Play in two acts. First performed at the RSC’s Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden, 28 July 1977. Directed by Barry Kyle; designed by William Dudley; lighting by David Boshell. With Ian McDiarmid (McPhee), John Nettles (Godber), Patrick Stewart (Knatchbull), Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Orbison), Cherie Lunghi (Rhoda), Hubert Rees (Major Cadbury), and others. Text in That Good Between Us/Credentials of a Sympathiser, London: John Calder, 1980, pp 1-59 (out-of-print, but may be available through amazon.com here).
“That Good Between Us … is set in Britain under a Labour government, perhaps slightly in the future. The unconstitutional and arbitrary use of power by the Home Secretary, the conduct of the police and their informers and treatment of ‘subversive’ elements are in line with the direction in which our society is moving. Readers may be tempted to give names to some of the public characters and they will recognise the authenticity of the private ones.” 
Home Secretary Orbison of the Labour party is warned by Knatchbull, an officer of the Special Branch (a forerunner of our own Department of Homeland Security), that seditious elements in the army are threatening an overthrow of the government. He convinces her to allow his agents to infiltrate the group and make secret arrests and even conduct executions when he deems it necessary. Two operatives, Godber and McPhee, gain entrance into the small group, led by an army major named Cadbury and calling itself the Democratic Movement of the Army. While Knatchbull is successful in crippling the group, Godber, McPhee, and Orbison’s own daughter Rhoda are caught in the crossfire, while the more radical elements of the movement increase their deadly clandestine activity.
Barker’s dystopian view of Labour politics in 1970s Great Britain is an early response to the technocratic surveillance state then being instituted by both conservative and progressive functionaries — each to their own ends of course but with a similar totalitarian outcome. While the spies and informers themselves claim to be without ideological prejudice — when asked by Knatchbull why he wants to be a spy, the cynical and opportunistic Godber replies, “It thrills me” — naive and sensualist outsiders like McPhee (a Scottish homosexual and fan of the Rolling Stones) are easily swayed from one end of the spectrum of political rhetoric to another, suggesting that one’s very participation in the apparatus of the state, however naive, is to become simultaneously a victim and an agent of its fascistic tendencies.
Fantastic sequences have always been a part of Barker’s work; here, one of the most disturbing takes place when Knatchbull takes his daughter Verity, a paraplegic who suffers from spina bifida, out to fly a kite on Wimbledon Common. There she stumbles across the body of one of Knatchbull’s victims, and Knatchbull is at a loss to keep the violent death from her — “You’ve always liked dead things, Christ knows why,” he mutters to Verity. The stakes are raised when Barker brings the first-act curtain down on a dialogue between the corpse and Verity herself:
VERITY: Like this man. Where did he come from? How did he die?
(Knatchbull holds out a hand to lead her away.)
KNATCHBULL: Ah well, if we knew that …
CORPSE: HE DOES KNOW THAT!
KNATCHBULL: All right? Leave the kite here, help the police to spot it.
CORPSE: WHERE I CAME FROM. HOW I DIED.
KNATCHBULL: Come on, sweetheart.
CORPSE: THEY INFILTRATED US. I WENT TO WARN HIM AT THE PUB.
VERITY: Warn who?
CORPSE: THE MAJOR.
VERITY: The Major?
CORPSE: AT THE OAKLEIGH ARMS!
VERITY: What’s that?
CORPSE: OH CHRIST! … THEY TIED ME TO A CHAIR. POURED PETROL UP MY NOSTRILS. TWISTED COMBS IN MY HAIR.
VERITY: That rhymes!
CORPSE: I DID NOT SPEAK! I HAVE NEVER KNOWN SUCH PAIN. TELL THEM I NEVER SPOKE.
KNATCHBULL: Verity. Sweetheart.
VERITY: I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.
CORPSE: TELL SOMEBODY ABOUT MY PAIN!
(Pause, then she turns to Knatchbull. He has his hands on his hips and is looking at her quizzically.)
KNATCHBULL: All right? (She goes to him. He puts an arm on her shoulder.) Let’s get an ice-cream.
(They walk away. The lights fade to black.) (32)
Once it comes into power through realpolitik, every government — Labour or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, whether it’s run by a white male, a white female, a black male or female, what have you — is dependent upon a security apparatus; every security apparatus takes as its enemy the Other, as a threat to its own legitimacy. It is perhaps always easier to believe in the totalitarian tendencies of the opposition, but every ideology tends to totalitarianism. This is true even of the very real threat of the Democratic Movement, though, ironically, its founder Major Cadbury had warned against clandestine activity. The play concludes:
(Suddenly, the two figures in woollen face masks rush on and cover both [Rhoda] and Godber’s heads with sacks. They then shoot them through the sacks. The bodies slump to the floor.)
CYCLISTS (in unison): The Sentence of the Court of the Democratic Movement is death. Have you anything to say?
On 31 December 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the far-reaching National Defense Authorization Act. Chris Hedges wrote about the NDAA here and here; you may draw your own conclusions as to whether Barker’s play is as much a paranoiac fantasia, limited to the political arena of mid-1970s England, as some think it to be.
Barker however retains his faith in the autonomous individual — rather miraculously, McPhee survives his attempted assassination, but only with repeated shouts of “I! I! I!” at the final curtain, self-determination apart from the collective the only hope. Ian McDiarmid, one of Barker’s long-time stable of actors, made his first appearance in a Barker play here as McPhee. “I can’t think of a play since King Lear which shows a man so utterly unaccommodated, in every sense, as the Glaswegian homosexual spy Billy McPhee — so inescapably degraded by the society that exploits him, and yet so capable of warmth and courage,” Jeremy Treglown wrote in a review of the premiere production. “Ian McDiarmid’s performance was remorselessly unsentimental, triumphantly ugly, breathtakingly self-contradictory and vivacious.”  In a 1980 interview, Barker said about the play:
McPhee is a rootless individual with vast resources of untapped humanity. His survival is not the ground for optimism in the play. Survival is never enough for that. But he has achieved certain insights, and we know he will go on surviving, if only because he is never the victim of an idea. All the other characters are governed by thorough notions. All McPhee has is a passion for contact, and this overcomes persistent betrayal. I think that is good going as optimism goes.
The play is not so much about politics as about moral collapse — which I believe follows from bad politics: the loss of community, the fascist urge in sex and government. All the characters prey on decay. There are no positive gains from relationships, which are grabbed selfishly. Sensation is substituted for sensuality. … I have no time for Orbison’s limp liberalism. She has often been identified as the focus of sympathy. It’s not true. Her humanism is defunct and essentially cruel. It is McPhee’s limpet-like capacity for hope that makes the play vibrate. He won’t be prised away from hope. 
Rabey discusses the play at length (pp 54-63). Ian Cooper writes in his essay “Institutions, icons, and the body in Barker’s plays, 1977-86″:
In That Good Between Us, the Home Secretary, Orbison, declares “our system relies entirely on consent.” However, here and elsewhere, Barker’s drama shows how this consent is enforced and maintained by those in power: they characteristically deploy and ordain the repetition of such abstracting phrases, to secure a superficial dressing of liberal humanism as a cosmetic for a realpolitik supported by totalitarian brute force. In That Good, Orbison’s nominally socialist government attempts to assure others and itself of its own decency by invoking the civil system, but also straddles it in such a way that allows suppression and torture to quell riot and conspiracy. The corrosive rhetoric, enshrined by and within state terminology and discourse, ensures that, although violence and oppression exist and occur in Orbison’s Britain, the true forms of its manifestations are smothered beneath a very English sense of propriety, which Barker’s plays of this period persistently expose as an endemic falsehood. Orbison clings to a purposefully reductive sense of what is appropriate and necessary, in order to justify the morality of her actions. The special branch agent, Knatchbull, also characteristically deploys euphemism to cloak his activities. Although Orbison condones his “disappearance” of suspects, she expresses unease about Knatchbull’s obfuscations of such unconstitutional atrocities: “We have to get back to the personal pronoun. Stop hiding in the semantic wood.” Ironically, it is another character, McPhee, who will finally seize the nascent power of the personal pronoun.
- Jacket copy of the John Calder edition. [↩]
- Jeremy Treglown, “That Good Between Us.” Plays and Players, September 1977, pp 24-25. [↩]
- Mark Brown, editor, Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2011, pp 29-30. [↩]