Originally published in July 2010. Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution will be produced by London’s National Theatre later this year; melancholy is central to my own new play Erlkönig — indeed, it is the controlling tone. A revised version of the below also appeared in Word Made Flesh.
Notes on Howard Barker’s “The Sunless Garden of the Unconsoled.” In Barker’s recent essay on the metaphysics of theatre and tragedy, the reader is left with a sense of melancholy: not in the sense of the sentimental, pitiable, melodramatic or merely “sad,” these superficial remnants of traditional tragedy which, even though they too are fading from the stage, are the mere dying fragments of a form. Melancholy is a hard, brittle thing. It is a lens through which the impossibility of a meaningful human existence is recognized, and the proper response is not applause but silence. The self-determination of Barker’s final paragraph is the ongoing project of self-knowledge, possible only with catastrophic self-alienation and acts of the will against itself within the phenomenal context, whether politics or personal morality. It is a response to impossibility: a form which also “spurns both punishment or reward,” whether for dramatist, performer or spectator; punishment and reward are the products of the Culture Industry, a conception of drama that it is “good for you,” like skim milk.
“In the Catastrophic play the invocation of Sacrifice renders the binary ethic of criminal/victim redundant,” Barker writes, a nod to Bataille (unconscious perhaps), and suggests that Sacrifice as an excess of energy in a culture of material plenty — as plethora — is at the center of drama: theatrical event as a necessary sacrifice. Sacrifice is accompanied by melancholy for what has been left behind, but not for that reason an invalid means to the road to the autonomy of the individual. Barker goes on:
The culture of Liberal-Humanism finds Sacrifice comprehensible only in very constrained circumstances. Unwillingly it palliates the death of soldiers by attaching the word to the memorial, but both the rhetoric and the architecture are copied from Thermopylae and the pagan Spartans, and Christ himself, the most self-conscious of all the sacrificed, knew it as a destiny in his God-character, but a nightmare in the man. His desperate pleading to be excused the very ordeal for which he was created is touchingly human and might be seen as the first expression in Western culture of the individual asserting his reluctance to perish for the collective, in other words, to be a victim. Liberal Humanism’s obsessive desire to identify and eliminate the victim is an inevitable consequence of the doctrine of equality, and indeed might be regarded as its ideological justification. Victims are, of course, abundant in tragedy, and constitute the source of the dismay which initiates it, but unless one were whimsical and dared to suggest that the humiliation and death of Cordelia was a sacrifice to the eventual civilizing of King Lear, the category of victim is strictly reserved.
Crime and punishment in tragedy are no longer inextricably linked: the Culture Industry too has decimated the concept of guilt to the rather unedifying condition of having a bad conscience; perhaps this is the way that the human explains to himself his own role as microcosm of the race in Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and a bad conscience fades in a manner unavailable to guilt. But the ideas of “punishment without crime” as well as “crime without punishment” should be recognizable in phenomenal form in the 21st century. Theatre has no responsibility to either ameliorate or revolt against these phenomenal truths: but to speculate on a third way. That third way is the autonomous imagination. Barker again:
As in Gertrude, Wonder and Worship in the Dying Ward describes the terrible phenomenon of crime without punishment, and more terrible still, punishment without crime, for both Hamlet and the broken daughter of Ostend have sinned against nothing we recognize, nor are those responsible for their injury ever driven to crave forgiveness, seek reconciliation, nor even, by their own fall, raise a quivering finger to point in the direction of a juster world. Furthermore, somewhere in this sunless garden stands a character who, like the two identified, is equally unconsoled for a savage destiny but in a further repudiation of Humanist ethics, discovers the wherewithal to applaud the arbitrary character of it. The wrecked musical prodigy Wardrobe senses the appalling significance of loss, the beauty of the unfulfilled, not for himself, but for others. Is he mad?