Staging the tragic consciousness

In anticipation of Howard Barker’s Theatre: Wrestling with Catastrophe, a new collection of essays coming next month from Methuen, and the fourth edition of Barker’s own Arguments for a Theatre coming this fall, I repost the below review of his memoir A Style and Its Origins, which I wrote in 2007. (I realize I’ve not been posting much new material in the past few weeks and apologize for yet another treasure from the attic; I’m working on the final rewrite of Snow’s Day now and will resume more contemporary musings soon.)

Howard Barker/Eduardo Houth, A Style and Its Origins. 119 pages. London: Oberon Books, 2007.

Book cover: "A style and its origins" by Howard BarkerThe world has a post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima theater, testifying to the urgency of the creation of contemporary tragedy, in the event a theatergoer wants it: there are the late plays of Samuel Beckett; Richard Foreman‘s rather more comic extravaganzas; and there is Howard Barker. The three share a most well-deserved status as complete men of the theater, poets, designers, and directors alike. But it is perhaps Barker who is most in conscious, unforgiving opposition to the theater of his time. In his plays, his polemics, his poems, his public pronouncements, and now in the slim volume of memoirs A Style and Its Origins Barker creates and theorizes upon a theater that has room for the brutal realities of Western geopolitics, understanding (like Foreman, perhaps like Beckett) that the true ability of tragedy is to create an anti-history that valorizes the individual consciousness: that in profoundest sexual ecstasy is a form of individual redemption from the guilt and shame every member of the culture industry feels – and we are all members of that industry now – for being part of the race that perpetrated, within living memory, such grotesque horrors upon itself.

A Style and Its Origins, as pseudo-autobiography (Houth, the putative narrator of the volume, is one of Barker’s many alter-egos) and history of Barker’s own company The Wrestling School, provides an exemplary introduction to Barker’s enormous body of work: over 40 plays, six volumes of poetry, two books of essays; indeed, in its historical and aesthetic breadth and imagination enough to rival the Bard (as Sarah Kane recognised when she called Barker “the Shakespeare of our age”). But what one brings back from a reading of these memoirs is a deep, profound sense of the poet’s necessary isolation, an isolation both voluntary and imposed by the entertainment industry and the contemporary social-realist theater.

The book is also a history of the experience and ideas that led to the “Theater of Catastrophe,” as Barker describes it, “a tragic form that dismissed morality from the stage, substituting for it a visceral, instinctive emotional energy.” Barker traces the beginnings of this theater to his own battle-scarred, urban childhood in the wake of the Second World War (Barker was born in 1946, immediately after the camps were liberated and the bombs dropped on Japan); as he watched his parents negotiate and fail to come to terms with postwar Europe – his father as a working-class Communist, his mother a housewife; he loved them both, and was loved – he began to see through the ameliorative lies of the liberal humanism that was the driving ideology of European reconstruction. “Barker’s father lived the demise of the socialist idea and it injured him, just as his mother suffered the decay of public loyalty to the uncomplicated patriotism that had made soldiers and sailors of her family,” Barker/Houth writes. The schism that the realities of the war introduced into the lives of individual men and women positioned them face-to-face with the guilt they shared in its barbarity (a barbarity, and a guilt, that both Adorno and Celan recognised as well).

When Barker entered the theater, it was as a satiric social realist, and indeed his first major play, Claw, rehearsed the story of his parents and his own growing sense of the self-realising individual as a transgressor. But laughter did not liberate, either himself or his audience, from the monstrous solitude of the self: instead, Barker embraced that solitude, sensing that in this lay some form of imaginative redemption. The traditional British theater practice of the mid-twentieth century, even its more radical and progressive offshoots, participated in the totalizing force of the culture industry, an industry designed to eradicate memory, complex historical consciousness and therefore responsibility, at the same time massaging the egos of its artists as it pandered to its audiences; in this not only the National Theater but also smaller companies like the Royal Court and the Joint Stock Company were complicit:

Barker knew how deeply implicated all men were in their own oppression … he also sensed the poverty of radical theater, its preposterous claims to educate and the subsequent grotesque simplifications; he thought the theater was not brave because it feared what might be expressed if the character was truly autonomous; and he watched this moral sclerosis afflict the entire range of its activity … as society became less effectively educated, in invested more and more in educational initiatives so that the theater was drawn deeper into rackets of social amelioration … funding … posts … careers … Barker often spoke of the Soviet system having found its new home here …

[Barker] had no desire to educate because he thought the stage a sacred place, too complex in its workings for such mundane projects … the ambitions of the English Stage Company and its priggish child, the Joint Stock theater group, seemed to him patronising, condescending, patrician in effect … a schoolroom of moralists … (Pp. 85-86; ellipses in original)

In contrast to this, Barker disdains a single meaning and insists on a multiplicity of perspective: anxiety as an avenue to new spectra of understandings.

So much for the origins; what of the style? It is a style which begins in the centering, once again, of the spoken word in theatrical experience, that element of this particular performing art which renders it unique from the others; while movement (central to dance) and non-verbal sound (central to music) are ancillary to this style, it is the spoken word as written by a poet for speaking by an actor which is central to Barker’s tragedy. In discussing actors, Barker/Houth writes, “They responded to his text because they needed to speak, and to speak to the speech’s limits. Because of this profound need in the soul of the actor, Barker loved them …” In essence, he proclaims Artaud dead, long live Artaud: it’s not the tortured body but the tortured word, and more accurately their simultaneous experience, that forms the essence of Barker’s concept of tragedy. Barker’s project is the same in the theater as Paul Celan’s was on the page (Celan is one of Barker’s favorite poets, along with Apollinaire and Rilke): a recognition of a language which participates in the failed enlightenment project of amelioration; language is the locus of tragedy itself. So it must be splintered, turned against itself, stripped and broken down and reassembled, in this reconstruction revealing a multiplicity of meanings, including, perhaps, a meaning which might provide ecstasy.

In his greatest plays to date (Gertrude – The Cry and Dead Hands), this is specifically a sexual ecstasy as well: language as vehicle for sexual joy, a joy only found in passionate transgression against the taboos of the totalizing puritanical culture industry. Barker is aware of the transience, of the momentary nature of the joined orgasm, but it is not its permanence which is meaningful, but its possibility. “Even the most passionate sexual encounters were threatened by the inexorable facts of coercion and decay,” Barker offers. “In his private existence and in his texts he nevertheless affirmed ecstasy as the only riposte to life’s laws, but ecstasy with another, a defiant duality … a perfection of the ‘we’ outside the hounding conformity of the collective” – a collective, a massmind, a hivemind, responsible for the race’s own urge to barbaric self-destruction, laughing and denying their responsibility for that destruction all the way.

Content and style are one: the essentials of human experience are mirrored, in Barker’s theater, by essentials of sensual experience: grays, not colors; cold steel in productions like his play for a solo female performer, Und. Barker also saves a more expansive style for his costumes, with a nod to 1940s couture, and the high heels which are so prominently a metaphor for sexual being in these plays.

Theodor Adorno is Barker’s favorite philosopher; A Style and Its Origins opens with a quote from Notes to Literature: “Art is a form of knowledge: it expresses through its autonomy what is concealed by the empirical form of reality … Only those thoughts are true which fail to understand themselves.” This is, however, preceded by a poem from Barker’s play The Forty: “I do these things / Oh how I persist I am at least persistent / And I ask / Does anybody want them? / The answer comes back / Nobody at all / So I go on.” One must hear the echo of Beckett’s last sentence of The Unnamable in that last line; and, like Beckett’s effort, Barker’s is essential. A theater after Auschwitz and Hiroshima not only needs tragedy; tragedy is the only form which can possibly contain them:

Only a tragic sensibility could discover in loss and the thwarting of dreams a melancholy beauty that kept Barker from despair and at the same time enabled him to claim for the most terrible of his tragedies that they were spiritually necessary – his whole justification for his theater … for him theater could never be ambitious enough in the complexity of its themes, its excesses never too great to satisfy the human longing for some sign that pain was not disorder but necessity …


Barker’s wholesale rejection of social realism includes a rejection, too, of lyrical realism as practiced by Chekhov; indeed, Barker assassinates the Chekhovian theater in his (Uncle) Vanya, which seeks to reject a puerile resignation exemplified in the loss of dreams to an embrace of pointless “work.” Our theater, as well as its ideological assumptions, remains dedicated to that false humanism which denies possibility. But one can’t blame poor Chekhov, perhaps, who did not live to see the Russian Revolution or the two defining experiences of the twentieth century, the camp and the bomb.

As Adorno pointed out, mankind’s cruelty to itself did not begin with the 1940s, but as he also pointed out, it is the failure of humanist thought to recognize that the 1940s brought this cruelty to a bright, blunt, technocratic and technological edge. And these continue, of course, finding expression in the kinds of psychological warfare and physiological torture practiced and suffered by Pinter’s characters, also so contemporary, also indebted to technocratic psychiatrists. Here in the United States, we are particularly immune to such realisations, Abu Ghraib to the contrary: indeed, who remembers it now? We continue to participate in the mass forgetting to which the culture industry encourages us: this week, CIA black prisons are on the front page; in a few days from now, it will be Harry Potter. As if all were equal; and all equally transient.

Barker’s brave insistence – that one must turn away from this in order to pursue a truly significant tragedy that can have for our communities the same profound recognition of the human spirit that Jacobean tragedy had for the 1600s or Greek tragedy had for the classical age – is extraordinarily courageous; it moves him and his theater to the margins, where, perhaps, he is destined to practice his art. But Barker’s never cared for large audiences. One of the key elements, one of the key words of A Style and Its Origins, as indeed in his theater itself, is “faith”: a faith that the work is necessary, a faith seated in the bodily sublime product of its experience.

It is hard to keep that faith in the evidence of the poet’s exile from his community, from his self: a time in the Nietzschean wilderness. But there are signs that the effort isn’t, after all, for naught (though one can be satisfied with that); if critic Charles Lamb finds a performative basis for Barker’s theater in Baudrillard’s theory of sexual seduction, a philosophical basis might be found in Bataille’s theory of sexual transgression and death, Bataille a thinker whose sympathy to those who also accept Adorno’s conclusions is growing. Some recent academic work is reaching back to Kant and Schopenhauer, bypassing Hegel’s Absolute, in search of a hidden basis and tradition for Adorno’s and Bataille’s thought. And this work is finding that basis and tradition there.

In A Style and Its Origins, Barker – a surprisingly generous man not without the means of self-effacement, at least as he presents himself in this book; the rumors as to his lifestyle (that he lives in a modest house; that he is afraid of flying; that he can be the essence of British cultivated politeness when need be) seem justifiable based on this memoir – gives credit to many supporters of his work, including well-deserved thanks to critics like Lamb, David Ian Rabey and Karoline Gritzner. Indeed, Barker may be best known here through these critics and the academic books devoted to his work. When his plays are produced in the U.S., they tend to be those of his early period like No End of Blame and Scenes from an Execution (both of these now more than two decades old), rather than his more radical later work. We can hope that the publication stateside of A Style and Its Origins in September will encourage theater artists to take up his more recent plays. In this way actors may find themselves free to reach the outer limits of their abilities again, and poets encouraged (as I am) by Barker’s own fearless exploitation of his own catastrophically ambivalent but potentially liberating language and humanity.