Musicality in Simon Stephens’ Plays

Brigitte Bogar*


This article deals with Simon Stephens’ use of music in his plays to enhance the narrative structure and as an underscoring emotive musical subtext, highlighting the playwrights’ musical skills in addition to his already acknowledged talent as a writer. The main focus will be on Carmen Disruption, a play inspired by Bizet’s opera Carmen, which twists the opera into a fragmented text about urban breakdown and globalization while incorporating and reimagining the music and elements of the original story.
Keywords: Simon Stephens,Carmen Disruption, Bizet, Country Music, Punk Rock, Pornography, Rinat Shaham, Habanera, Hank Williams, Johny Cash

Few would challenge the proposition that the soundscape (including music) heard in the background of a television commercial is vitally important in conveying the message and creating the kind of both emotional and behavioral responses an advertiser seeks. The same holds true on a much larger and economically significant basis for motion pictures. A playwright such as Simon Stephens does not enjoy the luxury of such technology. In contrast, his artistry is “re-created” each and every time it is performed. Critically, the detailed guidance for each production soundscape is recorded on paper only once—directly from the author. To the extent details and directions originally mandated by the playwright are later altered or omitted in reproduction or translation, the authenticity of the original soundscape cannot help but become blurred and weakened.

Inexplicably, the acute consideration necessary to craft the huge array of audible components contributing to some plays is underappreciated. More specifically, the extent and depth of the musical expertise necessary to articulate specific musical selections and performance directions appears to have been mostly ignored. The deletion of musical performance directions is, therefore, especially problematic. Reviewers with little or no musical training themselves naturally cannot appreciate the importance or subtlety of musical references in written form. Since drama has often been studied and dealt with within literature, this has often been the case. Furthermore, to the extent that the musicality of a playwright is completely unknown to later researchers, by removing musical references, an important and vital aspect of later interpretation is lost. If music was an important (if unknown or underappreciated) part of a playwright’s life, to which they have devoted years of effort and study, does it seem reasonable that musical references in their works should be assumed to be casual or unimportant? The importance of music in many plays becomes patent, even blatant, when considered in this light.

Simon Stephens and The Country Teasers live and intimate at the Buffalo Bar, London, 12th Feb 2005. Photo: “Gin Palace, Youtube”

Simon Stephens works mainly with The National Theatre in the U.K., and he is all about music. If, this statement seems a bit extreme, it is, however, one Stephens himself agrees with. In an article from The Guardian on April 21, 2014, Stephens identifies one song as the inspiration for each play, listing almost all of his plays. The focus in this article is to examine the manner in which music (songs, instrumental underscoring and sound cues) support, reflect and advance dramatic action in the plays by Simon Stephens,[1] with Carmen Disruption as a prime example.

There is very little written on Simon Stephens’ plays and music. There are several interviews and blogs dealing with the matter, but Christopher Innes has conducted the only major scholarship in the area that digs deeper. In most of his articles, Dr. Innes—not a musical scholar—tended to focus on the textual elements as opposed to the musical ones, and only in one instance (Country Music) did he look briefly at the musical structure (445–65). Most analyses of Simon Stephens’ plays, to date, focus almost exclusively on the dialogue. I propose that, with very few exceptions, theorists and critics have mostly ignored the inclusion of music, sound effects, and the significance these aural elements offer the audience in terms of their reception of each particular play.

Out of Stephens’ more than 30 plays, Carmen Disruption was chosen because it shows a good representation of his general use of music. The aural elements function as signaling devices denoting intertextual allusion, themes, structure and characterization. What I hope to have contributed with this article is a further layer of understanding as to this playwright’s musical skills, in addition to their already-acknowledged talent as a writer of complex and entertaining dialogues.

Music serves as an essential device to enhance character definition. The importance of looking at authors, function, intended effects, production, context, message and transmission modes must be stressed, as well as how to code/decode music, and how musical meanings are generated through effective stimulation or through semiotics. In dramatic musical productions, such as opera and theatre, the importance of the author’s message[2] is even more critical. My argument maintains that text and music cannot be separated without causing serious damage to the author’s creative vision, and that the total structure of a play exists as an expression of artistic unity similar to Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Here, a distinction must be made between musical theatre and text-based theatre that is the focus of this article; music as support for plays rather than as a form in and of itself.

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd is used by Simon Stephens in his play Pornography

There is a real thread in the way Simon Stephens uses music as reference, underscoring, and as a tool for framing the story. In a number of his plays, the musical soundscapes have been developed during the production process, as in the case with Pornography and the song “Wish You Were Here”by Pink Floyd, where Stephens describes the connection as follows:

This was the director Sebastian Niibling’s idea and although Floyd at Live 8 get mentioned in the play, the overriding image of his production was Christophe Franken singing this song, lubed up in body oil. It defines German theatre and Niibling’s take on my play for me. There’s always music and music is always present in his work. We make each other mix-tapes all the time.

Simon Stephens and The Country Teasers, 1994. From left to right: Simon Stephens, Ben Wallers, Eck King and Alan Crichton.” Photo: Tom Worthington at misterworthington/Flickr

The first thing Simon Stephens ever wrote, at the age of 10, was a song called “The Fool”—a post-Beatles pastiche. His first play, written at the age of 17, was a monologue based on the Tom Waits song “Frank’s Wild Years.” In the song, a disaffected husband sets fire to his home and his wife. Stephens started a band called Country Teasers, influenced by New York rock musicians like Alex Chilton and Jonathan Richman, who founded an influential proto-punk garage rock band called The Modern Lovers in 1970. Ever since then, music has been central to all of Stephens’ plays, as well as informing the titles of Country Music and Punk Rock. It is not only the music that is heard on stage, but a subtextual sonority that runs through his way of writing, which this article hopes to illustrate. Stephens is himself very aware of this musical connection, and states, “For 30 years, I’ve had a hunger to find the music that finishes the need for more music, [he says]. I keep thinking I’m going to find that one record that’ll allow me to stop buying records. It’s the same with plays—that one day I’ll write one and think, ‘Yeah, that’s it. I don’t need to write any more’” (Interview). Simon Stephens acknowledges his use of reoccurring themes. In the introduction to Plays 1, he writes, “I was heartened and dismayed at one and the same time to find that these plays [Bluebird, Christmas, Herons, Port] reinvestigate the same themes again and again” (xi). He also states that “I always wanted to be a songwriter. I wanted to write lyrics like Elvis Castello or Tom Waits or Mark Eitzel. My biggest disappointment was that I only ever really sang like a drain” (vii).

One great example of his longing to be a songwriter is his play Country Music from 2004 that, according to Stephens, is based on “Cold Cold Heart” by Hank Williams. The play also draws on Stephens’ experiences at Grendon and Wandsworth Prisons, the two category B men’s prisons where Stephens set up playwriting workshops. He taught workshops on dramatic action, stagecraft, dialogue, character, location and structure—then brought in actors and a director from the Royal Court, to stage extracts from the plays the prisoners had written. Stephens compares country music to “prisoners music”: “It’s traditionally white man’s blues. And if you hear the songs of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams . . .  their songs are about working people’s lives and often about violence . . . I mean the amount of songs Johnny Cash wrote about killing people and going to prison for it—the play and those songs operate absolutely in the same territory” (qtd. in Middeke 450).

In Country Music,the main protagonist, Jamie, kills a man and goes to prison for it. The Hank Williams song has a four-verse structure repeating the final line at the end of each verse: the “theme” line Cold, Cold, Heart. Stephens adopts this structure in his play, with his four scenes and the fourth scene working as a flashback, just as the fourth verse of Hank Williams “Cold, Cold, Heart” reflects backwards. As with country music, the language and scenes are fairly simplistic, and the story ends with the repetition of the “theme.”  In the interview from The Guardian, Stephens says:

I knew it was going to be called Country Music pretty soon after I stepped into the prison because country music is so charged with prison iconography and vice versa. The way in which country music interrogates crime, regret and the sense of an absent future: Johnny Cash and Hank Williams’s songs are full of those men that I then recognized in the prisons I worked in.

Although Country Music does not feature any music in the script, according to Innes, the structure of the storytelling is similar to the structure of a country song. This can be seen in the way Stephens enhances the narrative structure of his play by actually using a musical structure, storytelling elements from country music, and in the way the four-verse structure is repeated in the four scenes.

Video 1
Excerpt from Carmen Disruption, which opened in Hamburg at the Deutches Schauspielhaus in 2014. Promotional trailer

In Carmen Disruption, which opened at the Deutches Schauspielhaus, in Hamburg, in 2014, he twists Bizet’s opera Carmen into a fragmented text about urban breakdown and globalization. This is not Stephens’ first encounter with Bizet’s Carmen. The most well-known aria from Carmen “Habanera” is featured in his play Wastwater. It is sung twice and there are several references to it as well. Carmen Disruption is inspired by mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, who has made a career out of performing Carmen, and she did indeed act/sing the main character when the play premiered. Stephens has taken Bizet’s characters and reimagined them in a modern urban European city. Stephens manages to incorporate all the elements of Carmen—the great love, wild jealousy, loneliness, despair, crime and punishment. The music is also there, reworked and reimagined, as Stewart Pringle describes in his review

As in Birdland there is the feeling that Stephens writes the Pharaohnically rich and the absolutely confident better than the everyday and fragile poor. Escamillo and Carmen storm through the piece like super-heated astral bodies, Michaëla and Don José almost get lost in the noise. And there’s plenty of noise to get lost in. Stephens supplements Bizet’s score with snatches of Daft Punk, Kraftwerk and Sonic Youth. These reforged characters carry their own musical universes around with them, their own motifs. Musical director Simon Slater weaves these diverse sources together into a beautifully textured whole.

In the U.K. premiere, the production at the Almeida Theatre, in London, in 2015, the play was underscored by composer Simon Slater, and each of the chorus pieces were sung.[3] Sebastian Nübling, the director who collaborated with Stephens on creating Carmen Disruption writes about him:

In Simon’s plays language is rhythm. His language is rhythm because it is constructed like music. His language has a musical flow and the meaning lies often not in the direct meaning of what the words literally mean but in the musical structure. Though Simon often mentions songs from popular culture as a field of reference, the musical form of his language is not there to entertain. . . .  In Simon’s plays, language is sound . . . he loves to follow musical lines, and he transforms text into sound. (ix–x)

The story of Carmen Disruption is built around a well-established opera singer in the play, named The Singer, who spends her time reflecting on the experience of playing Carmen repeatedly across a globalized world, while she wanders the streets. The disruption of the singer’s emotions forms the frame of the piece. She is outside the action of the play, and her arias serve as a structure for the action, together with an image of the “opera house” at the beginning and end of the play. Her thoughts are circling around the usual diva stuff: fear of failure, search for meaning and stressful career. She haunts the other characters—they are all part of her imagination, projected by her fantasy. By creating the framework for the story, the music goes into an active dialogue with the text, therefore helping the audience to distinguish between reality and fiction.

Video 2
Promo for the theatre production Carmen Disruption by Almeida Theatre

Stephens’ Carmen is a vain, extroverted rent-a-boy, detached from the material world and living the wild life with gin and tonics and fancy new dresses. Don Jose is a female cabdriver on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while desperately struggling through a midlife crisis and paying off criminal debt. Escamillo is portrayed as a global trader/investment banker, and Micaela as a fidgety, annoying student, who is handing in an essay on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to the professor she has had an affair with. Lastly, there is the Chorus. The Chorus is not defined as to vocal parts or even male versus female; it is left completely up to the director. A psychedelic fragmented Carmen Jones, or as Simon Stephens describes the process:

Composer Simon Slater took Bizet’s score and resculpted it around my text, capturing the familiarity and oddity of the piece in a contemporary context. In language which is more poetic than I have written before, informed by the rhythms of Bizet’s music, I tried to tell the story of a singer who could no longer tell whether she was Carmen or whether she was herself. (“How Biget’s Carmen”)

Stephens says about the writing process that he was

listening on my iPod I found myself staring at the people on the seats across the train from me. The music refracted their personas. The builder on his way to a site in his steel-capped boots and hi-vis vest was given the despair and neediness of Don José; the secretary down the carriage carried the fragility of Micaëla. And there was Carmen everywhere. The familiar haunting refrain of the Habanera sat under every commuter that morning. And all of them were looking at their iPhones. All of them were seeking sanctuary in the dehumanized virtual world, as Rinat does when she’s playing her Carmen. (“How Biget’s Carmen”)

It is a fragmented retelling of Bizet’s story, where the music partly has been translated into a series of failed relationships and solitude. The stream-of-consciousness telling of the story seems to be part of The Singer’s imagination. Neither Carmen Disruption nor Song from Far Away have any stage directions, unlike most of Stephens’ other plays.[4]

Carmen Disruption begins and ends with The Singer. At the beginning, she describes the surroundings:

A rank of taxis waits outside the opera house. Three women leave the offices in the beautiful old building across the square from where I’m standing. They’re smokingcigarettes and they link their arms together and they’re singing. I can’t hear the song that they’re singing. Two policemen stand on the corner of the square and watch the women. They try to say goodnight to them but the girls just start giggling. The policemen don’t mind. They’re used to this kind of thing.

These exact lines are repeated at the end of the play, just before the epilogue; they frame the play.

The Chorus works as a contemporary Greek chorus, commenting on the action but in a surreal, psychedelic, non-invested way. Like everyone else in this play they observe, but they do not interact. It is a world of fragmented souls, all tied up on their iPhones, Facebook and Twitter, but the Chorus comments all appear at critical points of the play. The play is a series of monologues. The lack of dialogue underlines the sense of everyone being isolated and living in their own bubble. Although they are all in the same space, they never interact with each other; they never acknowledge the other characters’ presence on stage.

The first appearance of the Chorus is right after the Singers introduction, and all their comments are action-related. This is followed by a long speech by Micaëla, interspersed with a musical interlude from “Expressway to Yr skull” by Sonic Youth. In Stephens’ version, however, the line “Three way plane” has been changed to “To Your Brain.” This, as with the lack of dialogue, points to how everything in this play seems to be taking place inside the individual minds of the characters. Further into the play, Stephens introduced a fragment from the very end of Daft Punk’s “Touch Sweet Touch,” except that his lines are

Sweet Touch.
You almost convinced me I’m real

instead of the longer

Touch, sweet touch
You’ve given me too much to feel
Sweet touch
You’ve almost convinced me I’m real

and leaving out the very last line “I need something more” (Plays 4 281)

This is followed by Carmen punishing his customer for coming inside him and being physically violent. Then, another Chorus comment, which is all about seeing. In the Almeida Theatre production, this was set to a modern version of the “Habanera”aria, which is then repeated later in the play. Shortly thereafter, The Singer has a short monologue about wanting to be an actor, but liking the way it feels to sing: “I like the way it makes me feel, I like the way it makes my belly feel. I like how it feels in my neck,” which seems like a reference to the refrain from the House of Heroes’ song “Feel”:

I like the way it makes me feel
I’m free
I like the way it makes me feel
I like the way it makes me feel
I’m free
I’m free, yeah

Leading up to the center of the play, Stephens has the character Escamillo quoting the Kraftwerk song “Hall of Mirrors”:

Even the greatest stars
Discover themselves in the looking glass.

Plays 4 278

The Chorus then reappears with comments about hearing. Shortly thereafter Don Jose quotes a Roy Orbison song “It’s Over”:

Golden days before they end
Whisper secrets to the wind
Your baby won’t be near you any more
Tender nights before they fly
Send falling stars that seem to cry
Your baby doesn’t want you any more

And Carmen sings “Love is like a rebellious bird” (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”—“Habanera”) (Plays 4 281), the most famous aria from the opera Carmen. The Chorus then returns with comments about taste and, shortly thereafter, with comments about feeling.

The Singer decides to walk out, and the Chorus returns encouraging everyone to think. Escamillo then sings another aria from Carmen,“Seguidilla: Toreador, en garde!”At the end of the Epilogue, in the Chorus’ final appearance, they talk about imagination. The Chorus comments on three of the five human senses, leaving out smell and touch. They reflect on the characters, but their final line is: “Give us your hand. We’ll read your palm.” Since there are no stage directions, it is unclear to whom they are talking.[5]

A lot of Stephens’ writing in Carmen Disruption reads like song lyrics. The constant repetitions work like refrains, and so it seems like there is musical writing running as a sub-stream throughout the play. Each character has a contemporary song. Micaëla’s music is Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull,” Carmen’s is Daft Punk’s “Touched,” Don Jose has Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” The Singer has House of Heroes’ “Feel”and Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” is Escamillo’s song. This is all in addition to Carmen’s “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” and Escamillo’s “Toreador, en garde!” It is almost like they have been taken from an Ipod shuffle, and the Chorus takes on the function of a musical transcending moment leading the action forward.

Simon Stephens and The Country Teasers live and intimate at the Buffalo Bar, London, 12th Feb 2005. Collage. Photo: “Gin Palace, Youtube”

In the plays by Stephens, the music works as a true undercurrent. The music also helps him to define intended audience response. Text and music cannot be separated without changing the author’s artistic vision, since the total structure of a play exists as an expression of artistic unity similar to Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. This is where text and music exist in a symbiotic relationship, sometimes as leitmotifs, with the non-diegetic music supporting emotions to reflect the inner world of their characters. The use of musical leitmotifs or music as thematic material clearly contributes in driving forward the dramatic action. In other words, they are not simply illustrative references; they are announcing that special attention is needed. Simon Stephens has long been including music in his plays, exemplified from the early inspiration of song structure and themes in Franks Wild Years, to Country Music, on to the underscoring in Carmen Disruption, Punk Rock and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Stephens, actually, deliberately enhances the narrative structure of his plays by using musical structure along with storytelling elements.

As this article has illustrated, Stephens’ play, Carmen Disruption, revolves around music inspired by Bizet. Stephens is clearly fascinated by the combination of music and celebrity, and Carmen Disruption features a celebrity (The Singer) with strong musical connections. The idea of an underscoring emotive musical subtext is clear in Simon Stephens’ use of music as thoughts, and in this play, opera is used to create a distinction between two dimensions, reflecting on the action as a contrast to the underscoring of contemporary music and sounds.

In Carmen Disruption, the alignment of music and process structure is used to construct the meaning/framework, while, at the same time, enhancing the semiotic meaning. The music also serves as a subtext that highlights the characters’ mental states. The function of the songs in this play are to comment on and enhance our sense of the characters’ inner life; in other words, music is being used to construct emotive meaning as well as heighten the narrative structure. The music also works as a division between the scenes. In addition, Stephens uses the music in a symbolic fashion, and every song is carefully selected to emphasize the scenic action.

Stephens uses musical styles and genres to communicate complex social or attitudinal messages and to emphasize structure or process. Where images and words mainly deal with the objective, music in Stephens’ plays deals with responses—values, emotions and attitudes. Finally, it can be said that music functions as an important and often overlooked subtext that enhances the entire dramatic experience by supporting the situation, the narrative and influencing the dramaturgical structure, as well as the audience’s ultimate perception of character and emotion.


[1]In the section concerning the play Country Music, I make a statement about the structure of the play and the structure of a country song. That statement is supported by articles/interviews about singer-song writers as well as material concerning the song structure. It does, however, fall outside the focused study area of this article, so I have chosen not to document it further reserving it as an area of future research.

[2]Composer or the playwright.


[4]Song from Far Away is a 2015 monologue of letters that ends with a song.

[5]It is actually also unclear if the chorus is more than one person. 


Innes, Christopher. “Simon Stephens.” The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2011, pp. 445–65.

Middeke, Martin. editor.The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2011.

Pringle, Stewart. “Carmen Disruption.” exeunt magazine, 18 Apr. 2015.

Stephens, Simons. “How Bizet’s Carmen Became a Male Prostitute.” The Guardian, 13 Apr. 2014. 

—. Interview. The Guardian, 21 Apr. 2014.

—. Stephens Plays: 1: Bluebird; Christmas; Herons; Port. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2005.

—. Stephens Plays: 4: Three Kingdoms; The Trial of Ubu; Morning; Carmen Disruption. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.


*Brigitte Bogar, PhD, has worked as conference organizer for MAPACA, served on their board (2013–18), and lectured/performed/presented widely alone and with her late husband Christopher Innes at invited public lectures/concerts in U.S.A., U.K., Canada, Sweden and Denmark (including NEMLA Keynote 2015). Together they edited Carnival: Theory and Practice (2012) and Shaw Criticism: Music (2016). She was the guest editor of SHAW 39.1: Shaw and Music, and she is currently working on (her last book with Innes) Art and Myth: The Operas of R. Murray Schafer. In 2014, she recorded a CD featuring music by GBS. Her recent stage appearances include Senta in Der fliegende Holländer and Lenora in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Copyright © 2020 Brigitte Bogar
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