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In-yer-face theatre

In-yer-face theatre describes drama that emerged in Great Britain in the 1990s. This category coined by British theatre critic Aleks Sierz is the title of his book, In-Yer-Face Theatre, first published by Faber and Faber in March 2001. An adjunct faculty member in Boston University's London graduate journalism program, and co-editor of TheatreVoice, Sierz uses in-yer-face theatre to describe work by young playwrights who present vulgar, shocking, and confrontational material on stage as a means of involving and affecting their audiences. According to Sierz, "The big three of in-yer-face theatre are Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson"; in listing 14 "Other hot shots" in "Who?" on his website, Sierz adds the following qualification: "Of course, some writers wrote one or two in-yer-face plays and then moved on. Like all categories, this one can't hope to completely grasp the ever-changing reality of the explosive new writing scene."

Etymology of the phrase "in your face" ("in yer face")

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the "slang" term in your face originated in the United States in 1976; the 1989 edition and its updated editions provide examples of its usage in variant spellings such as in yo' face from 1976 through the 1990s:

f. in your face slang (orig. U.S.), (a) as int. phr., an exclamation of scorn or derision; (b) as adj. phr. (freq. hyphenated) bold or aggressive; blatant, provocative, brash.
1976 C. ROSEN Mile Above Rim xv. 159 ‘Stuffed!’ shouted the taller boy. ‘Doobie got himself stuffed!.. In yo' face, Doobie!’ 1977 Washington Post 25 Feb. (Nexis) D1 Pipkin was the epitome of the ‘hot dog’, interested only in a personal, in-your-face confrontation with the defender of the moment. 1979 Verbatim Summer 6/2 The expression ‘Face!’ Apparently, it is an abbreviation of ‘In your face, Ace!’ 1990 MIZELL & BROWN Faces (song) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 268 In your face all the time All in your face when I'm kickin' my rhyme. 1990 Chicago Sun-Times 30 Nov. I. 90/1 Ismail is unusual in that he's not you prototypical chest-out, in-your-face, strut-your-stuff star. 1992 N.Y. Times 6 June 23/1 The voters are saying, ‘In your face, Bush!’ They are saying, ‘In your face, Clinton!’ That's because the voters are stressed out. 1993 Face Sept. 109/1 Testosterone-fuelled in your face and on your case macho is not his bag.

Literary-cultural origins

Simon Gray employs the colloquial slang term in your face to describe contemporary theater dialogue in his play Japes, which premiered in London, in early February 2001. In Japes, Michael Cartts, a middle-aged author, rages against a new kind of writing that he describes as "in your face". After watching a new play by a young playwright, Cartts describes the stage characters as follows:

[They] had the impertinence, no, the hubris to utter those most terrifying of words, "I love you," [but] what did they mean by them? They meant "I've fucked you and now I need to fuck you again, and possibly a few more times after that and I'll be jealous, insane with jealousy if anyone else fucks you" .... All they do is fuck each other and all they talk about is how they do it, and who they'd really rather be doing it with or to—and they don't cloak it in their language .... No words that even hint at inner lives, no friendships except as opportunities for sexual competition and betrayal, no interests or passions or feelings, as if the man were the cock, the cock the man, the woman the cunt, the cunt the woman, and the only purpose in life to ram cock into cunt, jam cunt over cock .... And you know—you know the worst thing—the worst thing is that they speak grammatically. They construct sentences. Construct them! And with some elegance. Why? Tell me why? (Little pause.) Actually, I know why. So that the verbs and nouns stick out—in your face. In your face. That's the phrase, isn't it? That's the phrase! In your face!

Appropriating the slang British spelling used by the band In Yer Face, extending the theatrical contexts exposed in Gray's play Japes, and, as the OED observes, employing the more-frequently-hyphenated adjectival form, Sierz used in yer face in his category "in-yer-face theatre" as defined in his book of that title.

Process of critical categorizing

The process of appropriating and applying such a pre-existing phrase or concept to describe new theatrical works provides a critical means of "categorizing" or "labeling", and some critics have stated, "pigeonholing", or "domesticating" ("taming") them. The creation of in-yer-face theatre parallels the history of more-prevalently accepted literary-critical coinages by critics like Martin Esslin (Theatre of the Absurd), who extended the existential philosophical concept of the Absurd to drama and theatre in his 1961 book of that title, and Irving Wardle (Comedy of menace), who borrowed the phrase from the subtitle of The Lunatic View: A Comedy of Menace, by David Campton, in 1958 reviews of productions of Campton's play and of The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter, applying Campton's subtitle to Pinter's work.

2002 Conference on "in-yer-face theatre"

"In-yer-face theatre" was debated at a two-day conference at the University of the West of England, held in 2002, at which Sierz was a key-note speaker. Sierz's own report on the conference is archived on his website.

In summarizing the results of the conference, co-conveners Graham Saunders and Rebecca D'Monté observe that Sierz acknowledged that by 2002 "in-yer-face theatre" had already become an historical phenomenon (a trend of the past; hence, passé), going on to state:

Despite its title, the conference also became a forum in which the current state of new writing in British theatre was discussed. David Eldridge, in the opening address, saw many of the plays from the period as a direct response from 'Thatcher’s Children' – the generation who had grown up in a period in which the British Left seemed fractured and directionless, the Cold War escalated and free market economics brutally re-shaped our society and culture. Eldridge warned of the mythologies and self-aggrandising agendas that can grow up when writers are placed in 'movements', and what [alluding to the Donmar Warehouse] he called the current trend of 'Donmarization' in British theatre, whereby major Hollywood stars have been recruited in order to make a new play more palatable to audiences.

Another conference report, published by Writernet, states: "to be shackled to a specific era or genre places a responsibility on a play and creates expectations before a reading or performance. In essence, it disrupts the artistic integrity through preconceived notions of a play because of a simplified label. Plays and playwrights risk being annexed or 'ghetto-ised' when given a superficial monolithic focus."

Writernet adds: "This problem was reflected in number of papers from all over the world, which primarily explored the works of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill through theoretical lenses of postmodernism, metaphysical theatre, Artaud's theatre of cruelty, and Lacan. Through no fault of the organizers – this was apparently an accurate reflection of the conference submissions."

Yet, this report observes also that, "In his own defense, Sierz stipulated that 'in-yer-face' was not a movement, but an 'arena' or 'a sensibility'," and that "In-yer-face theatre describes only a part of the body of works during the 1990s." It notices, moreover, that Sierz "accepted the limitations of his book and the label, acknowledging it as both London-centric and limited in its scope."

Nevertheless, it cites "Max Stafford-Clark (founder of Out of Joint and Joint Stock theatre companies and ex-artistic director of the Royal Court theatre and the Traverse in Edinburgh)," who, "when asked about plays in the 1990s," reportedly observed that "Everybody’s looking at the same view, so the paintings are bound to have similarities."

Notable people associated with in-yer-face theatre

Sources: Aleks Sierz and David Eldridge.

See also



External links

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