Review of ARGUMENTS FOR A THEATRE – Howard Barker

1993 (2nd ed.), Manchester University Press, 183 pages

Book and Author Blurb

Howard Barker’s reputation as a major European dramatist has been forged over 20 years’ work both in major state theatres like the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in the independent theatres, particularly through The Wrestling School, an innovative company dedicated to the performance of his work. Always controversial Barker’s drama makes demands on its audience as a first principle; it is characteristically tragic, poetic, emotional, and by the imaginative power of its situations and the metaphor and poetry of its form, draws theatre beyond its conventional range. Over a period of years Barker has moved towards defining his aims and methods, beginning with the how celebrated manifest Fortynine asides in 1985. His strategy is to change the habitual relations between stage and audience, to encourage a different way of experiencing theatre, and to liberate its particular strengths from ideological restrictions which have aggregated over years of Stanislavskian and Brechtian practice.

In this collection of essays, lectures, aphorisms, Barker elaborates his concept of a Theatre of Catastrophe, a form of tragedy without reconciliation, and locates his expectations in the experience of theatre rather than its moral content. Also here are short, searching pieces on individual performances by actors, notes, on productions drawings and poems which are oblique but illuminating reflections on a changing theory.

Howard Barker’s best-known plays are Scenes from an Execution, The Castle, The Possibilities, The Bite of the Night, and The Europeans.

Argument for a Theatre

What is tragedy? To Barker, modern tragedy is a “Theatre of Catastrophe.” The theatre of catastrophe is Barker’s term for his brand of tragedy. Conventional tragedy could have a message, whether as a mouthpiece of a national morality or as the tragedian’s personal pulpit. Tragedies put on by overfunded state theatres, writes Barker, serve to reinforce the national conscience. Tragedies put on by ideologues, writes Barker, serve as tragedians as personal pulpits. Both degrade drama’s purpose which is that it does not have a purpose. Barker’s tragedies will have none of this nonsense.

Tragedy, to Barker, is a conduit for the beauty of language. It is amoral. It rejects politics, conscience, and the populist culture. Pure tragedy must do away with the authority of the author-playwright. Works such as Roland Barthes’ 1977 essay “The Death of the Author” and Adrian Page’s 1992 volume The Death of the Playwright loom over Barker’s thinking. In the theatre of catastrophe the audience too is a playwright and, in narrative authority, equal to the playwright and actor. If anyone has authority in the theatre of catastrophe, it is the actor who is elevated to an exalted status by the beauty of language and suffering.

If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “I learned something,” then Barker has failed. If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “I agree, the meaning was clear,” then Barker has failed. If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “That was a great solution,” then Barker has failed. These objectives are for rival theatres. These objectives smack of the critical theory of Brecht and Shaw, humanist theatre, or the political theatre that was popular in the decades leading up to the 1980s. Barker wants audiences leaving his theatre to leave feeling uncertain. “After the tragedy,” he writes, “you are not certain who you are.” I think what Barker really wants—but stops short of saying—is for an audience to see one of his shows and rise up and riot, tear up the furniture, and exit in disgust. Sort of like the public’s reaction to Brecht’s 1929 play The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent. I wonder if Barker has ever achieved this? I think the trick to this is that you have to get people into your theatre who do not like you, and this is somewhat hard to do, as most of the public coming to your shows are fans, and since they’re expecting grotesque violence and terrible things happening with bodily fluids, they won’t mind. Here’s an example of Barker’s language (from the prologue to The Bite of the Night) :

Clarity

Meaning

Logic

And Consistency

None of it

None

I’ll take you

I’ll hold your throat

I will

And vomit I will tolerate

Over my shirt

Over my writs

Your bile

Your juices

I’ll be your guide

And whistler in the dark

Cougher over filthy words

And all known sentiments recycles for this house.

Barker is a bit of a walking contradiction. For a writer so focused on ambiguity in his playwriting, his lecture prose is lucid and to point. He writes in a direct blunt aphoristic style. It has moments of profound beauty as well, such as this passage: “The status of comedians has never been higher. In my latest play, The Last Supper, laughter has become so artificial, so mechanical, that it has ceased to be attached to human beings at all, and drifts over the landscape like a storm cloud, discharging itself over battlefields and banquets alike.” His aphoristic style is perfect in the Twitter age. For a writer who writes such long plays, three, four, or even five hours long, his book on the theory of drama is delightfully short, 183 pages in total. For a writer so set against political plays, he sure writes a lot about politics and its wants. For a writer so set against conventional morality, he sure writes a lot about conventional moralities and their discontents. When I was young, I listened to heavy metal music. This style of music railed against religion. It railed against the outdated church. When I was young—and perhaps still today—I listened to this heavy metal music. Now, however, when I think back on the singers and the bands, I think: “If you have truly surpassed and grown beyond religion, you guys sure use up a lot of lyrics talking about angels and demons, scaling the golden wall of heaven, and doing battle with the priests. If truly you had risen above, perhaps you would not sing so much of the old ways.” Barker sort of reminds me of this contradiction in heavy metal music. It’s sort of like Marx’ controversy: for someone who despises capital so much, he sure spends a lot of time and energy focused on it.

While tragedy for Barker has no meaning, it has a feeling. It is a theatre of pain, of insoluble complications. Tragedy is for “cultures secure enough to tolerate the performance against collective wisdom.” Here is an echo of Nietzsche—another great stylist—who also believed that tragedy was for the strong, for those who had not only the strength of conviction, but the excess in strength that delighted in challenging and overthrowing their own convictions. By dramatizing unpredictable patterns of behaviour, Barker generates moral uncertainty. Barker dramatizes, for example, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in his play On the Divine. In Barker’s play, just as in the Bible, a ram is caught by its horns, and Isaac is spared. But in Barker’s play, instead of sacrificing Isaac out of pure faith, Abraham uses philosophy to justify the sacrifice of his son. For using philosophy he is rebuked by the God character, played by Benz, who in turn, after chastising Abraham, is killed by Isaac. The God character dies.

The death of the God character is deliberate, and one senses when Barker comments on the scene: “There is, perhaps, nothing sacrilegious in the liberal climate of contemporary Christianity” that, if he could have, he would have even went further than having Isaac kill God. Unlike Aristotle, who wanted pity and fear, Barker wants anxiety: his theatre of catastrophe is a theatre for an age of anxiety, a theatre where the capacity of the actor to waylay audience expectations and to convey the pain of irreconcilable alienation reigns supreme. Barker does not want audiences to be entertained, but to be wrung out like rag dolls.

I wonder what sort of audience comes to the theatre of catastrophe? Are there limits to how popular the theatre of catastrophe could be? I could see the theatre of catastrophe being popular with the cognoscenti who say: “Not another revenge tragedy, I want something to tickle my senses.” But how many cognoscenti are there? Even in this “liberal climate of contemporary Christianity,” how many theatregoers, believers or nonbelievers, would go to see God die on stage? Barker is on his way to entering the canon. But will he? Many plays that enter the canon also have an element of popular appeal, something that Barker seems allergic to. Time will tell.

Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe Model of Tragedy

-poetry and metaphor

-speculation on behaviour

-psychological unreliability

-complex syntax

-long speeches

-the eruption of alternative discourses within the speech

-moment

-the gaol

-the spoiled landscape

-the cemetery

-pain at the insubstantiality of values

-melancholy

-non-therapeutic

-non-enlightened

-constant digression

-accumulation of feelings

-complication

-irresolution

-disintegration

-impossibility

-requires external funding

Wong’s Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

-beauty desired, but not required

-speculation on the worth of human values

-the psychology of ramblers and gamblers

-accessible language and ideas

-stichomythia

-the eruption of gambling images and metaphors within the speech

-objectives

-the casino

-the no-limit tables

-the dead man’s hand

-overcoming the smallness of existence by the greatness of daring

-anticipation and apprehension

-commiseration

-higher sensibility of the impact of the highly improbable

-straight line and goal

-repercussions of the gambling act

-unpredictability

-the best-laid plans of mice and men fall short

-low-probability, high-consequence events

-an outcome that while not impossible, defies all odds and expectations

-internally funded, has skin in the game

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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