The World & his Wife


The World & his Wife is considered by its author to be the first play in which he found his own, unique voice. Exuberant, verbally incendiary, satirical in both content and form, visionary in scope - The World & his Wife sets an embryonic and wildly anarchic pattern for what would be JMC's own singular form of theatrical expression.

Inspirations informing this style include the grotesque Total Theatre of Stephen Berkoff, the caustic and scatological language of British dramatist Howard Barker, the anarchic camp of Joe Orton, the ritual nihilism of Jean Genet. The World & his Wife combines these "arty" influences with a form derived from domestic comedy and sitcom; characterisation close to Carry On films and cartoons; content wolfed down from Tabloid headlines and vomited back up with a caricatured exuberance worthy of Hogarth or Rowlandson. The World & his Wife lacks the verbally poetic and spiritual dimensions which were to become central to JMC's plays from Fat Souls onwards, but its nightmare vision of a humanity trapped in endless cycles of violence gives it the quality of a Blakeian vision, even if its composition pre-dates JMC's reading of Blake.

The story of Mike and Christine Mann came out of JMC's discontent, as a gay man and as a nascent anarchist, with normative relationship forms, which in his experience often led to stagnation, mutual recrimination, compromise and mutual loathing. The World & his Wife exaggerates the problem to wild extremes, a deliberate strategy which takes its lead from Howard Barker's maxim "Long live exaggeration / It brings you somewhere near the actual horror" - Barker, Don't Exaggerate (1989).

The World & his Wife's subplot involving the Scissors Freak killings took its inspiration from JMC's then-current reading of accounts of lust killings in popular true crime literature as well as his exploration of the life and work of the notorious 18th century literary genius The Marquis de Sade. In The World…, Inspector Ness's encyclopaedic and gratuitously explicit accounts of the Scissors Freak's murders are a provocation to the audience's stamina and patience, testing how much horror they are willing to take at the same time as daring them to loud out loud at the sheer brazen appalling gall of what they are hearing and witnessing. In his 2006 essay Just Whose Journey is This?, JMC says of these scenes that they "literally dare the audience to stay and watch or walk out in outrage and disgust. The stakes involved in the contents of the play are high enough that the audience are forced to make a moral decision as to whether they wish to continue watching the play or not. It also dares them to laugh out loud at the sheer mean-spiritedness and low-down nastiness of these moments."

In a footnote to that essay, JMC draws a comparison between his technique in The World & his Wife and that of one of his favourite novelists: "I was later impressed that a writer I admire, Brett Easton Ellis, has taken a similar approach to portraying life in that decade in his seminal American Psycho." Here, JMC explicitly states that The World & his Wife is a response to the Thatcherite 1980s. The virulent feminism of Melissa owes something to Andrea Dworkin's radical 1979 study Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

The World & his Wife remains JMC's favourite of his early plays. Its dramatic strategies are both daring and challenging, stretching received forms and often mocking them in the process. The characters launch into long verbal arias which make no sense as realistic drama but work as parodies of plays in which characters make long speeches. Its refusal to take even the most "important" of subjects as an excuse for moral lecturing and the performance of authorial virtue make it the antithesis of a Royal Court drama like Masterpeices by Sarah Daniels, which JMC found both unintentionally hilarious and patronising to its audience.

In some ways, The World & his Wife is an anti-play. That it is also hilariously funny and wildly entertaining only emphasises its difference in kind from the po-faced and self-regarding issue drama favoured by the British theatre's liberal elite. The World & his Wife is, then, more Ubu than Ibsen; more Bunuel than Caryl Churchill.

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