Forced Entertainment, Media Reality and Chairman Mao

Forced Entertainment’s corpus ‘can be broadly categorised as being driven by questions about the viability of theatre as a representational medium in an age of simulation’ (Gorman 2015, p.190). The company’s director Tim Etchells succinctly describes their work as theatre for people who grew up with the television always on; narratives trickling away in the corner of domestic space as people’s daily lives continue (Digital Theatre Plus 2019).

First devised in 1994,  Speak Bitterness (2014)[1] acts as vessel for thousands of narrative fragments where no division between reality and fiction is present.  As a postdramatic piece that eschews representation and conceptualisation by turning speech into the subject of the event, Speak Bitterness encapsulates Forced Entertainment’s signature theatrical devices of fragmented and layered narratives. The performance manifests the real of communication in mediatized society through performative texts, where narrative exists in a permanent state of rheology in the frequent unsettlement of representation.

The term ‘speak bitterness’ originates from Chairman Mao Zhedong’s Communist dictatorship in China (1949-1976). After the 1949 revolution, the Communist Party of China (CCP) set about indoctrinating the population through various violent and authoritarian methods. The goal was to transform millions of Chinese into revolutionary zealots who were slavishly devoted to Marxist-Leninist-Mao thought.

The…task was…to turn hardship into hatred. This…took weeks of persistence and persuasion, as the work team had to convince the ‘poor’ that the ‘rich’ were behind their every misfortune, having exploited their labour since time immemorial. In so-called ‘speak bitterness’ meetings, participants were encouraged to tap into a reservoir of grievances. Some vented genuine frustrations that had long been bottled up; others were coerced into inventing accusations against their richer neighbours (Dikötter 2017, p.66)

Analysed in the context of postdramatic theory, Speak Bitterness acquires a political dimension through its representation of information flow (Borowski and Sugiera 2013, p.67). The political affect it seeks to create in the audience is redolent with how the Mao regime used speak bitterness to structure feeling into an event until all of social reality could be bent, shaped and distorted through speech and language. But unlike the original meetings, the realities conjured through the performative texts in Speak Bitterness fail to produce any authentic representation of social reality that exists outside of the performance because in a media saturated society ‘such recourse to external, reliable, authentic reality is assumed to be unavailable’ (Jürs-Munby, Carroll and Giles 2013, p.13).

Speak Bitterness is performed by six actors who sit behind a long table reading confessions from a ‘catalogue of wrong-doings’ in no discernible order (Digital Theatre Plus 2019). The performative text ‘draws on the diverse cultures of confession in… contemporary chat shows, churches and show trials’ (Etchells 1999, p.179), which reconfigures the audience’s perception of the words into forms of media. The confessions range from the criminal (‘We planted bombs in railway stations, airplanes, and the branches of high street retailers’); to the vindictive (‘When it came to fucking Ryan over or hurting his feelings, nothing was too much trouble for us’); to the puerile (‘We left little bits of toast in the honey that were annoying to other people at breakfast time’); to the enigmatic (‘We enjoyed our own decline’) (Forced Entertainment 2015).  In keeping with postdramatic theatre’s interest in ‘shock[ing audiences] out of habits of thinking’ by abandoning ‘standard patterns of meaning’ (Jürs-Munby, Carroll and Giles 2013, p.5), the form of Speak Bitterness enables audiences to perceive how public and private narratives become mediated into a polyphony of voices jostling for attention and significance.

Whilst no political context is ever offered, lines such as ‘We got airlifted to safety while others clung to the wreckage below’ and ‘We built our houses out of cardboard, out of broken crates, out of old doors, out of scraps of salvaged wood, out of tarpaulins, or polythene sheets’ (Forced Entertainment 2015) evokes familiar images of the refugee crisis, which at the time Speak Bitterness was last performed were pervasive in popular media[2]. The text eludes the conceptualisation or overt representation of any political subject by structuring the feeling of being exposed to mediated trauma whose omnipresence in mediatized society is coming to constitute the most authentic experience of reality. The ‘we’ in Speak Bitterness implicates the audience in the construction of the real(ity) of mediated information by acting as a document that structures relationships between people and the process of mediation through performative text. The audience’s relationship to the drama is evocative of the ways we experience narratives in daily life; an endless series of remediations whose simultaneity belies coherence.

Describing the texts as performative (as opposed to dramatic or literary) invokes Peggy Phelan’s desire to create a theatre language that summons the incorporeal without becoming a substitute for a past event. Speak Bitterness is ‘written in loss, with words all too conscious of what they are unable to convey’ (Phelan 1997, p.8). The real in the piece manifests through the actor’s abortive attempts to achieve any sense of redemption or catharsis through sharing information in public. Each utterance of a confession distorts the actors’ stable presences until they become as transitory as the digital media flowing through our networks. Moreover, the audience are forced to confront their apathetic response to mediated information. Speak Bitterness performs the decreasing capacity of language to ground our sense of ourselves as fixed, authentic, permanent entities. A single reality has become absent in today’s mediatised society, meaning that the real of now can no longer be authentically represented as history or fiction.

[1] Forced Entertainment created a six-hour durational version of Speak Bitterness in 2014 and performed it at Berlin’s Hebel am Ufer.

[2] I have termed this mode of performative text in reference to a different piece as media wreckage elsewhere: ‘the fragmentation of political, social, economic and cultural narratives occasioned by the internet acting as the dominant scaffold for building communal perceptions of reality’ (Dunne-Howrie 2019, p.65).


Borowski, M. and Sugiera, M. (2013) ‘Political Fictions and Fictionalisations: History as Material for Postdramatic Theatre’ in Jürs-Munby, K., Carroll, J. and Giles, S. (2013) Postdramatic Theatre and the Political. London: Bloomsbury

Digital Theatre Plus (2019) Contemporary Performance Practice…Forced Entertainment: Tim Etchells Interviewed by Matt Trueman. Available at: [accessed: 18 April 2020]

Dikötter, F. (2017) The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. London: Bloomsbury

Dunne-Howrie, J. (2019) ‘Crisis Acting in The Destroyed Room’, Performance Research: Staging the Wreckage, 24(5), pp.65-73

Forced Entertainment (2015) Speak Bitterness (clip) Berlin, 2014. Available at: [accessed:18 April 2020]

Gorman, S. (2015) ‘Forced Entertainment’s Early to Middle Years: Montage and Quotation’ in Saunders, G. (ed.) British Theatre Companies 1980-1984. London: Bloomsbury

Jürs-Munby, K., Carroll, J. and Giles, S. (2013) Postdramatic Theatre and the Political. London: Bloomsbury

Phelan, P. (1997) Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. New York: Routledge