“…It’s not an ordinary family” (Phaedra’s Love: Kane 2001)
Written by Dr. Selina Busby
Royal Centre School of Speech and Drama
University of London
Declaration of Authorship
I Selina Busby hereby declare that this thesis and the work presented in it is entirely my own. Where I have consulted the work of others, this is always clearly stated.
Date: 30 September 2013.
In this thesis, I argue that a number of new British plays written in the period between 1993 and 2001 demonstrate that the ‘normalised’ family unit, which has been taken as “common sense,” is a social construct. I will outline how plays written during this period invite audiences to reconsider family structures and provide critical perspectives on the dominant ideology of ‘family’ life. I suggest that this critical perspective paves the way for the conceiving of alternative structures, and in so doing, argue that these plays offer a utopic vision.
This thesis considers the family as a “mythical entity” that works as a unit of social control, political aspiration and regulation. I argue that British plays written during this time period represent an alternative in the form of what I shall call a neo-family structure. I suggest that the plays discussed in this thesis are inherently political in nature, in that they frame contemporary issues associated with family and neo-family structures and invite a reading of them that displays the social structures of governmentality. I outline the ways in which adherence to this traditional family structure can be seen as dangerous to its individual members, especially the children, who live within these arrangements.
I also propose that these British plays demonstrate that this governmentality, or self-regulation, when taken to an extreme, results in the loss of feelings for both the self and others, ultimately leading to a complete global breakdown involving a personal passive acceptance of violence that will perpetuate both mental and physical abuse. I argue that the form and content of these plays work synergistically to enable the audience to link representation of personal or domestic situations directly to the deployment of ideology and state power. I consider the way in which British playwrights represent the boundaries created by the family home, while simultaneously analysing the utopian endeavours of escape from these spaces. I use Edward Bond’s plays for young people as an exemplar for a theatre that poses questions and invites audiences to conceive alternative ways of living.
Chapter One: Introduction
‘…It’s not an ordinary family’
(Phaedra’s Love: Kane 2001)
On February 12th, 1993, two year old James Bulger was led out of a shopping centre in Merseyside by two primary school children. The following day, CCTV footage was released showing that Bulger had been taken by the hand by two older boys to his death. The two boys were arrested for Bulger’s murder on the 18th of February and, on the 24th of November, 1993, after a 17-day trial, the two 11 year olds were convicted and sentenced to the juvenile equivalent of life imprisonment. In June of 2001, both boys were released with new identities. The CCTV images released at the time of Bugler’s disappearance became iconic, both of the crime itself and of broader concerns about childhood and the institution of the family in Britain during the Nineties.
The Bulger trial and the subsequent exposure of both the Thompson and Venables families thrust the private family into the public sphere and opened up the institution of the family for public scrutiny at a new heightened level. This thesis will be framed by the period between the year of James Bugler’s kidnapping in 1993 and the year 2001, when the two boys who killed him were released.
This time period coincides with a controversial era of British theatre during which many playwrights wrote provocative and confrontational plays. Here, I will argue that a significant number of these plays focused on representations of both childhood and families that invited a reading of them as being social constructs in need of a critical perspective. The concept of the family, which has been featured both as context and subject on the British stage, has long been a topic of debate in the history of British theatre, from the pre-second world war drawing room dramas, to the kitchen sink dramas of the Fifties and Sixties, to the state-of–nation plays of the Seventies and to plays that centred on identity politics in the Eighties. I believe that during the Nineties following the
Bulger murder, the family, with its heightened media visibility, became a focus of more intense scrutiny on the British stage. In this thesis, I will explore the way that family units are represented and interrogated in the plays of the period and consider how they raise questions about the ‘normal’ family.
Many of the plays of this period demonstrate that the nuclear family remains an ideal; however, one that may bring disastrous consequences for the individuals. These plays question the nuclear family unit, and I suggest that when this family model is accepted as the norm or where it is naturalised, a number of issues regarding the safety of children are raised. I found that each play deconstructs the family unit by providing a critique and inviting a reconsideration of the unit. Here, I demonstrate that the plays of this period emphasise and implicitly critique the construct of the family. The thesis will therefore consider the political nature of theatre and its commentary on the nature of family. I will provide a reading of a number of British plays suggesting that a new form of family, or a neo-family, is conceived as a utopian alternative to the widely adopted nuclear family structure.
In the following chapters, this thesis examines five types of family units: the nuclear family, the single lone parent family, the core family, the blended family and the neo-family. The nuclear family is a household comprised of two parents and their dependent children living together. Shelagh Stephenson’s play, Five Kinds of Silence (2000), as discussed in Chapter Seven of this thesis, is an example of the nuclear family. In this play, Billy and Susan are the parents living with their two daughters. I extend the use of this term to households in which the parents are cohabiting, rather than just using it for situations in which the parents are married.
The single lone parent family is a household comprised of one adult parent and one or more children living together. In scene one of Stephenson’s play, Billy, the father, is killed, which alters the structure of the family into one in which a mother lives with her dependent daughters, making it a single lone parent family. In the period under discussion, this type of family was often focused upon by politicians and journalists because teenage mothers or unmarried lone mothers were bringing up children. In this thesis, I make no distinction between these categories, making the family in Five Kinds of Silence a single lone parent family, just as the Marie and baby Boo characters become members of a single lone parent family at the end of Rebecca Prichard’s Yard Gal (1997).
A core family is a household which includes a nuclear family that is extended to include grandparents. I am borrowing the term ‘core family’ from sociologists Colin Rosser and Christopher Harris, who describe this family unit as being:
Built around the central balance between two sides of the family, linked through marriage to a common set of grandchildren (Rosser and Harris: 1965, 226).
I also use this term when discussing families, such as the one found in Caryl Churchill’s Heart’s Desire (1997), in which only one or some of the grandparents live within the household.
An extension of the core family constitutes the ‘kinship family,’ in which a number of related people choose to live together. McGlone et al describe a ‘kin universe’ that may contain “between 37 and 246 people;” from this larger ‘kin universe’ people select the “kin with whom people had close personal relationships. The basis of this personal selectivity was emotional attachment rather than formalized ties” (McGlone: 1999, 141). For example, the characters of Esme and Shaz in Sarah Daniels’ play, The Madness of Emse and Shaz (1994), as discussed in Chapter Seven of this thesis, form a ‘kinship family’. Although the two characters are aunt and niece, they form a family relationship “based on mutual aid and support” (McGlore at al: 1999, 141).
A blended family is a household which has a more diverse structure that includes step-parents or step-siblings, as exhibited in Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love (1996). The term blended family is used by the sociologists Joanna Bornat, Brian Dimmock, David Jones and Shelia Peace in their 1999 essay entitled ‘The impact of family change on older people: the case of stepfamilies.’ In this work, they reject the labels of ‘stepfamilies,’ ‘reconstituted or reformed families’ and ‘divorce extended families’ for the term ‘blended families.’ This term succinctly seems to encompass a range of family structures that involve dependent children and parental figures who may or may not be related by blood, but who are a blend of two or more biological families.
The final family form I discuss in this thesis is the ‘neo-family,’ which is a broader sense of a family form that McGlore et al might describe as ‘fictive kin’. They use this term to describe friendships that have lasted over long periods of time in which care and support is offered by non-related groups of adults (McGlore: 1999, 154). Sociologists Jeffrey Weeks, Brain Heaphy and Catherine Donovan describe ‘fictive kin’ as being where:
the term ‘family’ is being used…in the broadest sense. It might embrace domestic patterns which include care for children or other dependents, but that is not the exclusive meaning. More generally it is used to include friends and partners as well as blood relatives (Weeks et al: 1999, 304).
They develop their argument by emphasizing that these ‘fictive kin’ are friendship circles that provide the “life-line that the biological family it, is believed, should provide, but often cannot or will not” (Weeks et al: 1999, 304). While this term might be useful, it “still assumes the blood family as the starting point” (Weeks et al: 1999, 305). In this thesis, I am using the term neo-family to include families that may include blood relatives, but more often than not, do not. The young story tellers in Philip Ridley’s Sparkleshark (1997) constitute a neo-family which does include a biological brother and a sister, however, the neo-family consisting of Lulu, Mark and Robbie at the end of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996) does not include any blood relatives.
I suggest that the neo-family is presented and offered for consideration in the new theatrical writing of this period as an alternative family structure to the nuclear family. At the centre of these works a series of questions are posed about the meaning of family today. This is a progressive notion of the family, which does not depend on the exclusion of all forms of otherness. There is an inherent danger in the continued use of the word family to denote possible alternative structures encapsulated in the term neo-family, as the term is emotive; however, its ambiguity makes it an accurate designation. Sociologists Malcolm Hill and Kay Tisdall observe that:
In virtually all cultures, family has conventionally referred to a group of people to whom a person is related through birth or marriage. A distinction had commonly been made between the ‘nuclear family’, consisting of parents and children, and the ‘extended family’ or wider kin network, which includes grandparents, cousins and so on. However, this is an oversimplified picture, especially in view of recent changes in social mores and household patterns (Hill and Tisdall: 1997, 65).
I believe the term neo-family addresses this ‘oversimplification’ and continue to use the term family along with sociologists Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, arguing that it suggests the “sort of values and comforts that the family unit is supposed to embody, even if it regularly fails to do so: continuity over time, emotional and material support, ongoing commitment, and intense engagement” (Weeks et al: 2001, 10). The concept of family is fluid and ever changing due to the “impact of long-term social, cultural and economic shifts” (Weeks et al: 2001, 4). These shifts and the ambiguous “wider kin network” definition of the word family enables it to be extended to encompass a network of choice, or families of choice, whereby “relationships are more flexible, informal and varied, but are strong and supportive networks of friends and lovers,” while providing “a framework for the development of mutual care, responsibility and commitment” (Weeks et al: 2001, 4). Weeks et al identify that “emerging non-heterosexual ways of being can be seen as indices of something new: positive and creative response to social and cultural change” (Weeks et al: 2004, 5). Sociologist Anthony Giddens uses the term “experiments in living” to describe these relationships (Giddens: 1992,14). I call these “experiments in living” neo-families, and believe they are the creation of alternative and non-oppressive family forms. These are networks of relationships based on friendship and commitments that generate a sense of belonging, support and security. They provide both emotional and economic support. These neo-families are therefore, I suggest, indispensable frameworks for negotiating everyday life and are an emotionally supportive network of adults and sometimes children, living together.
I shall use the term neo-family to describe what might be described as families of choice. The neo-family is a new way of conceiving ‘family’ that offers the individuals who are part of it mutual involvement and support with shared responsibilities, while acknowledging and realising individual needs. This thesis, therefore, examines the diverse range of family forms presented to audiences through the period of 1993-2001.
The thesis sets out to explore the ways that family and neo-family units are represented and the ways in which playwrights have engaged audiences with questions surrounding the family. It explores the way in which performance frames ideas of the family and the neo-family by inviting audiences to engage critically with familiar, and not so familiar, conceptions of family life. In this regard I am reading the family in all its forms as being integral to a political reading of the pIays. I believe that the concept of the neo-family is one that challenges the naturalisation of the nuclear family and therefore challenges the status-quo, which in turn makes the neo-family a political concept. I suggest that in the plays discussed here audiences are invited to question the nature of family structures and are therefore positioned as meaning makers and agents for social change, which makes these plays inherently political. As a result of this intention, this thesis does not deconstruct issues of class, gender, sexuality or race with regard to the familial. My concern here is to focus on the constructed and political nature of the nuclear, extended and neo family unit. It is clear that class, gender, sexuality and race are all important areas of consideration with regard to social living arrangements and that there is scope for interpreting the role of each separately within the theatre of this period, or any other period. It is also clear that further research is needed into these categories, both as separate concerns and as interrelated factors. Here, I have taken a more integrated approach that acknowledges the importance of each, but also recognises the interrelated nature of each category whereby characters are representations of more than one status group and which focuses on my reading of the neo-family, and the plays of the period, as being inherently political.
‘The State of Play’ or Political Theatre in the Nineties
‘The State of Play’ was the title of a conference convened in 1991 by the playwright David Edgar to examine, what he described as, the “exponential decline in the amount, quality and performance of new work in British theatre” (Edgar: 1999, ii). Much debate surrounded the demise of British political theatre in the early Nineties. I argue in this thesis that far from being in decline, political theatre flourished in this period, as there were considerable changes to both its structure and focus.
In Strategies of Political Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights (2003), Michael Patterson asserts that: “all theatre is political:”
it is impossible to parade characters interacting socially in front of a public assembled to witness these relationships without there being some political content. Thus even the silliest farce or most innocuous musical will reflect some ideology, usually that of the Establishment. In this sense, all theatre is indeed political (Patterson: 2003, 3).
He clarifies the term ’political theatre’ to be a theatre that “not only depicts social interaction and political events, but implies the possibility of radical change on socialist lines” (Patterson: 2003, 4-5). Much of the new writing for theatre produced between the years of 1993 – 2001 depicts “social interaction and political events” and in doing so infers that radical change is possible, and even necessary. This positions the audience as being potential agents for change, as opposed to instigators, because these plays leave the possibilities open to the interpretation and imagination of the audience. This in itself is potentially political because the onus for change resides with the audience. My thinking is in line with Joe Kelleher, who argues in his text Theatre & Politics (2009) that “there is no guarantee that …the carefully constructed political messages will be understood” (2009, 24). If the “political messages” are understood, transformation does not automatically follow, as Amelia Howe Kritzer states in her book Political Theatre in post-Thatcher Britain, “theatre cannot compel change” (Howe Kritzer: 2008, 15). Theatre may not be able to compel change, but it may open space for dialogue and therefore, make change a possibility.
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