I blame the parents
Virtually throughout Tusk Tusk, the piercing second play by 22-year-old Polly Stenham, the only characters on stage are 16 and younger. Maggie and her two brothers are kidding themselves that everything will be alright, even though there's no indication that their severely depressed mother will return several days after her unmedicated flit from their new home. They hide from the doorbell, entertain and infuriate each other, deal with the unfair hand of having to protect their mum and themselves long before they're equipped to do so.
That Face, Stenham's incandescent first play, had a similar vibe, except that the ragingly unstable mother was centre stage, usually in the bed she was reluctant to leave. In Tusk Tusk, the kids are home alone and fending for themselves. For the adult viewer (and the audience at the Royal Court on Monday was full of anxious grown-ups), there's an uncomfortable mix of being returned to nerve-raw childhood, sitting powerless to intervene as pain and chaos spread
Particularly unsettling is the language. Sometimes florid, it's a private register of sibling tease and torment. But although the kids can cuss, Stenham doesn't litter their speeches with buzzy references. Instead there are allusions, more or less specific, to classic children's books and songs like Where the wild things are, 'Nellie the Elephant', Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll's Alice books. What these children want is not premature adulthood, cool, smart and unconcerned. They want the safe swaddle of childhood their parents' behaviour has denied them. They want the scary stuff to be contained in book covers, which can close shut when story time is over.
Stenham's is an extreme take on family drama, adding a panicky apprehension to a common situation.
More lost children after the click:
The classic novel too frequently launches characters into the world shorn of their parents. You build a bildungsroman by making your protagonist responsible for all their own decisions. Doesn't have to be an orphan, like Tom Jones - think of Jane Austen's heroines, frequently burdened with disinterested fathers and/or meddling but point-missing mothers. A sentimental education can unfold, or unravel, over many pages - theatrical time is more concentrated, a tour of crisis points.
Which is not to say that dead parents don't loom over drama. Even if they don't make shadow their children's lives quite as overtly as Hamlet's father, appearing nightly on the ramparts at Elsinore. Shakespeare makes no mention of Lear's queen or Prospero's duchess, which doesn't stop audiences puzzling about them, and wondering how everything might have been different had they been around. Ibsen and Chekhov's characters often drag an unwelcome legacy about with them: Hedda Gabler even has her father's grim portrait for company, and dispatches herself with his pistols, while the three sisters are lumbered with an elaborate education they can't apply to a disappointing life.
Theatre is the perfect place to show someone acting ('acting') as if unconstrained by circumstance. Oedipus isn't an orphan, but lord knows he behaves as if he is (ouch). The more self-propelled the character, the more they may be hurting from loss of parental succour - take motormouth mummy's boy Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, or Cocteau's Enfants Terribles, jagged with a precocious sophistication.
Ballet, too, often leaves the young to their own devices. Only the unfixed and amorous dance - to be a parent is to be plonked in character shoes, feebly sketching steps which hint at the ardent emotions they can barely remember. Sensitive youths get to dance, launching themselves at fate, falling for unsuitable swans and sylphs, dancing doomwards with sunny abandon.
In the relatively affluent west, the death of a parent becomes a hurdle to face later and later in life. It's the parent who hangs around, possibly not in the best of mental or physical health, who poses a challenge to modern protagonist. Nothing cuts down a self-created, middle-aged adult than the parent who still treats them like a child. Lucinda Coxon's Happy Now? (answer: no), recently commended in the Susan Blackburn Awards, battles with this dilemma, while Alan Bennett has long been ahead of the (infuriating, becardiganed,pear-drop-proffering) field. His loving wrangles with mam pervade his autobiographical writing, and he visits similar ground in drama - fretful and bewildered mothers in plays like Enjoy and The Lady in the Van, not to mention the sublimely baffled dad in Kafka's Dick, for whom senility's trials emerge as the difficulty of being a naturalistic character in a zanily surreal play.
Stenham's characters seem unlikely to face such problems. But nor have they yet made their way beyond the unsupportive home and into the world. When her dazzlingly sharp plays explore new territory, who knows how her characters will grow?
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog