Arguments for a Theatre - Barker

After I had watched Don Carlos for the first time, I told Tom Burke how much I had enjoyed the play and in particular the work of Friedrich Schiller. I was glad he had introduced me to his work. It was a revelation to me, not only reading Schiller’s plays, but also the Aesthetical Essays of Frederich Schiller, the Philosophical Letters of Frederich Schiller; his short stories and poetical works which all promoted the ideals of Enlightenment – to celebrate the beauty of life, and to oppose all forms of tyranny. I confessed to loving Schiller, and further confessed that I wasn’t overly fond of another popular playwright. I have seen, and continue to see his work, but it never fills me with the same ebullience as Schiller does.

It was then that Tom told me what ARA’s next project would be. I was desperately hoping he was working on something else, but said nothing, just smiled and laughed that I was sure I would enjoy it. What I really wanted to say was “WHHHAAATTTT? You’ve set up your own theatre company! You could do anything you wanted! You could perform Howard Barker plays but you’re going to do what EVERY theatre company under the sun does!” But I kept quiet, it’s not my place to dictate what he does and I’m sure he is doing what he wants, it just doesn’t fit into my bucket list of plays that I want Tom to do – but that’s my problem, not his! I’m sure Tom and Gadi will apply a suitable twist to their next venture that will make me enjoy the production.

A week or so later, I got an email alert about various newspaper articles, one of which was an interview with Tom Burke in The Telegraph. A particular paragraph stopped me in my tracks 

“There will also be more from Ara, with Burke keen to stage the work of Howard Barker, whose tales of sex and violence have made him persona non grata at several lofty British arts institutions, even though he is worshipped in Europe.” 

YESSSSS! There is a God after all, I just hope the reporter got that bit right! After all, it’s Tom’s fault I became a fan of Barker in the first place. Just like Schiller, I hadn’t heard of Barker, but about three years ago I had the bright idea of reading the plays that Tom had done earlier in his career. I remember being in Prague, in the “chicken tea room” reading Gertrude The Cry. I was happily absorbed in the book when I suddenly realised that not only does Barker liberally uses the word c**t, but his language is often very coarse. Now this doesn’t bother me…or I thought it didn’t…but it suddenly occurred to me as another flask of hot water appeared on the table beside me, that often the coarsest of lines are written in capital letters and seem to leap off the page! Now, if you don’t read the passages in context, they can seem a little, erm…extreme?! “OMG what must people think I’m reading?” I thought in horror as I shuffled round the table to a lower, squashier chair where no-one could read over my shoulder!

Despite this overwhelming moment of self-consciousness, I finished Gertrude and started on Scenes from an Execution. Set in Venice, I was hooked right from the start, (there are posts throughout the blog on those book reviews,) and there in Prague, over a pot of green tea in an old saggy chair, my love for Barker began. When I returned home I visited the internet and found Oberon books had published several volumes of his collected plays. I bought Plays One which contained Scenes From An Execution which I read again, and three further plays, Victory (an ethical voyage of a widow during the English Civil War) The Europeans (An Islamic woman fighting for her identity) and The Possibilities (a series of short, disturbing moral dilemmas). 

The plays were challenging to read as they had some disturbing, moralistic questions to consider; and that’s what I enjoyed…the ambiguity. I didn’t feel that Barker was trying to tell me what to think, I felt as though he was telling me I was allowed to think. And I think that is why I don’t like some texts and some playwrights. Too many lecturers have torn apart great pieces of literature for me, telling me what the answer is. The lecturers were right. I was wrong. You could think for yourself, but only if you came up with the right answer…and I always found that difficult, because I view literature and the theatre like any other piece of art. It should be subjective, it should speak to you as an individual. But then, I’ve had art teachers who have told me my perceptions of paintings are wrong too!

I’ve just finished reading Barker’s “Arguments for a Theatre.” It appears to be a timely choice of text. The book contains a series of essays, poems and Barker’s thoughts about theatre and it is a book I’ve dipped in and out of over the last couple of months. It’s interesting because whilst he discusses his work, he still keeps a high level of ambiguity about the nature of each play he cares to discuss, it is for the audience to deliver their own judgement. His plays are unconventional, they are intellectually stimulating and I realised this most profoundly after seeing In the Depths of Dead Love. My friend Nikki is also an ardent Barker lover and she noticed that a Barker play was being performed in London. Finding a Barker play is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, but find it we did in a quirky theatre, The Print Room @ The Coronet.  

After buying a couple of beers from behind a piano (???!!!) we sat down on a double bed that was in the centre of the “bar” area. A couple of chaps came over and sat with us and told us they would probably only stay until the interval…this was after all a Barker play. It was doubtful they could stomach a whole evening of it. But stomach it they did because we saw them leave at the end of the show and so we ribbed them about it. We then had a short but enjoyable conversation about the play, which was interesting because Barker has been quoted that in writing a play, it “is immune to discussion…eliminate debate…replaces arguments.” (pg 75 3rd ed) Here, there were four people discussing the play, but not in the conventional sense. No-one was trying to correct each other. No-one was trying to prove they understood what was going on. Instead four people were divided in their opinions, not only within the group, but also within themselves as thought processes contradicted themselves.

It is interesting that the British press are dismissive about Barker, they see him as nihilistic and unorthodox, writing obscure plays that serve to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Barker is the Yin to the Yang of the safe, fun, humanistic theatre that audiences are more familiar with. They don’t want to recoil in horror at human nature, audiences want to be entertained not disturbed, they don’t want to face the immorality of the human condition. I think that’s why I enjoy reading Barker and why I would like to see more of his work staged. We all like to think of ourselves as nice people, but we’re not. Even the nicest people will hang their friends out to dry if it means them getting what they want…it’s just that some people abhor the thought of facing their true selves. It is much easier to lie to yourself, it is harder to be honest to yourself and those around you, and therefore to watch safe theatre is preferable to coming face to face with yourself in a Howard Barker text.

Arguments for a Theatre is an articulate look at the reception of Barker’s work, each essay a thought-provoking piece for all theatre lovers to sit and ponder. Barker is quite clear about our culture who does not know what to do with his work, and that probably explains why he writes the plays that he does. On language in drama (pg 29 3rd ed) he explains the use of his “obscene” language with considered logic which shows why it works in his dramas, why it isn’t offensive.  He sees theatre as an art form, and in view of my own thoughts on theatre, maybe that’s why I feel an affinity with his work. I see Howard Barker as an exhibitor in Tate Modern rather than The National Gallery. You know where you are with a Monet, or Constable; they are safe works, understandable, you can see what the artist hopes to achieve. Take the safe confines away though, and people start to struggle with art. A cow in formaldehyde, is that art? Until I witnessed it for myself I thought it was a horrific idea, but standing there, actually facing it up close, I witnessed an inner beauty to the exhibit and various thought processes tore through me. I don’t eat meat, I should hate it, it was a waste of life…but was it? This cow would never grow old – it’s beauty and innocence preserved for ever. It was a difficult exhibit to witness, but I was more open minded having seen it and rather annoyed with people who haven’t seen it telling me I was wrong to like it.

Let’s take an easy example of art in a simplistic form. I used this analogy at Don Carlos when we were discussing our opinions of the play v’s the terrible reviews in the days newspapers. There’s a pile of bricks in an exhibition area and how four people look at the same pile of bricks with differing opinions.

Person One: “How the f*** do people get away with calling that art? I’ve got a pile of bricks in my back yard. Is that art? How come this is art but my bricks aren’t art? Why can’t I sell my brick for s***loads of money when this robbing git can?”

Person Two: “That’s so sad. Those bricks were once some great building, and now look at them. Torn down. Reduced to rubble. Decay. Destruction. That’s the problem with the world today. Nothing’s sacred anymore. It’s just wanton destruction.”

Person Three: “They look like bricks, but in reality they show hope, a future…what could be. Those bricks are the building blocks of our society, what we can make from them, what we can achieve. They could be the next cancer hospital, or they could be affordable housing, they could be a new school…the possibilities are endless.”

Person Four: “Hmm. Bricks. Where’s the artists notes about this exhibit? Ah yes, now I know what it’s all about. Well yes of course it is art, and it’s not about decay or rebirth, it’s pretty obvious when you look at it really…”

Which of these people are in the right? All of their opinions are valid. Even person number four. They want to educate themselves, but they also don’t want to appear stupid in case their gut feeling is not the same as the person next to them. This only falls down when they speak to someone who does speak from the heart (or gut) and they pompously tell them they’re wrong – they know what the artist was thinking. If it was down to me, I wouldn’t have artists notes, the work should speak for itself – we shouldn’t need detailed explanations as to what thought process was going on when the work was created. And that brings us back nicely to Schiller…in his various letters and essays he explained his work to a non-understanding audience. A shame really…much better to watch and draw your own conclusions.