Making Theatre and Performance

Type: Critical Analysis Essay        Words: 2500        Referencing: MLA

Analysis of Howard Barker’s Argument for Theatre Role


Howard Barker is one of the most significant and profound British contemporary playwright who is well-known for his unique theatrical works which are distinctively alluring and surprisingly original. His theatre differs from most of the writers, not just in terms of style, but also in terms of perceptions of the role of theatre. His plays provide a remarkable blend of moral ruthlessness, conservative aesthetic, classical discipline and transgression, which has challenged the contemporary theory of performing arts. This essay is aimed at providing a critical analysis of Howard Barker’s approach to the theatre’s role which he explained in his book Arguments for a Theatre, “theatre must locate its creative tension not between characters and arguments on the stage but between the audience and the stage itself” (Barker 52). This will be done through comprehensive review of Barker’s theatre theory and different works, and highlighting the potential implications of such form of theatre in the context of Sarah Kane’s famous play “Cleansed” which significantly reflects the characteristics of Howard Barker’s theory.

Even though Howard is a prolific author and artist who have a wide range of plays, novels, poems and Oprah libretti to his name, he is not as popular as other modern playwrights like Beckett, Laura Wade or Edward Bond and he too insouciantly acknowledges this fact. While this represents his strong and true aptitude as a dramatist, it also indicates that his approach to theatre, its style and its purpose as a source of expression in a democratic society, that presents experiencing tragedy “as a need” and evokes the notions of eroticism, desire, violence and death. His plays diverges to a great extent from the relatively accessible and acceptable humanist ideology which is at the core of mainstream theatre, so much so that he had to present justifications of his model of theatre in Arguments for a Theatre (Lamb 2). His writing focuses on exploring and valuing individuality as a transforming experience. Barker called his approach to theatre as “The Theatre of Catastrophe” which introduces an innovative genre of tragedy with recurrent themes of sexuality, brutality, ecstasy, criminality and death. Most of his works highly stressed on contradictions of personality, in other words, instead of providing a definite message or theme in his plays that could achieve a collective response from the spectators, he leaves it to the audience to interpret the message of the story in their own way, and he does this by presenting ambiguous and quite inconsistent plots. As he justifies it,

I would like to propose that the value of works of art, in social circumstances, such as the present, lies not in their entertainment value, nor in their ability to ‘change perceptions’ in pursuit of some common purpose, but in their power to devastate the received wisdom of the collective, which conspires to diminish individual experience at all levels”(Lamb 24).

According to Howard, the British theatre needs a reformation as he believes it gives far more focus to the theatrical traditions and dynamics of performance, which leads to the presentation of morally and socially critical categories aimed only to provide a common ethical base among the actors, acts and the audience. By stating that the arguments should be “between the audiences and the stage”(Howard 52) Howard wishes to create a theatre where people are given the ‘right’ to interpret the meanings behind what they see on the stage instead of imposing a planned message on them. While this justification of his theatre of catastrophe rhetorically appeals to a rational mind, the way he has tried to practice it on stage has posed significant questions about the notions of quality in performing arts, as his dramas not only present a challenge to the audience but also to the performers. He detests the fact the audiences are taught a lesson through acts and therefore, his plays are highly obscure and ambiguous, filled with dark spaces that are open for interpretation.

Barker seems to have gained inspiration from Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”, the idea behind whose development was to get unconscious responses from the actors as well as the spectators. He too was against the traditional theatrical productions and established forms of dramatic literature. Hence, his theatre of cruelty produced plays that stressed on the realization of individual’s primitive instincts which Artaud believed were concealed underneath the dominant humanist philosophy and civilized social façade concealing human behavior. Featuring such kinds of plays eliminates or at least greatly reduces the element of entertainment, and both Artaud and Barker have confessed openly that their works are not for entertainment. Barker, in particular, strongly believes that theatre should serve as a source of rediscovering the notions of morality and individuality. He argues that throughout the last two decades, the right to perceive and understand art as an individual has been taken away by the contemporary theatre, it is as he states, a ‘form of oppression’ masked as enlightenment. A good and successful play in Barker’s view is the one that makes the viewers go through a certain ordeal and experience suffering and anxiety because it is deemed necessary for a living soul to be exposed to tragedy if it is to be relived (Gritzner).

Barker’s plays receive more acceptance in regions such as Europe, where the audiences are not considerably culturally sensitive. But in countries like Britian, both the public and art directors perceive Barker’s plays as inconsiderate or unfit for a culturally sensitive and sensible society which feels their consciousness is being offended by witnessing acts of extreme sexual violence, ruthlessness and torture. For Barker, there is no joy without experiencing tragedy because if offers “return to individual pain” by putting every individual member of the audience through discomfort, trial and anxiety (Megson 489). Another aspect of Barker’s arguments for theatre is his diagnosis of artistic modernism, a key component of modern yet bourgeois culture that diminishes individual experience and subjective expressions. By rejecting the dominant humanist approach to theatre, Barker aims to advocate the concept that the subject is actually the potential element for bringing social transformation rather than instructing the audience to get a collective response. Tragedy, for Barker, is a genre of theatre which is sufficiently enigmatic to be used against the humanist ideology of modern culture. Barker’s approach in this regard is similar to a great extent with that of Terry Eagleton’s who was a fierce critic of the Marxist school of thought. Eagleton stressed on using the power of tragedy because it severely challenges the status quo of conventional traditionalism and reestablishes the opportunities of liberating subjectivity in performing arts. According to Eagleton’s opinion, acknowledging the pain, discomfort and anxiety that a tragic act offers, provides viewers an experience and enhanced understanding of social ambiguities which could assist in bringing about a social change.

In order to introduce the theatre of tragedy, the two basic components of contemporary theatre; Clarity and Realism need to be eliminated. The reason behind this is simply the fact that the literature or production, which is credited for its clear presentation and message is the one that is least abstruse and leaves no room for the audience to interpret the meaning of the acts. Secondly, by presenting ‘Realism’ in the text and on stage, it is implied that the audiences are too morally and creatively weak to imagine, feel and understand what is being delivered to them. In this age of moral chaos, theatre should own the responsibility to give audience the right to judge and explore the essence of moral arguments and to offer them a chance to test the validity of dominant critical categories, such a realism and clarity. Howard believes this could be achieved by focusing on the moral predicates, the ideas and thoughts that are not licensed and the instincts that lay hidden under the unconscious self (Barker 51).

While the number of people who agree with Barker’s arguments and appreciate his work is astonishingly lesser as compared to conventional playwrights, but there are several writers who follow the concept of Catostrophism as put forward by Barker. One of the most prominent of such writers was Sarah Kane, a well-known British playwright whose ‘experimental theatre’ boldly portray violence, cruelty, sexuality and obsession. From 1995 to 1999, she wrote storyline of a short film and five plays, three of which; Cleansed, Blasted and Phaedra’s Love received enormous laud as they shocked the British audience with excessive and intense scenes of physical and sexual violence, atrocity, mass murders, humiliation, betrayal etc. Her last two plays; Psychosis and Craved depicted strong verbal violence besides other previously stated attributes (Gritzner 335).

Her play Cleansed particularly mirrors Barkers theatre of tragedy and she seems to have taken his statement under discussion quite seriously. It revolves around a microcosm society which is under the rule of a cunning dictator ‘Tinker’ who controls an institution which was formerly a university campus. Tinker is shown as a god-like figure who carries out sentences on other characters who cherish love in one way or the other. For instance, Graham dies in the first act because of excessive heroine intake and reappears in the form of a ghost, his sister Grace enters Tinker’s empire to retrieve her dead brother’s body, a gay couple Carl and Rod, and a weak powerless boy Robin. Each of these characters is judged and put through a trial by Tinker that involves ferociousness such as physical and sexual violence, in order to determine their deepest desires and through harsh “Owellian” justice ‘cleansed’ their souls. Sarah Kane, in one of her interviews, gave credit to Howard Barker and Jeremy Weller for inspiring her works. The tragedy and representation of brutality in her plays had provided new opportunities to the actors, but also put a great challenge for them as well as the audience who are dragged into a tragic cycle of life and death (Campbell). By presenting such images, Kane intends not only to make them experience distress and pain, but also to have them to discover the extents of heartlessness and lack of compassion that a human nature is capable of possessing. Through violence, Kane also aimed to draw attention to the sources of torture and violence, and to their implications on a human body and soul (Lamb).

The theme of Cleansed is love being the source of war and unity. Just like most of Barker’s plays, Kane has directed this play in an allegorical way with a minimalistic language used in shockingly violent scenes that often becomes hard for the audience to digest. The metaphors are depicted literally on stage rather than linguistically. The responses of the audience to spiritual, sexual and physical violence are completely overlooked and denied because, for the followers of theatre of catastrophe, it is important to explore the anatomy of tragedy, as Sarah points out, “if we are able to experience something through art and theatre, we might as well be able to change our lives and the future of our society because we all are a part of it” (Gökhan BÇER 83).

While Howard Barker and Kane’s theatrical ideology propose that violence and other forms of tragedy can serve provoking the audience to fully acknowledge the viciousness and other traumatizing happenings taking place in the modern world. However, the point to be raised here is about the extent of violence that could serve this purpose appropriately and whether the public is ready to witness this over exposure of sexuality and violence and form interpretations that could in some way have a positive effect on their thinking and personality. The concept of responsibility to contemporary and literary culture in the catastrophic theatre suggests a strong need for preparing the audience for a self-exploratory experience which calls for a different form of tragedy, which encourages the spectators to resist moral authoritarianism, not by superficial sanguinity or useless reconciliation, but through stimulating pain, presenting extreme struggle and through “the assertion of human creativity”. Barker has used sex not merely to represent the most primitive of needs but also to support the language of the characters which is a sensuous tool employed  break materialistic class-oriented intonations, since he relates the quality of words to the individual personality, “the debate about words becomes a debate about the body, who owns it, and who describes it” (Barker 30). A vivid example of the kind of language he presents that also show the value of his dramaturgy is the use of word ‘cunt’ in his plays to signify both extreme desire and the utmost level of abuse. The reason behind this obscene and alarmingly raw language is, as he explains, to restore their original meanings and to break the notions of class oriented language.

Another crucial Barker’s argument for theatre is that the traditional theatre employs the notions of popular entertainment and politically programmed messages that abide by the Communist rational with a dubious utilitarian purpose, therefore in his plays, Barker strongly holds on to the irrational and obscure content, both poetically and structurally so that his ultimate purpose i.e. to target the creative tension between the audience and the stage. By the term ‘creative tension’ he is referring to the differences between audience’s vision of their life at present and where they see themselves in the future and have a sound idea of the differences create a positive tension that compels an individual to seek ways to resolve it. Hence it acts as a catalyst for the social and cultural change that Barker wishes to promote through engaging audiences in the process of Catastrophism (Megson).

If Barkers theory is weighed against the concept of artistic integrity, it could provide us with deliberate answers to why Barker refuses to show flexibility in acknowledging the immense pressure from big theatre companies and in altering his style to make his text more accessible. As a result of his solid resistance against the theatrical monopoly, Barker’s plays are very rarely performed in the popular theatre. Yet he considers himself as the successor of the Classical European Drama tradition. The way Barker’s dramatizes his arguments concerning individuality and self-consciousness indicate Nietzschean “will to power” as an instinctive dynamism or compulsion to change that is both productive and destructive, which leads the masses beyond good and evil. However, the easily ‘consumable’ and majorly positive attitude of the Nietzschean protagonist is offset by Howard’s complex and negative characters who do not attempt to articulate any significant new moral values. Instead, Barker’s theatre concentrates on the revaluation of values that might be politically or morally lacks directions, but it is definitely not devoid of emotional and psychic energy (Gritzner).

From the aforementioned discussion on Barker’s argument for theatre, it could be concluded that Barker’s artistic significance challenges the limits of contemporary theatre for exposing the haunting and oppressive speculations on humanity in the present age of moral and social corruption. His Theatre of tragedy confronts the audience with terrifying violence, irrational acts and convoluted poetic language to make them acknowledge the ‘beauty of pain’ and to disrupt the audiences’ moral conviction and reliance on dominant cultural ideology.



Works Cited

Gritzner, Karoline. ‘(Post) Modern Subjectivity And The New Expressionism: Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, And Forced Entertainment’. Contemporary Theatre Review 18.3 (2008): 328–340. Print.

Barker, Howard. Arguments For A Theatre. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Campbell, Alyson. “Experiencing Kane: an affective analysis of Sarah Kane’s ‘experiential’ theatre in performance.” Australasian Drama Studies 46 (April 2005): 80-97

Lamb, Charles. The Theatre Of Howard Barker. 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Lamb, Charles. ‘The Challenge Posed By The Plays Of Howard Barker For Con Temporary Performance Theory And Practice’. Ph.D. The university of Warwick, 1992.

Megson, Chris. ‘Howard Barker And The Theatre Of Catastrophe’. A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama 1880-2005 (1880): 488–498. Print.

Gökhan BÇER, Ahmet. ‘Depiction of violence onstage: Physical, Sexual and Verbal Dimensions of Violence in Sarah Kanes experimental’. The Journal of International Social Research 4.16 (2014): 81-88. Web. 12 Jun. 2014.

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