This article discusses how in Howard Barker’s recent work the idea of the subject’s crisis hinges on the introduction of an impersonal or transpersonal life force that persists beyond human agency. The article considers Barker’s metaphorical treatment of the images of land and stone and their interrelationship with the human body, where the notion of subjective crisis results from an awareness of objective forces that transcend the self. In “Immense Kiss” (2018) and “Critique of Pure Feeling” (2018), the idea of crisis, whilst still dominant, seems to lose its intermittent character of singular rupture and reveals itself as a permanent force of dissolution and reification. In these plays, the evocation of nonhuman nature in the love relationships between young men and elderly women affirms the existence of something that goes beyond the individual, which Barker approaches with a late-style poetic sensibility.
Based on considerations of the connection between fascination, crisis, and the “Medusa effect,” this paper argues that contemporary drama tends to challenge the audience’s sense of safe spectatorship by stimulating perceptual crises, returning the spectators’ gaze, and exposing their tendencies of (in)attentional blindness. Besides plays by Martin Crimp, Carol Ann Duffy, and Rufus Norris, the analysis focuses on James Graham’s Quiz (2017), which dramatizes one of the most popular scandals in the history of British game shows and challenges the audience’s capacity of moral attention. As I argue, Quiz engages the audience in multi-levelled crises (a crisis of knowledge, a crisis of perception, and a crisis of judgement), which stimulates conceptual blending, tests spectators’ response-ability on an ethical, aesthetic, and political level, and eventually allows them to overcome the perceptual crisis created in the course of the play.
This article examines short plays as a political aesthetic of crisis using examples from Black Lives, Black Words (2015–2017) at the Bush Theatre, London, which respond to concerns arising from the #BlackLivesMatter movement about Black deaths in police custody. I focus on Black women playwrights’ portrayals of Black mothers’ anxieties about protecting their sons, and of Black mothers and sisters grieving the loss of sons, brothers, and fathers in incidents where excessive force is deployed by the police. I consider how Black Lives, Black Words connects to the radical aesthetics of the 1960 s Black Arts Movement by promoting the use of theatre for activist purposes. I argue that the politicising potential of the Black Lives, Black Words initiative is accentuated by the use of a short play format as a political Black aesthetics for responding to contemporary crises. By analysing pivotal moments in a sample of the fifteen-minute plays, I demonstrate how the content of the plays combines with their performance styles to maximise the potential for audience empathy despite their short playing times.