Uncomfortable stories: Theatre against Apathy

Do we really have the time to care about others’ tragic events? We certainly have time to lounge on a sofa to watch gruesome acts of violence on the news. Or indulge in a good novel about human atrocities, as we sit comfortably in the shade on a beach. 

We seldom wonder if it is our responsibility to care, since we often feel powerless when faced with such horror. We are mostly intrigued and horrified, and question the reasons why someone would hurt or kill another human being. But we rarely come to grips with the fact that we don’t do a damn thing about it. Because it’s happening to someone else, somewhere else. We have many excuses that allow us to disengage ourselves morally, the same excuses underlining our great level of discomfort with such stories.

I believe theatre can and should confront us with the stories that are hard to bear, and it can do so in a way that can make us once again care.

Britain’s “in-yer-face theatre” is all about getting us reconnected with such tales, with the present human condition, and with our own sense of compassion. After sitting in a dark theatre witnessing such a story, we can be moved to finally talk openly about such difficult issues. We might just dare ask ourselves difficult questions and maybe, just maybe, challenge our growing collective apathy toward random acts of violence.

The ethics of care (care ethics or EoC) “is a theory about what makes actions morally right or wrong”, developed by feminists at the end of the 20th century. While ethical theories tend to emphasize universal standards of impartiality that can easily breed indifference and moral blindness, the ethics of care emphasizes the importance of response.

Barcelona University’s Sara Montes Tejero examines how debbie tucker green’s theatre can reactivate the ethics of care. Throughout her dissertation, she provides valuable insights into the relationship between testimony and witnessing, ethics and theatre, al;l the while provide us for the first time a monographic study on one of our most prominent contemporary playwright.

I find her writing quite illuminating on these issues, and would like to share with you some excerpts from her insightful dissertation.


Contemporary Britain is experiencing a growing interconnectedness with the rest of the world. In the era of globalisation, societies seem to be much closer, for everything that happens in a specific place, almost inevitably, has some kind of effect on the rest of the world. The economic markets have expanded, nation states have become less important and political decisions are increasingly taken internationally, and cultures are much more intertwined. Moreover, the mass media has brought the every day occurrences closer and people learn about the horrors that other people experience almost instantly. Nevertheless, far from creating any sense of empathy or care for the ‘other’ who suffers, the constant bombarding of news about crime and abuse seem to have desensitised contemporary Britain, and the Western world at large.

The growing preoccupation with the lack of empathy and solidarity towards the ‘other’ has become the subject matter of many philosophers such as Zygmunt Bauman or Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, who have examined globalisation and have contemplated ways of awakening the somehow ‘relaxed’ societies, who usually detach themselves from the problems of the ‘other’ so as not to get morally involved. This Master’s dissertation aims at examining the ways in which theatre makes a reactivation of the ethics of care possible through the face-to-face encounter ‘here and now’ with the other that theatre enables. Through the process of actively gazing at and listening to the other, the spectator can elaborate a critical response to the actor/character’s testimony. To do so, I shall analyse two of debbie tucker green’s plays dirty butterfly (2003) and random (2008), which deal with two specific types of violence, domestic violence and street crime, respectively, which problematise contemporary Britain. Her intense plays act up as powerful testimonies of silenced groups whose suffering need to be articulated and be listened to. Furthermore, her use of urban, poetical, fragmented, and even ungrammatical language puts at the forefront stories which are usually uncomfortable to listen to in order to deliver an ethical message of care for the other.


Introduction (excerpts)

Globalisation has led to a sense of worldwide ‘compression’ – cultural, economic and technological (Harvey 1990: vii). In particular, the mass media constantly circulate the horrors that take place in both the Western and non-Western world to European societies, which are still assimilating the impact of two World Wars, various twentieth-century genocides and the consequences of the collapse of Eastern-block communism. However, most of the time, people in Britain, and in the West at large, react by detaching themselves from the cruelties and atrocities that people elsewhere experience in order to avoid becoming morally involved.

Notwithstanding, some contemporary British playwrights have chosen not to ignore this reality but rather make it the subject matter of their plays. debbie tucker green [sic], a multicultural and poetic voice, whose work is connected in some ways with that of the ‘in-yer-face’ playwrights of the 1990s, focuses on domestic and street violence in dirty butterfly (2003) and random (2008) respectively in order to reflect on the lack of emotional involvement and the selfishness which intoxicate contemporary globalised society. tucker green’s plays display a unique aesthetic sensibility, use poetic and fragmented language as a distancing device and, crucially, set up a relationship structured around testimony/witnessing between the audience and the characters and events on stage.

In his influential book Postdramatic Theatre, originally published in German in 1999 and translated into English in 2006, Hans-Thies Lehmann argues that, in the face of contemporary society’s lack of ethical commitment and profound individualistic apathy, theatre can contribute something which the mass media falls short of, namely, the activation of the spectators ’‘response-ability’, that is to say, their capacity to get involved and respond critically and ethically (2006: 185).

On their part, Dori Laub, co-author with Shoshana Felman of the seminal Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, reflect on the
importance of the listener in the process of giving testimony, because he/she becomes “the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed … [so] the listener … has to be at the same time a witness to the trauma witness and a witness to himself … [or herself and] must
listen to and hear the silence” (Felman and Laub 1992: 58). Although the book does not discuss the testimonial process in relation to theatre – while it does pay some attention to narrative and poetry – it is no doubt clearly relevant to what Lehmann calls the ‘theatre situation’, that is, the ‘joint text’ that emerges out of the interaction between “the behaviour onstage and in the auditorium” (Lehmann 2006: 17). In the ‘theatre situation’, the spectator is at the same time the observer of the play and of his/her own reactions, thus becoming a double witness, potentially aware of his/her own position as a testimony of the violence that takes place on stage.

Taking the above reflections as a starting-point, the object of my Master’s dissertation consists in the analysis of the connections between contemporary British theatre and ethics, with a focus on the different ways in which the testimonial and witnessing figures operate in debbie
tucker green’s dirty butterfly (2003) and random (2008). Specifically, I intend to analyse the ways in which both plays interrogate some of the effects of globalisation by turning spectators into witnesses of domestic and street violence. Likewise, I propose to examine the devices tucker green uses – silences, a poetic and fragmented language and Caribbean patois rather than explicit images of violence – to impel spectators to locate themselves in the ‘here and now’, ‘response-ably’ (Lehmann 2006: 134-85) face-to-face with the testimonial process.

It is worth noting that so far no academic monographic study of debbie tucker green’s plays has been published, although a great number of critics, theatre professionals and academics have paid special attention to her work. Aleks Sierz, author of the seminal book In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (2001), theatre reviewer for Tribune and Visiting Professor of contemporary British theatre at Rose Bruford College, London, stands out among them. Likewise, Jenny Topper, former artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre; Deirdre Osborne, member of the Black Theatre Association (US), director, theatre producer and lecturer in theatre at Goldsmiths College, University of London; Lynnette Goddard, author of the monograph Staging Black Feminisms: Identity, Politics, Performance (2007) and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway College, University of London; and more recently Elaine Aston in her contribution to The Methuen Drama Guide to
Contemporary British Playwrights (2011), among others, have devoted attention to tucker green’s work and expressed admiration for her plays.


In order to carry out my investigation, I have relied particularly on the work of Emmanuel Lévinas and Zygmunt Bauman, who have re-thought the meaning of ethics within contemporary society in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust; on Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, whose influential work reflects on the testimonial process and its relation with literature; and on Hans-Thies Lehmann (2006) and Nicholas Ridout (2009), who provide insights into the relationship between testimony/witnessing, ethics and theatre.


Conclusion (excerpts)

Globalisation has inevitably led to such a degree of worldwide interconnectivity that “what we do (or abstain from doing) may influence the conditions of life (or death) for people in places we will never visit and of generations we will never know” (Bauman 2008: 71).
Nevertheless, morality and ethics do not seem to have moved in the same direction. Violence, hatred, rivalry and selfishness are still very much present and have led to thousands of acts of cruelty, ranging from international wars, genocides and terrorist attacks, to marginalisation, racial harassment or domestic violence.

As Bauman claims,
[w]ith the world’s dense network of global interdependence, we cannot be sure of our moral innocence whenever other human beings suffer indignity, misery, or pain. We cannot declare that we do not know, nor can we be certain that there is nothing we could change in our conduct that would avert or at least alleviate the sufferer’s fate. (2008: 72)

Globalisation has also entailed a growing competitiveness which has impelled an increasing sense of alienation and individualism. In the case of Britain, this is added to the economic crisis, the widespread political disappointment and apathy, and the growing fear of newcomers, who usually belong to ethnic minority groups and who, even after generations of residence in
Britain, are still treated as outsiders.

Philosophers like Lévinas or Bauman have tried to refocus the ethical values towards justice and care of the other. However, this is only possible by “building and rebuilding interhuman bonds, the will and the ability to engage with others” (Bauman 2008: 189) – only by engaging in the face-to-face encounter with the other, we can become ethically responsible.

When the other (the speaker) bears witness of his or her suffering, the listener needs to become actively ‘response-able’ for his or her position as a witness and to the other’s testimony, as well as a witness to himself or herself. It is only thus that the listener’s very act of witnessing may led to a critical re-thinking.

According to Walter Benjamin, the media and even literature involve “relaxed audiences”, which fall short of stimulating the active ‘response-ability’ of the listener/reader. Theatre, Benjamin pointed out, sets up a face-to-face encounter between the speaker (actor/character) and the listener (spectator) in the very same place – the theatre – and at the same moment, the audience, by listening to the speaker can turn into critical witnesses:

‘Nothing is more pleasant than to lie on a sofa reading a novel’, wrote one of the epic authors of the last century. The remark suggests the degree of relaxation which a narrative work can give to its reader. If we imagine a person attending a dramatic spectacle we tend to visualise the opposite. We see someone who, with every fibre of his being, is intently following a process […] In most cases, this audience […] will quickly feel impelled to take up an attitude towards what it sees. (Benjamin 2003: 15)

British 1990s in-yer-face theatre aimed to intensify the spectator’s active response through the use of radical, explicit, and even stage images and language. The theatre of debbie tuckergreen, which is sometimes linked with the work of in-yer-face playwrights, pursues a similar objective albeit leaving aside explicit images of violence incorporating a fragmented, urban, dialectal highly lyrical language instead.

In an interview with Sierz, tucker green claimed, “if you hate the show, at least you have a passion” (Sierz 2010). Thus, her objective is to awaken a ‘relaxed’ audience and turn them into critical spectators/witnesses. Her success lies in her ability to vividly evoke the unsaid and the silenced marginalised groups. dirty butterfly (2003) brings a controversial story of domestic violence, power and obsession close to the spectator. random (2008) puts street crime at the forefront, one of the most complicated issues contemporary Britain is having to face. Both plays are short in duration and make an unsettling yet innovative use of language to stimulate the audience by foregrounding uncomfortable but very real issues that contaminate contemporary British society, which often either ignores them or reacts to them on the basis of prejudiced assumptions, which are enhanced by the media’s biased reporting of events. The actors/characters’ bearing witness of the tragedies that they have experienced also forces the audience to become witnesses of their testimony and, at the same time, to be aware of their own act of witnessing. Hence, her plays can potentially activate their ‘response-ability’ and, thus, contribute to a social change towards the ethics of care.

Sara Montes Tejero, Witnessing, Testimony and Ethics:The Theatre of debbie tucker green [sic], Màster en Construcció i Representació d’Identitats Culturals. Especialitat: Estudis de Parla Anglesa. Universitat de Barcelona. Febrer 2012.