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You find yourself sitting in the Laura Pels Theatre to see the new play, You Will Get Sick. The lights go down and the play begins. Soon, you notice something unusual: a narrator on the stage is addressing YOU. As you follow Actor 1's journey in the play, the narrator describes what is happening to Parker as if HE were YOU. You may have learned about second-person narration in school, or possibly you’ve read a story written in this voice, but chances are, you’ve probably never experienced the second-person voice like this in the theatre. After seeing the play (or perhaps before), you may have become curious about the second person, and if you’re reading these words now, it means you clicked on this article and have some curiosity in knowing more. So, you read on.

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What is the Second Person?

Second-person narration breaks the invisible boundary between narrator and reader by directly addressing the reader with the pronoun “you.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, written around 400 A.D., was a spiritual memoir addressed to a “You” who Augustine perceived as God. In our own times, nonfiction formats such as recipes, instruction manuals, and self-help books are all addressed directly to us, although the “you” may be implied rather than stated: “Beat the eggs and sugar together” or “Find a quiet place and sit calmly.” Second person is often used in advertising (“Just Do It”) and in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

In fiction, second-person narration puts you into the action, describing what "you" do and portraying “your” own thoughts and impressions. Novelists use the second person voice much less frequently than first person (“I”) or third person (“she/he/they”), but when used well, it can provide a more interactive literary experience. Michel Butor's La Modification (1957) was one of the first noted modern novels written entirely in second person; the “you” here is a middle-aged man who voyages between Paris and Rome after leaving his (or your) wife.

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Variations of the YOU

Since the 1950s, postmodernism has raised the possibility of decentralizing the role of the narrator, engaging readers more actively, and revisioning the relationship between the addresser and addressee. Scholar Bruce McHale defines four variations of second-person used in fiction.

  • The “Specific Internal-You,” in which “you” refers to a specific character inside the story, participating in the action. The “You” here is usually a character with a specific age and gender identity, such as a male Yuppie drug-addict in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, or Essun, a female school teacher who becomes a protagonist in N.K. Jemisen’s The Broken Earth Trilogy. (Jemisen shifts in and out of second-person narration throughout the Hugo- Award-winning trilogy.) However, the best-selling Choose Your Own Adventure Series, created by Edward Packard and Raymond Montgomery, intentionally used a gender-neutral second person in order to include young readers of all genders.
  • The “Specific External-You,” who is outside of the story and not an active character. Many 19th century novelists used the “intrusive narrator,” who occasionally interrupts the story to comment directly to “YOU the reader,” without making you a character in the story. (Think Charlotte Bronte’s “Reader, I married him” in Jane Eyre.)
  • The “Disguised I-You” is actually a first-person narrator talking to themselves. (See Beckett’s That Time below).
  • The “Generalized-You,” who is not a specific single person; here the “you” could be used interchangeably with “one.”

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While playwrights have long used the device of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, they rarely achieve (or aim for) the impact of fiction written in the second person. Shakespeare’s characters frequently address the audience directly, usually confiding in or conspiring with the audience, but we still remain outside the action. The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Li’l Bit in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive are modern examples of characters who address the audience as “you”, acknowledging our presence in the theatre without making us active participants in the play. 

A late Samuel Beckett play, That Time (1975), is written entirely in second-person voice. The audience sees only a face floating on the stage and hears three voices (called A, B, and C in the script) who alternate a continuous stream-of-consciousness. The script contains no punctuation (“That time you that time you went back that last time to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child when was that grey day took the eleven to the end of the line…” etc.) Beckett uses McHale’s “Disguised You-I” variation: the “you” in this case represents the central character speaking to themself, and each voice represents this person at different times in their life.

In contemporary theatre, playwrights, directors, and ensembles have continued to explore how to put audience members in more participatory roles. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview breaks the fourth wall to implicate the audience. A character inside the play invites the non-Black audience members to literally come onto the stage, in order to shed light on the Black experience and raise awareness of the white gaze. Immersive shows like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More allow us to roam through the space and interact with the performers, sometimes in intimate, private moments. Third Rail Projects’ Grand Paradise (2016) actually cast its audience in the role of visitors to its 1970s magical resort setting, and also incorporated private interactions for select audience members.

With its direct address (and inclusion) of the audience, You Will Get Sick uses second person for a unique effect. Prior to beginning rehearsals, director Sam Pinkleton contemplated the collective impact of the second person voice in this play.

“I'm curious what it will feel like for the audience to be the “you” of the title. For you to not be one person, but for “you” to be 400 people every night, and for every “you” to be different. For the audience to be provoked, challenged, questioned, and to go through and experience actively what one of the actors on stage is going through.”

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Appel, Aarron. A Discussion of “That Time.” Univ. of Colorado. Web, N.D.

Beckett, Samuel. That Time, in The Collected Short Plays. Grove Press, 1984.

Bourne, Michael. “It’s 2014, Do You Know Where You Are? Bright Lights, Big City at 30.” The Millions, 30 Sept. 2014.

Capecci, John. “Performing the Second Person.” Text and Performance Quarterly 1 (1989), pp. 42-52.

Clos, Ryan. “The Fifth Season: By N. K. Jemisen.” Spectrum Culture, 19 March 2019.

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