In celebration of the opening this week at the National Theatre of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, I republish below my 2009 review of two books about the dramatist by David Ian Rabey.
David Ian Rabey, Howard Barker: Politics and Desire. An expository study of his drama and poetry, 1969-87. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 302 pages. (Reprint of first 1989 edition, with new foreword.) Available from amazon.com.
David Ian Rabey, Howard Barker: Ecstasy and Death. An expository study of his drama, theory and production work, 1988-2008. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 289 pages. Available from amazon.com.
On 21 October, in celebration of the 21st anniversary of the founding of The Wrestling School, the 21 for 21 Festival will take place, an international event focusing on the lifework of dramatist Howard Barker. As part of the project, Barker’s work will return to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where several of his early plays had their debuts; in addition, productions are scheduled for Belgrade, Serbia; Guanajuato, Mexico; Cape Town, South Africa; Lisbon, Portugal; Tel Aviv, Israel; Perth, Australia; and even online at Second Life. There are productions of Barker’s work scheduled also for Boston; Portland, OR; Seattle; and New York (a production of Und from the Potomac Theatre Project, details on this to follow later this week). It is a unique, extraordinary project (along with the new uniform edition of Barker’s plays from Oberon Books, an effort that has now reached five volumes, with more to come) that throws a global spotlight on the 63-year-old theorist, director and playwright; though Barker puckishly considers his existence in the United States a mere “rumour,” it seems likely that the event will draw new attention to his work, an attention long overdue.
And there are conferences and books. The two volumes reviewed here are unique examinations of a body of work of a living dramatist by an individual voice: nearly 600 closely-printed pages devoted by David Ian Rabey, a professor of drama and theatre studies at Aberystwyth University, the artistic director of the Lurking Truth (Gwir sy’n Llechu) Theatre Company, and a playwright, director and actor himself, to the life output to date of Barker, who has been called “England’s greatest living dramatist” in the UK Times (perhaps before its purchase by Rupert Murdoch in 1981) and “the Shakespeare of our age” by Sarah Kane. While single-author examinations of individual contemporary playwrights have not been lacking, few have been as broad and informed by a sense of theatrical praxis itself (especially since Rabey has also had a long career of both directing Barker’s plays and performing in them under Barker’s direction). So, unlike Ruby Cohn’s lifelong critical dedication to the work of Samuel Beckett in several books and Jan Kott’s lyrical examination of Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (perhaps the two examples of criticism that most closely resemble Rabey’s), the two volumes are informed by a practical knowledge of how the plays work on the stage: Rabey can touch on both Barker’s drama and theory in a full, bodied recognition of the real effects they have on audiences and performers. (Also on Rabey’s resume are two volumes of his own plays, so here, dramatist also meets dramatist.)
Barker’s plays and polemics themselves are the best introductions to his drama and theory, and those seeking a more encapsulated overview to Barker’s work might better turn to Charles Lamb’s The Theatre of Howard Barker, for both of Rabey’s books proclaim to be more than a conventional chronological play-by-play canvassing of Howard Barker’s work (though this it does provide, at breezy length with the speed of a bullet train: Barker has written more than a hundred plays, seven books of poetry, three books of theory and several screenplays). For Rabey there is more at stake. In the new introduction to the paperback reprint of Politics and Desire, Rabey lays his project out clearly: “As you will discover from its first chapter,” he writes, “it is not only an exposition of dramatic literature and poetry. It is informed by personal theatrical practice. … It is also an existentialist manifesto championing what it calls ‘personal reformulation for one’s own needs,’ rather than for those of an externally (and varioiusly forcibly) imposed programme of social engineering.”
Rabey is modest; it is not only “also” this manifesto, it is primarily that. For Rabey, these two volumes are simultaneously a lens into a dramatist’s work and, as Barker’s plays themselves should be for the individual spectator, a mirror in which the reader himself is revealed and implicated, provided one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear. As such, the books become more of a personal journey conducted through the guise of a literary and theatrical criticism, a journey on which Rabey invites the reader to come along. It is an undertaking as creative (it might be more appropriate to say “self-creative”) as the plays themselves.
And it is a long undertaking. Rabey’s critical work in the past has included Sacred Disobedience, a much shorter examination of the plays and screenplays of David Rudkin, and for the “Longman Literature in English” series English Drama Since 1940, this latter a survey that reaches back to the work of John Whiting to cover a field demarcated by the plays of Samuel Beckett and John Osborne in the 1950s. But with his books on Barker, Rabey reinvents the genre of dramatic criticism as Barker’s plays reinvent drama.
Looking beyond the books as “existentialist manifestoes,” their critical approach is a useful map of Barker’s career. In Ecstasy and Death, Rabey suggests that Barker’s dramatic work can be divided into three distinct genres: “a series of highly original and well-plotted stories [The Love of a Good Man, I Saw Myself, and A Hard Heart],” “Shakespearean ‘subversions,’ in which events and characters depart startingly from familiar narrative sources, to question the morality with which the original versions are associated [Shakespeare's King Lear and Hamlet, Middleton's Women Beware Women, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm],” and “more ‘musical’ plays in which elements of expressionism and surrealism contribute to linguistically and pictorially poetic forms [Ten Dilemmas, the marionette play The Swing at Night and this year's Wrestling School production Found in the Ground, which owes a profound debt to the late string quartets of Bela Bartok]. … In all cases, Barker offers a speculative drama, which is distinguished, both theatrically and philosophically, be estrangement and surprising reversal.”
While Rabey does not explicitly make the case for Barker as a philosopher who works within the form of drama rather than expository prose, his relation of Barker’s work to contemporary philosophers such as Theodor Adorno, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Giorgio Agamben and Alphonso Lingis provides the basis for such a consideration. Common to all these philosophers (with perhaps the exception of Lacan) is an explicit examination of the status of the individual identity, embodied in flesh and blood, as it circulates through a post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima and now post-capitalist landscape, marrying the totalizing violent forces available to corporate governments (which pretend, in the co-optation of more benign socialistic strategies, to more ameliorist social policies) to a culture industry which decimates art in a mission to valorize distraction from the self, a self which poses a threat to those totalizing forces.
This sets a much higher value on theatre (especially when entertainment, a word dirtied by culture-industrial grime, is set upon a pedestal), a theatre also examines the status of the speaking individual embodied in flesh and blood, than many of its practitioners would wish to acknowledge. Rabey’s exposition of Barker’s work also makes room for criticism of extreme performance that ironically trivializes rather than engages the body. Discussing Barker’s 1999 play A Rich Woman’s Poetry (so far unproduced and unperformed, as so many of Barker’s plays are, perhaps the inevitable fate of drama written for a theatre that does not exist), Rabey notes “the modern vogue for Explicit Body Performance … which proclaims and indulges ideological and moral superiority whilst simultaneously purporting … ‘to take refuge in an aesthetic beyond the moral beyond the ethical beyond beyond the parameters of pity.’ Crucially, Barker’s theatre and its terms of enquiry are actively and complexly moral and ethical … rather than self-righteously and fetishistically re-presentative of postures of victimization.” The passage is both witty and precise: Apart from the observation, the language Rabey uses here concisely identifies the weaknesses of this strand of contemporary performance.
Rabey is at his best in Ecstasy and Death when he is able to draw upon theatrical experience and practice to assess individual plays. His study of The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo is based not only on a close reading of the two-character play but also his work with Barker-as-director when he played the title role of the play in 2001 opposite Antoinette Walsh. Rabey is able from this unique perspective to offer observations on Barker’s directorial practice as well as study carefully the role of his own body in the exploitation of Barker’s language for the stage. Here Barker emerges as, like Brecht, a theorist who meets himself as dramatist and director in an uneasy truce of the self.
Ecstasy and Death takes up where the earlier volume left off, proceeding from Barker’s work from 1988: an annus milabilis of sorts of Barker, a year which saw the publication of his classic anthology of essays Arguments for a Theatre and the establishment of The Wrestling School, founded solely to produce Barker’s plays (and it should be noted that the ensemble was created with Barker’s support, not at his instigation, though a few years later Barker would take the reins of the organization — or, perhaps, disorganization, judging from some of the history propounded both in this book and in Barker’s recent memoir A Style and Its Origins, which I wrote about here). Ecstasy and Death is bookended by theory: Arguments for a Theatre in the first chapter, A Style and Its Origins in the last.
There are lacks and weaknesses; sometimes, in his attempt to get it all in, Rabey provides too little description of plays (especially unpublished plays to which this reader, and few others, have access) that appear central to Barker’s career (A Rich Woman’s Poetry, for one, though Rabey’s brief description tantalizes rather than frustrates). As he notes in the preface, Rabey is also unable for space reasons to consider Barker’s poetry: seven volumes at the time of this writing, all but one of which are out of print; particularly unfortunate given Barker’s self-description as a poet. (We may perhaps dream that his current publisher, Oberon Books, will provide a Collected Poems in the near future.) Given Rabey’s attention to Barker’s directorial and design scenography, it’s unfortunate that the book comes without photos (though this may perhaps be the result of the publisher’s budget than Rabey’s oversight); but each volume concludes with a series of statements from actors and actresses familiar with Barker’s work, which goes some way to make up for this lack, and provides welcome alternative voices as well.
No doubt Ecstasy and Death and the republication of its predecessor will infuriate and frustrate; one may expect to hear echoes of John Bull’s criticism of Politics and Desire in Theatre Research International on the publication of the 1989 book: “a book for disciples,” Bull wrote, “written by an acolyte.” (Rabey’s response: “I decided to accept as a profound compliment that which might have been intended as a rebuke.”) But then, perhaps they should. These books themselves constitute a passionate rebuke to a theatre in crisis (the energy of theatrical activity — hundreds of productions through a given year in London and New York, through fringe festivals and in basements — is no indication of a form’s health or status; parasites reproduce at an exponential speed upon rotting flesh), and those responsible for that theatre can’t be expected to welcome them.
Rabey’s writing here, like Barker’s drama, is more than just another addition to the critical shelf or the theatre anthology. Politics and Desire and especially Ecstasy and Death constitute a vision for theatre that re-animates and re-vivifies a form that once spoke uniquely to the very heart and blood of human experience: they do so concisely, precisely, bringing into the theatre space what has for too long been confined to the academy or the pages of theory (which is not to discredit these in the least). As Rabey notes in his summary of Barker’s project:
Barker’s work dramatizes and demonstrates life’s brevity and intensity, and the mercilessness of self and others (theatrical, even when occurring outside the theatre) which is often required to create a moment of life at its fullest pitch, through reorganization of time, in which people are brought together, to make something happen, through the precise manipulation of expectation, interest, unusually heightened inter-/personal awareness, pressure, friction, which generates ecstasy: a momentary revelation of self and others which constitutes an intensely personal pitch of experience and knowledge (“in the midst of” but) beyond the received terms of history …
In comparison, much contemporary theatre pales: we have easy charm and enchantment, rather than beauty or sublimity; celebrations of banality and mediocrity which manage to comprise both frenetic activity and powerless resignation simultaneously; pop-culture tropes, rather than words from the blood; product, not self-invention and existential, metaphysical speculation upon which it is impossible to put a price. One of Rabey’s implications here is that life is short, options and resources limited: if this theatre can recapture the form’s original spiritual and intellectual power, why waste time with any other? Even those unfamiliar with Barker’s work will find much to wrestle with here (though they will no doubt seek his work out as well), much to inspire, much to provide courage. “It is never too late to forestall the death of Europe,” Barker wrote at the end of “Fortynine asides for a tragic theatre” in 1986. Nor is it ever too late, Rabey insists, to forestall the deaths of the theatre, or the self.