Trigger warning: this post contains strong language and discussion of gruesome violence. Enjoy!
For almost two weeks (count ‘em: TWO WEEKS) I’ve had no computer. It died 4 days before I had 12,000 words due for my Masters course so stress does not even begin to cover it, dear reader. Once I’d got my essays done on my mother’s computer (which seems to view formatting as an opportunity to express a whimsical avant-garde approach to functionality – don’t tell me they’re not sentient) I felt like I was back in the nineties. Admittedly I had my phone made by a popular fruit-branded organisation so I wasn’t entirely offline, but it severely impacted my digital activity. Now I have my preferred method of interweb access back, I thought I’d embrace twenty years ago:
Now, for some people, their memories of the 90s are that it was like this:
But let me tell you, people were angry in the 90s. My proof for this is the wave of new writing that emerged in British theatre at the time. Sometime referred to as ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, writers like Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber wrote dark, challenging plays that usually involved protagonists waging psychological warfare on one another. So to start I thought I would look at one of the plays written by this new generation of dramatists; Jez Butterworth would go on to a work of genius in Jerusalem, but back in 1995 he had just written his first solo play, Mojo.
Mojo is set in a Soho nightclub, the Atlantic, in 1958 (unusually, as most new dramatic writing was resolutely contemporary. I remember seeing an interview with Butterworth at the time, where he said he did it to avoid being labelled ‘the voice of the generation’ which I thought staggeringly confident). The owner of the Atlantic, Ezra, is locked in a power struggle with a fellow gangster, Sam Ross (neither of whom we ever see), over management of a pop ingénue (can you have a male ingénue? There are resolutely no women in this play) Silver Johnny. Ezra’s employees Sweets, Potts and Skinny, his damaged son Baby, and the older lieutenant Mickey are stuck in the club, antsy with drugs and fear:
MICKEY. He’s out there. (Pause.)
POTTS. Out where? Out the back?
SKINNY. Fucking hell. Now?
SWEETS. Fucking hell.
POTTS. It’s a joke. It’s Mickey’s joke. It’s Mickey’s morning joke.
SWEETS. Out where?
SKINNY. Don’t you listen? By the bins. That’s what they said. ‘You’re finished’ and ‘Look by the bins’.
SWEETS. You said ‘By the bins’. Mickey said ‘In the bins’.
POTTS. By the bins in the bins. Is that the issue here? If it’s ‘by’ are we safe? If it’s ‘by’ is there a deal?
SKINNY. Mickey. Okay, okay. Indulge me. Please. Are you sure? Are you ten times out of ten sure that he’s passed away?
MICKEY. He’s fucking cut in half. He’s in two bins. (Pause.)
With their leader definitively dealt with, the boys are afraid to leave and stay sweating in the increasingly oppressive environment of the club, trying to hold things together while Baby, the deranged son of Ezra, completely unravels:
MICKEY. They’re going to come here…
BABY (overlapping) I wish I was more like you Mickey. I wish I was less like me, and more like you.
MICKEY. Listen to me. They’re going to come here.
BABY. They’re going to come here.
MICKEY. Yes, I think they are.
BABY. Yes, I think they are.
MICKEY. Baby –
BABY. Baby –
MICKEY. You think you’re in a book.
BABY. I am. I’m Spiderman.
Needless to say, it all falls spectacularly apart as power struggles intensify, betrayals are realised, and weaknesses exposed. The feel of it is very reminiscent of Butterworth’s mentor, Harold Pinter’s, ‘comedies of menace’. The fast pace and punchy dialogue sweep the audience along to the violent end, as helpless witnesses to the carnage as the characters themselves.
I saw the revival of Mojo in 2013 (at the Harold Pinter theatre), and while the total absence of women in the play felt even more apparent, generally I felt it had stood the test of time (the 1997 film I found less successful, but it’s still worth a look for some wonderful performances). Butterworth’s avoidance of being the ‘voice of a generation’ seems to have paid off with longevity.
Secondly, another debut, which I chose because it won a prize that began in the 1990s, the IMPAC. Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain follows James Dyer as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is incapable of feeling any pain. Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, James is an “unnatural child”, one who never cries, even at the moment of his birth. He disconcerts those around him even if they’re not entirely sure why. While James’ state may seem enviable, while he cannot feel pain he also cannot feel its opposite:
“Pain, pleasure. He has glimpsed their coast, their high cliffs; smelt in dreams the loaded offshore breezes. But still he is surrounded by a calm insensate sea; his ship high-sided, inviolable, its great grey pennants streaming. How could it be otherwise?”
James is oddly remote, unable to relate to his fellow beings, a detached observer that suits the present tense narrative. He is an unlikeable yet tragic figure: used by conmen and collectors who are interested only in his freakishness. He knows something is missing but he is unsure as to what.
“She sobs, cannot stop herself from asking if he loves her, truly, as she loves him, utterly, for ever, ever and ever.
[…] Agnes is on her knees beside him. He does not know what she is saying. Is she happy, afraid? Frankly she seems drunk.”
He joins the navy where he kills without feeling, and becomes a highly accomplished surgeon, servicing the friends of Lord Byron. What is said about James could almost definitely have been said about the mad, bad peer himself:
“He appears to have been born without a soul. What, then, has he to lose?”
Ingenious Pain is clearly based on meticulous research but the novel never falters under the weight of it all. It is beautifully written, tightly plotted with a strange, compelling anti-hero at its heart.
To end, something that for me just is the 90s: