‘[t]he image of
34. Theodor W. Adorno, undistorted nature arises only in distortion, as its opposite’.34 In other
Minima Moralia: words, by aestheticizing the failure of the subject Kane’s work puts
Reflections from
Damaged Life, trans. the subject back into the frame and, in a vestigial way, preserves
by E. F. N. Jephcott subjectivity.
(London: Verso,
1974), p. 95.

Forced Entertainment: Articulating the Self through

Theatrical Self-reflexivity
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The narrative structure of much of Forced Entertainment’s theatre

performance work, including The World in Pictures (2006), suggests a
continued interest in explorations of the structures of subjectivity
through the medium of theatre. Even in non-text-based theatre the
interrogation of the subject as a way of producing theatrical action and
meaning remains central. Using eclectic performance techniques such as
35. In a revisionist article repetition, parody, exaggeration, and hybridization of genres,35 The
about postmodernism, World in Pictures offers a self-reflexive, ironic and incomplete account of
Ihab Hassan states
that the following history, which is arguably postmodernist in its determined evasion of
categories pertain to meta-narratives. Yet I would argue that this show is, perhaps surprisingly,
the postmodernist
style: ‘fragments, modernist in its espousal of the concept of selfhood. In Forced
hybridity, relativism, Entertainment’s performances the emphasis on subjectivity (subjective
play, parody, pastiche,
an ironic, anti-
experience) remains central, even though it is no longer exclusively linked
ideological stance, an to the principle of narrative illusion, but becomes increasingly articulated
ethos bordering on in moments of self-reflexivity experienced by the individual audience
kitsch and camp’. See
Ihab Hassan, ‘From members. The performers, for example, confess to the audience
Postmodernism to (Speak Bitterness, 1994/95), or ridicule and verbally attack them (First
Postmodernity: The
Night, 2001), thus constructing the collective as witnesses rather
Context’, Philosophy than ‘mere’ observers. Although I would question whether there is as
and Literature, 25.1 much distinction between witness and observer as Forced Entertain-
(2001), 1–13 (p. 1).
ment’s work would appear to suggest, it is more important that this is
consistent with a modernist emphasis on the need to make reception
more active than in naturalist theatre and to construct active subjects
conscious of their own individual responses within the audience of a
performance. It is interesting to note that, despite their attempts to break
the illusions of theatre (with occasional playful references to the
conventional ‘fourth wall’), Forced Entertainment do not generally
renounce the theatrical set-up as such, nor a traditional relationship with
the audience. The audience might stay or walk out of a performance by
Forced Entertainment, but they are still an audience and therefore
distanced from the actual performers. Forced Entertainment’s work takes
place within theatre buildings, in rooms with walls, and their ‘effort to
36. ‘Not Even a Game maintain theatre as a space’36 suggests that rather than breaking with
Anymore’: The Theatre theatre altogether (and branching into performance art) they seek to re-
of Forced
examine the possibilities and challenges of the theatrical medium. It

Entertainement, ed. seems that performative examinations of subjectivity lie at the heart of
by Judith Helmer and
Florian Malzacher such endeavours. The overriding concern is with presence, the ‘here and
(Berlin: Alexander now’ of the performance event,37 which is a unique, never-to-be-
Verlag, 2004), p. 72.
repeated experience in a spatial and temporal dimension shared by
37. Performance is here performers and spectators. There is a sense that the particular immediacy
defined in the and frequent contradictory nature of spectator response encouraged by
Derridean sense of an Forced Entertainment reflects an impulse towards a self-reflexive
event as ‘an
irreplaceable and emancipation from a dependence on conventional strategies of narration
irreversible empirical and reception. Adorno ascribes a specific radicalism to the principle of
particular’. A Derrida
Reader: Between the individuation in the work of art, according to which the subject performs
Blinds, ed. by Peggy its traces of autonomy vis-à-vis the claims of the general. The company’s
Kamuf (New York:
Columbia University
acknowledged adoption of an aesthetic of failure38 furthermore supports
Press, 1991), p. 10. such a ‘perseverance of lingering with the particular’,39 a process in which
the spectator experiences his/her self in transition and transformation.
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38. See Tim Etchells in The very title of The World in Pictures invokes the gesture of global
‘Not Even A Game
Anymore’, p. 88. capitalism’s desire to subsume individual experience under a framework
of totality. However, this ‘mock-epic theatrical picture-book of the
39. Adorno, Minima history of man’ (programme note) is a playful attempt to tell a meta-
Moralia, p. 77. narrative that is too big to be encapsulated by any theatrical means and
therefore The World in Pictures undermines the ideological prescriptions
of globalization from the outset. The show begins with a story told by a
single performer who invites us to imagine a stroll through a city, which
culminates in a suicide attempt involving a fall from a rooftop which
leaves us – and the story – hanging in the air. Then the performance of
the ‘history of Man’ begins. Using an array of pantomimic action, eclectic
music, colourful costumes, and bizarre props, the performers convey
significant moments of the world’s history in a frenzied tour de force
which blends the comic and grotesque with profound moments of
reflection. At the end of this chaotic spectacle, the temporal distinctions
between past and future collapse when the performer who introduced the
show returns and offers a solemn monologue that confronts the audience
with the fragility of individual memory, with questions about personal
identity, our place in history, and what will remain.
The deconstruction of the history of the world as it is presented in
performance here gives way to the creation of small narratives (Lyotard);
private, personal, tentative stories that we tell about ourselves and to each
other. The World in Pictures ultimately encourages the individual
(internal) performance of reflexive subjectivity; it invokes consciousness
of our personal histories that happen in local contexts and are particular
and unique. The events that we are encouraged to reflect upon in the last
moments of the production by the performer’s questions – ‘How did you
get to the theatre tonight? Who did you meet on your way? Do you
remember the person sitting next to you on the bus?’ – are necessarily
fragmentary, incomplete, impossible to authenticate and difficult to
remember. The intractable gaps and blind spots that are part of the
constructions of individual history and personal memory throw a shadow
of uncertainty and incredulity over the meta-history of Mankind, Reason,
and the unified Subject.
Thus, capitalism’s claim for universality and comprehensibility is
imaginatively challenged (deconstructed) by means of a performance that

returns us to the fragile, particular moment of presence, the delicate ‘here

and now’. Through all the heterogeneous materials that are used in
Forced Entertainment productions – film, video and Internet footage,
rehearsed dialogue and improvised material, theatrical gestures and
spontaneous reactions – it is the juxtaposition, blurring and ultimate
collapse of the distinction between illusion and reality, dramatic fiction
and ‘real’ action on the stage that is at once emblematic of the
postmodernist performance style but also, at the same time, a
continuation of a modernist motif – namely, the questioning of the
conditions of theatre and the probing of the possibilities of subjective
expression within its aesthetic structures. The risk of interruption,
dissolution and failure seems a distinguishing feature of the Forced
Entertainment aesthetic, which nonetheless remains contained within the
fourth wall created by the audience, who cannot intervene to change the
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performance from their position. However, such possibility of disruption

is presented when the distinction between performance character and
performer collapses; when the conventions of theatre (based on the
illusory semblance of an imagined reality) are wilfully undermined until
two possibilities emerge: reality seems like a game or the game seems real
(‘not even a game anymore’) due to the manifestly real, physical and
emotional investment and risk-taking of the performer in the present
moment of action.
In the final moments of The World in Pictures the return to personal
history, however, is a response to our consciousness of death, the
inevitable end and possible oblivion of our selves. The majority of the
performance can be regarded as a playful, theatrical exposition of
Lyotard’s thesis of the postmodern ‘incredulity toward meta-narra-
40. Jean-François Lyotard, tives’,40 and in this case the specific meta-narrative foregrounded is that
The Postmodern of the unifying effects of the mechanisms of late capitalism. The last
Condition: A Report
on Knowledge, trans. moments of The World in Pictures confront the spectators with their own
by Geoff Bennington positionality with regards to the events of the performance, juxtaposing
and Brian Massumi
(Manchester: their lived experiences, memories and desires with the unsuccessful claims
Manchester University for a totalized subjectivity and comprehensive history. In this manner the
Press, 1984), p. xiv.
effects produced in Forced Entertainment’s work are similar to those of
contradiction, complexity and emotional force in the text-based theatres
of Barker and Kane. The inherent possibilities of our own lives and the
particularity of our subjective responses, here juxtaposed to the brave but
futile (yet humorous) staging of the wider history of humanity, offers a
resource for initiating a possible standpoint of opposition to the
production of reified subjectivity under late-capitalist ideology.


Adorno’s perspective offers us a different way of conceiving the crisis of

subjectivity within postmodernity in a historicized fashion as contextua-
lized within the development of late capitalism and the aesthetic thinking
that responds to that same crisis. The crisis of subjectivity is, in effect, a
manifestation of the subject’s possibilities which are imaginatively
suggested in those types of theatre and performance that locate the

potential for resistance (the self’s claim to freedom) precisely in the

41. An Adornian analysis fragmentary character of subjective experience and response.41 The
could also be carried category of the self is neither redundant nor in need of a harmonising
out for playwrights
such as Mark Ravenhill resurrection in the calculated uniformity of the culture industry. Both of
and Martin Crimp. these (postmodernist) perspectives of subjectivity must be rejected if one
Ravenhill’s Shopping
and Fucking (1996), adopts an Adornian view.
for example, seems to In a section of his essay entitled ‘Beyond Postmodernism: An
enact a negative
dialectic between
Inconclusion’, Ihab Hassan – one of the earliest theorists of post-
endorsing the freedom modernism – argues that an understanding of what might lie beyond
of consumer capitalism postmodernism should imply a renewed, ethical conception of the
and implicitly rejecting
that same freedom, dialectic between the self and the other. We need a ‘more dialogical sense
although the play does of ourselves in relation to diverse cultures, diverse natures, the whole
not particularly centre
on the tribulations of
universe itself’.42 Hassan argues that this can perhaps be achieved if we
the self. Neither does make an effort to re-imagine the condition of postmodernity as a project
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Crimp’s Attempts on that encourages the individual to explore ‘modes of self-transcendence’.

Her Life (1997),
which suggests an As Adorno suggested and as these theatrical projects witness, modern
underlying radical society’s encounter with the problem of subjectivity depends on a
absence of self amid a
world of artificial renewed realization of the subject’s fundamental claim to freedom. The
media constructs that problematic of the self migrates into theatrical aesthetic form, where
are in constant flux. subjectivity’s contradictions and aporias are played out in texts and
Both Crimp and
Ravenhill do not performances. In Barker’s ‘art of theatre’ the moral and social
aestheticize the failure assumptions and prescriptions guiding reality are suspended in a series
and possibilities of the
subject to the extent of theatrical transgressions, combining unconventional formal and
of Barker and Kane. thematic explorations (for example, of eroticism and death). Kane’s
work, manifestly influenced by Barker in terms of the treatment of
42. Hassan, ‘From challenging subject matter and the suspension of readily available
Postmodernism to
Postmodernity’, p. 13. meaning, provides theatricalizations of subjectivity that embrace and
transform the ostensibly postmodernist principles of uncertainty,
irrationality and ambiguity into formal categories without, however,
suggesting a compliance with the cultural assumptions underlying late
capitalism. Her work is devoid of postmodernist irony and instead offers
43. Adorno, Aesthetic theatrical explosions of the ‘accumulated, speechless pain’43 that Adorno
Theory, p. 40. saw suppressed by the ‘cheerful’ art of the culture industry. And the
incomplete, failed stories and disorientating effects produced in the work
of Forced Entertainment emphasize the importance and irreducibility of
subjective experience in the aesthetic event. While none of the theatre
pieces discussed suggests that a simple correction of social conditions by
the subject through the medium of theatre is feasible, they nonetheless
search for the possibility of self-transformation and self re-definition by
dramatising the erasure of the subject while at the same time refusing to
accept that same erasure. In this manner they point to (at least an
imaginary) negative dialectical recovery of subjectivity and distance
themselves from the postmodern context of surface play and ‘ever-
44. Adorno, Minima changing sameness’.44
Moralia, p. 238.