No English-language plays so exemplify the assumptions underlying radical elegance than those of Howard Barker. As Beckett said of Joyce (and perhaps of his own work), in Barker’s plays content is form, form is content, and this is demonstrated by both Barker’s literary and scenographic projects. Like his contemporaries Edward Bond and Harold Pinter, Barker emerged from a working-class childhood (his father an active socialist and Marxist), eventually rejecting social realism for a wider-ranging dramatic experimentation; in Barker’s case, informed by his university studies in history. (According to Wikipedia, the parents of Caryl Churchill, another of Barker’s contemporaries, were perhaps more upper-middle class, a political cartoonist and a fashion model; she went on to study English literature at Oxford.) And, as in Bond’s plays, this study of history gives rise to alternative histories, imaginative rather than documentary. The same may be said of Barker’s language, about as far from the quotidian, verbatim expressions of any given social class as one can get, and uniquely idiosyncratic.
In his first major play, Claw (1975), Barker took his first steps away from social realism; the character Claw himself was torn between a pathetic urge to tatty elegance and the working-class radicalism of his father; eventually, neither was an effective response to post-war British culture. In his growing concerns with desire and violence, Barker sought various imaginative forms to contain an exploratory intellect and spirit; in his scenographic concerns with costume (the haute couture of the 1940s and 1950s) and setting (a noisy, mechanical industrialism), he looked back to the era just after World War II and the expansion of the middle-class in industrializing 19th-century Victorian Britain. While the dialogue of his plays is informed by both cultures, it is imaginatively transformed into a vehicle for sensation and sensuality appropriate to a contemporary culture in spiritual and anxious crisis and its continuing catastrophes and atrocities.
Perhaps the two books most interesting in approaching Barker from the standpoint of philosophy and radical elegance are Georges Bataille’s Erotism and Theodor Adorno’s essays in The Culture Industry, but Barker is a dramatist, not a philosopher, and whether or not he is deeply familiar with these works he is not constructing a system or a dramatic presentation of the thinking of these two writers. His arena is the theatre: that art which, in bodied speaking, opens us to imaginative possibilities of radical elegance in sensuality, thought, and our bodies’ being in the world.