British playwright Howard Barker coined the term “theatre of catastrophe” to describe his unique brand of complex, ambiguous, and often unsettling drama. Revered in continental Europe, North America, and Australia as one of the greatest living dramatists working in the English language, Barker is also a celebrated poet, theater theorist, and painter. The first collection of interviews conducted with Barker, Howard Barker Interviews 1980–2010 covers his entire career and gives a strong sense of the life and work of this innovative dramatist.
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About the Author
Mark Brown is a theater critic for the Sunday Heraldand lecturer in theaterstudies at the University of Strathclyde.
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Howard Barker Interviews 1980â"2010
Conversations in Catastrophe
By Mark Brown
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
'Energy – and the small discovery of dignity'
With Malcolm Hay and Simon Trussler (for Theatre Quarterly)
Theatre Quarterly (TQ) Howard Barker (HB)
TQ: How was it that you began to write plays?
HB: It began with a trio of radio plays. When I was at Sussex University I'd written three or four bad novels. University intensified my tendency to introspection, and the novel was the obvious form for me. Someone said the dialogue was the best part of these and urged me to write for radio. My first radio play was One Afternoon on the Sixty-Third Level of the North Face of the Pyramid of Cheops the Great, a half-hour comedy about a slaves' strike during the building of the pyramids. I was encouraged to write a couple more. These were Henry V, where the king says that anyone who fights with him that day shall be his brother. A common soldier takes him up on it. He calls on him in England some years afterwards and finds he's not as welcome as he expected. The other was Herman with Millie and Mick, a parable about the work ethic. It's been done on radio stations all over the world. They are original, clever, young man's plays.
TQ: You weren't particularly active in the theatre while you were at university?
HB: No, not at all. I'd come from a stable working-class background – relatively prosperous and socially ambitious, with my parents who believed passionately in the idea of a 'good education' – but theatre played no part whatsoever. My school was a philistine South London grammar school, so 'O' and 'A' level texts were the only plays I was acquainted with there. But a few of us – regarded warily by teachers and the bulk of the school – used to improvise a satirical/surrealist serial every lunchtime in the back of a disused army truck.
We acted characters we despised, like Dr Barnardo, Ernest Shackleton, Kennedy, Christ, and James Bond. We had diabolical figures too, like Crippen and Hitler. We never saw ourselves as making theatre, though. So when the thing ran out of steam and died, no one thought the next thing to do would be to prepare a script. I suppose the whole flavour of what we were doing was influenced by the rising satire boom, but we were very vicious, with all the cruelty of schoolboys stuck in the particularly oppressive non-culture of a grammar school.
Following this, I wrote with one of those people a comedy series for television. We despised television for its tedium. We carried it round the corridors of BBC Light Entertainment, and were either insulted or ignored. Then I went to university and read history. I found it a shock, a vast and alien environment peopled by baying public schoolboys. I began a process of withdrawal which made me suspicious of, and ignorant of, the politicization of 1968. This was peculiar because I had very strong political instincts. I had a fundamental Stalinist education from my father who was a shop steward, and a very developed sense of class – class conflict if not class struggle.
TQ: So Cheek was written before No One Was Saved?
HB: I'm not sure which came first, actually. Once I'd shown them Cheek, they asked whether I had any other plays that might be suitable for a season for schools that Pam Brighton was mounting at the [Royal] Court, so I gave her No One Was Saved. It's possible that was written before Cheek. No One Was Saved was done for the schools programme but the run was extended because it was so successful.
TQ: Was the play a direct response to seeing Edward Bond's Saved?
HB: I went to see Saved with a friend – the same one that I'd written the satirical TV comedy series with. We'd gone on the strength of a review we'd read saying that this was life in south London epitomized. We just didn't think that that was so – we didn't understand much about what Bond was trying to do with the language of the play. That was why I wrote Cheek, and also why I took up the gang of youths from Saved and used them in No One Was Saved.
TQ: What relationship did the play have to the John Lennon song?
HB: That was fundamental. I was groping blindly towards some description of the parasitic relationship between art and experience. The song had a rare concern with despair and defeat – very unlike a modern pop song – but I was always suspicious of the Beatles, and Lennon in particular: all the financial manipulation and posturing with maharishis struck me firmly then as an indictment of the 1960s. So I created a fantasy in which Lennon had actually known this girl Eleanor Rigby, who was not an old woman as I thought the song implied, and served her up as song material.
TQ: It's very clearly a despairing play – what comes over is a lack of hope. You don't allow one small gesture of optimism.
HB: That ties in with Saved again. When Bond and others claimed that the end of Saved was optimistic because of the action of mending the chair in the last scene, I never found the argument very convincing. The image of hope is dwarfed by having been given so much evidence against it. So I wasn't able or prepared to make a similar gesture in my play. The whole question of pessimism in my plays comes down to that, really – my inability to manufacture optimism out of situations that are amazingly dark.
TQ: Your characters do have a capacity to be fairly thoroughly defeated in one way or another. Laurie, in Cheek, is the next in line [...].
HB: Yes. Cheek is a very personal play, almost an autobiographical play. It's as near to naturalism as I've got, although the language is clearly stretched. I regarded what happens to Laurie as a fair interpretation of experience, certainly of the lives of the people I knew in the bit of south London that I lived in. Some of the characters in that play are people I knew.
TQ: Right from the start you seem not to have had any problems with creating a dramatic structure, with organizing material into scenes.
HB: It's extraordinary you should say that. I was thrown out of a very successful agency for failing to understand the laws of structure, whatever they may be. And Michael Billington is under the impression I can't do it, either. In fact I do it well, and have got a good deal of pleasure from arranging quite complex plots, which is one aspect of it at least.
TQ: Your plots don't have a conventional structure, but they seem to create their own quite effortlessly. Was it a relatively easy process, when you first began to write plays?
HB: Yes. The earlier one goes back, the easier the writing was – I find it much harder now than I did then. It was very effortless and primitive. I'd had that earlier experience of knocking out satirical sketches. I've always had that ability. In a way it's something I've had to struggle against – the collapse into simply producing satirical characters and satirical moments.
TQ: Where does the idea for a play come from?
HB: I tend to start a play from an idea about a character rather than about an event. That's certainly characteristic of the earlier plays, and even of a play such as The Hang of the Gaol. I also know what tensions will exist in a play, what the general situations will be. But the motive force is almost always a character. Sometimes I may carry around an idea of a character for a long while and never find a situation or a place for him. With The Hang of the Gaol, for instance, I'd had the character of Jardine in my head for a long time, but I had no particular use for him. Then I read about the fire at Chelmsford Prison and I saw a link.
TQ: How directly were you involved with the productions of the early plays?
HB: Nothing like as closely as I wanted to be. By which I don't mean I was excluded. I was for a long time bedazzled and bewildered. There was the grotesque problem of seeing theatre as other people's property. It made me feel very alienated. And there was this very particular style and regime at the Royal Court which was unwelcoming. You were dealt the impression that it was a great privilege being there. I didn't know what the writer's function at rehearsals was, so I sat very quietly at the back and watched while Bill Gaskill directed the play and was thrilled by it in the event. But I very rarely spoke to the actors. It was a painful time for me, shame and pride coming in quick succession.
TQ: You seem to have been a very prolific playwright, even then.
HB: Having two productions at the [Royal Court] Theatre Upstairs in the space of six months gave me confidence in my talent, which being lung out of the agency had hurt. It was a tremendous affirmation. I remember being very disappointed not to get the Devine Prize, which I felt I'd earned. But I've never won a prize for anything, and now don't wish to, of course. I thought Hang should have got the Whiting Prize last year, and that's my last effort. I was certainly prolific, and offered the Court their commission very quickly. It was called The War in Pictures. I believed it was a good play, about a returning mercenary. Perhaps they thought I needed time to develop. Anyway, when it wasn't taken, I was at a loss where to go.
TQ: How did you become involved with the Open Space?
HB: Clive Goodwin, who was my agent, sent Edward, the Final Days, a satire on Edward Heath, to Charles Marowitz. It was done as a lunchtime play. That was the beginning of the association. I even became resident dramatist there. It ran at the same time as Recreation Ground produced Faceache, probably my most naturalistic piece, about two former inhabitants of a repressive children's home meeting in maturity and taking up exactly the same positions of exploitation towards one another. John Ashford featured them in a Time Out article. They were twin aspects of my writing, one brash, comic and endlessly inventive, the other dark, almost excessively painful. John has been very supportive to me every since.
Edward was my best piece of unadulterated satire. It was good to do something that was ruptured in its chronology and manner. I wrote it quite early in the life of the Heath government, a long time before the miners' strike. At times I've felt I was wrong to relate so much of it to homosexuality, but that's only the unease of a liberal conscience. There should be no forbidden territory in theatre. I remember Jim Hiley expressing extreme anger with the homosexual in That Good Between Us. I examined the text and was certain there are no grounds for special pleading.
TQ: How consciously were you using those early plays to express particular viewpoints?
HB: They express particular viewpoints, but without complexity. I placed the characters in Edward squarely in their social context, but only as subjects of lampoon, because I hated them and was offended by them. I am still deeply offended by society, and still hate as much, but the habit is no longer iconoclastic, as it was automatically then. It is a habit that is only now beginning to recede in my work, partly because I recognize the value of iconoclasm and feel a powerful reflex for it. It occurs in The Love of a Good Man, well and healthily, but in an entirely richer context. Plays like Edward, Skipper, or Reach for the Sky, spring from an uncontrolled antagonism. They are a heaving out of the pain of an oppressed English youth. In that period I was further from any feeling of involvement with my characters than at any time before or since. I began to feel that being involved with my characters at all was a weakness.
TQ: What was your own political thinking at the time?
HB: I am never certain of the nature of my political thinking. It is easy to say you are a revolutionary socialist, but it is stale with cliché and a certain vanity. I knew that then, as now, I believed revolution necessary but unlikely. That tension is at the hub of my work.
TQ: You were never associated with any group, such as Portable Theatre, although some of your early plays – Alpha Alpha, for example – seem very similar to the kind of work that Portable was producing.
HB: That's true. I was never even part of their group authorships. I don't know much about Portable's origins, but I'd imagine the impulses behind their work were very similar to mine. At one time I'd perhaps have liked the chance to work with them: I envied their solidarity, they had an armour. Knowing myself better now, I don't think it was possible for me. But the connections are unavoidable, because of a common subject matter and ideological base. But they were ahead of me, putting their theatre together long before I wrote a play. I think criminality was a fairly common metaphor of the 1960s and 1970s. I've already mentioned we improvised round Crippen at school. In Alpha Alpha I was still in pursuit of public figures: Boothby and the sexual danger of the criminal, and the Kray twins' classic admiration for the vulgarity of ruling class modes.
TQ: Have you ever had any problems with libel? There are a large number of easily identifiable real-life models for many of your characters.
HB: I've never been prosecuted. But it is one of the reasons why Methuen stopped publishing me. There's always the danger of libel because I've so often exploited the public's contempt for its heroes and governors. Attacking images, proposing alternatives, forcing revelations, is something the theatre does very well.
TQ: There's a difference, though, between the attacks on Heath or on Sir Francis Chichester in Skipper, and characters like the female Home Secretary in That Good Between Us or the retired Labour peer in Stripwell.
HB: Yes, I was unable to carry on in that simple satirical mould. I've always prided myself on my ability to create characters quite rapidly, but my urge recently has been to deepen the characterization. That's what creates that slightly ambiguous response – there are characters whom you think you recognize, but they may be the wrong sex, or they may be an amalgam of several people. That Jarrow figure in Stripwell, for example, could be one of several people. And the female Home Secretary in That Good Between Us was based on Roy Jenkins. Everybody now thinks it is really meant to be Shirley Williams. Certainly, my contempt for the Labour Party is much more astringent than my contempt for the Tories.
TQ: The other ambiguity that occurs in those early plays is between the social context and the psychological context – particularly the theme of parental domination.
HB: Yes. This must be why I am not a good political writer. There is a persistent upsurge of the personal into what superficially appears to be a didactic exercise, an eruption of private will and shameful motive. The parent–child relationship is strong in Claw, That Good, and Edward, too. In Claw there is a struggle for possession of Noel's soul, but it is actually social values that initiate the psychology. The mother's contempt for her husband, her loathing for his sexuality, is almost entirely because of his social failure, his inability to deliver her from the misery of a poor life. Eddie's Toryism, and sensitivity to disgust, is produced by his father's insistence on the general squalor of the human animal, which litters contraceptives on his tiny lawn. It is not unjust to see Toryism as a manifestation of life-hatred. And Rhoda's politics in That Good are wrong – radical, the outcome of a personal disgust. She is persistently mocking her mother's sexuality, and desperate for sensation. So, yes, all the political positions are mediated by psychology but not dictated by it.
TQ: Sexual relationships in your plays tend to be governed by selfishness and opportunism.
HB: Yes, but also by social malformation. The weakening and distortion of sexuality and the mutilation of passion are identified socially. Noel's desire for Angie is heightened, not lessened, by his discovery of her origins. They share a conspiratorial passion. But she is the victim of her own material circumstances. I am saying that class is the enemy of freedom in every respect, not least sexually. It's true that any potentially vivid sexual relationship is distorted by a social relationship which frustrates or murders it. At its worst, the sexual pleasure comes from this degradation. Nattress in Birth on a Hard Shoulder can only enjoy sex through degradation, like Gadsby in Alpha Alpha. Rhoda's sexual response to Godber is anything but spontaneous, is almost an act of social defiance. Some of the characters, rather than endure this deformation, make a sort of withdrawal – Hilary in Birth refuses to discriminate, and Jane in Hang of the Gaol simply retires.
Excerpted from Howard Barker Interviews 1980â"2010 by Mark Brown. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
‘Energyand the small discovery of dignity’
With Malcolm Hay and Simon Trussler (for Theatre Quarterly)
‘Articulate explorers in an age of populism’
With Charles Lamb
‘The idea of hidden life’
With David Ian Rabey
‘A laboratory of human possibility’
With Charles Lamb
‘On puppetry and All He Fears’
With Penny Francis
‘A demand for the problematic’
With Dan Hefko
‘It has always been possible to improve on God’
With Charles Lamb
‘Death as a theatrical experience’
With Aleks Sierz
‘Crisis is the essential condition for art forms’
With David Ian Rabey and Karoline Gritzner
‘Not what is, but what is possible’
With Thierry Dubost
‘About things on the stage’
With Elisabeth Angel-Perez et al
‘Ecstasy and the extremes of emotional life’
With Mark Brown
‘A rupture to the moral curve’
With Elizabeth Sakellaridou
With Vanasay Khamphommala
‘An education in living poetry, vivid and violent’
With Nina Rapi
‘On The Wrestling School’
With Duška Radosavljevic
‘Art is about going into the dark’
With Mark Brown
Notes on Contributors
A Barker Reading List