Howard Barker & Theatre of Catastrophe

A truly fascinating and yet terrifying playwright I’ve come across is British playwright, Howard Barker.

Howard BarkerGranted, he’s not Sarah Kane-scary, but his work is disturbing.  Barker created the genre of “Theatre of Catastrophe” to describe his work, because no other genre described his style the way he wanted it.  In the 1980’s, Barker coined the term, “Humanist Theatre” to describe the traditional style of British theatre that he so detested.  Theatre of Catastrophe was the response to Humanist Theatre.  Barker wanted to create something that would wake up the audiences of theatre today.  And while his main arguments are against British theatre, his thoughts can be applied to the American theatre as well.

To sum up Theatre of Catastrophe in a few sentences; instead of evoking one collective response from the audience, he challenges the audience member to deal with the play on their own terms and their own interpretation.  This means that instead of a play having a clear, single and direct theme, Barker’s plays are much more fragment and ambiguous so that the personal interpretation can be achieved.  In interviews, he uses the example of Brecht, stating that when he goes to the theatre, he doesn’t want to be “instructed by Brecht.”  Barker’s work contains the themes of sexuality, desire, ecstasy, individual will, criminality, performance, and death.  He doesn’t hold back in the way it is presented (example; dropping a bucket of horse blood on the actors).  He often writes about some of the most grim historical events and shows them in a manner that is open and yet, provocative.

Barker is one who wants to go against the mainstream form of theatre.  I’m currently Playsreading Barker’s Arguments for a Theatre, and I will admit that it is exhausting, even after being a little more than halfway finished.  Not exhausting as in the dialogue is dry or difficult, but coming to grasp this term and considering it as the wake up that mainstream theatre seems to need right now.  Theatre of Catastrophe, if I’m reading and interpreting this correctly, is meant to change what we know as theatre with explosive dialogue, provocative staging, and gory stories.  Ironically, I couldn’t find a uniformed definition or interpretation of Theatre of Catastrophe, and when I compared Barker’s definition from the 80’s to now, it has evolved and changed and become more extreme over the decades.  I truly had to keep track of my timeline as I began researching Barker and his theories.

Britain clearly has some disinterest in his work, while theaters in Paris can’t produce enough of his work, according to an interview with Kevin Quarmby.  I suppose it is more of a cultural deal.  But my initial thoughts are I somewhat feel that Barker is doing the one thing that he detests, and that is instructing the audience.  Even if his work is obscure and in fragments that are open to interpretation, he has to have some sort of thought or intent behind it for the audience.  There is still a theme to take away from his plays.

Although, I have not seen any of Barker’s work on stage, I’ve only read it.  I can say that his work is definitely meant to be seen and not read.  I can appreciate and applaud his work and respecting the idea that we all interpret work differently and that one cannot put the audience into one little box when it comes to the reception of work.  Others seem to not feel the same, such as Michael Bettencourt, who very much eloquently and strongly expresses his feelings on Barker.

Howard Barker is an interesting individual and deserves some attention from those who are interested.  So in closing, if there’s a Barker play opening on a stage near me, I’ll buy my ticket, but I will go in very prepared and of course, with an open mind.

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