Shopping and Fucking: Is That All There Is?

Mark Ravenhill’s notorious Shopping and Fucking is the first play in the history of theater to become world-famous because of its title. To be sure, there are those who will swear on the Bible that it’s a great play, a barbarous, shocking morality tale of our amoral times, a unique stage portrait of a lost generation of dehumanized youth rotted by social and economic abuse, and so on and so forth.

But we don’t know that-not yet, anyway. What we know is the title (which has already been translated into 10 languages). Mr. Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, his first play, comes to the New York Theater Workshop – the original home of Rent – via enormous success in London. And everywhere it goes, its title is sure to precede.

As the venerable Times of London put it shrewdly: “The F-word still strikes many people with the crack of a rifle shot. There is still no consensus about its printability. The Times favors the f*** formula.”

On the other hand, The New York Times favors the ‘it doesn’t exist’ formula. It has prudishly renamed the play Shopping and …. Everyone does it, no one will name it! The Times doesn’t even give it an asterisk or two. Three little dots must suffice. “How was it for you, my darling?” “That was the greatest three little dots I ever had in my life!”

Which can lead to failures of the imagination. Suppose, for example, in all innocence, you don’t know what the three little dots actually stand for. Suppose you think the play is entitled Shopping and Saving . Well, you wouldn’t be rushing to see it, would you? But The New York Times , extremely thoughtful as always, filled in the dots for us in its review of the play, lest there be any misunderstanding. Explaining “the gerund that completes its title, Shopping and…,” The Times pointed out that it’s “a form of a much-used but still widely unprintable Anglo-Saxon verb referring to carnal intercourse.”

You got me there.

But this new title, Shopping and Carnal Intercourse , doesn’t quite do it, either. I prefer what The Times calls “the gerund that completes the title.” Suggestive word, gerund . No one knows what it means, but it sounds dirty. Shopping and Gerund . There you are! It works! As does, gerunding .

Be that as it may, we prefer the more prosaic Shopping and Fucking , and Mr. Ravenhill’s so-called dark urban comedy might shock you if you are a tourist.

The play belongs to the voyeuristic British tradition of theatrical slumming. Nostalgie de la boue has always been a heady strain in English life, or low-life. But the gutter is currently the hip place to be in the theater. Two other successful London imports-Mike Leigh’s sordid celebration of ignorance, Goose-Pimples (or “dazzlingly sordid,” depending on your point of view), and the cartoonesque working-class spivs and psychotics of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo-are now joined by the dehumanized grossness of Shopping and Fucking .

Within seconds of its start, a junkie and former stockbroker called Mark has vomited. Exactly the same moment-obviously meant to disgust-takes place with the drunk Arab in Goose-Pimples . The throwing up is a metaphor for the state of England, you see. The actor secretly hides green and yellow stuff in his mouth. Then he goes “Bleeeeagh!” And vomits all over the stage.

So Shopping and Fucking is seen as a subversively shocking drama of the alienated unemployed of England and the corrupting power of money. It follows, therefore, that there should be explicit sex scenes, in this case homosexual. We do not call them particularly shocking, however; we call them a prurient interest in buggery. Then again, the 14-year-old juvenile hustler, Gary, fantasizes about being sodomized with a knife. (He was raped by his stepfather.) The violent sex, Mr. Ravenhill is saying, symbolizes a rotten England corrupted by consumer culture.

But the play’s fallen characters-the heroin junkie Mark, the sexually abused, masochistic male hooker Gary, the unemployed, dim Ecstasy pusher Robbie and his punk friend the wannabe actress Lulu-don’t symbolize a culture, only a marginalized subculture. In that sense, Shopping and Fucking is a narrow play that has been mistaken for a major one.

“I mean, are there any feelings left, you know?” asks Mark forlornly. There aren’t, really. There are needs . And the cause of all this sullen alienation? Money! Mr. Ravenhill’s message about the corrupting power of the god of consumerism amounts to the unsurprising pronouncement that money is the root of all evil. Unlike Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting , Mr. Ravenhill is a moralist. He disapproves of consumer society, warning us repeatedly in virtually every scene that everything is the art of the deal, like sex and shopping.

This isn’t new; it’s simplistic. There’s even a pseudo- misterioso prince of darkness, named Brian, who is the drama’s amoral conscience. He comes out with stuff such as, “At the final reckoning, behind beauty, behind God, behind paradise, peel them away and what is there?” (Answer: money.) He goes even further, asking his protégés in disaffection to repeat the lesson and the mantra that money is civilization and the transaction is all.

“Yes. Yes. I’m teaching. You’re learning. Money is civilization. And civilization is … say it . Don’t get frightened now. And civilization is …”

“Money,” they reply.

Poor babies. If only they didn’t live in a consumer society, they could be terribly, terribly happy! They could have relationships! Maybe get a job! Learn to love! Whatever. Mr. Ravenhill’s slack, simple-minded message is as flashily empty as the neon signs that illuminate the drama’s anonymous grungy set, and I’m not about to indulge it. Yet several admiring articles I’ve read about the play compare it favorably, almost inevitably, to the social rage and newness of John Osborne’s 1956 Look Back in Anger . How is it possible?

The Osborne landmark shocked an entire theatergoing generation into a new awareness of England precisely because nothing like it had been written before. Its antihero, Jimmy Porter, is characterized by passion, not Mr. Ravenhill’s empty disenchantment. The play is about love. It’s about love and class war and bad marriages and boring Sunday papers. It’s also about a nostalgia for the civility of Edwardian England. In other words, Look Back in Anger is about everything that Shopping and Fucking isn’t about. Above all, it glories uncompromisingly in the power of unsullied language-the English language.

Mr. Ravenhill’s inarticulate antiheroes have nothing to say, nothing to tell us, nothing for us to hold burned in our memory and our conscience. Shopping and Fucking is a commonplace drama with anal sex for voyeurs. It isn’t particularly funny, either. In the Clinton era, in which sex is no longer private, it fails to shock or offend. To the contrary, a naughty soft-porn fantasy about Princess Di in a toilet has now been edited out on grounds of taste. It has been replaced by another fantasy involving good old Fergie, Duchess of York and spokesman for Weight Watchers. What a fate! But Fergie is safer ground, and easy, a big easy, and no one in the audience will be offended.