A British stage of the postmodern: Theatre as cultural capital in Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill

Daniel K Jernigan, Purdue University


In seeking to understand the move away from realism that has been occurring in British Theatre since the 1950's, this project appeals to the critical category of postmodernism. For my focus, I consider two of contemporary Britain's most important playwrights, Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill. After exploring the possibility that two postmodern critics of fiction (Linda Hutcheon and Brian McHale) might provide the necessary guide posts to understand similar trends in drama, it is Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson who prove most helpful in understanding the postmodern characteristics of these two authors. Lyotard's famous description of the postmodern as manifesting “incredulity towards metanarratives,” for instance, becomes crucial in differentiating the late modernist anti-realism of Stoppard from the postmodern anti-realism of Churchill, since Stoppard, ultimately, maintains commitment to fully functional narrative descriptions of reality (in Hapgood, for instance, he offers up a classical interpretation of quantum mechanics, while in Arcadia biographical investigation eventually yields up accurate results). By contrast, Churchill's work is seen as fully postmodern in how it explicitly describes the role that theatre itself plays in perpetuating Britain's position as a major player in the era of multi-national capitalism; These epistemological distinctions play themselves out most significantly in Serious Money (Churchill), which suggests that truth is always constructed according to the needs of the dominant power structures, and Night and Day (Stoppard), which holds out hope that truth can remain objective and emancipate humanity. The project culminates by reconsidering the diverse reaction that Stoppard's and Churchill's postcolonial plays, Indian Ink and Cloud Nine, have garnered from literary critics; ironically, it is Churchill who receives the greater negative reaction from concerned feminists and postcolonialists, even though her work is, arguably, more sympathetic to their objectives. Referencing Slavoj Žižek, I conclude that this criticism points to a growing tension between those who yet wish to valorize unique revolutionary acts, and those who realize that such acts retain commitments to subjectivist positions which rub against postmodern attitudes. Churchill, finally, is engaged in evaluating this very tension, as well as attempting to transcend it through revolutionary acts of theatre. ^




Major Professor: Thomas P. Adler, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Theater|Literature, English

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