But we misremember in-yer-face if we think of it merely as a juvenile, masculine shockfest. At its best it was actually highly theatrical, politically engaged and aesthetically open-minded. Sarah Kane in particular was fascinated by performance art, an interest that resulted in some extraordinary images in her own work – flowers sprouting out of bullet holes, male genitals grilled on a barbecue. Coupled with an intense morality, Kane’s world was more than just a walk on wild side; at its heart was an intellectual delight that in exploring our darker impulses we might discover something new, beautiful, shocking or profound about the human condition.
An intellectual curiosity to bring something new to the table suffused this period. Anthony Neilson was fascinated by the metaphsyics of power in Penetrator and The Censor. Then there was the working-class lyricism of Grosso and Walker. Or the surreal, choreographed hyper-reality of Crimp or Shephard. Or the tenderness – in very different ways – of Prichard, Elyot, Cartwright, Harvey. Much of this gets overlooked when we think back to the 1990s crucible of new writing, to which we are somewhat beholden today. And that’s not even to mention the People Shows and Desperate Optimists creating work alongside all this, whose non-text based form has meant there is barely any record of their shows ever having existed.
Unfortunately, ‘in-yer-face’ fairly quickly became debased by pale imitations; plays which misunderstood that violence, or walking the line of taste and decency, were not ends in themselves but tools deployed in the service of a grander intellectual vision. This political education about the uses of the tools of the stage is the other side of the coin that too few writers’ training programmes today address.
So we would do well to remember that in-yer-face was a) in-yer-face for a political reason that transcended the world of the play and, b) was not the only type of new writing around at this time.
But a further reason for our narrowing of focus is, I think, to do with the emergence of the often-maligned development culture that has built up around writers and writing. Don’t get me wrong – lots of writers find this terrifically useful and I’m not suggesting we get rid of it per se. But it is largely a by-product of the over-supply of playwrights. Theatres are in the luxurious position of being able to develop more writers and plays than they need, and then take their pick from those they consider to be the best of that current crop, which will then be rewarded with a production.
I don’t blame theatres for doing this – who wouldn’t want to hedge their bets a bit and only present what they consider to be the best? But the culture that has sprung up around this has necessitated the need to discuss, dissect and ‘teach’ playwriting more than ever before. And what has been imported to allow that to happen, is a ready-made language of dramatic structure, which by and large has its roots in Hollywood and the writings of American structural guru Robert McKee.
I hold my hands up: I teach playwriting and I use this language myself. They are a very useful set of tools, and what else is there to hang onto? The ‘rules’ of narrative, characterisation and structure are taught this way less out of a prescriptive or cynical desire to close down other creative approaches, but simply as a convenient handle on, and need to have a conversation about, an otherwise amorphous and deeply subjective mass of ideas. Somehow, we have to plot a course.
But the dominance of this approach means it is sometimes presented as ‘the’ way to write a play – linear, naturalistic, psychologically ‘real’, concerned with cause and effect. Again, I’m not saying we should get rid of these principles, or throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Playwrights jettison some recognisable internal logic to their play at their peril – this can confuse and alienate actors and audiences alike.) But to my mind, these dramatic forces are best thought of as principles, not rules. They don’t work for every play. Often they’re helpful, but sometimes they’re not. Yet they have come to dominate the way we develop and discuss drama – and there is an aesthetic choice contained within them.
But it isn’t in fact most often playwrights using these tools and talking in these terms; it is dramaturgs. The WYP panel had a lively debate about the role of the dramaturg, and indeed a discussion about what dramaturgy even was. It seems there is no clear-cut definition or approach. This is fine in so far as it allows for flexibility. But for playwrights it does mean it is largely luck of the draw who you end up working with, what their approach will be, how much experience they have, and whether they will suit you and your play.