Howard Barker


Howard Barker is a playwright, director and theorist, with an international reputation. His highly imaginative, intellectually exciting plays create a unique aesthetic: theatrically inventive, emotionally intense, poetic yet also cerebral. His output of more than a hundred plays includes the modern classics Scenes from an Execution; Gertrude; Judith. He had a four-play season at the Odeon, Paris, in Spring, 2009, a year which marked the 21st anniversary of The Wrestling School, an ensemble dedicated to the exploration and production of his work. Still he remains somewhat an outsider in the UK.

There is an element of spirituality in your work in its intensity, precision and use of ritual, reminiscent of Genet. Do you see theatre as a potentially spiritual space? Entirely. I see no other pretext for its existence. Such is the plethora of communication, both in entertainment and so-called information, it is wilful suicide for theatre to permit itself to be annexed to functional ends. I have a compulsion to stage theatre, just as actors suffer the same compulsion to utter and move. These rhythms in a fixed space immediately call up certain ritual processes. If, furthermore, your concerns are with death and how we arrive at it, you have to say yes, we make spiritual life our concern. That a public hardly exists for such theatre detracts not at all from the desire to create it. There is something of the secret in all spiritual processes, I would suggest. And my work’s a rumour, essentially. What is your creative impulse when you write a play? I would describe it as an impatience. When I am not engaged on a creative act I experience time as loss. To write is the pre-condition of any other form of activity, personal or public. It is therefore a process of keeping equilibrium, a sort of health. What I am writing I rarely know. I have said frequently that ignorance is a precious gift for artists, a profoundly rewarding point of departure. So how do you construct a play? Your structures are to die for! Yes, I have an innate sense of stage dynamics. I can’t deny it. Power and sexuality seem to be your core, recurrent themes. They have also been classic themes in theatre from Greek Tragedy to Sartre and Genet to Caryl


Theatre is body-in-space. the annexation of the body. the sexual body and state power coincide appallingly. as in Judith. What is your particular fascination with the subjects? I have written long and agonizingly about sexual love. 74 The representation of sex on stage is very tricky.power here shown as non-monolithic. But in The Europeans Katrin’s half-butchered body also becomes a ground for struggle between state and private will. For me theatre is about suggesting things. The unknown warrior. Toonelhuis is a nihilist. both in its essence and in its changing social manifestations. who really believes the dead character is dead. Lenin in the mausoleum. His literal hunger to digest the remains of war criminals is perhaps the sort of destiny that unites apparent oppositions. Do you stylize deliberately in order to create distance? My way as a director is to emphasize the separation between stage and the socalled realistic media. When one writes of sexuality one writes of the body but not only the body. In Found in the Ground. Anthony Neilson and Sarah Kane. In terms of my method in dialogue. and socially disruptive. And what about state power? In Scenes from An Execution. The fetishism of clothing. And sexual seduction is manifestly an exercise of power. possessed. And anyway. But I find the representation of sex in Found in the Ground and your other plays effective: it’s both stylized and convincing. Victory and much else. in The Europeans also. rejected Claw. My obligation as director is to create metaphorical truth. having been a moralist. which is appealing. for example. the Royal Court. entered. my background has been deeply significant. The seat of Marxist Theatre. if at all. What does the body represent as longed for. exquisitely irresponsible. How mistaken she was. State power is figured in a number of my plays about 1980/85. or the sexual character is engaged in a sexual act? It’s infantile to pretend like this. In burning his library he mimics Hitler’s abnegation of culture in the ruins of Berlin. You rarely speak of your working class background and people assume you are middle class. and that doesn’t serve the left’s agenda. not about telling everything. like film and television. Already tragedy was coming through these narratives. the main character is a figure of authority but at the same time he is also the most vulnerable .Churchill. Phillip Ridley. What I did not do – however much I might have believed I did – was to write the political play. How much. The rhythm and pulse of my mother’s and grandfa- . But it’s necessary to admit the symbolic nature of sexuality. has your class influenced your take on reality and your aesthetics? My mother sent me for lessons in elocution. Its metaphorical reach is huge. It doesn’t require mimetic fastidiousness. has interested me since my earliest plays. your latest play. At a certain point. maimed? The theft of the body. the focus seems to be state power. and it calls up from the psyche of its public imaginative resources the so-called realists don’t demand. How was she to guess the convolutions of modern snobbery? For some years I was conscious of the class struggle and described it. The left had no time for me. She loved me and thought I might emerge from my background with the help of a ‘nice’ accent.

You’ve written against ‘clarity’ in theatre. I don’t need to adhere to laws of theatre that are primarily to do with telling. Is this notion of difference at the heart of your theatre project? In my plays you don’t see the world as you know it but you see a world which has a point of contact with the world you do know. I want to work with actors whose clarity of articulation is simply abnormal. strange. But I personally find your plays attractive because of their clarity of conception and execution. Some of it wants to get out as fast as possible. The theatre suffers from a numbing aesthetic of solidarity. In terms of their motivation. The mix of this ancient argot with the cultivated phrasing I acquired through literature creates a distinctive voice. Since I have nothing to tell. swift perceptions suddenly described. I rarely listen to them. No other writer sounds like me. It thought it was liberating the theatre into the world of reality and therefore it would bring the pain and problems of contemporary life into 75 . but also fully in a way that is impossible in naturalism. Perhaps they feel manipulated when they enter the Royal Court Theatre. I want to create images of beauty and this entails rigour and discipline. Here I have an intention. it was musical. But some sense the pleasures of anxiety in the dramatic space. I aim deliberately at plethora. themes dropped and recovered again. then buried under a coarse banality. vivid and violent. The execution is different. what is the consequence of this? It makes the public anxious. That’s their pattern of speaking. discovery and creativity’ not just what we have in common. sound. set.ther’s speech can be heard in my own texts. about what they know or experienced. This culture is obsessed with the real world in a way that has never been before. Possibly they sense discipline in the cultural field is unhealthy. The attraction and indeed the spiritual element of the artistic experience is its ignorance. costume. I direct actors. elucidation. clarity. I don’t stop them. its blindness. Everything contributes. And perhaps this connection with dissonance is what marks you as different. I think. Personally. How do your characters differ from those of the dominant genres? The characters speak not only in a fashioned way characteristic of me. And the vocabulary – especially when anger informed it – was replete with words from the C17th. They bring their gifts to the service of the vision I try to impart. If they don’t. or the National. And is the chaos in the minds of my characters less authentic? Hardly. Now. light is under this degree of control. and they understand this. a sort of debased democracy that insists on shared values and enlightenment. I’m unconstrained by Stanislavskian or Brechtian ideas of truth. dissonance is where I feel at home. When my mother was abusive. The speeches are broken. and so on. Do you feel there is a contradiction in this? The conception is actually not at all clear. no matter what their class or education. You’ve written too that the differences between us ‘might be sources of hope. A lot of this goes back to a movement coming from what the Royal Court thought it was doing in the fifties. All young writers are encouraged to write about themselves. It is as if the culture was in dread of dissonance. They have excess articulation. they should do. knowing full well the public can’t keep up. I never set out with an idea or any intention. It was an education in living poetry.

it’s a cul-de-sac. Are we then making the social issue the substance of a democratic discourse? Well. The question is. are these national institutions even capable of presenting them. A part of it surely does. It’s a sordid practice. the ensemble is the only significant practice in theatre. But I have to say. but I don’t. You have this extraordinary medium which is six thousand years old in which you have an actor and a body and a voice in this particular space. for theatre speaks what is not spoken elsewhere. by which I mean to say. If that was a revolution at the time. For me this is the dead end for theatre. I also wanted theatre to be a place for a poet. What would you say the duty of the artist is. If he obeys this injunction to speak his darkness. to his instinct (not his conscience…). Nietzsche suggests we sense the death of an idea by its corrupt odour before we identify it intellectually. But what is peculiar is that the corpse lives on. It’s a situation that calls out for invention and imagination. and infantilizes the public. It would be a sort of corruption to enjoy a marginal position in theatre for its own sake. Whilst laughing. Does the public resent being infantilized? That’s the question. this is clearly circular. The Wrestling School is exceptional. it is its supreme beauty. given the political and social prejudices that dominate their aesthetic attitudes – we cannot call it theory? Probably this will never be tested. and of course. The artist has no duty except to himself. What happened? At a rather early stage in my career I was nauseated by social realism. What keeps you going in the face of such hostility to your work? I have to say I’m not greatly injured by it. 76 But you used to be produced by the Royal Court. which must also be poetic. I have a feeling you thrive on it. he will – inevitably – serve a public.the stage. . looks exceptional. I would not resist the staging of my plays (which are frequently large in scale) by large companies with resources. critics and theatre managements is because I’m not and cannot be associated with that process. But the Royal Court and the rest squirm at poetic discourse. the Almeida and the RSC. and it is anyway a false dichotomy. and there are virtually none. as society is here. they think they can get the audience to swallow a few political ideas without noticing. And I think the hostility I have experienced in the past thirty years in this country from dramaturgs. because they are in the grip of a neurosis. if such a thing exists? It may sound from what I say as if I believed in moral responsibility in artists. as they squirm at tragedy. it has now become concretized and sterile. The advice to the theatre to bring the real world into the stage is now reactionary in my opinion. and expands – as I suppose a bloated corpse expands. They want to laugh at everything. This was my experience.

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