Close Listening: Richard Foreman with Charles Bernstein

Richard Foreman, (almost) on the set of King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe. Photo: T. Ryder Smith.

Richard Foreman, (almost) on the set of King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe. Photo: T. Ryder Smith.

If Howard Barker represents a kind of “New Expressionism” rooted in the tragic tradition, Richard Foreman may represent that paradigm in the comic tradition. Both artists examine the crisis of subjectivity and the individual in the modern world, and both explore the crisis in an aesthetic, even baroque manner which shatters conceptions of narrative, character, and setting; both assume the centrality of the entire canvas of Western culture and experience; for both, sexuality and eroticism are important vehicles for the definition and construction of self and its relation to the world. But Foreman also emerges from an American tradition of popular culture and vaudeville that, as he describes in the interview below, he can’t entirely abandon.

WPS1.org presented “Close Reading,” an interview with Foreman conducted by Charles Bernstein, on May 10, 2006:

Foreman can be heard reading his notes on elitism discussed in this interview, written just before the production of Zomboid, here:

Departures from a Position

Howard Barker.

Howard Barker.

This past weekend I completed the first draft of a 5,000-word essay about American drama criticism after 1945 for a Bloomsbury Methuen book scheduled for publication next year and now find myself casting about for other projects. At the moment I’m leaning towards writing more about “New Expressionism,” a theatrical and dramatic paradigm first considered many years ago by my friends David Ian Rabey and Karoline Gritzner; it seems to provide an appropriate arena for some of the ideas I’d like to examine. I’m only thinking about it at the moment, but it has given me the impetus to look through some earlier material about Howard Barker, Richard Foreman, and Sarah Kane I’ve come across over the past ten years. I thought I might collect this material here.

BBC Radio 3 ran the below documentary about dramatist Howard Barker, Departures from a Position, on February 14, 1999. Presented by long-time Barker collaborator Ian McDiarmid, the show features Barker discussing his work for stage and radio, with excerpts from his plays and poetry and contributions from Juliet Stevenson and Wrestling School co-founder Kenny Ireland. It was produced by Michael Fox and is worth another listen.

Stanley Kauffmann on drama criticism: 1967 and 2014

Stanley Kauffmann.

Stanley Kauffmann.

[The] standard in criticism — as anyone can see in almost any newspaper anywhere — is not quality but readability. The writer who can supply bright readable copy, and supply it quickly, is an acceptable critic. If he (or, notably, she) is also acidulous and full of waspish wisecracks — occasionally alternated with the syrupy sentimentality that inevitably marks such a writer — then he is additionally valuable as being “outspoken.” Indeed “outspoken” has become the most prized adjective a critic can earn, in a publisher’s view. Whether the speaking-out is of any intrinsic merit whatsoever is a quite secondary consideration so long as the writer gets himself read and talked about.

Stanley Kauffmann, “Drama on the Times
New American Review #1
New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 36-37

Friday music: The Ballad of Mack the Knife

The Richard Foreman production of The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center back in 1976 boasted a score under the direction of Stanley Silverman that carefully restored Weill’s original arrangements and instrumentation; fortunately the original cast recording, released on Columbia the same year, is a sharp, bright memoir of that restoration. Below the “Ballad of Mac the Knife” is performed by Roy Brocksmith, Tony Azito, Robert Schlee, and Jack Eric Williams in the Ralph Manheim/John Willett translation.

From the archives: Howard Barker

Photo: Victoria Wicks.

Photo: Victoria Wicks.

From my series of posts “A New Theatre of Revolt,” first published in October 2011.


The career of the extraordinarily prolific Howard Barker (b. 1946), which began in 1970, traces a progression from the Royal Court tradition of politically savvy and satiric “state of the nation” plays to a darker meditation on the assumptions upon which both existence and politics rest. Barker has justified and reinvented the tragic form for the 21st century (though it must be said that he does not consider all of his plays “tragedies,” reserving the term only for specific works), and has drawn into this form a new eroticism that had been neglected, if not repudiated, by both Beckett and Brecht. If the “three Bs” of classical music — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — have gained honorifics as the outstanding figures of classical music, Brecht, Beckett, and Barker may be the three Bs of 20th century theatre.

The plays of the first decade of Barker’s career were mordant satires of neoliberalism; Barker foresaw to a great extent the rightward turn of Thatcherite England and Reaganite America, the seeds of which were laid in the suicidal compromises of socialist dreamers. Both socialism and capitalism played into the hands of ravenous powerbrokers; how much of this was a game of domination, submission, and ignorance only became clear in the next decade, when with plays like The Castle, The Europeans, and Victory he turned more to histories both imagined and documented to dig among the worms of the human spirit. At the same time Barker implicated both himself and his form in two plays about artists, No End of Blame and Scenes from an Execution, which explored the same kinds of compromise and efforts to maintain individual integrity and dignity. In all of these plays Barker suspected a darker erotics that provided the compulsions to both dominance and self-invention, and finally in 1988 he made a firm break with his earlier career upon the publication of Arguments for a Theatre and the formation of a theatre company devoted to his work, The Wrestling School. Its first production, The Last Supper, daringly parodied sacrifice and worship of a godhead, making a mockery of martyrs and acolytes both.

The plays that followed became both more vicious and more erotic; where his knife had been turned to politics, it was now turned more to the self, and the presentation of suffering — a central pillar of Barker’s conception of tragedy — invited the audience to locate both the potential for cruelty and the potential for passivity within their own individual consciences. In part, this required a reconception of the great masterpieces of dramatic literature that had preceded him, most importantly in (Uncle) Vanya, which undermined not Chekhov’s plays but their reception as calls to resignation in the eyes of 20th century critics and audiences (the distinction is quite important), and Gertrude — The Cry, perhaps his greatest play so far, in which the explosive loss of self in orgasm is provocatively suggested as a compulsion toward the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In all of these plays, Barker (like several of the other dramatists I’ve considered) puts the individual human body as fleshed, fragmented subject at the center of his project, in forms oscillating from neo-romanticism to neo-modernism; in this, and in his considerations of the master-servant relationship, Barker bears a surprising resemblance to one of Brustein’s revolutionary dramatists, August Strindberg, a study of which would probably reward students of both writers.

In recent years Barker’s work has become less and less classifiable. While he retains an incisive perspective upon the artist’s world (and he radically considers all individuals potential artists, at least of their own lives and selves), he has also devoted time to meditative speculations in both large- and small-scale forms; he is currently engaged on a project called “Plethora and Bare Sufficiency,” which is testing the limitations and possibilities of theatre and drama in both epic (BLOK/EKO) and chamber-theatre (Dead Hands, Slowly) contexts. Sarah Kane said, “In a few hundred years Howard will be like Shakespeare. No one will really understand what Howard Barker’s done until he’s been dead for a long time.” But he remains with us, for now, and at least a few recognize his contribution to this century’s theatre of revolt.


Howard Barker’s plays can be found in two uniform editions. A five-volume set from John Calder is available, but more recently his plays have been appearing in a new uniform edition from Oberon Books; eight volumes have been published so far, along with other single-title editions. The reader coming to his work for the first time is directed to the titles mentioned above for a sample. Barker’s two formal books of theory — Arguments for a Theatre and Death, The One and the Art of Theatre — and his peculiar memoir A Style and Its Origins are also essential.

“I screwed up. But I wasn’t wrong.”

Ben Bradlee.

Ben Bradlee.

For some of us, Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post who died today at the age of 93, will always be associated with the release of the Pentagon Papers and his assiduous but principled championing of young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated the Watergate story of the early 1970s. Eschewing the use of anonymous sources alone, Bradlee insisted that journalistic integrity inhered not in scantily sourced fictions, but in verifiable facts, with named individuals standing behind them. And if it weren’t for that, Nixon would never have been brought down.

Robert G. Kaiser’s obituary for the Washington Post can be found here. For some of us, in some small way, he represents integrity in the face of a facile mediocrity. And, again for some of us, Bradlee and his spirit were most memorably caught in Jason Robards’ performance as Bradlee in the 1976 film All the President’s Men. I was 14 when the film came out and followed the Watergate story as well as I could a few years earlier; if you were a young writer looking for a figure of elegant heroism and integrity — well, you could have done worse. A brief clip is below.