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  • From Pain, Poetry:Howard Barker’s Blok/Eko and the Poetics of Plethoric Theater
  • Matthew Roberts (bio)

Howard Barker and the Aesthetics of Catastrophic Theater

For over forty years, Howard Barker has been a prolific artist. Known for his more than sixty theater plays, several collections of poetry, and numberous scripts for film, television, and radio, Barker is also an accomplished visual artist, director, and scenographer. While his early plays such as Cheek (1970) and No One Was Saved (1970) engaged the sociopolitical issues of their time with satire and social realism, Barker’s work soon diverged from an aesthetic committed to social commentary and naturalistic conventions. For example, plays such as Fair Slaughter (1977), The Hang of the Goal (1978), Victory (1983), The Castle (1985), and The Bite of the Night (1986) showcase Barker’s early effort to create a new theatrical aesthetic, which he called the Theatre of Catastrophe. Alongside these plays, Barker crafted essays and theoretical writings to elaborate the aesthetic dimensions of his catastrophic theater, situated his work in relation to tragedy, and elucidated his critique of naturalistic theater, which he argues sacrifices the poetic and metaphoric for a theater that simply mirrors “what is misleadingly termed ‘the real world.’”1 While he worked with many major English theaters and theater companies throughout the 1980s, Barker’s work increasingly thrived on ambiguity, and his essays and plays emphasized the theater as a place for creating imaginary worlds. Barker therefore found himself at odds with many English theater companies, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, which rejected his Crimes in Hot Countries (1980) and The Europeans (1987) even though [End Page 261] they had invited Barker to write both plays.2 Responding to challenges to producing his plays, Barker and a group of actors and artists, many of whom were from the Royal Court Theatre and the RSC, formed The Wrestling School in 1988. An ensemble dedicated to the production of his plays, The Wrestling School has offered Barker the opportunity to create some of his most challenging works, such as Gertrude—The Cry (2002) and The Fence in its Thousandth Year (2005).3

As one might expect, Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe draws from tragic theater, for both tragedy and catastrophic theater make death their subject. However, while Barker often praises tragedy, stating that it “complicates life, and sends its audience away with that faint grudge at having been troubled at a level beneath the consciously moral,” he explicitly critiques the interpretation of tragedy that Aristotle gives in the Poetics.4 For Barker, Aristotle describes tragedy as an art form that allows a community to exorcise the dangerous emotions of pity and terror through catharsis. And as Barker mentions in his collection of aphorisms, Death, the One and the Art of Theatre (2005), Aristotle’s conception of catharsis arrests the death of the tragic protagonist in order to reinforce social normativity.5 Undermining the traditional Aristotelian aesthetic paradigm, Barker argues that tragedy “exists simply because the pain of others, and subsequently our own, is a necessity to witness—not to make sense of, not for a utility value, but as something for itself.”6 Importantly, Barker’s emphasis on pain explicitly calls attention to a theatrical context, underscoring that the cultural necessity of staging the experience, and the infliction, of pain actually troubles the ability to situate suffering in an aesthetic paradigm that would elaborate, or teach, moral lessons.7 Beauty in Barker’s theater does not therefore appear to signify moments of reconciliation or catharsis. Instead, as Karoline Gritzner observes, beauty occurs in catastrophic theater during moments when “the erotic experience and the encounter with death, the anguish of love and ecstasy of pain, provoke an affirmation of autonomous subjectivity (the freedom of the ego) while at the same time implying its fragmentation and dissolution.”8 Hence, the moments of greatest aesthetic significance in Barker’s plays are those that produce contradiction, rather than clarity.

By elaborating the connection between pain and beauty as it appears in Barker’s catastrophic theater, I follow Thomas Freeland and Elisabeth Angel-Perez, both of whom suggest that Barker’s plays follow [End Page 262] a “deconstructionist…method.”9...


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pp. 261-276
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