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.