If Maddy Costa’s interview with Howard Barker in the Guardian the other day seemed a bit brief, and Barker more pugnacious than usual, “The Curious Romance of Howard Barker,” Costa’s expanded version of the interview at her own blog States of Deliquescence, clarifies and explains — and it’s a much more interesting and (I think) accurate picture of the dramatist than that offered by the Guardian‘s version (and also addresses some of the more kneejerk concerns of the commenters there). A few quotes from Costa’s rewrite:
What he does believe in is tragedy, because tragedy disrupts rational thought and teaches its audience nothing. “King Lear doesn’t say anything,” he argues. “It doesn’t say what is a king, or what would be a good king.” Although Galactia, at the end of Scenes, expresses disgust at the idea of being “understood” by her public, Barker says it’s another of his characters, Machinist from Animals in Paradise, who gets closest to expressing his own view — by refusing to express one at all. He sets himself in stark opposition to playwrights who know what they want to communicate: “I write from ignorance. I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t care if you listen or not. On the other hand, I also think I’m privileging you, because I’m giving you, the audience, the outcome of a lot of anxiety and struggle.” …
Just as the voice in Barker’s plays is uprooted from our own time, so are his subjects. He started his career at the Royal Court, but quickly turned against it. “I knew there was something I didn’t like about the Royal Court: I now understand it was this constant emphasis on the politics. The politics was more important than the art.” He has a similar problem with the National Theatre: “A question you might ask is: what is a national theatre? It seems to me it has to be something: it’s not just a big building that does a lot of plays, because then it could be anything. Presumably it knowingly or unknowingly must reproduce the contemporary political consensus.” Reproduces it, or questions it? “No: it thinks it questions it — but that’s part of the consensus. We’re in a world of what I believe is worryingly called transparency: everything is continually being examined critically. But by producing lots of plays which argue about society, the theatre is merely reproducing the rule of society: it’s not breaking it down.” …
Instead of the outside world, he looks to culture for inspiration for his plays. Lately, he has been concerned with Pontius Pilate’s relationship with his wife and the Velazquez painting Las Meninas. But plays also begin, he says, with the desire to test a hypothesis. “I’m trying to work something out which clearly worries me at some level, so the first question for the artist is a challenge to themselves. ‘Do I really believe that we should love each other?’ Let’s take that as a question, that cliche which now dominates western culture. Jesus made it a rule that you must love everybody. Now ask yourself a basic question: why should I love anybody or everybody? That’s your beginning, the starting point of the hypothesis. Then, for the preservation of your own sanity, you create a dramatic realisation of whether that’s true or not true. From there it seems to me each play leads to the next.”
But if he doesn’t care for his audience’s entertainment, or enlightenment; if he believes in creating stress within his audience, why should anyone watch his work? His answer is typically singular. “If you have a soul — does everybody have a soul? I don’t know — but if you do, then there’s a necessity for it to be exposed to things. Theatre is a safe place to expose it. To be able to leave a theatre feeling you’ve experienced something, is powerful and useful to you. I never think of art having utility, but I think it does in that sense.”
The fuller version of the interview can be found here.
In other Guardian news, Caryl Churchill — who famously does not give interviews, unlike Barker and Bond — is the subject of this “profile by those who know her” today, cobbled together by Mark Lawson.