Wrestling with Howard Barker: Interview

by Elizabeth Sakellaridou*

When I saw the RSC production of Barker’s The Bite of the Night at the Barbican Pit in 1988 as director Danny Boyle’s guest, I felt right away that what I had just experienced was an unprecedented breakthrough for the British Theatre as I had known it that far – both in dramatic language and stage aesthetic. When I mentioned it to Howard Barker at our first meeting at a theatre conference in Dresden in 1996, he observed that I was one of the very few people who had seen that production. In retrospect, it proved that The Bite of the Night was indeed the first signpost of Barker’s famous poetics, “The Theatre of Catastrophe.” I have since followed his artistic development, attending performances and scholarly activities around his work, tracing his critical reception in Britain and abroad and, most importantly, engaging in a continuous conversation with the artist himself.

Seeing recently an extract from the videotaped production of Blok/Eko at the Exeter Northcott Theatre  (2011) on U-Tube, I sensed the same affective resonances as the ones I held in memory from my previous exposures to his art. Many studies have been written on Barker’s oeuvre, each trying to cover a different aspect of his multi-faceted artistic creation from desire and sexuality to language use, his wordscapes and soundscapes, his scenography and directing style: a variety of features that were beautifully brought together in the distinct productions of his devoted theatre company, The Wrestling School.

Yet, as a manifestation of “total” theatre his art is not easy to pigeonhole. Barker is a dramatist and a poet of international repute, a painter, a theatre director and set designer, a photographer and a collector of art. He is unique in the contemporary British Theatre to create and sustain a fantastic universe of his own (which he has self-reflexively called “Barkerhouse”), where his characters live their lives uninhibited by the social and ethical codes of real life. It is precisely his dissociation from the obligations and protocols of societal rules that has placed him at gunpoint for the London theatre critics, who see him as a deadly threat to the ethical/utilitarian theatre values that still dominate the English Stage.

As a Greek, I couldn’t help drawing a parallel between the growing hostility of the declining Athenian State towards Euripides’ unsacred theatre, which eventually sent him to exile from his own city, and Barker’s self-exile in his own country, where there seems to be a persistent albeit silent ban over his work for the stage. Barker did not deny my parallel. On the contrary, in his still growing volume of work there is a play meaningfully titled Dogdeath in Macedonia.

It is my great pleasure and honour that Barker has accepted my invitation for an interview for Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques, which is always eager to host the most distinguished contemporary theatre artists and bring to wide attention their innovative work for the stage. Our interview took place in the summer 2023.

Howard Barker. Photo: Courtesy of Howard Barker

You have been writing since the 1970s, i.e. for over 50 years. In the late 1980s you formulated a distinct dramatic style which you famously called “Theatre of Catastrophe.” Do you still adhere to this concept of tragedy or are you aware of an evolution in your style and mood?

“Catastrophe” described the form of tragedy I’d found for myself – and its difference from classical/Shakespearean forms – perfectly well. As a discipline I no longer require it, and its moral arc no longer operates in major plays (e.g. Answer Me, Landscape with Cries, At her Age and Hers etc.) that I write now. I don’t repudiate it at all. But its key condition was that an event obliged the protagonist to discard their moral attitudes and adopt others (Bradshaw in Victory, Katrin in The Europeans), or failing this, to choose death (Gertrude). This turning-of-the-key, which unlocks catastrophe, isn’t intrinsic to these later works. They are driven by a sort of normality (no matter how barbarous) in which the protagonist swims, or drowns, colliding and rebounding from others or fatally drawn to them. Neither Catastrophe, nor my later mode, has a moral intention, of course.

Sexuality and desire are still the prominent drives in your theatre but there seems to be a greater emphasis on ageing and decay which gives an additional flavour to human suffering as well.

Desire maddens, but rarely poisons my characters. On the contrary, it relieves them from the nauseating conditions of existence. It is never banal, no one enters a sexual relation casually, I think. It is an alternative field for thought and expression, a whole anatomy or geography which renders political issues trivial, marginal. In the wanting of the other, the characters find their most eloquent selves. It is not coincidental that obsessive political minds (Rousseau, Robespierre, Lenin) dread and humiliate sexuality. As far as the factor of age, I have never since my earliest days, understood the way in which age is used against sexuality, and the pitiful notion that the youthful body has a monopoly of the erotic.

Howard Barker, Godiva: Old Woman, Old Horse (oil on board, 2020). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

By contrast to other writers (Beckett for instance), who have dealt with mortality and the decline of the body, your focus on the ageing body is always gendered, with distinct preference for the female ordeal of decay. There is a lot of ambiguity there because your viewpoint fluctuates incessantly from extreme harshness, satire and cynicism to extreme sensitivity, tenderness and admiration.

It’s true that, given the prominence of female protagonists in my work, the declined body will be gendered (but not always). On the other hand, the beauty of the aged female body is articulated by men, many of whom are in a state of wonder and evince a new aesthetic of age. Only deeply disturbed males, already misogynistic, for example Velazquez in At Her Age and Hers, dare ridicule the altered female form. Because these women speak their sex (The Persecution and Apotheosis of Doris Croydon), socially invented shame is abolished, since shame is always wrapped in silence. Incidentally, I do not have a “viewpoint,” and this is a very critical condition of my art. Characters say, but it is not me saying. I have no saying. Theatre is so sickly with opinion and manipulation, people find this hard to believe. Every text seems to have an intention to persuade. To influence. I recoil from the sordid desire to influence.

Howard Barker, Slap (oil on board, 2015). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

On the other hand, your male characters, although they make their presence felt by exercising the typical features of masculinity, do not preoccupy your thought so much as to become the central or sole protagonists in your plays. For instance, works like The Dying of Today and True Condition are rather rare cases where men grow into fascinating/memorable figures in your dramatic world.

Yes, to an extent, but Fever, the protagonist of Exquisite, is the reverse, and has few of the characteristics of traditional males. He recoils from power, he wishes to diminish himself. And you mention True Condition. A new and very long text of mine, Barkerhouse, is male-dominated but not conventionally. Characters of both genders have the same tragic problem – if life is unbearable, must you commit suicide? What is the alternative? Let us not talk of Christian or Humanist ideology…

The idea of death and beyond, a sort of speculation about afterlife, entered your work a long time ago. I sensed it in Und and you also beautifully theorized on it in Death, the One and the Art of Theatre. It has since developed a distinct liminal space for your characters to inhabit and enrich their psychosomatic experience in (e.g. Womanly: Life from the Death Side, your short film The Body and the Name).

Yes, but this tendency has nothing to do with any kind of faith or superstition. It is rather a dramatic space where – how terrible this is – the same rules apply (what greater disaster for the Christians than this?). 1870 is the key play for this agonizing discovery.

As a consequence of this growing meditative disposition, poetic and melancholy in nature, your characters are becoming more like shadows or walking ideas or just representatives of class, gender and mood rather than real people and they often seem to dissolve into thin air by the end of the play. This perception of a person as a shadow is also captured visually on the front cover of Volume 12 of your collected works.

I can’t agree with any of that. It is very material what happens to them. Mrs Sanctu (in Answer Me) is a very willing occupant of the grave she is spiritually ready for, and if she wasn’t, she is in any case stuck, for she can’t get out. The Overseer in True Condition has every intention of dying once he has completed his great metaphor with the criminals, and his unexpected lover has expired in their love act, so he has no one to live for. I do not understand how these are not “real people.” Is Hamlet a “real person”? To me he is. He dies because he must (unthinkable he should live) and so my people are at the end of their patience with a deeply unsatisfactory world. Certainly they are not walking ideas. But they do have ideas. In so much naturalism there are no ideas which are actually in the heads of the characters. The ideas – if there are any – are entirely the author’s. Have I not always said I give autonomy to my people? I never know where they are going.

At the same time your form is becoming more open, static and meditative. The text often tends to plotlessness and mainly consists of shades of mood, reflection and disposition. Conversations with Hu discreetly lies behind these, usually short, “dramaticules” and sometimes extracts from this work appear as epigraphs to these playlets. Your rare collection of drawings and aphorisms These Sad Places, Why Must You Enter Them? can also be seen as a forerunner for these floating later pieces.

You have identified something there, which interests and troubles me… I have been a great – possibly very great – inventor of plots, entirely original stories with no cultural predecessors (unless you might take The Dying of Today, which is an event in Thucydides, you know well). I manipulate history and myth, and I invent it, but “the plot” is a servitude as well as a tool, and I have a growing sense that the game of “the story,” shared between writer and audience, is not necessary, even if it comforts everybody to believe, in a transient way, they are observing life. Even if the plot is not prosaic, the contract is. I have always asked a lot of my audience, whilst giving enormously of dramatic energy, dialogic originality, and ruthless moral dissent.  Now I might ask, “do you need the structure as such? There is a world here, and it comes from these voices … a series of actions, known as a plot, may not be necessary …”

This tendency to abstraction and static contemplation is also reflected in the minimalization of scenery and props. The chair remains as almost the only essential prop on stage. What exactly does the chair stand for, for you as a writer, director and thinker?

The chair on stage is immensely ambiguous, authoritative, suggestive of civility but also torture, the joy of the dining table, but also the inquisition, the infant’s high chair, etcetera. It is embedded in consciousness as no other item is, perhaps. It could never be so in film, in which it would be just another set-dressing. With more than one chair, it can be intensified. Then you have the way an individual deals with the chair (leaning on it, throwing it across the room, etc …). Look at The Apotheosis of Doris Croydon again, how she uses the chair to give herself status (her sexual history) but then is condemned to stand on it and be scrutinized … I require as a dramatist not much more than a/the chair … and that is not to diminish the scale of the action (Napoleon watched his battles from a chair). It is not more significant to me than costume, however. I might add this – that in the poor theatre where I began my career (and largely remained) the chair was the economic solution, so four chairs might represent a car. This I never liked. The chair is a chair!

The emptiness of the stage heightens the poetic and musical qualities inherent in your texts (be it the spoken language itself or the sound stage directions) and they can easily be perceived as either elegies to the vicissitudes and the transience of existence or fugues playing variations to your favourite themes. Similarly the movement of the bodies is carefully choreographed, so that the overall impression for the spectator is a synaesthetic perception of all the arts. The title of Landscape with Cries is an apt description of the visual and the sonoric power of your scenic language.

Yes, the body and the voice have always been the essence for me, design less so, and music anathema. Of course, costume is an aspect of the body, and I have paid great attention to that, as a director. The overall effect is of austerity, though I would not describe it as minimalist. What I intend – with the right actors – is to overwhelm the resistance of the public with contrived, metaphorical language (often relieved by old slang) and perfect juxtapositions. This is all prefigured by the exordium, with its demonstration of uncanny configurations and sound. Altogether, this is an experience which has no parallel in film or even opera, let alone common theatre.

From the Wrestling School production of Howard Barker’s Blok/Eko at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter (2011), dir. by Howard Barker

With regard to entitling your plays you often come up with striking titles which either sound gnomic and aphoristic or are playful or ambiguous with language. Again they are closer to poetry and reflective writing than drama per se.

I cannot begin the play without the title. Just so, I cannot make the character without a name. It is psychologically significant to me. These names come from my own history, family life, cities I have never visited, and so on. I was content at one time with words, simply descriptive, like The Castle, The Europeans, and so on. Now that would not release the ironies and cruelties of things. Barkerhouse is, of course, a game with myself (and I cannot play games with theatre, since “the theatre” has nothing to do with me now …). Recently I used The Dead Are Not Sincere, a statement, and As If God Said. I am fond of Wonder and Worship in the Dying Ward, a play that contemporary society would never allow. Obviously they are meant to lodge in the mind, and I title paintings in a similar way (The Surgeon Also Dies, for example).

Howard Barker, The Surgeon Also Dies (oil on board, 2016). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

You have a very special relationship with language and you can sometimes play conscious games with it, perceiving to the full – like a true phenomenologist I would say – its tentative position between the thought and the thing. In Und you talked about “disheveled”  words and in your very recent I Will if You Don’t you attempt to compare the value of “kiss” and “love” by the vocal power of the words rather than the concepts/things/acts they stand for.

Yes, and that is an aspect of poetry, of course, the word being sound and meaning at once, and a good poem being – a character says this – what is left out, not what is put in. In stage dialogue, whilst you risk losing lazy hearers, a good dramatist  is restoring language to its eminence and directly attacking not so much common speech (how beautiful slang was in London and Paris, New York, maybe all big cities, before the media industry abolished it) as servile, industrial verbiage. But let us be clear, I am not writing lyrical, artificial “great poetry.” It is deeply connected to the emotional needs of the characters in the moment of their ordeal.

What is the function of religion and religious concepts in your work? Words like God, divinity, faith, the Bible are variously contextualized and scrutinized in your plays. Is your interest in Christianity simply due to your European cultural heritage or is there also a theological/philosophical/ethical side to it?

That question must go to the causes of my writing in the first place, and in many ways is too unsettling to contemplate. (You cannot know why you write, for if you knew you would break some fragile connectivity and, no matter how superstitious this sounds, lose the impulse …). Of course for political and sociological writers, their reasons are obvious. For them theatre is a means, not an end. Their objectives are limited. But to respond particularly to Christianity, I am in a permanent state of resistance to its values, but not I hope, in an infantile way. I read the Bible, I study Meister Eckhart. I regard The Book of Job as a tragic masterpiece. It is certainly the teaching of Jesus that gives me the most problems. And the consequence of it, Humanism, in the same way. Neither seems human to me. If you were to assert sexual desire was a/the main theme of so many of my plays, you see at once why this is. And theatre is about breaking commandments, is it not?

Howard Barker, Pontius Pilate: Nausea at the Christ Case (oil on board, 1996). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

Related to the above, what would you say is your attitude to ethics? One of your major preoccupations is a liberation of the sexual instinct regardless of gender. However, from your character portrayals one might say that men are more easily acquitted as just stray dogs beyond repair whereas women seem to be more subjected to the ethical codes concerning marriage, sexual transgression and betrayal. Quite notably your recent play Womanly closes with absolution but why has it taken so many years of deliberation with female despising, degradation and guilt to grant her the privilege of no guilt?

Let me say at once that instinct is vastly more significant in my theatre than ethics, and it might be argued instinct is an ethics in itself (neither being rational, perhaps). I lived my childhood with a mother who was almost entirely instinctual and a father who struggled with the massive consequences of this. Perhaps I write this all the time. Ethics and instinct are at war in society and private life, in Hebrew culture and Greek. There is a stage direction you may observe frequently in my plays. “They look into one another.” This look – a glance, a lingering glance – undoes whole chapters of moral instruction. I speak as a person who loathes chaos, who wants and requires order in society to allow my speculations (and their staging) to materialize. But theatre itself is licensed chaos. This is how I have always understood it. A privileged space for illegal thinking. What else is Shakespeare at his best, what else is tragedy itself? To come to Elbow (there is a naming) in Womanly, she is entirely instinctive and wholly without ethics, and it follows that society must destroy her. (It is her daughter who poisons her for political reasons). In the final scene, she forgives herself, no one else  gives it to her, it is her childhood ghost who says simply, what you did was according to your needs.

Howard Barker, Mary: Noli Me Spectare (oil on board). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

For similar reasons I think that Answer Me is a major achievement. It is the first time that an extraordinary old woman with a crooked, violated body but a bright, indomitable spirit becomes the spokesperson of your overall testament on the human condition (both historical and emotional), mixing harsh experience, poetry, wit and (self-)sarcasm to the extreme. It turns disability into a memorable image, ridiculous and painful at the same time. It is a trajectory that goes back to Helen’s ordeal in The Bite of the Night,  is further elaborated in the plight of the ageing female scholar protagonist in At Her Age and Hers, and culminates here in an amazing ironic pronouncement that dares Death to “not be proud”.

Thank you for admiring this work, which I need not say, is not a feminist or political play, but a passionate affirmation of “taking things as they are.” What you will have observed is the wretched fate of the male feminist novelist Panshanger, her moral opponent, one who simply cannot grasp why she has such extraordinary authority over others, having written very few poems and all of them of three lines. Her deformity is her beauty, but this beauty is enhanced by her refusal to conform to any political discourse. She is persecuted by men and women, of course (in my dramatic world there are no alibis …). I love Sanctu (it is permissible to love your own characters) as I love Mrs Gnash (in Landscape with Cries). They are women I could spend hours with. I can hear the form of their laughter, and of their abuse.

Howard Barker, Sarah Pregnant at 100, with the Angel Gabriel (oil on board). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

You practice both the big and the small form. Would you consider your short pieces (Four Dialogues for instance) as rehearsals or “studies” for a longer work to follow – a common practice in painting – or are they independent in inception and execution?

The small pieces are sketches, but not sketches “on the way” to anything bigger. I have recently produced a dozen or so Starts, which are plays of which only the opening scene is written. Opening scenes are often remarkable. The dramatist wants to push the boat out with a strong image. They don’t need to be worked out.

Your stage directions are precise, detailed and an essential part of your performance text . They choreograph both psychic and bodily movement as an additional narrative information to what can be partially deduced from the syncopated dialogue. Have you ever thought of dropping or reducing them and what the consequence of this could be for the production?

Let us go back to Victory. You will see barely any stage directions. “A field”. “A room”. Very little of the character’s mood. Now you observe the opposite. Quite fulsome notes. And, yes, it is my desire to control the scene and the actor’s response to the scene. Is this because I sense I shall never direct actors in my work again, and want to lay down – for the text at least – my intentions? Yes, certainly. The author knows best what is occurring, after all. But the play cannot be kept immaculate. Do I not know this? I have been through painful experiences in “interpretation” by directors. I will not ever stop productions. Let the actors run wild, with the things “they feel.” Let the directors issue their politics over my dead body. It can’t be stopped. But, there, on the page, is what I thought, i.e. the immaculate version. One could argue for hours about this. Someone said “the text is a pretext.” Surely it is, but there is no denying there was this version, first.

How has the closedown of your theatre company “The Wrestling School” some twenty years ago affected your writing? Has this made you into an outcast of the British theatre reality or do you now feel less restricted since you can write with no particular actor or audience in mind?

The ensemble was brilliant, and to a dramatist, a gift of God. These actors – recruited over a long period – knew Barker, we could rehearse in days if we needed to, and they trusted me, even knowing the rewards for them were small, for they would be attacked and humiliated by the critical class along with me. Did we have any audience? Hardly. We were a rumour. We came and went. Yet, we were regarded as dangerous. We had to be eliminated before things got any worse. (There was a critical cabal, without question, that decided my work would not be reviewed. This led to the abolition of the funding). But I’m not pleading martyrdom. The quality of the work was undeniable even by my worst enemies, i.e. I knew how to direct my own plays. (Other people did them differently). Now I am never performed in this country (and arguably I don’t live in it …). But no, it is not a liberation, because the ensemble simply demonstrated that it could be done. Who but them could mount Wonder and Worship, for example? I continue to take it for granted it can be done.

Howard Barker, Self-portrait within the Walls (oil on board, 2013). Photo: Courtesy of James Reynolds

Why do you think contemporary British theatre stubbornly insists on producing naturalistic plays, usually so boring, predictable and redundant due to their reiteration of obvious themes and a mixture of quasi-journalistic sensationalism and ethical obligation? Is it a lingering but twisted socialist/post-Brechtian legacy or is it a neo-conservative/neo-puritanical ethos that is so hostile to the incredible poetic dramatic tradition inherited from Shakespeare’s time and after – a tradition which you are the only contemporary practitioner to take to new brilliant heights and extraordinary insights?

Oh, this is the question, the terrible question of national identity, is it not? But let’s be clear about Shakespeare, he had an English morality, touched and coloured by Catholicism, and hence, with a grasp of evil, but how many Hamlets could he write? Only the one. In ten years he had collapsed into The Tempest, with its moral rectitude, its reconciliation, its love of all-and-everyone. He couldn’t stand the pressure of that thinking which made Hamlet. Again he had permitted the Christian ethic to govern the stage. Theatre as useful. Even he, in Tudor times, thought – at the end – theatre could civilize. And that is where we are still, for we are an utterly utilitarian society, and all art must improve and discipline the people. This discipline is the discipline of liberal humanism, now at its apogee. There is simply no tolerance (let alone enthusiasm) for dissonant voices (and poetry is dissonance, after all, it refuses to speak “plain English”). There is a long, long standing tradition of hating speculation and loving the real, a dismal empiricism. But, yes, the “right” and the “left” agree about this, have I not always said so?

In 2021 you made a short film, The Body and the Name, which looked like a move to a new artistic direction. I know you had been planning a film several years earlier but it never happened. Is this new endeavour an experiment in transposing your favourite themes to another medium in order to find alternative ways of expression or is it the medium itself that you tried to explore, given your fascination with some seminal European directors like, for instance, Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr?

For me film can never possess the sheer emotional power of the stage and the living actor, even in the hands of a master (and honestly, are not the very greatest moments of cinema the actor to camera? I say this knowing the brilliance of Tarkovsky’s metaphors …). Because I am a painter and a stage designer it is perhaps obvious I would have a certain ache for film, but I’d need to direct myself. This cannot happen, and it is best forgotten, perhaps. Christina Ruloff got very close to my requirements in The Body and the Name. I’d welcome her doing more, say my long poem She at 80, which we contemplate from time to time. Can I bear the thought of being unwelcome in yet another medium? On a bad day, I wish to be conventional and rich, is that surprising? 

*Elizabeth Sakellaridou is Professor Emerita in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where she has taught at the Departments of English and Theatre for over thirty years. She has also been an invited lecturer and/or speaker at various British, European and American Universities. She has written extensively on contemporary British and comparative theatre, extending also her research interests in performance theory (esp. phenomenology) and gender and cultural studies. Her publications include books, articles, interviews, reviews and translations, published either independently or in academic journals and collected volumes of essays. As a Barker scholar she has lectured and written on his work and has acted as translator and/or dramaturg for four Greek productions of his plays, namely Und (2004), Judith (2009), The Dying of Today (2009) and 12 Encounters with a Prodigy (2015).

Copyright © 2023 Elizabeth Sakellaridou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email