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Class and Performance in the Age of Global Capitalism


This article addresses the relative absence of class-based analysis in theatre and performance studies, and suggests the reconfiguration of class as performance rather than as it is traditionally conceived as an identity predicated solely on economic stratification. It engages with the occlusion of class by the ascendancy of identity politics based on race, gender and sexuality and its attendant theoretical counterparts in deconstruction and post-structuralism, which became axiomatic as they displaced earlier methodologies to become hegemonic in the arts and humanities. The article proceeds to an assessment of the development of sociological approaches to theatre, particularly the legacy of Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu. The argument concludes with the application of an approach which reconfigures class as performance to the production of Declan Hughes's play Shiver of 2003, which dramatizes the consequences of the bubble of the late 1990s for ambitious members of the Irish middle class.

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1 Amongst the slew of recent books dealing with the problems of late capitalism, David Harvey's work offers some of the most cogent analysis, including The Enigma of Capital (London: Profile, 2011), A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and The Limits to Capital (London: Verso, 1999).

2 See McConachie's BruceAmerican Theater in the Culture of the Cold War: Producing & Contesting Containment, 1947–1962 (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 2003) for a cogent analysis of American theatre and society in the first decades of the Cold War. This book and McConachie's earlier Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society 1820–1870 (Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1992) are among the very few examples in recent years of the class-based analysis of theatre in the Western academy.

3 Francis Fukuyama's essay ‘The End of History?’, published in the international affairs journal National Interest (Summer 1989), pp. 3–18, typifies many of these sentiments, and was followed up in his book The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin, 1992).

4 Hayek's defence of classical liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism against socialism and collectivism are contained in The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1944) and The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, 1960). Friedman's critique of governmental regulation of financial services and his advocation of monetarism were set forth in such volumes as Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962) and (with Anna J. Schwartz) A Monetary History of United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).

5 Frers Björn, ‘Work in Progress: Rimini Protokoll's Karl Marx: Capital, First Volume and the Experience of the Future on Stage’, Theatre Research International, 34, 2 (2009), pp. 153–8, here p. 153.

6 Eagleton Terry, preface to the second edition of Marxism and Literary Criticism (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. viii.

7 Jackson Shannon, Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 25.

9 Ibid., p. 26.

10 Ibid. pp. 26–7.

11 Savran David, ‘Shadows of Brecht’, in Reinelt Janelle and Roach Joseph, eds., Critical Theory and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), pp. 268–83, here p. 278. Savran's recent book Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) provides an excellent analysis of the relationship between class and culture.

12 For an incisive critique of post-structuralism see Dews Peter, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London: Verso, 1987).

13 Jackson Shannon, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

14 Ibid., p. 77.

16 Schechner Richard, Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 141.

17 For a Marxist critique of postmodernity see, for example, Harvey David, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); and Anderson Perry, The Origins of Postmodernity (London: Verso, 1998).

18 Jameson Fredric, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

19 Lyotard Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. xxiiixxiv.

20 Ibid., p. 82.

21 Derrida Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Spivak Gayatri Chakravorty (London and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 318.

22 Derrida Jacques, Spectres of Marx (London: Routledge, 1994).

23 Butler Judith, Gender Trouble (London and New York: Routledge, 1990). Butler develops her theory of performativity along Derridean lines in Bodies that Matter (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); and in reference to Austin's J. L. speech act theory in Excitable Speech (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).

24 Gurvitch Georges, ‘Sociologie du théâtre’, Les lettres nouvelles, 35 (1956), pp. 196210.

25 Goffman Erving, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).

26 Duvignaud Jean, Sociologie du théâtre: Essai sur les ombres collectives (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1965).

27 Shevtsova Maria, ‘The Sociology of the Theatre, Part One: Problems and Perspectives’, New Theatre Quarterly, 5, 17 (1989), pp. 2335.

28 Shevtsova Maria, ‘The Sociology of the Theatre, Part Two: Theoretical Achievements’, New Theatre Quarterly, 5, 18 (1989), pp. 180–94.

29 Shevtsova Maria, ‘The Sociology of the Theatre, Part Three: Performance’, New Theatre Quarterly, 5, 19 (1989), pp. 282300.

30 Shevtsova Maria, ‘Social Practice, Interdisciplinary Perspective’, Theatre Research International, 26, 2 (2001), pp. 129–36.

31 Savran, ‘Shadows of Brecht’.

32 Bourdieu was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century and certainly one of the most prolific. His books include Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London and New York: Routledge, 1984); Homo Academicus, trans. Peter Collier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); and The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

33 Williams was the foremost Marxist scholar of his generation to have emerged from the UK. His work pioneered new approaches to literature, drama and culture, including Culture and Society (London: Chatto and Windus, 1958); The Long Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961); Modern Tragedy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966); Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968); and Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

34 Jackson Shannon, ‘Why Modern Plays Are Not Culture: Disciplinary Blind Spots’, Modern Drama, 44, 1 (2001), pp. 3151, here p. 48.

35 Of the myriad sociological studies of class, Anthony Giddens's work is among the most widely cited, particularly Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); The Class Structure of Advanced Societies (London: Hutchinson, 1973); and The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984).

36 Where Bourdieu engages in a detailed analysis of the French upper and middle classes, he has little to say about working-class lifestyles other than a perceived lack of cultural and economic capital. Loïc Wacquant has engaged further with working class and ‘underclass’ lifestyles in Urban Outcasts (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2008); Punishing the Poor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); and Body and Soul: The Notebook of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

37 Williams's approach is outlined in systematic form in Marxism and Literature.

38 Reflexivity becomes an increasingly important aspect of Bourdieu's work; see In Other Words: Essays towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

39 See Ferriter Diarmuid, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000 (London: Profile Books, 2004).

40 See McWilliams David, The Pope's Children: Ireland's New Elite (London: Gill & Macmillan, 2005).

41 See O'Toole Fintan, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (London: Faber & Faber, 2009).

42 See McWilliams David, The Generation Game (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2007).

43 Shiver by Declan Hughes premiered at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 28 March 2003, directed by Lynne Parker.

44 Patrick Lonergan, review of Shiver by Declan Hughes and Tillsonburg by Malachy McKenna, Irish Theatre Magazine, 3, 15 (Summer 2003), pp. 82–6.

45 Hughes Declan, Shiver (London: Methuen, 2003), p. 23.

46 Fintan O'Toole, ‘Shiver at the Project, Dublin’, Irish Times, 1 April 2003, p. 14.

47 Hughes, Shiver, p. 28.

48 See O'Toole Fintan, After the Ball (Dublin: New Island, 2003).

49 Hughes, Shiver, p. 19.

50 Ibid., p. 75.

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Theatre Research International
  • ISSN: 0307-8833
  • EISSN: 1474-0672
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