Masters (and Mistresses) of Menace

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In Harold Pinter's last completed project before his death, a screen adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth (1970), a large publicity poster dominates the study of crime novelist Andrew Wyke, describing him as 'the master of menace.' This is also a self-referential joke directed at Pinter's association with 'comedies of menace,' such as A Slight Ache (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958), that succeeded in creating feelings of unease and discomfort in ways that had not been seen in the theatre before. As a repertory actor before he became a dramatist, Pinter was likely to have encountered the fears and insecurities that theatre can create, and these perhaps return in the sinister environments that we find in his early plays. In turn, the queasiness and growing unease we encounter in Pinter's drama has been appropriated by other 'childe Harolds' including Philip Ridley, Anthony Neilson, Martin Crimp, and Jez Butterworth, whose work follows variations of the Pinteresque. This article looks at some of the ways these dramatists have developed on from Pinter's template of creating a sense of unease, yet at the same time these dramatists show an awareness of how the nature of fear has radically altered since the turn of the millennium. Signs of this change can also be found in Pinter's work from the 1980 s: whereas previously fear had been vague in its aetiology, now it came out of the shadows to be named: Pinter's 'comedies of menace' gave way to plays about torture by repressive political regimes in Party Time (1991) and memories of the Holocaust in Ashes to Ashes (1997). Since then the depiction of states of fear have forked off on two separate paths: latter day 'childe Harolds' such as Philip Ridley continue to promote what he has called 'theatre as a ghost train,' a place of disorientation designed to induce fear for its own sake, while a larger contingent that include Simon Stephens, Duncan Macmillan, Mike Bartlett, Martin Crimp, and Mark Ravenhill also make fears manifest: these include terrorism and the ensuing War on Terror, the Anthropocene and climate change and the precarity and repression of neo-liberal economies and the alienation of self-hood through technology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-28
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Contemporary Drama in English
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2019


  • comedies of menace
  • Harold Pinter
  • war on terror
  • 'neurotic citizen'
  • apocalyptic
  • workplace
  • underclass
  • climate change


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