Flow of Ideas

Rage! Writers Change the World


April 2011

Bangor University, Wales

An essay written for the QXE3089 module, ‘Rage! How Writers Can Change the World’ whilst a student at Bangor University, studying Music, Creative Writing and English Literature

Original question: Do certain theatrical productions challenge social injustice? If so, then how?

The six theatrical productions that this essay shall explore are those which use a wide variety of dramatic techniques to challenge various social injustices. These techniques range from the shock tactics of the ‘In-yer-face’ theatre of the 1990’s with Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, the journalistic style of verbatim theatre with Lucy Prebble and David Hare to the sociological, Brechtian style of Edward Bond. These cited playwrights have certainly upheld Augusto Boal’s (2008) statement that ‘…theatre is a weapon,’ [1] and have used it as such by wielding this weapon in such as way as to inspire the audience to form moral convictions concerning the subjects of the play. Bill Ashcroft (1995) stated that ‘The written text is a social situation… [and] constitute[s] as ' communication of a particular kind, as ‘saying’ a certain thing,’ [2] and within the theatre this ‘social situation’ is hugely amplified into a shared experience with an audience, a real life experience with living actors and actresses, and as a moral situation manifested in the reality of the stage.

Furthermore, depending on the play, it is sometimes possible to translate these moral convictions into substantial real-life situations in politics and society etc. Perhaps these moral convictions are even capable of inspiring the audience to create some form of political and social change, perhaps by joining an anti-capitalist movement or marching against the war in Iraq. Athol Fugard (2000) states in his play The Coat that some people use the theatre ‘…to understand the world we live in, but we also boast a few idealists who think that Theatre might have something to do with changing it.’ [3].

For example, Edward Bond was a playwright who was certainly very ambitious in utilizing the theatre as a social and political weapon. Coming from a working-class background, he understood the struggles that face working class citizens from an early age. The War Plays, written in 1983-85, is a collection of three short plays produced within a certain social context in which ‘The history of British drama since 1956 [was] a history of a loss of faith: an account of the dissolution of radical dreams and a socialist welfare state in post-war Britain.’ [4].

In the first play, Red, Black and Ignorant, none of the characters have real names, which is a demonstration of Bond’s Brechtian style. They are called ‘Wife,’ ‘Monster’ or ‘Buyer’ etc. This is a technique in which the social analysis of the characters takes priority over elements such as characterisation and the emotional stimulation of the audience, which is made easier by the dehumanisation of the characters by naming them ‘Monster’ etc. By placing the characters at a distance to the audience, the audience can reach a more objective and sociological analysis of the characters. The play ‘…examines the life of a man who never got the chance to live, who Bond presents as the charred and blackened Monster, born into the furnace of war.’ [5].

In scene five the ‘Buyer’ is trying to purchase the ‘Wife’s’ child. The moral message is made clear to the audience almost immediately, demonstrating to us how working-class children are born into being manufactured and marketable cogs in the future clock of capitalism, sold to employment and slavery and with no choice in the matter. The Buyer very confidently ‘sells’ his services, saying to the Mother that she would ‘want him to grow to be strong with ' good character… [Therefore,] Training must begin early to have full effect… His opinions will be formed even before he knows the subjects in which he holds them’ [6]. The scene demonstrates the differentiation between class relations. The ‘Buyer’ can afford to employ, train and govern his employees, whilst the Wife and Monster have no choice but to surrender their child to the control of a power-hungry tyrant. The Monster angrily rebukes that ‘They are so greedy they stuff food into their anus’ [7]. Indeed, Bond in 1978 said that ‘In the past, the problem was how to make the earth inhabitable, now it’s how to make it bearable’ [8].

This play demonstrates that ‘All our culture, education, industrial and legal organisation is directed to the task of killing (people psychologically and emotionally),’ [9] as Bond also exclaims. However, this play also demonstrates that killing people ‘literally’ is something that the system often requires of its citizens to perform in times of war. War is represented as an effective means to keep the populace under control. The character ‘Son’ sings a bantering song about the army, singing ‘…the soldier’s reward for his skills: the pleasure of seeing the way he kills… I am the army… Bow down and worship me’ [10]. Contrary to the ‘excitement’ of this song, the Son had been ordered to kill an innocent civilian on his home street for various political reasons and he was ordered choose who he killed. He tried to kill an old man near his home, but could not bring himself to do it. – Why?

This is a moment in which the audience is encouraged to create their own sociological analysis of the play. Elderly citizens are already regarded by the ‘evil capitalist system’ as commercially inessential as they have very little place within the world of business and commerce. In the eyes of capitalism, they have very little love, usefulness or importance. If the Son had killed the old man, it would have made that social truth a harsh reality for all elderly citizens and would have ruined their lives. So the Son made the moral decision and kills his own father instead, as there are only two houses on his street. This raises many ethical questions for the audience: would they do the same thing in that situation, etc? But more importantly, the story shows that it is still possible for humans to rebel against the system, which would normally render the old man as expendable and not the ‘Son’s’ father. By killing his father, the Son is saying to the capitalist system ‘no, I will not do what you want me to do,’ and so it is always possible to live outside of the system. The Monster explains this to the audience by saying that ‘The world isn’t just! Justice is made by people!’ [11].

Bond’s second play is called The Tin Can People, and is about a group of people who have survived an apocalyptic nuclear war. The whole world lies in ruins and the few survivors are living on a diet of canned food. Furthermore, due to radiation from the bombs the survivors are incapable of having children, and so the end of the human race lies just on the horizon. As the Second Man says, ‘Nothing grows: the dust of so many dead has stifled the earth… Yet we’re in paradise, There’s no need to work: …There’s no exploitation – and so there are no enemies… Paradise was built in the ruins of hell: which is its only possible foundation’ [12].

The play was made in 1984, a period of history when the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was always imminent as a result of the Cold War, with USA and the former USSR constantly aiming guns and missiles at each other. This may not be translatable to a modern audience, but it reminds us certain apocalyptic dangers that we face today. Our world is now under threat by an even more deadly kind of social virus and plague, as the world is being threatened and infected by the actions and consequences of modern capitalism and the threat of environmental damage and global warming.

In The Tin Can People, life starts off as a paradise of luxury, until one of the characters becomes suspected of carrying a deadly epidemic virus which is killing them all. Then the story becomes a corrupt struggle for survival. So the world goes from hell, to paradise, to hopeless barbarism. This dystopian play brings to light a few home truths. Our capitalist system is a dream-world, a world where people blindly follow the whim of the collective and with little regard for the consequential and moral outcomes of those whims. It is a world where it is possible for all of our countries to have enough bombs to destroy the world 10 times over. This play is a painful reminder to us that if we do not wake up from this dream-world at any time soon, it is likely that when we do finally wake up we may find ourselves situated within the worst possible scenario, whether it is the aftermath of a nuclear war or the collapse of our natural environment, etc. The struggle against social injustice is no longer just a matter of moral concern, of ending alienation and exploitation etc. Challenging injustice and ending capital means of production is crucial to the long-term survival of our species and environment.

However, Lucy Prebble’s Enron creates a very different moral problem. The play explores the activities that happened before and after to the famous ‘Enron scandal’ in 2001, in which a huge American energy company committed devastating crimes such as financial fraud on a multi-billion dollar scale. One key issue that it raises appears at the end of the play, where Irene Grant said to Skilling that she ‘…worked for Enron for twenty-five years. I did everything you asked. I took all my savings and I invested them in the company I worked for. I’ve lost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I have no money to retire on’ [13]. She lost everything. But this raises a question: was Irene Grant to blame for her losses? Surely, if you were going to invest your life’s savings into a company you would insure that it was not going to become bankrupt any time soon. In fact, Irene was not the only one that lost out. Thousands and even millions of private investors, worker and energy bill-payers were throwing their being robbed of their money in doing business with Enron.

The long (and weak) answer to this problem, an answer which a capitalist tactician might take, is to explain everything from each individual’s perspective and get a rounded picture, or to call Capitalism a roulette table for gamblers where some win and some loose. The short (and strong) answer is an affirmative ‘no’: Irene was not responsible for what happened to her. Enron lied to her. Of course, Capitalism is a gambling table, but the odds are nearly always unfairly stacked against the underdog. Jeff Skilling, who knew about Enron’s impending doom, sold off millions of dollars in negative assets, took the profits for himself and left the company to sink. Irene was not in a position to escape so easily.

Enron had a celebrity public image of being the world’s leading business. Nearly everyone was fooled by Enron’s public display of power and financial dominance, and those who weren’t fooled by it were those who could profit from it, such as lawyers, bankers and accountants. Despite this, Lucy Prebble wanted Enron to stay true to ‘the spirit in which it was conceived. It’s not finger-wagging or condemnatory. It’s supposed to be a trip inside a financial bubble – and then the bubble bursts’ [14] However, if we are to draw any sense of moral conviction from the play then the blame must be given, and it must be given to those who were in a position of power and knowledge regarding Enron’s situation.

Nonetheless, the blame certainly runs deeper than that. The reason why Enron was capable of doing what it did in the first place was not, as Skilling would claim, because “I’m fucking smart” [15], but because within our modern society of globalisation, celebrity culture (with Skilling as the star,) and the governmental deregulations of the free markets, Enron had found itself within a cultural environment that was almost advertising its potential for huge financial fraud. Indeed, ‘through a merger of vast networks of natural gas pipelines, [Ken] Leigh thought Enron would be poised to take advantage of the government’s decision to let gas prices float with the currents of the market’ [16].

Furthermore, capitalism is a system that rewards those with a large amount of ‘greed’, and with a big ‘ego’ [17]. Enron was a super-amplification of the vulgar characteristics that capitalism encourages. Without any sense of remorse for the lives that he had ruined, Skilling said that ‘…the only difference between me and the people judging me is they weren’t smart enough to do what we did’ [18]. However, if Jeff Skilling found himself situated within a society that rewards ‘generosity’ and ‘compassion’ as opposed to ‘greed’ and ‘egotism,’ he would certainly have no authoritative position within society.

The moral and aesthetic problem with Prebble’s Enron is that, rather than focussing on the social analysis of the situation as Bond might have done, Prebble creates a personification of it. It engages the audience and is highly entertaining, but it also lacks a moral compass. Very bizarrely, the character of Skilling is an almost likable character throughout the first half of the play, and as an ambitious entrepreneur living life to the full. As Jeff Skilling was a celebrity, and because celebrity culture is a marketable commodity, Lucy Prebble was very clever to make Skilling the main character. However, it would be interesting to hear what those 22,000 employees that lost their jobs in 2001 would have to say about this play, and whether or not they feel that moral justice had been done on their behalf through its production.

David Hare’s play The Power of Yes is not a ‘normal’ play, but is instead presented like an academic lecture or TV documentary trying to explain and understand the financial crisis in Britain, how it happened and where it could lead to. The main character, or the ‘Author’, interviews a number of bankers, MP’s, lawyers and financiers in order to try and understand the situation. The play has often been heavily criticised as quite simply ‘not being a play,’ because it has no real plot, climax or any in-depth characterisation. However, Charles Spencer praises Hare’s work by saying that ‘If he wasn’t an award-winning playwright, he’d be an award winning journalist’ [19].

Furthermore, David Hare’s play also serves a strong moral purpose: as the financial crisis will determine the future of our lives as the banks, businesses and governments slowly crawl out of debt, it is important for British citizens to know exactly how the crisis happened so that we can be prepared for what’s arriving whilst also avoiding another crisis from happening in the future. Susannah Clapp makes an interesting comparison between Hare and Prebble, saying that ‘Hare exposes a mechanism; Prebble unveiled the forces behind it. Hare gets interesting answers to particular questions; Prebble, though she is no slouch at unravelling financial mysteries, goes beyond this and shows what makes the financial world impermeable to reason; how entering it is like entering a virtual universe’ [20].

A key moral issue that Hare’s play raises is whether or not individual businesses should have more transparency to the outside world so that an overall health-assessment can be made of the financial system, making risk assessment a lot easier. The initial problem with transparency within a business is that a company needs to maintain a good public image in order to attract customers. If a business was going bust or was in possession of huge negative assets, it would be unwise to publicly broadcast those failings because other companies would exploit and expose those weaknesses, adding injury to injury. The success of a company is not just written on its balance sheet but communicated through its appearance and reputation.

When Queen Elizabeth approached the London School of Economics and asked ‘Why did nobody see it coming,’ [21] the economists and the Bank of England explained that ‘…the one thing we missed was systemic risk.’ [22]. Was it too difficult to analyse ‘systematic risk’ because of a lack of transparency in our businesses? The answer is ‘yes’, and therefore the play demonstrates in practice the Marxist concept of the ‘Internal contradictions of capital accumulation’ [23]. This massive contradiction in capitalist behaviour is very obvious to us now. A business may appear to be successful and thriving, as in the case of Enron and prior to the financial crisis when banks were handing out free money to the public with the wonderful ‘magic of the market’, when in fact these organisations were internally failing. Put together, these plays by Prebble and Bond offer us an intelligent critique of capital accumulation, which helps us to realise that there is no such thing as ‘magic’ in the world of business, and that it is always the working classes, the poor and deprived that end up loosing as a result of the greed of the upper classes.

The Power of Yes caters well for a Left-wing audience by exposing the contradictions within capitalist logic, whilst exposing the moral flaws inherent within it. For example, ‘Gambling is fine,’ as Lovelock says, ‘I’ve nothing against gambling. With your own money. But when [the bankers] begin to gamble with your customers’ money, well that’s a different thing, isn’t it? That’s when the ethical problems arise’ [24]. This is one of many morally challenging subjects that this play deals with and after analysing the banks and governments the final statement and sentiment in the play gives sympathy to the proletariat: ‘the people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits’ [25].

On the other hand, regarding the Queen’s challenge towards the London School of Economics, this is not ‘the first time in the financial crisis [that] women have left men standing… Females have excelled at seeing the financial world whole because they see it with the eyes of people who haven't thought of themselves as entitled to the City’ [26]. Indeed, Bethany McLean was the first person to publish an article on the 5th of March, 2001 in the Fortune supplement warning everyone about Enron’s financial state. David Orrell said that ‘The stereotype of ‘testosterone-filled, wild-eyed traders’ is accurate. To say that a macho culture predominates would not be an overstatement. David Hare’s play has two women in a cast of twenty, but ‘that is probably about right [says Hare]. It’s shocking how few women there are in finance’’ [27]. This entails a feminist interpretation of both Hare and Prebble, as in both cases it is men who are chiefly to blame for what goes wrong and it is women who challenge these actions.

David Hare, who has always been an avid author of political theatre, also wrote a play called Stuff Happens. It is a play which challenges another political and moral dilemma: that of the British and American decision to go to war with Iraq. The play captures a period of recent history in which post-9/11 American dominance had, under the Bush administration, given the US government a licence to make themselves the law enforcers of the world. In order to give us a flavour of the play, the character Powel says in a fit of outrage that ‘The Romans would always go out of their way to make an announcement: ‘You are now dealing with the Roman Empire’…they would kill all your family and burn down your house, they’d slaughter everyone in sight and rape all your daughters, just to make the point… But we’re not Romans. And last time I looked at the constitution, we were still a republic, not an empire’ [28]. Stuff Happens is another verbatim play based upon interviews and public news broadcasts of MPs and ministers across the globe.

In 2009 the ‘U.S. military budget accounted for approximately 40% of global arms spending’ [29] and combined with its allies the USA can account for two-thirds to three-quarters of the world’s military spending. Chalmers Johnson makes the fairly alarming statement that ‘there are no known cases of empire that went quietly, that didn’t resist their own demise, that didn’t fight at the end’ [30]. As the American economy is hugely fuelled by the mining and selling of oil, ‘we are addicted to oil’ [31] as George W. Bush once said, and David Hare’s play works well not only as a challenger to the injustices that took place upon the invasion of Iraq, but it also works as a warning to the rest of the world as it exposes the irrational functioning of USA’s military behaviour under the Bush administration.

Hare demonstrated that the key problem prior to the invasion of Iraq was the communication between different nations and governments, particularly the US, England and France. After 9/11, the world was led to believe that capturing Osama bin Laden was the key priority in doing justice for those who died in the 9/11 attacks. In Act 1, Scene 8, Blair confronts Bush saying that ‘when we found him, our Special Forces received a request from the US Special Forces’ and ‘we were ordered to pull out’ [32]. Bush’s response to this was one of reserved silence, giving Blair a few short lines: ‘Thank you for raising that, Tony. What other matters are you thinking to raise?’ [33]. Clearly, this is not only morally outrageous, as moral justice for those who died in 9/11 is traded in for the USA’s right to go to war in a hunt for oil, but David Hare also characterises George Bush as being linguistically dominant in matters of world leadership. Bush could very easily have things his way merely by being silent and saying the odd few words. He did not need to argue his case because he was, after all, the president of the world’s largest superpower, and his ‘war on terror’ did not need to justify its actions to the likes of England and France. The French Prime Minister De Villepin was right to speak out against the US bully tactics, saying that ‘…you can’t play football and be the referee as well. That isn’t – I’m using the English expression – ‘playing fair” [34].

Of course, capturing bin Laden would have extinguishing the public outrage of post-9/11 America and would have defused the public support to go to war with Iraq. David Hare exposes the truth, and rightly so: the Bush administration was willing to do whatever was necessary in order to validate the invasion of Iraq. Yet it will never be publicly broadcasted that ‘Bush will hit Iraq in much the same way that a drunk will hit a bottle – to satisfy his thirst for power and oil’ [35].

To make the situation even more diabolical, George Bush proclaimed that ‘My faith [in God] frees me… Frees me to make decisions which others might not like. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next’ [36]. The Iraq war is clearly not just a matter of oil and power but also a fight between two religions, between extreme right-wing Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. This medieval notion of ‘one religion against another’ is surely one that should be outmoded in our Western society, and certainly not tolerated. Clearly, the ‘American Dream’ was a lot more old-fashioned, Roman-Empire-like and Southern-colonialist under the Bush administration than it was advertised to be.

The power of Stuff Happens lies within its nature as ‘a profoundly materialist theatre, rejecting aesthetic experiment in favour of making visible historical processes and social structures. Achieving it, however, involves the theatre denying its own materiality, communicating somehow beyond the written text and the body of the actor,’ [37] and into the outside world and into people’s lives, as it makes itself directly relevant to them through the documentary format of the verbatim style.

Similarly to Edward Bond’s Brechtian style of having characters with no names, David Hare has the characters in Stuff Happens introduce themselves in character, which alienates the actor from the dramatic situation on the stage, and places them within a more sociologically analysable context. As a result, multiple discourses are participating in the play. Firstly, the audience brings with it a pre-existing impression of characters such as George Bush from the real world and places that impression onto their interpretation of the play. Using the Brechtian introduction of their characters, the actors also bring in their own collection of meanings. As a result, the play is made up of many sociologically three-dimensional layers which give a lot of muscle to the play’s challenges of social injustice.

Nonetheless, one crucial moral subject that Stuff Happens neglects is the viewpoint of the opposition: of the Iraqi citizens and government. It is only until the very last page that we get to hear the views of our opponents, as an Iraqi Exile explains that ‘Iraq has been crucified. By Saddam’s sins, by ten years of sanctions, by the occupation and now by the insurgency’ [38].

Contrary to the playwrights we have looked at so far, the two authors Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane have used very different techniques to challenge social injustice. The In-yer-face theatrical style of the 1990’s used ‘shock tactics’ in order to drive social and moral convictions into the audience. Their keys works, Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, depict shockingly and morally outrageous scenes of sexual abuse, homosexual rape, cannibalism, prostitution, murder, drug use and many other shocking scenes. But why do they use these ‘shock tactics’, and how do they produce moral convictions?

Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking is about a group of characters who are living with poverty, alienation and depravation and will endure any lengths of corruption, violence and exploitation in order to survive: to make money. Because of the nihilism and destruction that the culture of capitalist production creates, the play demonstrates that humans have become morally desensitised to the corruption of the world. We are all numbed and rendered as indifferent by the evils that surround us. Mark Ravenhill asked whether or not there ‘are there any [real] feelings left’ in the world, to which Heilpern responds ‘There aren’t, really. There are needs.’ – The needs of the consumers, which are our own. But what is ‘the cause of all this sullen alienation? Money!’ [39].

This evil cycle has blinded us all to the evils and injustices that surround us, in businesses, classrooms and council estates. After all, ‘the function of the media has never been to eliminate the evils of the world, no. Their job is to persuade us to accept those evils and get used to living with them. The powers that be want us to be passive observers’ [40]. The problem with this is that when we accept these evils we are no longer liable to moral action and responsibility. If we read a story about rape or murder in the news, it is not for us to do anything about it. But if these issues are presented to us on stage in a shocking and morally outraging fashion, ‘some critics have dismissed [Ravenhill’s] plays as amoral’ [41], and if these actions are demonstrated not as free decisions by corrupt individuals but as tragic consequences of social conditioning, corruption, poverty, hierarchy and alienation, then the moral responsibility is given back to us. Collectively, we are all a part of this society, so any corruption that society contains is partly our responsibility. The point is not to fall into despair, but to do something about it.

Ravenhill achieves this in a number of ways. For example, the character Mark, a recovering drug addict, says that forming personal relationship with other people is damaging because ‘You get dependant on people. Like… emotional dependencies. Which are just as addictive [as drugs], OK?’ [42]. He interprets all human behaviour as if it were a mere ‘transaction,’ from having a conversation with a friend to renting out a 14 year old male prostitute. Capitalist society encourages selfishness and independence, and with scientists like Richard Dawkins publishing books like ‘The Selfish Gene’ [43], independence seems like a rational and scientific thing to do. Yet the extent to which this capitalist ideology has been pushed is utterly irrational, and this is demonstrated through the actions of the characters. When Brian gives Mark the job of selling ecstasy pills to people on the streets standing outside nightclubs, Mark goes to a club and selflessly hands them out to people for free, knowing full well what the consequences would be. They weren’t his drugs to sell, but ‘I think: Fuck Money. Fuck it. This selling. This buying. This system. Fuck the bitching world and let’s be… beautiful. Beautiful. And happy. You see?’ [44]. And how is this humane rebellion against the system rewarded? One of his customers beats him up and Brian gives him a world of hell for losing all his gear. So while it may seem logical to be independent in this capitalist system, this ideology has many serious side effects which cannot be ignored. Humans are social animals and to regard that as an aberration is obscene, and yet it still remains to be a cultural phenomenon of modern capitalism. This is why so many people are seeking counselling, why so many children are being treated with medication etc. In capitalist society there is no profit to be made in the humane action of selflessly helping others to achieve a better and more meaningful standard of life.

The character Gary, a 14 year old rape victim and male prostitute, is one of the more friendlier and approachable characters, and yet he is the one who has had the worst things happen to him. After his stepfather had frequently raped him and he ran away from home, the only way that Gary could survive was to sell his body, and to do that he had to be friendly and approachable. This idea is morally horrific, but this horror becomes something else when the ‘fucking’ happens on stage right in front of you, with Robbie and Mark taking it in turns to ‘fuck’ him whilst blindfolded. So when Brian, the corrupt and rich businessman, the proud father of a cellist who plays the cello with overwhelming beauty, says in the following scene that ‘You know, life is hard … I can tell you this because I feel it,’ [45] we see how ridiculous the comparison is.

This demonstrates two things: the hardships and genuine terrors of the lower classes, of people who are too busy to survive to complain about their suffering and the pompous, artificial sensitivities of the upper classes who can afford the luxury of bewailing their turmoil. So if someone is wealthy enough to see a theatre production during their leisure time, they are wealthy enough to realize that their own hardships and woes are utterly ridiculous in the face of real suffering and hardship, and it is their responsibility to put their own hardships aside and demonstrate some human compassion by challenging these social injustices.

Sarah Kane’s Blasted works in a similar fashion in terms of shock-tactics, but it’s power to challenge social injustice is not as direct as Ravenhill’s play. Kane says herself that ‘Personally, I think it is a shocking play, but only in the sense that falling down the stairs is shocking – it’s painful and it makes you aware of your own fragility, but one doesn’t tend to be morally outraged about falling down the stairs’ [46]. Aleks Sierz (2001) responds by saying ‘True enough, but the trouble with this analogy is that, whereas falls are accidents, plays are deliberate’ [47]. The inspiration for Blasted came from two real-life issues of moral corruption, ‘the ethnic cleansing that Kane saw in the catastrophe of the Bosnian civil war, and racism and sexual abuse in Britain’ [48]. The play is set in a hotel ‘that is so expensive it could be anywhere in the world,’ [49] which works similarly to Bond’s and Hare’s Brechtian technique of alienating the characters, except in this case the stage environment is alienated, which creates an atmosphere of the characters being lost inside a surreal war-zone nightmare. This does however detract from the play’s moral power if it is separated from the real world.

In the second half of the play, ‘the hotel has been blasted by a mortar bomb’ [50] and, combined with the overall atmosphere, the play works as ‘a reminder that we live in a world where everything may suddenly be ripped apart,’ [51] which has some moral similarities with Edward Bond’s The Tin Can People. However, unlike the other plays mentioned thus far, I found it particularly difficult to discern any moral lessons from this play. At first, it seemed to me to nothing more than barbaric and shocking. One of the most persistent features of the play that makes it so shocking, unnerving and deeply nihilistic is the lengths of the sentences in character dialogues. When Ian, a racist, sexist, alcoholic journalist talks to his naïve and child-like ex-girlfriend Cate, for entire scenes they speak in jagged one-liners:

Example 1 – Sarah Kane, Blasted [52]:

(16 Blasted)

Ian Will you be my girlfriend again?

Cate I can’t.

Ian Why note?

Cate I told Shaun I’d be his.

Ian Have you slept with him?

Cate No.

Ian Slept with me before. You’re more mine than his.

Cate I’m not.

Ian What was that about then, wanking me off?

Cate I d- d- d- d-

Ian Sorry. Pressure, pressure. I love you, that’s all.

Cate You were horrible to me. Ian I wasn’t.

Cate Stopped phoning me, never said why.

Ian It was difficult, Cate.

Cate Because I haven’t got a job?

Ian No, pet, not that.

Cate Because of my brother?

Ian No, no, Cate. Leave it now.

Cate That’s not fair.

Ian I said leave it.

(He reaches for his gun)
Ian starts, then goes to answer it.

Ian I’m not going to hurt you, just leave it. And keep quiet. It’ll only be Sooty after something.

This style of dialogue, which continues throughout most of the play, is extremely unnerving. Even when the context of the conversation is fairly trivial, the way in which it is said keeps that harsh momentum flowing.

The first big chunk of spoken text comes in on page twelve:

Example 2 - Sarah Kane, Blasted [53]:

(12 Blasted)

Cate You’re making it worse, speeding it up.

Ian Enjoy myself while I’m here.

(He inhales on his cigarette and swallows the last of the gin neat.)

[I’ll] Call that coon, get some more sent up.

Cate (Shakes.)

Ian Wonder if the conker understands English.

He notices Cate’s distress and cuddles her.
He kisses her.
She pulls away and wipes her mouth

Cate Don’t put your tongue in, I don’t like it.

Ian Sorry.

The telephone rings loudly. Ian starts, then answers it.

Ian Hello?

Cate Who is it?

Ian (Covers the mouthpiece.) Shh.

(Into the mouthpiece.) Got it here.

(He takes a notebook from the pile of newspapers and dictates down the phone.)

Ian A serial killer slaughtered British tourist Samantha Scrace, S – C – R – A – C – E, in a sick murder ritual, comma, police revealed yesterday point new par. The bubbly nineteen year old from Leeds was among seven victims found buried in identical triangular tombs in an isolated New Zealand forest point new par. Each had been stabbed more than twenty times and placed face down comma, hands bound behind their backs point new par. Caps up, ashes at the site showed the maniac had stayed to cook a meal, caps down point new par. Samantha comma, a beautiful redhead with dreams of becoming a model comma, was on the trip
But even here the dialogue maintains that fragmented, unnerving rhythm, as Ian dictates the punctuation marks and word spellings. What is interesting is that this chunk of text is referring to crimes made by the Soldier, who enters on scene three after the hotel has been blown up. It is on page 43 (of a 60-page play) when the first lengthy chuck of uninterrupted text is spoken:

Example 3 – Sarah Kane, Blasted [54]:

Soldier Went to a house just outside town. All gone. Apart from a small boy hiding in the corner. One of the others took him outside. Lay him on the ground and shot him through the legs. Heard crying in the basement. Went down. Three men and four women. Called the others. They had the men while I fucked the women. Youngest was twelve. Didn’t cry, just lay there. Turned her over and – … Then she cried. Made her lick me clean. Closed my eyes and thought of - … Shot her father in the mouth. Brothers shouted. Hung them from the ceiling by their tesiticles.

Ian Charming.

The aesthetic effect of this chunk of text works like a statement: ‘so far you have been living inside fragments of a nightmare. Now a full-bodied reality has entered the scene’. Clearly, Ian would much prefer to stay inside the distorted, fragmented nightmare than face the harsh realm of murdering and raping reality, as he refuses to publish the Soldier’s horrific acts in the papers because no one wants to read a story about their own soldiers being barbarians, ‘filthy like the wogs’ [55]. As a result of this, Ian suffers the consequences of his own refusal to face reality as the Soldier rapes him, sticks ‘a revolver up Ian’s anus’ [56] and sucks out and eats one of his eyeballs.

The elements of this play that challenge social injustice are a lot more subversively communicated than the other plays cited thus far. It is often the case in Blasted that the moral message is not conveyed through what the characters say, but through what they do not say:

Example 4 – Sarah Kane, Blasted [57]:

Soldier You killed her?

Ian (Makes a move for his gun.)

Soldier Don’t, I’ll have to shoot you. Then I’d be lonely.

Ian Course I haven’t.

Soldier Why not, don’t seem to like her very much.

Ian I do. She’s … a woman.

Soldier So?

Ian I’ve never - … It’s not - …

Soldier What?

Ian (Doesn’t answer.)

Soldier Thought you were a soldier.

Ian does not have the ability to say the words ‘because it’s wrong’ within this nihilistic dream-world. At the end of Blasted, the whole world of the play falls into pieces and into nothing, similarly to Edward Bond’s The Tin Can People. Ian wanted to carry on living a fantasy life of telling ‘stories’ as a journalist, whilst Cate wanted to innocently believe that there was some good left in a world where there was none to be found. They both fought with their lives to keep this fantasy alive, but when the reality of the Soldier hit them the fragility of their fantasy fell apart and their world ended with cannibalism and blindness.

But where is the moral lesson and challenge within all of this? Unlike the other plays, the message is very indirect and very obscure. The question is about whether or not this play has anything to say about the real world that we live in. Are we all hopelessly holding onto a vain fantasy of watching movies, playing computer games, driving cars and listening to our iPods whilst ignoring the obvious horrors and corruptions of the world that surrounds us? And if we are, then to what extent are we doing this? The answer is left for us to decide upon.

In conclusion, there is little doubt that all of the plays cited in this essay have posed some kind of challenge against social injustice. The social and political end to which these challenges are aiming for or could even be capable of within the sphere or radical social and political change is something that, perhaps, remains to be realized. However, it is a solid fact that no work of art has ever created or inspired any kind of lasting and substantial political change and it is likely that it never will. Of course, there is always the argument that raising political and social awareness is a political and social means to an end in itself. However, sometimes this argument of ‘cultural change’ is simply not enough. After all, cultural change is a temporary and fleeting decoration upon the giant scale of corruption involved with elements like capitalism, war, poverty, power and exploitation. In the face of these demons that cover the globe, what significant threat that can a relatively small theatrical production with a moral conscience pose? As seen at the end of Ravenhill’s S & F when the characters feed each other ready-meals, the only thing we truly have is each other. In the face of the modern world and all of its problems, whether the issues are the financial crisis, war, poverty or whatever concerns us, there is one thing that unites us all which political theatre gives inspiration to and helps to resurrect: the hope for better days. You only get one life after all, and this hope is one of our strongest weapons against social injustice. All that remains now is to use it.


[1] Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Pluto Press (London, 2008), xxiii.

[2] Bill Ashcroft, Constitutive Graphonomy – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995), 298.

[3] Athol Fugard, Township Plays, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2000), the blurb.

[4] Lou Lappin, The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (New York, 1987), 17.

[5] Paul Vale, Red, Black and Ignorant, The Stage, 9th November 2010, 17:30 – http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/30203/red-black-and-ignorant 28-03-2011.

[6] Edward Bond, Plays: 6, The War Plays, Choruses From After the Assassinations, Methuen Drama Publishers (London, 1998), 16-18.

[7] Edward Bond, The War Plays, 20.

[8] Malcolm Hay & Philip Roberts, Edward Bond; A Companion to the Plays, TQ Publications (London, 1978), 45.

[9] Lou Lappin, The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, 177.

[10] Edward Bond, The War Plays, 28.

[11] Edward Bond, The War Plays, 25.

[12] Edward Bond, The War Plays, 55-56.

[13] Lucy Prebble, Enron, Methuen Drama Publishers (London, 2009), 108.

[14] Dominic Cavendish, Lucy Prebble interview for Enron, The Daily Telegraph, 4:30PM GMT, 29 Dec 2009 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/6905597/Lucy-Prebble-interview-for-Enron.html 27-03-2011.

[15] Alex Gibney (Director), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Jeffery Skilling, Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, 01:18mins – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFTihsjO-og 05-04-2011.

[16] Alex Gibney, Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room 01 of 10, 10:21mins.

[17] Robert Bryce, Pipe Dreams; Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, PublicAffairs Publishers (New York, 2002), (title).

[18] Lucy Prebble, Enron, 106.

[19] Charles Spencer, The Power of Yes at the National Theatre, Review, The Telegraph, 9:26AM BST 07 Oct 2009 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/6267896/The-Power-of-Yes-at-the-National-Theatre-review.html 28-03-2011.

[20] Susannah Clapp, The Power of Yes, The Observer, Sunday 11 October 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/oct/11/david-hare-power-of-yes 28-03-2011.

[21] David Hare, The Power of Yes, 43.

[22] David Harvey, RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism, http://www.theRSA.org, Youtube.com, 28 June 2010, 04:30mins – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0 06-04-2011.

[23] David Harvey, RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism, 04:45mins.

[24] David Hare, The Power of Yes, 13.

[25] David Hare, The Power of Yes, 72.

[26] Susannah Clapp, The Power of Yes, The Observer, Sunday 11 October 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/oct/11/david-hare-power-of-yes 28-03-2011.

[27] David Orrell, Economyths: Ten Ways Economists Get It Wrong, (Canada, 2010), 140.

[28] David Hare, Stuff Happens, Faber and Faber Ltd. (London, 2004), 51.

[29] Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., Military Budget of the United States, last modified on 8 April 2011 at 15:21 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States – 12-04-2011.

[30] Chalmers Johnson, DECLINE of EMPIRES: The Signs of Decay, Youtube.com, 22 January, 2008, 17:05mins – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2CCs-x9q9U – 06-04-2011.

[31] TheAlyonaShow, American Oil Addicts, http://www.youtube.com, 15-06-2010, 03:12mins – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aWp-SySsw0 – 06-04-2011.

[32] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 29.

[33] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 30.

[34] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 72.

[35] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 77.

[36] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 9.

[37] Chris Megson and Dan Rebellato, Theatre and Anti-theatre – Richard Boon Ed., The Cambridge Companion to David Hare, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, 2007), 248.

[38] David Hare, Stuff Happens, 120.

[39] John Heilpern, Shopping and Fucking: Is That All There Is? The New York Observer, 15th February 1998 – http://www.observer.com/node/40170 – 25-02-2011 [40] Richard Linklater (Director), Waking Life, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD, (1st January, 2001), 18:35mins.

[41] Miranda Sawyer, Think of it as Bridget Jones goes Jihad, The Observer, 31st July 2005 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/jul/31/theatre.edinburghfestival2005 – 25-02-2011.

[42] Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and Fucking, Black Publishers Ltd. (London, 1996) 17.

[43] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, OUP Oxford (Oxford, 2006), title.

[44] Mark Ravenhill, S & F, 39.

[45] Mark Ravenhill, S & F, 86.

[46] Aleks Sierz, In-yer-face Theatre: British Drama Today, Faber and Faber Ltd. (London, 2001), 94.

[47] Aleks Sierz, In-yer-face Theatre: British Drama Today, 94.

[48] Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane's debut play Blasted returns, The Guardian, 24th October 2010 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/oct/24/sarah-kane-blasted?INTCMP=SRCH – 25-02-2011.

[49] Sarah Kane, Blasted, Methuen Publishing Ltd. (London, 2002) 3.

[50] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 39.

[51] Michael Billington & Mark Fisher, ‘Sarah Kane's lost souls cry louder than ever’, The Guardian, 9th November 2006 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/nov/09/artsreviews.theatre?INTCMP=SRCH – 25-02-2011.

[52] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 16.

[53] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 12.

[54] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 43.

[55] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 48.

[56] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 49.

[57] Sarah Kane, Blasted, 44.


Bill Ashcroft, Constitutive Graphonomy – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Ed., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995).

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed Pluto Press (London, 2008).

Edward Bond, Plays: 6, The War Plays, Choruses From After the Assassinations, Methuen Drama Publishers (London, 1998).

Robert Bryce, Pipe Dreams; Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, PublicAffairs Publishers (New York, 2002).

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, OUP Oxford (Oxford, 2006).

Athol Fugard, Township Plays, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2000).

David Hare, Stuff Happens, Faber and Faber Ltd. (London, 2004).

David Hare, The Power of Yes; A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis, Faber & Faber Ltd. (London, 2009).

Malcolm Hay & Philip Roberts, Edward Bond; A Companion to the Plays, TQ Publications (London, 1978).

Sarah Kane, Blasted, Methuen Publishing Ltd. (London, 2002).

Lou Lappin, The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (New York, 1987).

Richard Linklater (Director), Waking Life, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD (1st January, 2001).

Chris Megson and Dan Rebellato, Theatre and Anti-theatre – Richard Boon Ed., The Cambridge Companion to David Hare, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2007).

David Orrell, Economyths: Ten Ways Economists Get It Wrong (Canada, 2010).

Lucy Prebble, Enron, Methuen Drama Publishers (London, 2009).

Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and Fucking, Black Publishers Ltd. (London, 1996).

Aleks Sierz, In-yer-face Theatre; British Drama Today, Faber and Faber Ltd. (London, 2001).

Secondary Sources:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aWp-SySsw0 – 06-04-2011.
- TheAlyonaShow, American Oil Addicts, www.youtube.com, 15-06-2010.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/nov/09/artsreviews.theatre?INTCMP=SRCH – 25-02-2011.
- Michael Billington & Mark Fisher, ‘Sarah Kane's lost souls cry louder than ever’, The Guardian, 9th November 2006.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/6905597/Lucy-Prebble-interview-for-Enron.html – 27-03-2011.
- Dominic Cavendish, Lucy Prebble interview for Enron, The Daily Telegraph, 4:30PM GMT, 29th December 2009.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/oct/11/david-hare-power-of-yes – 28-03-2011.
- Susannah Clapp, The Power of Yes, The Observer, Sunday 11 October 2009.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFTihsjO-og – 05-04-2011.
- Alex Gibney (Director), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) - Jeffery Skilling, Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0 – 06-04-2011.
- David Harvey, RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism, http://www.theRSA.org, Youtube.com, 28 June 2010.

http://www.observer.com/node/40170 – 25-02-2011.
- John Heilpern, Shopping and Fucking: Is That All There Is? The New York Observer, 15th February 1998.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2CCs-x9q9U – 06-04-2011.
- Chalmers Johnson, DECLINE of EMPIRES: The Signs of Decay, Youtube.com, 22 January, 2008.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/jul/31/theatre.edinburghfestival2005 – 25-02-2011.
- Miranda Sawyer, Think of it as Bridget Jones goes Jihad, The Observer, 31st July 2005.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/6267896/The-Power-of-Yes-at-the-National-Theatre-review.html – 28-03-2011.
- Charles Spencer, The Power of Yes at the National Theatre, Review, The Daily Telegraph, 9:26AM BST 07 October 2009.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/oct/24/sarah-kane-blasted?INTCMP=SRCH – 25-02-2011.
- Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane's debut play Blasted returns, The Guardian, 24th October 2010.

http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/30203/red-black-and-ignorant – 28-03-2011.
- Paul Vale, Red, Black and Ignorant, The Stage, 9th November 2010.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States – 12-04-2011.
- Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., Military Budget of the United States, last modified on 8 April 2011 at 15:21.

Further Reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/jul/05/lucy-prebble-playwright-interview-enron – 27-03-2011.
- Tim Adams, 'I hate to be told somewhere is out of bounds for women.' Enter Enron ..., The Observer, Sunday 5th July 2009.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/jul/23/enron-review-by-michael-billington 27-03-2011 – 27-03-2011.
- Michael Billington, Enron, The Guardian, Thursday 23 July 2009.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/oct/07/power-of-yes-billington-review 28-03-11.
- Michael Billington, The Power of Yes, The Guardian, Wednesday 7 October 2009.

Barbara Christian, The Race for Theory – in Bill Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Ed., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995).

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/theatre/review-23747616-enron-is-a-dashing-tale-of-greed.do – 28-03-2011
- Henry Hitchings, Enron is a dashing tale of greed, The London Evening Standard, 23rd Sep 2009.

Carol Homden, The Plays of David Hare, Cambridge University Press, (New York, 1995).

Braj B. Kachru, The Alchemy of English – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Ed., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995).

Nick Marsh, The Corporation of Terror, – in Paul Crosthwaite Ed., Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative; Textual Horizons in the Age of Global Risk, Routledge, (New York, 2011).

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Echo Library (Middlesex, 2009).

W. H. New, New Language, New World – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995).

Philip G. Altbach, Literary Colonialism: Books in the Third World – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge (London, 1995).

Mostafa Rejai, Political ideologies: a comparative approach, M. E. Sharp Inc. (New York, 1995).

Stephen Slemon, Unsettling the Empire; Resistance theory for the Second World – in Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin Eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, (London, 1995).

Jenny S. Spencer, Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1992).

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/first-night-the-power-of-yes-lyttelton-national-theatre-1798845.html – 28-03-2011.
- Paul Taylor, First Night: The Power of Yes, Lyttelton, National Theatre, The Independent, Wednesday, 7 October 2009.

© Victor Rikowski, 18th September 2011.

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