If you have visited the cinema recently, you will be familiar with the scenario of Carnage, even if you have not actually seen the film; the promotional clips have been aired endlessly.
Based on a stage play by Yasmina Reza and directed by Roman Polanski, with co-stars Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, the film charts an encounter between two very middle-class New York couples in the claustrophobic flat of one of them.
What begins as an oh-so-civilised attempt to settle a minor skirmish between their 11-year-old sons escalates into a no-holds-barred confrontation in which every contemporary middle-class shibboleth is broken – from the basics, such as hospitality and civility, through international politics, all the way to marriage, divorce, adultery, child discipline, business ethics and (of course) money. Discretion and restraint, the virtues that supposedly describe the bourgeoisie at its most refined, are dumped unceremoniously out of the high-rise window.
There are aspects of this drama that do not travel. Much of the fuss about a child's minor injury – a couple of teeth and a gash in the face – reflects the litigious culture of the United States and its health insurance system. You can also challenge the premise: how credible is it that such an encounter, even between such clearly contrasting couples, would degenerate as it did, without the visitors making their excuses and leaving? But that is not the point. The point is the shallowness of the civilised veneer and the ferocity of the conflicts raging beneath.
The other, more salient point, however, is that Carnage is just one, albeit the latest and most extreme, example of a spate of works – films, books, television – that puts today's middle class and its mores under the microscope. The Slap, an Australian novel not a million miles away from Carnage in subject matter, became a sleeper hit in the UK last year – followed by a popular television adaptation. The author, Christos Tsiolkas, relates the far-reaching and gruesome consequences that follow when a father hits a child who has threatened his young son at a family barbecue. His tale exposes many of the same – usually hidden – conflicts in social attitudes that underlie Carnage, with the taboo-breaking addition of race.
Similar themes also featured in Joanna Hogg's latest film, Archipelago, depicting an excruciating family get-together at a rented house in the Scilly Islands. Her characters inhabit the same confined world, in which physical proximity masks unbridgeable psychological and social divides. And they share many of the same anxieties – about relationships, work and ethics, plus specific hang-ups arising from social class.
A couple of British television successes – the rise and rise of the comedian Miranda Hart and the sitcom series Outnumbered – take a typically gentler approach, but start from essentially the same ground: the treacherous shifting sands of social attitudes among educated, generally white families and friends at the start of the 21st century. All are small-scale domestic dramas; they are played out in homes – with kitchens, sitting rooms and bathrooms – that are immediately familiar to their audiences, as are the disputes so painfully not discussed.
For this is also the point: if you look around your fellow filmgoers at, say, Carnage, you may observe that collectively they resemble many of the same individuals, in appearance and manner, as those depicted on the screen. You may also observe, with a twinge of distaste verging on horror, how very like you they are, too. The tensions of daily life and family are played back to you, in embarrassing detail, exposing hypocrisy, selfishness and triviality in almost equal measure.
In Carnage, the hostess – co-author of a book on Ethiopian antiquities and desperately concerned about Darfur – flies off the handle when her visitor is sick all over her prized art books: out of print, perhaps a bit valuable, but at once high-brow and populist enough (Kokoschka) to strike a chord. She had invited the other parents over so that they could resolve the matter of the son's injury in a civilised, community, conciliatory sort of way. Her own response to something even less serious highlights her self-absorption, but also the economic ease and decent education that are its prerequisites.
Most of the middle-class hypocrisies exposed in these dramas relate to real shifts in public attitudes over, say, two generations – where actual practice and personal thinking have not always kept up. Sex, race, religion, the work ethic are all grist to the mill, but nowhere are the tensions greater and the stakes higher than in the vexed question of a child's upbringing. Hence the sensitivity of "the slap". And the trick is that, while most characters spout language that is progressive, inclusive and tolerant, even as they harbour views that are quite different, a few make a fetish of speaking their (politically incorrect) mind.
In one way, these works seem to hold up a mirror to a confused, transitional period that has left the middle class in many developed countries anxious and uncertain about its place. As pay structures have changed, scions of established families have seen those they grew up with becoming rich, while they themselves are left economically, but not culturally or aspirationally, on the wrong side of the tracks. At the same time, mass education, ease of travel, migration and the rest have combined to dilute the old bourgeoisie beyond recognition.
Any welcome for a new classlessness is hedged about with nostalgia for a certain level of cultivation and shared knowledge. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, even as a new middle class rises in some parts of the world – Russia, China, India, Latin America – the middle class in the old world is losing much of the specific character that made it what it was.
Which may be the real import of this orgy of introspection. Is it only as something passes into history that it starts to be immortalised, and criticised, in popular art? In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov observes, with satire and sympathy, the final act of Russia's nobility. As the curtain falls, the axe of the estate's jumped-up new owner is heard chopping down the precious trees that defined the estate. What looks today like critical social commentary, biting or indulgent depending on the author's fancy, may turn out tomorrow to have been its epitaph: variegated expressions of nostalgia for a class and a way of life that are already in their twilight.