Patrick Duggan: “Performance and the Politics of Fear”

This paper explores the relationship between performance and the ‘politics of fear’, a phenomenon that sociologist Frank Furedi argues is now so pervasive as to ‘shape the cultural imagination of the early twenty-first century’ (2006: vii).

In an increasingly mediated and news-saturated world (or even, a news-controlled one) we encounter discourses of fear and anxiety so diverse and ubiquitous as to be at once pervasively unnerving and yet somehow quotidian or even meaningless. In this context, it is not surprising that there has been a significant increase in (popular) cultural products representing events, contexts, people, and situations that relate to the culture and politics of fear. To consider these phenomena as intellectual and cultural problems seems timely, necessary even. At the same time, it seems pertinent to ask if ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ and their associated discourses (popular, cultural, and theoretical) offer sufficient conceptual frames with which to think about contemporary culture and in turn the contemporary, late-capitalist social real. In very real ways these terms and their political deployment have been reduced to catch-all, popular, journalistic, inflammatory, ideologically loaded, and ill-defined means with which to discuss anything from terrorism to immigration to political dissent and non-conformity of many kinds. We might argue that this popular appropriation has to an alarming degree annulled these ideas of their potency and reduced them to a near bankrupt status in their overuse, especially in their news media and popular uses.

As such, the paper investigates how ‘performance’ might be seen to be front and centre of the efficacy of the politics of fear as it is propagated in Western late-capitalism (as played out, for example, on social and news-media). Deploying theories of fear and anxiety, the argument explores how structures of politics and daily experience are deeply imbricated in practices of representation, making it difficult to differentiate the real from the really made up. In that context, the analysis turns to recent performances that might be seen to offer a counter to philosopher Alphonso Lingis’ proposition that in the contemporary world information technology has propagated to such an extent that it ‘generates political, commercial, and military disinformation, propaganda, hate speech, and trivializing talk and imagery’ (2011: 102).

Anna Harpin: “What if how I feel about the world at 4am is the truth? Fear, anxiety and protest.”

Much contemporary thinking around fear and anxiety understands these feelings as things to be managed or even eradicated. This workshop will take a contrary view and try to explore the generative capacity of such feelings and experiences. How might we begin to understand fear and anxiety as acts of feeling resistance to oppressive political structures? Together we will attempt to make better friends with these difficult feelings and ask them what they want to change.

Trish Reid: “‘everything bad is real’: The Dystopian Near-Future in Contemporary British Drama”

This paper addresses the conference theme of fear and anxiety in contemporary drama and performance through a consideration of the trope of the dystopian near future as it has re-occurred in a significant number of recent British plays. The sheer prevalence and persistence of this motif seems worthy of investigation. It is utilized in Rory Mullarkey’s The Wolf From the Door (2014), for instance, and in Alistair McDowall’s Pomona (2014), Zinnie Harris’s, How to Hold Your Breath (2015), debbie tucker green’s hang (2015), Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (2016), Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children (2016), Keiran Hurley’s Heads Up (2016), EV Crowe’s The Sewing Group (2016) and Stef Smith’s Girl in the Machine (2017). It seems worth noticing, in the first instance, that these plays are explicitly speculative. They are what Darko Suvin has called fictions of ‘cognitive estrangement’ (Suvin 1979: 3-5 and 5-7). They do not re-inscribe socio-political problems, or the status quo, by pretending to be objective records of the real world. Instead they create alternative fictional near-future-worlds, exploratory dystopias that deliberately perform anxiety-inducing and estranging critical interrogations of current cultural and political concerns.

The critical and emotional insights offered by these play-worlds are made possible only through the process of our pondering their strangeness, then. Each example stages its own particular disruption of theatrical realism and in so doing engages critically both with the British realist theatrical tradition, and also with the wider cultural discourses about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ that haunt our contemporary neoliberal moment and the emotions these discourses produce. In these plays, I want to suggest, the decentralized and dispersed violence of the neoliberal state – which is often so difficult to see because neoliberalism works so tirelessly to obscure it – is made palpable, often with recourse to tropes familiar to us from science-fiction, fantasy and satire. These are dramas of what we might usefully term alienation affect. As we watch, and as the playwrights attempt to account rationally for their imagined worlds, we are obliged to consider the connections as well as disconnections between these worlds and our own. In challenging audiences to rationalize these eerily familiar futures, the plays thus pose an important question. What in the historical present has caused these disturbing yet uncannily familiar futures to take shape?

Suvin, D. (1979) ‘Cognition and Estrangement’ in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Graham Saunders: “Masters (and Mistresses) of Menace”

In Harold Pinter’s last completed project before his death, a screen adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play Sleuth (1970), a large publicity poster dominates the study of crime novelist Andrew Wyke describing him as ‘the master of menace’. This is also a self-referential joke directed at Pinter’s association with ‘comedies of menace’ in plays such A Slight Ache (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), that succeeded in creating feelings of unease and discomfort in a way that had not been seen in the theatre before.

Yet the life of theatre itself seems constantly working towards inducing fear states. From Martin Crimp’s ‘Four Unwelcome Thoughts’ preface to his Collected Plays 2 that concern the anxieties of the theatre dramatist, to Peter Hall’s diaries, the business of theatre seems to produce sense of permeating dread of failure, where theatre becomes a fear machine, capable of promulgating new apprehensions, that those within it attempt to ward off by creating their own superstitions (such as the elaborate ritual that must be performed when ‘the Scottish Play’ is spoken out loud), yet it is quite easy to see how theatre has created its own unique term for a fear: stage fright.

As a repertory actor before he became a dramatist, Pinter was likely to have encountered the fears and insecurities that theatre can create, and these in turn perhaps return in the sinister environments that we find in the early plays. In turn, the queasiness and growing unease we encounter in Pinter’s drama has been appropriated by other ‘Childe Harold’s’ including Philip Ridley, Anthony Neilson, Martin Crimp and Jez Butterworth, whose work follows variations of unheimlich Pinter. In this keynote I want to look at some of the ways these dramatists have developed on from Pinter’s template of creating a sense of unease, but for the most part I want to look at ways that the subject and nature of fear has radically altered in British drama since the turn of the millennial decade. Signs of this change can be found in Pinter’s late work from the 1980s: whereas before fear that once been vague in its aetiology now came out of the shadows to be named: the ‘comedies of menace’ now gave way to plays about torture by repressive political regimes in Party Time (1991), the fear of death itself in Moonlight (1993) and memories of The Holocaust in Ashes to Ashes (1997).

Since then the depiction of states of fear have forked off on two separate paths: latter day ‘Childe Harolds’ such as Philip Ridley continue to promote what he has called ‘theatre as a ghost train’, a place of disorientation designed to induce fear for their own sake, while a larger body that include Simon Stephens, Duncan Macmillan, Leo Butler, Lucy Prebble, David Greig and Mark Ravenhill make fears manifest: terrorism and the ensuing the War on Terror, the Anthropocene and climate change, the precarity and repression of neo-liberal economies where fear is generated simultaneously by its continuance and at the same time the prospect of its collapse, to the alienation of self-hood through technology.