A Desacralisation of Violence in Modern British Playwriting

  • Amani Alied

Student thesis: Phd


My thesis journey was initially motivated by an interest in the individual's search for God, the self and the other (neighbour, men/women and enemy) as represented in the play texts. This call for a personal relationship with the 'other' highlights the individual's feelings of unease and strangeness at a time when, one might argue, the majority belittles the role of religion, in support of scientific discoveries and human rights. Here, the French philosopher René Girard - whose anthropological and scientific interest in violence, religion and human culture has shaped my research - argues that the progress of humankind would not have become a reality without what he terms sacrifice. Here, I should confirm that the main influence on the early steps of finding my research topic were Peter Shaffer, Slavoj Žižek, Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin rather than Rene Girard. This thesis explores several interconnected relationships, the most important of which is between humour and violence or forms of 'sacrifice' in the plays of six British playwrights - Peter Barnes and Peter Shaffer, Howard Barker and Sarah Kane as well as Caryl Churchill and David Rudkin. It is this strange relationship which leads me later on to uncover and explore the representations of the stranger, the victim/iser and the foreigner in their works. The return of the stranger - the dead, the ashes of victims of extreme violence, the ghosts, the prisoners and the children - is inseparable from the search for individuality in a world ruled by the gods of war, money and dark humour. My research findings are viewed in the light of two narratives: the first is to do with the upper world and the second is to do with the lower as defined by Bakhtin's idea of the carnival and the culture of folk humour in the Middle Ages. The upper is serious, official, exclusive and authoritative whereas the second is festive, comic, mythical and popular. It is hard to describe the relationship between these narratives as simply oppositional (some say iconoclastic) because they are coexistent and rely on one another. At this point, the different professional and ideological positions of the playwrights are important aspects in arriving at an understanding of the ways they collapse the borders between humour and terror, the banquet and the battle, carnivals and trials, the parade and economic exploitation, clownery and politics. Though these playwrights are not preachers or reformers, they challenge our easy laughter and our role as we witness the risen from the dead, those in the flames or in the future signalling to us to halt our participation and face responsibility for the victims.
Date of Award31 Dec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMaggie Gale (Supervisor) & Rachel Clements (Supervisor)


  • Sacrifice, carnival, violence, laughter, the scapegoat, religion, the grotesque, parody, feasts

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