Alistair McDowall’s X is unique in that it embodies two genres that are rarely seen in theatre: science fiction and horror. However, McDowall goes even further by venturing into a new genre of storytelling altogether known as metamodernism. What is metamodernism? In order to define it, we must first define modernism and postmodernism.
Modernism is “a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought to align with the experience and values of modern industrial life,” (Nicholson). Artists saw flaws in traditional governments, religion, and art and began making new art that applied their understanding of science and rationalism (Flight). As a genre, it is generally optimistic and it reflects the idea that the bad guy loses and the good guy wins. Its story structure doesn’t contain twists and it is quite sincere in its messaging.
Postmodernism offers a more world-weary perspective. It’s nihilistic, it questions modernist values, and it plays with the value of narrative itself; time becomes fragmented, the fourth wall is broken, and stories are quite self-aware. The sincerity of modernism is replaced by irony, surrealism, and self-reflexivity. The weakness of postmodernism lies in its cynicism, which is difficult to sustain. “You can only subvert expectations so many times before the expectation becomes that your expectations will be subverted” (Flight).
As postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, so is metamodernism a reaction to postmodernism. The final genre is self-referential and it leans into nihilistic deconstruction still, but takes deconstruction a step in a new direction, asserting that genre can merely be another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. Metamodernism harnesses the optimism and sincerity of modernism while at the same time holding onto nihilism and irony – oscillating wildly between the two.
Arguably, the most important point that metamodernism makes is that the world is now so complex, and we are aware of that complexity like never before because of the interconnectedness technology allows, that it becomes overwhelming. The complexity threatens our very sense of self. The genre’s self-awareness draws attention to the limitations of the medium of storytelling, and emphasizes personal interiority and felt experience.
We can see how Alistair McDowall asserts his metamodernist style with a quote from an interview: “My favourite [sic] filmmaker of recent years is Shane Carruth; he made Primer and Upstream Color, which have no interest in whether you’re ‘following’ them – what’s interesting is that they’re telling stories through different means, through an unconscious heartbeat. That’s my deal, really: trying to find new ways of wrestling with basic story mechanics. To do that in a room full of people is really exciting” (Williams).
Flight, Thomas. “Why Do Movies Feel So Different Now?” Youtube, 23 May 2023, https://youtu.be/5xEi8qg266g
Williams, Holly. “Alistair McDowall: the pioneering young playwright on setting a play on Pluto and sympathising with his critics.” Independent, Independent Digital News & Media Ltd, 20 March 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/alistair-mcdowall-the-future-of-british-theatre-on-setting-a-play-on-pluto-and-sympathising-with-his-critics-a6939136.html