Howard Barker in his own words best conveys the context from which his extraordinary plays—or what he has dubbed the Theater Of Catastrophe—are written. His manifesto Arguments For A Theater is as unflinching an examination of contemporary theater as any I’m aware of (including the writing of Polish director Tadeusz Kantor), making his essays vital reading for anyone in the profession. Here is an excerpt from Barker’s essay The Theater Lies Under A Shroud:
The Political Theater remains what it always was—what it must be, since politics is the art of simplification—psychologically shallow and a trumpet call to actions no one will perform, a dutiful raising of conscience (if not consciousness) that elevates the dramatist to the preposterous position of The One Who Knows.
Many modern playwrights tend to focus on myopic issues that appease a liberal conscience such that people—those wealthy enough to afford it—can consume their morsel of reassurance, and go home with their expectations gratified. Barker writes, “The theater of humanism seeks a single end, the satisfaction of the bargain struck between the purchasers of comfort and the suppliers of delight.” Somehow, two parents grappling over how they’ll deal with the fact that their six year-old may be gay is seen as boundary shifting, and in the brochure of a major NYC theater I am now reading of a new play that’s touted as a “thoughtful comedy and sweet polemic.” In my opinion, Television is far more daring now than the conventional theater, and a documentary such as Josh Oppenheimer’s recent The Act Of Killing more mercilessly penetrating and rattling than anything I’ve ever seen. There are of course many outstanding theater artists alive and well—Daniel Kitson, Caryl Churchill, Ivo Van Hove (to name a very few), but let’s not overlook the rarely produced Howard Barker, whose work is so uncompromising and Shakespearian in scope that it stands alone in so far as he’s willing to bite off more than anyone else will chew. He writes:
In mass society, great art is never socially desired, for it declines the offer of instant gratification, it defies the ordinance to entertain, and repudiates the collective will. Modern tragedy, which I have elsewhere described as Catastrophist, sins against the suffocating burden of the Brechtian and Stanislavskian method, with their narrowly conceived objectives and repressive pursuits of clarities. It celebrates the complexity of motivation, it enhances contradiction and extols the beauty of language against the naturalistic, populist and mechanistic meters of the street. It proclaims the theater as the natural resort of poetry and therefore insists on a new acting. The political dramatist is above all concerned with the narrow goal of communication – the tragic dramatist with complication; the political dramatist begins from the assumption that the audience shares beliefs, the tragic dramatist from the desire to break the solidarity of his audience into atoms.
I have acted in four Barker plays—A Hard Heart, Scenes From An Execution, Victory, and The Castle, and they have all provided me with extremely fertile ground to grow as an artist. Acting in his plays is eventually wicked fun, but not before passing through the requisite stages of despondency (“I should just hang it up”), frustration (“I’m working too hard!”), and fear (“How can I live up to this?”). Playing the bawdy, deranged King Charles in Victory is the most electric I’ve felt on stage, but it is playing Stucley in The Castle that has been the most rewarding, in terms of just plain learning to be a better actor. It was not really until the last two performances at Atlantic Stage 2 that I allowed myself the courage to trust coming from a place of ease and simplicity in delivering what is the densest text I’ve ever had to perform. And what I found is that after wrestling with the material so long to make it lucid for the audience, surrendering to its mess of contradictions finally offered me and the audience a far greater world of surprise, danger, and truth. There are so many contradictions for the actor playing Stucley to invest in—he is a brave knight and wounded child, he is a poetic dreamer and petty tyrant, he is a charismatic leader and lost soul, etc…, and ultimately it is in existing (and reveling) in these contradictions, whilst avoiding the need to provide precise explanations of motivation, that sets the actor loose to explore Barker’s huge imagined universes. And as in all theater, after the actor has done all the work, he must commit himself to the Art of Unknowing. It takes great confidence and vulnerability not to know, and it takes a bold assurance to throw oneself headlong into theater that has no “message.” Barker’s form of tragedy has you leave your morals at the door, for to him the actor’s greatest crime is his urge to educate, elucidate, or edify, to “serve an age obsessed with accessibility.”
Stucley is besieged by calamity at every turn—he returns home from seven years of fighting the Crusades to find his territory has been turned into a raggedy matriarchal commune, his adored wife and mother figure Ann (for whom he has remained chaste) no longer loves him and has copulated with interlopers, he has been betrayed by the very God he yearned to serve, the massive castle he builds is outdone by a neighboring kingdom, he is betrayed by his Arab architect/father figure Krak, pregnant Ann commits suicide before his very eyes, as do many other townswomen who jump off the high walls he has erected. It’s a lot. So it could be seductive to play him as always sardonic, angry, and cold. But director Richard Romagnoli guided me to play him as a man who celebrated his pain, and who invited the audience into his suffering with open arms. Often I spoke directly to the audience, and this in turn propelled the action of the play. It was a great training ground for me to essentially play the positive choice. Our attack may even have run against Barker’s intentions, as he wishes his audiences to face their own pain remotely, not as a collective. But it was this very link with the audience that I think kept the work from ever becoming “too important” or sanctimonious.
Another lesson came from the long scene I had with the terrific actor Brent Langdon, in which Stucley creates with the priest Nailor the new church of Christ The Lover (“I am of the opinion Christ slagged Magdalene”). Half way through the run we fell into the trap of knowing that the scene was funny, which of course made it less and less funny. It always “worked,” but it was feeling forced. With only a couple shows left in the run I asked Richard, “What’s missing in that scene?” and he replied, “Just play it straight, and let us discover it’s funny.” What a relief it was then to stop driving the humor of the scene down the audience’s throats and allow them to find it funny (or not!) as Brent and I simply engaged with each other and told the story, which indeed came back to life. I find that at some point in every process I run up against a tendency–or urge–to do too much, to “sell the scene” (as if sheer effort could ever mask an actor’s insecurities). I can over-employ certain natural gifts I have–be they my verbal dexterity, or movement, or ability to energetically fill large spaces–to essentially fool people, to impress them. I’m not trusting in those moments that I, in all of my imperfection, am enough. That that is what people actually come to the theater to witness. But when I catch myself in labor, or when someone I trust spots it for me, I remember the counseling of my NYU Grad Acting teacher Ron Van Lieu: “You have to tolerate yourself. You have to tolerate yourself.” You do, in acting, and in life, you must tolerate yourself, for if in the midst of such uncertainty (or self loathing even) you give yourself that space, you will be giving yourself a space to simply be. And then anything is possible.
Naturally, some material challenges the actor more than other material. Acting Barker requires a tremendous muscularity and epic sense of passion, but as I’ve stated above it also requires the actor to dance with a light touch. Jan Maxwell, who has headlined three of the Barker plays I’ve done with PTPNYC, has a stunning gift for delivering barrages of language with easy fluidity, deft humor, and raw, vicious power. Her most recent performance as Skinner in The Castle was titanic. She gets it somewhere deep within: Barker’s language begs to be spoken. The British actor Ian McDiarmid said in the 80’s, “He writes what I want to say,” and I hope that 100 years from now, actors and directors will be saying the same, for his writing will certainly be as prescient tomorrow as it is today. The plays are a gorgeous and necessary wound gashed into the landscape of both tradition and popular culture, or as Barker puts it, “The Theater of Catastrophe is not the comfort of a cruel world, but the cruelty of the world made manifest and found to be – beautiful.”