The Irresponsible Mr Barker ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Irresponsible Mr Barker

"Art has no duty" - Howard Barker

English playwright Howard Barker must be in the zeitgeist. Just last week, Barker's play Wounds to the Face opened at Theatreworks in Melbourne (review next week) and his dystopian fantasy Victory closed after a sell-out season at the Sydney Theatre Company. I found myself again browsing his book of essays, Arguments for a Theatre, and the following day noticed an extraordinary attack on Victory in the current issue of Quadrant.

Victory aroused the ire of one Geoffrey Partington. I am unable to find out much about Mr Partington; I assume he is the same Geoffrey Partington who has written other articles for Quadrant and who describes himself as "a South Australian educationalist". He writes as if he is seated in a manorial chair in tweeds, puffing on a pipe and lamenting the rise of the split infinitive, and his spluttering is the sort of thing which would warm the cockles of any old radical's heart.

On the evidence of his essay, Partington's only knowledge of Barker is what he has read in the mainstream media - his one sourced quote is from an interview in The Australian - and it is impossible to determine if he has actually seen the play he is attacking. This seems a rather poor basis for an "educationalist" to launch an attack on a writer even The Times refers to as "one of the UK's greatest living playwrights". He is entitled to his apoplexy, which mainly agitates around Barker's cavalier treatment of historical fact (more of this later). What most concerned me about his article was, in fact, this statement: "I do not wish to prevent others from spending time and money on travesties such as Victory, but I resent it bitterly if public money subsidises them in any way." 1

Since a production of the scale of the STC's would not be possible without public money, his is a call for such theatre to be effectively banned from our main stages. There have been too many calls to censor art lately, from too many quarters; and Partington's essay is in fact an attack on the basis of art's freedom, imagination itself. So perhaps it is worth examining in some detail.

Barker's plays have had occasional productions in Australian theatres over the past couple of decades, but the relative popularity of his work since the late '90s is largely due to the former director of Adelaide's Red Shed Company, Tim Maddock. He introduced Howard Barker to a new and young audience when he directed The Europeans and Uncle Vanya for Brink Productions in Sydney and Adelaide. This culiminated in an extraordinarily ambitious production of Barker's six hour epic The Ecstatic Bible, a co-production between Brink and Barker's own company, The Wrestling School, which premiered at the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Since then, the most high profile production has been the STC season of Victory, which featured a return to the stage by Judy Davis, and which attracted Partington's displeasure. I was green that I could not see it myself, but a lot of Sydneysiders did.

Partington is as peeved by Victory's full-house success as he is by its existence, and sneeringly mentions "the paucity of performances his plays receive in Britain" to suggest that those Sydney theatre crowds were sadly misled in their enthusiasm for the play. He drags out the usual abusive labels. Barker is apparently "postmodernist", a term which isn't defined, though it could be argued that his work is actually closer to the individualistic modernisms of playwrights like Jarry and Artaud; and it is heavily implied also that his work is "PC", surely one of the more bizarre criticisms of Barker's iconoclastic ouevre. Even stranger when you consider than Partington is also exercised by Barker's celebrated usage of obscene language (especially that "c" word).

But Partington's major objection to Victory is that Barker gets his history wrong. After pointing out Barker's historical errors - that certain incidents didn't happen, and that certain people never in fact met - he goes on to claim that Barker "purports that the events displayed on the stage, or something very like them, actually took place" and that he is exploiting his audience with "a tissue of sheer lies". This is, to say the least, disingenuous, since even Partington notes that Barker purports nothing of the sort, and least of all historical verisimilitude: his whole artistic credo revolts against such a conception of theatre. It also assumes that the audience of Barker's work is ignorant, malleable and credulous, which seems more than a little patronising.

If Partington takes his own strictures on historical accuracy seriously, he must disapprove of Shakespeare even more vehemently than Barker. It is generally accepted, to take an obvious example, that Richard III is a base libel of the historical Richard; for one thing, Richard didn't have a hump and, as English kings go, he was relatively just. As the director Richard Eyre says, "Shakespeare treats historical incident with little reference to fact - incidents are conflated, characters meet whose paths never crossed".2 A historian who based her research on Shakespeare's history plays would be on somewhat shaky ground, and anyone who tried to argue his tragedies were historically accurate would be considered frankly insane. The verisimilitude of Shakespeare's play lies elsewhere, in what Barker describes as "emotional truths".

Barker openly and aggressively defends his right as an artist to make things up, to imagine rather than to represent reality; and he is clearly accurate in intuiting that this is a contemporary heresy. In this, he reflects Theodor Adorno's critique of the culture industry and its effect on human imagination. Speaking of boredom, Adorno says: "it is symptomatic of the deformations perpetrated upon man by the social totality, the most important of which is surely the defamation and atrophy of the imagination...those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination." 3 Clearly, Barker is maladaptive; but he is seldom boring.

Partington's defamation of imagination is not novel; after all, poets were to be banned from Plato's totalitarian Republic for their moral irresponsibility in fictionalising the truth. In Partington's world, the proper reasons for attending theatre are "to improve ... historical knowledge or cultural range", and he castigates Barker fiercely for refusing to fulfil at least one of these aims (I assume that a broader "cultural range" is a landscape which does not include such "travesties" as Victory).

Barker's view of theatre's function is rather more interesting. He doesn't believe theatre is there to convey messages, or to teach, or to entertain. Rather he sees theatre as a place which makes demands on an audience, in order to lead them into moral and emotional conflict and, through this conflict, to encounter a "hard won" freedom. "In a society disciplined by moral imperatives of gross simplicity, complexity itself, ambiguity itself, is a political posture of profound strength," he says. "The play which makes demands of its audience, both of an emotional and interpretive nature, becomes a source of freedom, necessarily hard won. The play which refuses the message, the lecture, the conscience-ridden expose, but which insists on the inventive and imaginative at every point, creates new tensions in a blandly entertainment-led culture. The dramatist's obligation is (to) his own imagination. His function becomes not to educate by his superior political knowledge, for who can trust that? but to lead into moral conflict by his superior imagination." 4

In the service of this idea, Barker has written plays which range from the mythic landscapes of classical antiquity to official and unofficial histories of the great massacres of the 20th century. He advocates a tragic, confrontational theatre, the "theatre of catastrophe", which is partly derived from Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. It is a theatre in open conflict with the rationality of the humanist philosophy which has come to dominate British theatre practice, and which Barker has contemptuously labelled the "theatre of journalism".

The "theatre of journalism" is currently the major vehicle for left wing political dissent on the British stage. Companies like Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint and the Tricycle Theatre have dusted off the concept of documentary theatre, pioneered by companies like the Joint Stock Theatre Group in the '70s, and given it new life. Last year Out of Joint produced a documentary play by David Hare on the privatisation of British railways, and Tricycle have developed what they call "tribunal theatre", in which they theatricalise issues such as the Hutton Inquiry or the Stephen Lawrence murder, using only words which have been uttered by the participants. Their latest production, which closed a week ago, is Guantanamo: "Honour Bound to Defend Freedom", written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo from interviews with prisoners and others connected with Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay. These have all been extremely successful examples of political theatre, popular and critically acclaimed, which have brought debate on issues such as the Iraq War squarely into the theatrical arena.

This strand of British theatre derives from the English Brechtian tradition, via a dose of Shaw. It is also a dominant philosophy behind much Australian play writing, from the productions of the Melbourne Workers Theatre to the mainstream plays of Hannie Rayson, who herself started in community theatre. And it is the kind of theatre which launches Howard Barker into his most provocative polemic mode.

He fulminates against "the drama of conscience", "a spectacle of relentless harmony" which he sees as merely preaching to the converted at the expense of artistic freedom and invention. "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," writes Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile, and the insistence on the representation of what passes for the real world only enhances the decadent sense of social responsibility while devastating the landscape of dramatic invention." Elsewhere in the same essay, he observes: "We swim in a tepid bath of humanistic accord, writer, actor, audience, an alliance of foregone conclusions which diminishes the possibility of innovative practice." 5

This deeply challenges Partington's strange claim that Victory is a polemic for the Australian republic because, in its unhistorical portrayal of the English Civil Wars, it seeks to expose the nastiness of English monarchs. The play is, in line with Barker's stated aesthetic, a rather more complicated experience than this simplistic agenda suggests (a major reason why I wonder whether Partington has actually seen it). In Barker's dystopia no one - monarchist or reformer - comes over well, and no message is parcelled out for theatre consumers to take home.

Barker's politics are by no means conservative, and Partington's attack is a not-untypical right wing reaction to Barker's work. And given that most mainstream British theatre is broadly liberal and humanistic - that is, precisely the kind of theatre on which Barker unleashes his hostility - perhaps the reasons for the relative paucity of productions of Barker's work in Britain become clear. Although his theatre is profoundly political, it is antagonistic to most shades of the ideological spectrum. He remains a radical and exciting playwright, a necessary grit in theatrical vision, a provocative inspiration. The only real question is why our own uncomfortable and innovative talents - writers, for example, like Margaret Cameron - remain marginalised within our theatre culture, while an artist like Barker is widely celebrated. If what we seek is a vital, exciting theatre, work like this is precisely where public money ought to go.


Howard Barker
LIFT inquiry on theatre, Independent


1 Pyrrhic Victory, Geoffrey Partington, Quadrant, June 2004
2 Utopia and other places, Richard Eyre, Vintage 1994
3 Free Time, TW Adorno, The Culture Industry, Routledge Classics, 1991
4 The Politics Beyond the Politics, Howard Barker, Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester University Press 1993
5 A bargain with impossibility: the theatre of speculation in an age of accord, ibid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Barker's work has been subject to too many lazy reviewers and middling critical appraisal. I believe that when the dust settles on twentieth/twenty-first century European theatre, Barker will get the credit that he deserves.