Owen McCafferty’s short play Cold Comfort is a monologue about a man returning to his native Belfast for his father's funeral. It was first performed by Prime Cut Productions Theatre Company at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast in May 2005.
The play is performed on an empty stage 'but for three simple wooden chairs and a coffin'. Kevin Toner is a washed-up, hard-drinking bricklayer who has returned to Belfast after years of living in Kilburn, London. He has come to attend his father’s funeral. Alone onstage with the coffin bearing his father’s remains, his trusty whisky always to hand, he begins one last conversation with his ‘da’ as he takes an often painful trip down memory lane. A chair is transformed into his mother as he plagues her with questions as to why she left the family home, and another becomes his estranged wife, Theresa, with whom he shared a drink problem. As Kevin slowly grows more inebriated, a portrait emerges of a man grown haggard and bitter from his lonely existence, and from a family tragedy for which he shares the guilt.
The Prime Cut premiere was directed by Owen McCafferty and designed by David Craig. It was performed by Patrick O'Kane.
Henry Naylor's The Collector is a play about life in occupied Iraq after the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition, as a team of prison guards become brutalised by war. The play is part of Henry Naylor's Arabian Nightmares trilogy, which also includes Echoes and Angel.
The Collector was first performed at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, on 30 July 2014, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning a Fringe First award.
The story is told by three storytellers who, according to a note in the published script, 'speak directly to the audience, through the "fourth wall"’. There is Zoya, an Iraqi woman; Colonel ‘Kasper’ Kasprowicz, an American reservist in his forties, in charge of Mazrat Prison; and Foster, an American interrogator, female, twenty-four. Under Saddam, Mazrat was a notorious torture house where more than 10,000 people died; now it is under Allied command, and Nassir works there, translating for the American interrogators. He's local, pro-Western, determined to bring liberal values to his country and is about to get married to Zoya, his sweetheart. But when he is recognised by Faisal, a new prisoner and psychotic supporter of the old regime, Nassir's life becomes a living hell.
The premiere production was directed by Henry Naylor and performed by Ritu Arya (as Zoya), William Reay (as Kasper) and Lesley Harcourt (as Foster).
The show transferred to the Arcola Theatre, London, in November 2014, restaged by director Michael Cabot, and with lighting design by Ross Bibby.
Kathryn Barker Productions under the auspices of Kathryn Cabot launched their own tour of the show in autumn 2016, with the following cast: Shireen Farkhoy (as Zoya), William Reay (as Kasper) and Olivia Beardsley (as Foster).
In Mark O'Rowe's play Crestfall, three women recount their lives in a brutally patriarchal and unforgiving town where they are used, abused and manipulated by those around them. It was first performed at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on 20 May 2003 (previews from 15 May).
The play comprises three monologues, delivered in turn by three female characters. Olive Day sleeps around with any man she can find, though she never charges. Married to the volatile Jungle, she also has a secret lovechild with the local pimp, Inchy Bassey. Alison Ellis is married to the Bru but struggles to connect with him and tires of her lonely existence. Thirdly, drug-addled prostitute Tilly, forced into a botched abortion by Inchy because of his situation with Olive, decides to let the town know the truth about their secret child, leading to a devastating and bloody finale.
The Gate Theatre production was directed by Garry Hynes and designed by Francis O’Connor, with Aisling O’Sullivan as Olive Day, Marie Mullen as Alison Ellis and Eileen Walsh as Tilly McQuarrie.
The play received its UK premiere at Theatre503, London, on 27 November 2007 in a production directed by Róisín McBrinn and designed by Paul Wills. The cast was Pauline Hutton, Niamh Cusack and Orla Fitzgerald.
In his foreword to Mark O'Rowe Plays: One (Nick Hern Books, 2011), O'Rowe explains his original conception of the play: 'Both Howie the Rookie and Made in China were written for exclusively male casts, so I now decided, out of perversity, I suppose, or for the sake of symmetry, or maybe just to nourish the feminine side of my poetic soul, that I would write a play for a cast which was exclusively female, though it would retain the extremity and darkness and vulgarity and violence (I know, I know; all these masculine qualities), of the earlier work.'
O'Rowe revised the play in preparation for its publication in 2011, making changes 'mostly the language, which I found too spare, too humourless, and almost wilfully contradictory in its lack of flow or rhythm.' He also cut one scene – 'a scene of (almost) bestiality' – which, according to the author, had been received with particular 'horror or outrage' by the audience at the Gate, though his decision to cut the scene was based on the need to resolve 'a minor narrative issue that its existence exposed'. 'The result,' he writes in his foreword, 'is a better play (in my opinion, and once again, what value does that have?), though how much better, I can’t really say. A little better, anyway. Maybe. Or not much worse, in any case.'
Teenagers Muna and Iqra catch the same school bus. They were both born in Somalia but their backgrounds are very different. What they share is a painful secret. Tracking the urgent issue of FGM in Britain, this devastating play reveals the price some girls pay to become women.
Cuttin' It premieres at the Young Vic, London, in May 2016.
Charlene James won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play for Cuttin' It.
A daughter is tied to her brilliant father by a passionate bond. But then she is drawn towards an appealing man whose taste in cultural forms follows a disturbing path. The Designated Mourner is a harsh and poetic play about the pursuit of beauty in brutal times.
The Designated Mourner premiered at the National Theatre, London, in April 1996.
London in the 1980s: A racist English football hooligan’s relationship with his beloved pitbull terrier, Roy, gets him into trouble and changes his life.
This short one-man show takes a satirical look at the working class and the similarities between the doggedness of a terrier and the doggedness of a violent lout, ultimately bringing out the loneliness and isolation beneath. Dog premiered (under the title Pitbull) at the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, in August 1993.
Drag Act is a proud and punchy monologue spoken by Rose, a fifty-two year old lesbian who can’t stand being told how she should dress. She was told by her mother that she should be more girly and feminine, and now she finds she’s being told that she’s letting down ‘the Cause’ by wearing trousers; she’s sick of people thinking she’s trying to be a man. So she’s reluctant when her new younger girlfriend Sarah insists they go to a drag club for her birthday, until she realises that among the sequins and the feathers are people just like her.
Drag Act was first presented in 1993 at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool.
Terence Rattigan's Duologue is a short monologue play for a female actor in which a woman reminisces movingly about her dead husband.
The play began life as a piece for television entitled All On Her Own, broadcast on BBC2 on 25 September 1968. It formed part of a series called A Touch of Venus (subtitled: ‘Women Alone’) comprising short monologues for women written by established playwrights. It was performed by Margaret Leighton and produced by Hal Burton.
It was later performed on stage at the Overground Theatre, Kingston, Surrey, in October 1974, still as All On Her Own. Rattigan then revised the text and retitled it Duologue for a production at the King’s Head Theatre, London, starring Barbara Jefford, in a double bill with The Browning Version, with its first performance on 21 February 1976.
The play is set in a large house in Hampstead, north London. Rosemary Hodge is a widow who returns from a party and, a little drunkenly, starts addressing her dead husband Gregory. Through her reflections and recriminations, she comes to a sad realisation about their relationship, her behaviour, and the nature of his death.
With its intimate, conversational style, Duologue can be seen as a forerunner to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series twenty years later.
Henry Naylor's play Echoes is a two-hander exploring aspects of colonialism, drawing parallels between the lives of a modern-day Jihadi bride and a Victorian pioneer. The play is part of Henry Naylor's Arabian Nightmares trilogy, which also includes The Collector and Angel.
Echoes was first performed at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, on 5 August 2015, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, transferring to the Arcola Theatre, London, later that year.
The story is told by two storytellers who, according to a note in the published script, 'speak directly to the audience, through the "fourth wall"’. Tillie is a 17-year-old Victorian pioneer, while Samira, also 17, is a Muslim schoolgirl. Both are from Ipswich, but they dream of a glorious future abroad. Samira wants to help build a caliphate; Tillie, an Empire. Both are idealists; intelligent adventurers, with strong religious beliefs. Both are frustrated by societies which offer them few opportunities. And both would travel to the East, to impose their ideals upon unwilling peoples.
The premiere production was directed by Henry Naylor and Emma Butler, and was performed by Felicity Houlbrooke (as Tillie) and Filipa Bragança (as Samira).
The cast stayed the same for the subsequent world tour, until 13 September 2016, when Rachel Smyth replaced Felicity in the role of Tillie, for the shows at the Brisbane Festival and the Melbourne Fringe. In April 2017, at the 59E59 Theater in New York, Serena Manteghi joined Rachel Smyth, and took the role of Samira.
Monologue is a broad term that may accommodate a widely diverse set of practices ranging from Samuel Beckett's minimalist theatre of interiority to Karen Finley's provocative and political solo performance pieces. Monologue invites questions about the very nature of theatre itself, about the nature of performance and audience response, truth and illusion, narrative and experience. Is it an undoing or dismemberment of theatre's core characteristics – imitative action and dialogue? What balance of mimesis and diegesis works theatrically? Is it merely an excuse for autobiographical excess where the performance text is little more than a collection of reminiscences or testimonies? Monologue theatre in its assorted guises is manifestly a twentieth-century phenomenon allied to increasingly complex and ambivalent attitudes to the speaking subject, agency and interiority on stage. While August Strindberg's The Stronger (1888–9) or Eugene O'Neill's Before Breakfast (1916) might be cited as early examples of monologue plays, it is not until Samuel Beckett began to explore the form in the late 1950s that its experimental resonances are seriously engaged. Beckett remains a key, catalysing force in the development of monologue as a form in the modern theatre. Arguably in the field of contemporary theatre and performance, monologue's modalities have rapidly proliferated, tending in directions as diverse as the narrative games of a playwright like Conor McPherson, to the traumatic and fragmented testimonies of Sarah Kane, to a wealth of forms of solo, autobiographical performance.
The characteristic linking such multifaceted and dissimilar practices is performance in which dialogue does not play a role, although it must be recognised that the looseness of such a definition does little to neatly establish monologue as a genre. In his Dictionary of Theatre (1998), Patrice Pavis offers a useful typology of monologues categorising them according to dramaturgical function (narrative, lyrical/emotional, reflection/deliberation) and literary form (aside, stanza, interior monologue, authorial intervention, solitary dialogue and the monologue drama).
Two main strands in the theatre of monologue can be teased out: the monologue drama and the solo performance. These strands at times are very separate; at others they are closely interwoven. Both involve a speaker who delivers talks before an audience, sometimes directly addressing that audience, sometimes addressing a silent or invisible character-auditor (see for example Samuel Beckett's Not I (1972) or Harold Pinter's Monologue (1973)). Though, in some cases, speeches relate stories, this may not be their primary function. If there is more than one speaker on stage speeches are not dialogical, rather they function as discrete units that may overlap or contradict one another. A template example of this technique is to be found in Brian Friel's Faith Healer (1979) in which three characters tell overlapping, yet discordant, stories of their past life together. Like monologue drama, the monologue or solo performance is generally carefully scripted. However, the status of the text clearly differs. If solo performance scripts appear less frequently in print, more importantly, they belong to the author/performer in a way a conventional playtext does not belong to the playwright. Monologue in the sense of solo performance is therefore subjectively determined in an explicit and complex manner which is often non-transferable.
Given the contexts for monologue in the world beyond the theatre, it should be unsurprising that monologue and naturalism have little affinity with one another. As Pavis notes, 'The monologue reveals the artificiality of theatre and acting conventions. Certain periods that were not concerned with producing a naturalistic rendering of the world could easily accommodate the monologue (Shakespeare, Sturm und Drang, Romantic or Symbolist drama)' (1998). Consequently, monologue dramas and performances rarely preserve the conventions of a naturalistic stage space and regularly dispense with the illusion of the fourth wall. In the absence of these conventions, monologue involves heightened and intense attention to the speaker and the way in which s/he expresses her or himself. Language, the dynamics of narrative and linguistic elements are, as a result, central to the workings of monologue theatre. So for instance Peter Handke's Kaspar (1967) stages the violent acquisition of language, described by the playwright as 'speech torture' (11). At the other end of the spectrum, Anna Deavere Smith's performances Fires in the Mirror (1991) and Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 (1993) are composed of eyewitness accounts (of violent clashes between African Americans and Jews in Brooklyn following the death of a black child killed by a car carrying a rabbi, and the L.A. riots) assembled and performed by Smith. Replicating the stories of the witnesses and their modes of expression through impersonation are the focal points of her performances.
In some cases the monologue form, may seem to be a turn to 'essential' storytelling, a stripping away of dramatic illusion, qualities that have been explored extensively in recent Irish monologue theatre. Nonetheless, distortion and dissonance are simultaneously vital. It seems no accident the regularity with which nudity features in solo performance. The literal stripping of the performer may be seen as a means of exposing a 'true' self while simultaneously shocking or embarrassing audiences. Yet even figurative exposure is accompanied by the possibility of unreliability or manipulation, and that as spectators we take the role of confessors, or worse still, voyeurs.
Inevitably this draws any discussion of monologue to a set of central concerns orientated around subjectivity and performance. The roles of personality, persona, personification and impersonation are yoked to the linguistic and narrative elements mentioned above. Aspects of impersonation, in the sense of taking on and of giving voice to an identity for instance, animate Eve Ensler's problematic 'empowerment' play The Vagina Monologues (1996). Ensler's personae exist not as conventional characters, but rather as a function of the stories they tell. The status of the play as a celebrity vehicle and the pseudo-documentary status of the stories further complicate the interplay of personal, political and performative identities. Highly self-reflexive games of impersonation connect with contemporary monologue theatre's attempts to grapple with the (post)modern condition of the self. Deborah Geis, in her study of American monologue drama, Postmodern Theatric(k)s: Monologue in Contemporary American Drama (1993), contends that in contrast to the revelatory function of the soliloquy in Shakespeare's drama, present-day monologues are frequently characterised by the ways in which they play 'tricks', that undermine the conventions of character development or narrative progress, and deploy theatricality, parody and ambivalence.
To conclude, monologue may point toward a radically anti-narrative theatre of the fragmented subject, or to a much more conventional drama of story-telling, testimony and confession. The use of persona as a means of social critique, the undermining gender stereotypes through role play, the blurring of the outlines of the autobiographical, 'authentic' subject and self-reflexive narrative games are among the most significant and recurrent features of a diverse genre of monologue theatre and performance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
by Clare Wallace, Associate Professor at the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, Charles University, Prague.