Skip to main content

‘What I Came to Say’: Raymond Williams, the Sociology of Culture and the Politics of (Performance) Scholarship1


This essay seeks to reconsider and appropriate the cultural politics of Raymond Williams for the project of formulating a critique of current ideas about politics and theatre. The residual values of cultural materialism as theorized by Williams, based on a concept of culture as productive, processual and egalitarian, have become less influential under the pressures of post-structuralism and neo-liberalism. The current attraction to Rancière, for example, emphasizes dissensus over consensus and singularity over collectivity. Post-dramatic theatre rejects direct engagement with political discourse altogether. While recognizing that these emerging theoretical ideas continue the historical romance of avant-garde theatre with rupture and dissent, Williams can remind us of still-powerful strategies that are rooted in identifying shared experiences, relating cultural production to its sociopolitical context, and the value of collective struggles.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      ‘What I Came to Say’: Raymond Williams, the Sociology of Culture and the Politics of (Performance) Scholarship1
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      ‘What I Came to Say’: Raymond Williams, the Sociology of Culture and the Politics of (Performance) Scholarship1
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      ‘What I Came to Say’: Raymond Williams, the Sociology of Culture and the Politics of (Performance) Scholarship1
      Available formats
Hide All


2 Williams, Raymond's Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society first appeared in 1976 (London: Croome Helm) and made explicit Williams's lifelong project to explore the cultural meanings of words and how they shift over time. Several revised editions followed. In 2014 a new edition was published (London: Fourth Estate) in connection with the Keywords: Art, Culture & Society exhibition at the Tate Liverpool. Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism is also the title of the journal associated with the Raymond Williams Society, and the Keywords Project is an independent research project hosted by the University of Pittsburgh.

3 ‘Editorial’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 23, 1 (2013), pp. 1–2.

4 Of a number of projects that attempt to recuperate and renew the legacy of the left, the most visible has been the conferences and publications organized by Slavoj Žižek et al. starting at Birbeck Institute for the Humanities in 2009. Publications include Douzinas, Costas and Žižek, Slavoj, eds., The Idea of Communism (London and New York: Verso, 2010); and Žižek, Slavoj, ed., The Idea of Communism, Vol. II (London and New York: Verso, 2013).

5 Williams, Raymond, Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1980), p. 243.

6 Harvie, Jen, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neo-liberalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 16.

7 Williams, Raymond, ‘Drama in a Dramatized Society’, in Raymond Williams on Culture & Society: Essential Writings, ed. McGuigan, Jim (London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2014), pp. 161–71.

8 Williams, Raymond, ‘Culture Is Ordinary’, in Gable, Jim, ed., Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 314, here p. 4.

9 Jim McGuigan, ‘Introduction’, in Raymond Williams on Culture and Society, p. 1.

10 Raymond Williams, ‘On High and Popular Culture’, New Republic, 22 November 1974, at, last accessed 31 March 2015.

11 Ibid.

12 Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1977), p. 132.

13 Grossberg, Lawrence, ‘The Future of Affect: Rediscovering the Virtual in the Actual’, in Seigworth, Gregory J. and Gregg, Melissa, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 309–38, here p. 310.

14 Stewart is quoting Williams, Marxism and Literature, pp. 133, 132. Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 23.

15 Kruger, Loren, ‘Placing the Occasion: Raymond Williams and Performing Culture’, in Dworkin, Dennis L. and Roman, Leslie G., eds., Views beyond the Border Country: Raymond Williams and Cultural Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 5571, here p. 60.

16 Ibid.

17 Kirle, Bruce, Unfinished Show Business: Broadway Musicals as Works in Process (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005); Wolf, Stacy, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Wolf, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).

18 Anan, Nobuko, Contemporary Japanese Women's Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls’ Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); McMahon, Christina, Recasting Transnationalism through Performance: Theatre Festivals in Cape Verde, Mosambique and Brazil (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

19 Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. xxvii.

20 ‘Media, Margins and Modernity: A Conversation between Raymond Williams and Edward Said’, appendix to Williams, Raymond, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 177–97, here p. 196. I am indebted to Benita Parry's analysis of the tensions between the two men in this conversation. See Parry, Benita, ‘Overlapping Territories and Intertwined Histories: Edward Said's Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism’, in Sprinker, Michael, ed., Edward Said: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 1947.

21 ‘Williams does not appear to recognize Black as anything other than the subordinate moment in an ideology of racial supremacy’. Gilroy, Paul, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 50.

22 Ridout, Nicholas, Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 34; Ridout, , ‘Performance and Democracy’, in Davis, Tracy C., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 1122, here p. 21.

23 Kelleher, Joe, Theatre & Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 25–6.

24 Read, Alan, Theatre, Intimacy, Engagement: The Last Human Venue (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 27.

25 Ibid., p. 46.

26 In fact, the book appears within the book series that I have edited with Brian Singleton, Studies in International Performance for Palgrave Macmillan.

27 Fukuyama, Francis, ‘By Way of an Introduction’, in Fukuyama, , The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992), pp. xixxiii.

28 Kuftinec, Sonja, Theatre, Facilitation, and Nation Formation in the Balkans and Middle East (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Thompson, James, Hughes, Jenny and Balfour, Michael, Performance in Place of War (London, New York and Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2009).

29 Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Jürs-Munby, Karen (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 175.

30 Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Das politische Schreiben (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2002), pp. 1617. Cited and trans. by Woolf, Brandon, ‘Toward a Paradoxically Parallaxical Postdramatic Politics?’, in Jürs-Munby, Karen, Carroll, Jerome and Giles, Steve, eds., Postdramatic Theatre and the Political (London and New York, 2013), pp. 3146, here p. 31.

31 Lehmann, Hans-Thies, ‘“Postdramatic Theatre”, a Decade Later’, in Dramatic and Postdramatic Theater Ten Years After: Conference Proceedings (Belgrade: Faculty of Dramatic Arts, 2011), pp. 3146, here p. 34. Quoted in Jürs-Munby, Carroll and Giles, Postdramatic Theatre and the Political, p. 2.

32 Ibid.

33 See Jürs-Munby, Carroll and Giles, Postdramatic Theatre and the Political.

34 Causey, Matthew and Walsh, Fintan, ‘Introduction’, in Causey, and Walsh, , eds., Performance, Identity, and the Neo-political Subject (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 120, here p. 2.

35 Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, p. 178.

36 Bharucha, Rustom, Terror and Performance (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 74–5.

37 Ibid., p. 77.

38 Rancière, Jacques, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Ross, Kristin (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 2.

39 Rancière, Jacques, On the Shores of Politics, trans. Heron, Liz (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 32–3.

40 Hallward, Peter, ‘Staging Equality: On Rancière's Theatrocacy’, New Left Review, 37 (2006), pp. 125–6, emphasis in the original.

41 Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Elliott, Gregory (London and New York: Verso, 2009), p. 13.

42 Ibid., p. 49.

43 Lavender, Andy, ‘Viewing and Acting (and Points in Between): The Trouble with Spectating after Rancière, Contemporary Theatre Review, 22, 3 (2012), pp. 307–26, here pp. 325–6.

1 It was a great privilege to give the original version of this article as a keynote address to the International Federation for Theatre Research at a time when my home institution, the University of Warwick, hosted the 2014 congress and – coincidentally – when I retired from Warwick (on 31 July 2014). Under those circumstances, I thought it might show no disrespect to Raymond Williams to appropriate the title of his book for my remarks: thus, What I Came to Say (London: Hutchinson-Radius, 1989).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Theatre Research International
  • ISSN: 0307-8833
  • EISSN: 1474-0672
  • URL: /core/journals/theatre-research-international
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed