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From pain, poetry: Howard Barker's Blok/Eko and the poetics of plethoric theater.

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 Barkers 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 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 a "deconstructionist ... method." (9) However, my gravitation toward deconstruction, if in fact the term "method" is appropriate when describing it, does not solely concern whether or not Barker's plays and theoretical writings deconstruct European theater traditions, though this is thoroughly and convincingly elucidated throughout much of Barker scholarship. (10) Instead, to attend to Barker's deconstructive poetics is to follow how pain necessitates the struggle to find a language that transforms suffering into poetry. For Barker, this transformation requires the imagination. However, Barker does not assume that theater has the ability to imagine everything, since "Death is the limit not only of life but also of imagination and therefore the stop of poetry.... We cannot imagine the state of death--it is, along with infinity, impossible to envisage, and where death or the after-life has been represented artistically the poverty of its representation only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of the effort." (11) While death might be the limit of poetry, we shall see that death, despite the inability of the living to imagine it, becomes the very condition that makes poetry possible and, perhaps, Barker's catastrophic theater necessary. In order to validate this claim, I will read Barker's recently published and performed play Blok/Eko (2011).

The main component of his ambitious Plethora/Bare Sufficiency project, Blok/Eko premiered at Exeter University's Northcott Theatre in the summer of 2011, and received funding from the AHRC. However, Barker's interest in plethora is not itself new, as his writings on the subject appeared in his first work of theory, Arguments for a Theatre. For scholars such as David Ian Rabey, plethora emphasizes theater as a place where the imagination is allowed to fabricate images that yield introspection, ambiguity, and anxiety, thereby encouraging a transgressive state in which audience members have a "sense of witnessing too much" and of "being out of control'/ (12) Furthermore, as Gritzner emphasizes:
   The theatre of plethora, the theatre of exaggeration and excess,
   approaches the formal condition of formlessness.... The question is
   no longer what it means but what it does. Participating in it is
   also a mode of doing; it is an action, which leaves me breathless,
   exhausted and exhilarated, lost for words but also restless and
   energized.... The theatrical gestures are not sociological. They do
   not represent a reality; they are a reality--autonomous and
   sovereign. (13)

Barker s plethoric theater therefore disengages from the mimetic paradigm that so often determines theatrical art. Instead, it aims to produce its own reality, and thereby undermines one's ability to refer to what one assumes to be real in order to understand a Barker play. To achieve such an effect it is necessary, at least according to Barker, that the plethoric play contain specific platitudes and textual features. As Barker notes, the plethoric text is what first allows for the sound of the actor's voice to become an overwhelming experience, giving each character's speech the opportunity to induce cacophony and to dissolve the "barriers between the conscious and the unconscious." (14) Furthermore, the plethoric text does not operate according to a preconceived teleology; instead, its ending is "arbitrary, a surgical act perhaps as violent as any within the narrative itself." (15) Plethora is therefore structurally associated with Barker's thinking on death and theater, insofar as both plethora and death formally exceed and overwhelm one's imagination and cognitive capacity. Or rather, plethora is the very aesthetic that makes it possible for Barker to stage theater's inability to imagine death and to master it as part of an effort to enforce social and moral standards. With this in mind, Blok/Eko not only serves as a case study of Barker's thinking on plethora, but, as we shall see, it also meta-theatrically presents the very conditions of Barker s theatrical aesthetic as it stages the tenuous dynamic between death and art that accounts for Barker's catastrophic, and deconstructive, theater.

Tot's Word: Poetry and Catharsis in Barker's Blok/Eko

Barker's Blok/Eko is a striking exploration of the apparent dichotomy between poetry and medicine, and the effect that each field has on society. The play opens by informing its audience that the tyrant Queen, Eko, has ordered the death of all doctors, as she believes that they violate and weaken the human body in order to prolong its life. In response to the mass execution of doctors, Eko calls for poets to respond to her subjects' medical concerns and physical anguish, and she proceeds to privilege poetry as the proper means to promote health among her subjects. However, throughout the work, the poets who suffer the most ultimately become those who possess the most profound poetic insights. For example, unable to consummate his love for Eko, the poet Blok ultimately works as Eko's servant, becoming a sort of figure of poetic authority even as he occupies a position of deprivation. (16) Moreover, Eko regularly bestows poetry prizes upon the play's most superficial and pleasant of poets, Pindar, leaving Tot, the plays most significant poet, to live without any means of financial support. (17) As a result, the play immediately pits Tot against Pindar. Specifically, Tots loyalty to Eko only causes him continued pain, whereas Pindar explicitly questions Eko's decision to exterminate all doctors, and furthermore takes Quasidoc, one of the last surviving doctors, as a prize for his poetry.

The conflict between Pindar and Tot reveals something integral to the play's stakes. On the one hand, Tot is condemned to live a life of suffering without respite. However, he is also able to transform his suffering into art, and in so doing, he writes the most beautiful poetry. On the other hand, the most famous and decorated poet, Pindar, does not suffer and, consequently, his poetry is the least important. As the play continues, Pindar and Tot both become criminals, the former because he wishes for the return of doctors, and the latter because he has killed another man. However, Eko only requires Tot to endure the legal implications of his action. In fact, his imprisonment, as Eko's servant Nausicaa articulates, is vital to Tot's growth as a poet. Again, Eko requires that Tot suffer, perhaps not unjustly in this instance, because she knows that Tot's anguish directly contributes to his ability to create poetry. As the play proceeds, Eko's knowledge is confirmed as Tot returns from his prison sentence having lost an arm, but also having acquired a new, and more profound, poetic voice.

While Tot struggles to understand the importance of his poetic power, particularly as he finds himself without any recognition of his accomplishment, his return generates a rather important scene that clarifies the play's concern with poetry. In the first case, though Tot does not receive any awards from Eko--she knows that money and fame would only inhibit Tot's ability to become a great poet--he is recognized by her when she recites his verse. However, the consolation that Eko appears to give Tot does not match his need for money and food, and he ultimately strikes Nausicaa, injuring her and forcing him to call for a doctor to heal her:


TOT's attention is so firmly fixed on NAUSICAA he is unaware of shadowy figures clustering about the perimeter of the stage. Only as NAUSICAA'sfit diminishes does he sense their presence. At last she is still.

TOT: (Sensingdanger.) Doctor / ha / what's that? / doctor /1 haven't used that word since / God knows when / scum / filth / in their white coats /1 DO KNOW WHEN /1 DO KNOW WHEN / white coats / unbuttoned / flying like streamers in the wind / as if urgency condemned them to abolish buttons / as if / like angels' wings / the flapping of their overalls announced their merciful appearance / WHEN THIS ARM CAME OFF / THAT WAS WHEN / DOCTOR I / what? /1 / what was it I? / What was the manner of my / can't remember / DOCTOR I / first word / no / not the first / the first was / CHRIST / FUCK / JESUS / any number of expletives / can't be precise / then / yes / DOCTOR I BAWLED / ... Did I want a doctor? / EMPHATICALLY NOT / (He is inspired by his own invention to invent further.)

Did I want the intensity of this experience to be diminished? / Did I want some drab mechanic with his toolbag / some flesh-fixer with an itching scrotum and half-a-dozen words designed to terrify the terrified / did I want his jargon and bad breath contaminating the terrible meeting of Tot and his ally Death /1 did say ally / yes / in this instance he visited / and did not stop ...


To TOT's relief and amazement, the crowd of figures begins to laugh, spontaneously, and even to clap. TOT looks from one to another, and starts to laugh himself. NAUSICAA, as if she had never fallen, skips to her feet.


(The crowd drifts off, turning and saluting TOT as they depart.)


In this rather intense series of scenes, Blok/Eko creates a meta-theatrical structure that reflects on the conditions that make poetry possible, and the scene in which Tot recalls having his lost his arm appears to be one of the play's most salient moments. To begin, Tot must devise a way to argue against doctors, and must do so in front of an audience that reacts to his speech as though it is a performance. Furthermore, Tot's recantation, primarily influenced by the appearance of the crowd, clarifies the implications of Eko's decision to applaud poetry and to destroy medicine, as he emphasizes the connection between the body and language. Specifically, recalling the moment that his arm was severed from his body, Tot briefly recollects the words that his pain had caused him to scream, and opposes them to his subsequent demand to receive medical attention. In a somewhat indirect way, therefore, Tots reflection helps to position the language of poetry against the language of the doctors: rather than allow a patient the opportunity to give voice to his or her pain or to react to the sounds that one's body makes, doctors instead subject patients to predetermined jargon, which does very little to react to the way that any particular patient may respond to a specific medical emergency or condition. Consequently, the logic of Tot's speech implies that the task of the poet is to attend to his or her pain in order to transform it into poetic discourse. While the crowd agrees with Tot's sentiment, and even goes so far as to salute him, it is Nausicaa who interprets the crowd's reaction as a sign of the people's health. In other words, through a specifically theatrical construct, the play shows its audience the connection between Tot's suffering and the crowd's vitality, which is indicated by the pleasure they express after hearing Tot's speech.

The relationship between pain and poetry should come as no surprise given Barker's plays and essays on aesthetics. However, the fact that in Blok/Eko poetry acquires a certain medicinal quality is significant, given that Barker often situates his Theatre of Catastrophe against Aristotle, the one who first considered poetry's therapeutic potential when elucidating the concept of catharsis. Yet before Aristotle discusses the manner in which tragedy can best accomplish its cathartic effect, he first offers a philosophical justification of mimesis, observing two important factors that may contribute to poetry's origin:

Two natural causes seem to have generated the art of poetry as a whole. First, mimesis is natural to human beings from childhood. They differ from other animals in this way, as human beings gravitate toward mimesis and learn their first lessons through it. Also everyone delights in representations. A common occurrence illustrates this: we delight in looking at the most detailed images of things which in and of themselves would cause us pain, such as the shapes of the most despised wild animals and corpses. The cause of this is that learning is most pleasant, not only for philosophers but for others as well, though they only take small pleasure from such learning. This is why people enjoy looking at images, for by observing the image they learn and infer what the represented element is and that a certain person represents another person. But if one has not lived what is represented, its image will not produce pleasure as a representation, but rather because of its aesthetic accomplishment, such color or some like cause. (Poetics 2.1) (19)

In the first case, Aristotle argues that representation is natural to human beings, a statement that he bases on the observation that all human beings tend to learn their earliest and most important lessons by imitating the behavior of those around them. As a result, representations such as poetry contribute to the development and maturation of one's intellect. In the second case, Aristotle observes that individuals enjoy representations. Rather than focusing on comic or joyful forms of representation, much of the Poetics, or at least the material from it that has survived, attends to scenes of pain and death as are found in tragedy.

What is striking about Aristotle's second reason for the origin of poetry is the fact that as mimetic objects, plays enable individuals to experience pleasure from what would otherwise be excruciating or unbearable, and they thereby teach spectators something about what they most fear. For example, the tragic protagonist represents what is unbearable and painful in life as it is lived outside of the theater, and by doing so, causes spectators to feel pity, while at the same time becoming terrified of what the protagonist endures. Moreover, by making its audience experience the emotions of pity and terror, tragedy aims to teach spectators how to comport themselves to such emotions. As a result of these insights, Aristotle devotes the later portion of his Poetics to describing tragedy's various aesthetic conventions (plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle, and song), observing the best ways that they can be used to create the cathartic effect that he believes is proper to tragedy. However, the implications of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy far exceed his aesthetics, particularly as he argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that in order for individuals to make proper moral decisions, they must be able to control the emotions of pity and terror, and to react in proportion to the event or act that triggers an emotive response (NE II, v l-vi). (20) Aristotle's poetics is therefore always already appropriated into the ethical and political dimension of his broader metaphysics. In other words, catharsis is not a purely aesthetic term; instead, it names a reaction whereby a citizen is ultimately able to control those emotions that interfere with, in this case, his ability to make ethical and political decisions.

Aristotle's commentary on the origin of poetry and catharsis is particularly relevant to Blok/Eko, as Tot's speech poeticizes what many of those around him have experienced, namely, physical anguish and suffering without the intervention of doctors. Furthermore, as the previously recalled scene shows, Tot's ability to speak about his own pain becomes a sort of theatrical event that the crowd finds pleasurable. Yet Barkers theater in general, and Blok/Eko in particular, undermine Aristotle's concept of catharsis as a valid response to the tragedy's poetry. In the first case, though Tot's speech to the crowd seems to express Aristotle's insight that representations of pain and suffering can cause pleasure, the enjoyment that the crowd's members experience is confirmed by their emotional excitation. In other words, rather than causing the crowd to pity him or live in fear of him, Tot makes them laugh and therefore precludes the purgation and distillation of emotions that Aristotle implies when conceptualizing catharsis in the context of tragedy. Furthermore, Tot is a criminal whose punishment has directly contributed to his maturation as a poet. In other words, Tot's character lacks the necessary traits that would cause the play's audience to pity him and find him terrifying. Specifically, Tot has murdered a man, and, while he lives in poverty, his actions are done consciously rather than as the result of a tragic error or unconscious mistake (hamartia) that would cause the play's audience to find Tot unfortunate. In this regard, Tot's poetry appears aimed to fulfill Eko's demand that he write as a suffering and impoverished criminal, and it directly opposes any aesthetic project that would encourage a predetermined moral or ethical objective.

Plethora and the Great Poem of Death

To be sure, Tot does not guarantee that the play as a whole can be read in opposition to Aristotle's Poetics. In other words, while Tot's speech may not produce a cathartic reaction, it is still possible that the play might. Yet, in order to do so, the play would have to meet Aristotle's insights into tragedy's origins, since it is these origins that theoretically justify catharsis as a philosophical, and aesthetic, concept. However, Blok/Eko challenges the common conceptualization of plays as merely mimetic objects that refer to, and represent, a specific truth or situation that exists outside of the theater. In fact, the play calls into question the very conceptualization of theater as a solely mimetic art, and it most explicitly accomplishes this during a series of scenes that juxtapose Tot's fondness for Eko to Blok's inability to bear witness to Eko's death:

TOT: She brought back cries / birth / sickness / even love / because with all these sounds returning / sounds the doctors had smothered under chemistry / came a longing for the sound / the woman sound / in fucking / and madmen / oh / like wolves on frontiers / some nights / ha / frantic choruses / all right / I'll have you / my one hand in your belly / let the tits queue / swelling with anticipation /

(He roughly turns QUASIDOC, who exults.)


The dying EKO is hauled through the floor, but swiftly now, as the public rushes in, partially obscuring TOT/QUASIDOC's copulation, and crying out with pity or despair, the whole assembly acquiring the ecstatic quality identified by TOT and creating dissonant music.


BLOK: (Limping miserably on the perimeters.) Can't watch / can't watch /

QUOTA: Darling / she says / oh / darling / where are you? /

BLOK: Can't watch /

QUOTA: (Cradling EKO's head on her pillows.) Then the Great Song of Death / she says / never will be written /

BLOK: By me / no /

(A cry from EKO startles BLOK.)


(He suffers, his hands are fists of shame.)

I cannot witness this /1 love you / and why I cannot / Ido not know /

QUOTA: Go down to the garden / she says / place yourself under the window / hear what you hear / and when it's over / a handkerchief / wet with her tears / will fall / a sign / then climb the stairs again / and kiss her / if any many knows how to kiss / she says / it's you / this kiss she'll feel / though she will not be here / neither will she be gone / (BLOK turns to leave.)


(He stops.)

She says / she says /

(QUOTA frowns with the effort of interpretation.)


(QUOTA half-laughs for EKO. BLOK, troubles, turns, and encounters Pindar by him.) (21)

These scenes do more than contain or exemplify specific conventions of Barker's plethoric theater. Instead, and in keeping with what situates Blok/ Eko in opposition to Aristotle and subsequently naturalism, Blok--the one who should poeticize the death of the tyrant Queen given his skills and service to her--cannot bear witness to Eko's death, and instead seeks shelter from the image of her dying body. Not simply a scene of betrayal, the interaction that occurs between Blok and the dying Eko underscores the play's concern with death itself, and particularly with the connection between poetry and death. Death, as we have already observed Barker mention in his theoretical texts, marks poetry's limit; and while poetry cannot re-present death, it is ultimately death that makes poetry necessary. Hence, as the play advances, Tot and Pindar once again interact antagonistically, and do so according to how they interpret Blok's actions. Whereas Pindar believes that Blok is a traitor, Tot applauds him and argues that Blok must poeticize his crime, rather than simply be judged as a coward. However, Blok is unable to follow Tot's direction, as the words of Blok's potential poem cause him to choke. In a rage, Tot assaults Blok in order to force the poem out of his body, which ultimately kills Blok and further confirms Tot's criminality.

The exchange between Tot and Blok marks a significant moment in the play's development, for it is Blok's inability to poeticize the death of the woman whom he loves that leads to his own death. In other words, Blok dies precisely when poetry demands what it articulates as both necessary and impossible. And it is, furthermore, at this moment when poetry approaches its constitutive limit without transcending it that the medical doctors regain the social significance they had possessed prior to Eko's rule. Consequently, with no one to kill the doctors, Tot, Nausicaa, and Pindar are left to live within the ruins of their society. Yet, while Pindar uses this as an opportunity to demonstrate the poetic integrity of his work, Tot, on the other hand, ultimately decides to kill himself:


(TOT chooses not to pull the trigger at once. He looks at PINDAR.)

TOT: You say I'm not / precisely to induce me /


TOT: I could not go / I could not do / what this is / and leave him thinking / he was the cause of it / as if Pindar dared Tot / and Tot / proud as a schoolboy /

BRADY: Good point /

TOT: Shot himself out of bravado / no

BRADY: Good point / it needed clearing up /

(TOT pulls the trigger. The sound of the shot expands, mixing and transforming into a pure note which runs beneath TOT's adieu. The occupants of the wheelchairs stare.)


TOT: Immense / piano / dust / in sun / falling / dust falling / biscuit / cracked / the lino / scrubbed / boots / hand / old hand / so old / the hand / dropped it / the domino / floor / cat / dirt / wound / scab / five / immensely old / dip it / dip / the biscuit/ dip the biscuit in the tea / five / dots / five / apron / flowers / stable / Joe / bites never / five dots / the domino / kicks never / Joe / nice loaf / kind animal / a nice loaf / please / say please / nice/ loaf / crust / mother / apron / red light / red light / piano / did she / girl / mother / piano / horse / the maiden's prayer / apron / apron /

(TOT is dead.) (22)

Tot commits suicide and denies Pindar the chance to kill him and thereby produce a momentous feat unaccomplished by his poetry. Yet, unlike Blok, who chokes on his words, Tot unleashes a discursive torrent immediately after shooting himself, confirming Gritzner's reading of poetry in Blok/Eko as "a (painful and blissful) de-individuating force of nature." (23) Whereas Blok ultimately succumbs to silence when faced with Eko's death, Tot is instead inspired to speak when confronting his own. Yet, Tot's last words, his self-eulogy as it were, appear incomprehensible when compared to the beautiful language that he had believed to have been stuck in Bloks throat. The great poem of death, which appears to be the very work of art that Tot has been groomed to speak, does not here appear to poeticize death in a way that would finally and definitely transform it into a comprehensible aesthetic object. Language, in other words, fails to make death beautiful, at least if beauty is here understood to produce intelligibility and agreement. Instead, the sound of the gunshot achieves the sort of perfection that eludes Tot's poetry. Tot's final words therefore place Barker's readers and audience members in a rather difficult situation, for not only do these words seem arbitrary with respect to what has hitherto transpired in the play, but the scene that Tot describes appears incoherent, as the slight hint of a narrative about his past is continuously interrupted by the mention of concrete objects. Tot's final words, therefore, not only overwhelm comprehension to the point of creating cacophony, but they also emerge from a space between life and death, collapsing the division between the unconscious and conscious thought.

Conclusion: The Death of the Playwright

Despite the ambiguous content of Tot's final words, his speech does, in fact, sound rather reminiscent of Barker's reflections on his own childhood and how it shaped his theater. (24) For example, in an interview at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in October of 2007 with scholars including Elisabeth Angel-Perez, Barker discussed his upbringing and its relation to his plays:

EAP: You've written about 70 plays, several collections of poems, two important volumes of theatre theory, but you're also a wonderful painter. In your paintings, you do use a number of recurring objects, like tables or trays, and I was wondering how this relates to the use you make of objects in your plays. Is there a link at all?

HB: I find it terribly difficult to talk about that but I'll try. I have a great liking for white sheets, for example. But there's a personal origin for that. The women of my family were laundresses. So I saw a lot of sheets as a child. There's also a great beauty in the white sheet--a laundered sheet is strangely disturbing in the milieu of the theatre, because the theatre is a very dirty place. There's dirt and dust everywhere and when actors come to rehearsal they come in dirty clothes, and I always say to actors, "No, would you please try to wear nice clothes in rehearsals because it changes the milieu?" So, if you use pristine sheets as part of the setting design, it produces a shock. It's an enchanting visual image. (25)

While it is certainly difficult to determine whether or not the final lines that Barker writes for Tot are in fact inspired by Barker's own upbringing--the juxtaposition between the dust and dirt of the theater and the clean white sheets that so often populate Barkers set designs appears in Tot's final words--and though it is furthermore theoretically misguided to assume that Barker's biography determines the meaning of his plays, these issues present the question of the poet's death and its relation to art. As established in the world of Blok/Eko, it is the threat of death that inspires the greatest and most accomplished poetry. But poetry cannot make death present, and as a result the capacity to re-present death as a means to produce a recuperative or cathartic result maybe understood as the fantasy that foregrounds the metaphysical consolation associated with the concept of mimesis itself. Hence, what is at issue in Blok/Eko is not just the inability to represent death through art, but more specifically the impossibility that art could recuperate the death of the artist, even though every work of art anticipates and bears witness to that death. Furthermore, it is not simply that this conclusion is derived from the play's plethoric platitudes. Instead, Blok/Eko itself stages this impossibility. However, while the play may create an imaginary world to articulate the illusory position that theater assumes when it aims to provide spectators with the capacity to appropriate their own fears of death into a recuperative and ultimately therapeutic resolution, it also suggests that the inability to re-present death opens the possibility of Barker's plethoric plays, as plethora mandates that theater, like death, be "concerned with what is not self-evident." (26)

University of California, Irvine


(1) Howard Barker, Arguments for a Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 174.

(2) Charles Lamb, Howard Barker's Theatre of Seduction (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1997), 14.

(3) It should be noted that in 2007, Arts Council England terminated The Wrestling Schools funding, forcing the ensemble to look to its allies at Exeter University and the University of Wales, Aberystwyth for support. Yet, while Barker's aesthetic opposes mainstream British theater, in the fall of 2012, the National Theatre produced Barker's Scenes from an Execution, which was first produced by the Almeida Theatre in 1986. It remains to be examined how the integration of Barker's work into mainstream English theater will affect Barker's future projects. However, it is nevertheless important to underscore this development given that throughout his career, Barker repeatedly sent play manuscripts to the National Theatre so that they might be rejected. The purpose of this test was not to have any particular work produced. Instead, the rejections proved that Barker was staying committed to his aesthetic and theatrical vision. That his work has been produced by the National Theatre, albeit on their terms and with very little input from individuals associated with The Wrestling School, further complicates the relationship between Barker's aesthetic and its explicit aim to resist dominant and popular theatrical forms, conventions, and commitments.

(4) Barker, Arguments, 97.

(5) Howard Barker, Death, the One and the Art of Theatre (London: Routledge, 2005), 68.

(6) Barker, Arguments, 113.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Karoline Gritzner, "Towards an Aesthetic of the Sublime in Howard Barker's Theatre," in Theatre of Catastrophe: New Essays on Howard Barker, ed. Karoline Gritzner and David Ian Rabey (London: Oberon Press, 2006), 92. To be sure, much could be made of Gritzner's reading of Barker, particularly given its reliance on Immanuel Kant, Kritik Der Urteilskrafi (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004), 170-84. Specifically, Kant, as Gritzner mentions, distinguishes the sublime from beauty. As a result, it is somewhat perplexing why Gritzner would use the term "beauty" to describe what she argues is the "sublime" nature of Barker's work. For Kant, the power that one experiences when confronted with the sublime comes from scenarios of either great magnitude (mathematical category) or those that demonstrate natures dominance over us (dynamic category) ([section]26, 172-80; [section]27,184-89). The sublime therefore names an experience specific to the imaginations failure to think an overwhelming experience, leaving reason to comprehend what exceeds the imaginations capacity ([section]25, 170, 171). For Kant, the sublime is pleasurable as it indicates reasons power conceptualize infinity and triumph over the imagination. But it is painful as well, as it suggests the imaginations inadequacy and natures power over us ([section]27,180,181). Such a formulation would therefore contradict Barkers theoretical essays, which champion the imagination rather than the faculty of reason.

(9) Thomas Freeland, "The End of Rhetoric and the Residuum of Pain: Bodying Language in the Theatre of Howard Barker," Modern Drama 54 (2011): 78-98 (97).

(10) In truth, to describe deconstruction as a method is not quite right. As stated in Jacques Derrida, "Lettre a un ami japonais," Psyche. Inventions de lautre II (Paris: Galilee, 2003), 12, deconstruction is not a method, in part, because the technical nature of the term "method" reduces a deconstructive engagement with a text to a series of rules and procedures. I therefore use the term "method" rather loosely, doing so to connect my reading of Barker with, as well as to distinguish it from, academic scholarship on his work.

(11) Barker, Death, 30.

(12) David Ian Rabey, Howard Barker: Ecstasy and Death: An Expository Study of His Drama, Theory and Production Work, 1988-2008, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 20.

(13) Karoline Gritzner, "Poetry and Intensification in Howard Barkers Theatre of Plethora," Studies in Theatre and Performance 32 (2012): 337-45 (344).

(14) Howard Barker, "Identifying Some Platitudes with Regard to the Plethoric Text," Studies in Theatre and Performance 32 (2012): 251-53 (252).

(15) Ibid., 253.

(16) That the tyrant queen is named "Eko" is rather significant. While the play does not determine or explain how Eko and "Echo" are connected to one another, there are two examples that may help to open up the possibility of situating Eko's character. First, in an effort to test their poetry, troubadour poets would often recite their lyrics at the edge of a forest. If the recited poem echoed back to them, then their poem was considered satisfactory. If they did not hear the poem echo, it was unsuitable. Echo, much like Eko herself, is therefore figured as the judge of lyric poetry's virtue. Furthermore, the Ovidian account of Narcissus poeticizes Narcissus's encounter with Echo. In this regard, while Barker writes Pindar as a figure of populist poetry, he may also write Blok as a narcissistic figure. Specifically, just as Blok esteems Eko as a figure of perfection, so much so that he betrays her on her death bed, so too did Alexander Blok view his wife, Lyubov Mendeleev, as the ideal woman and therefore unsuitable for sexual relations. Consequently, Blok betrayed his wife and engaged in numerous extramarital affairs.

(17) To be sure, the proper names of Barker's characters are of great importance. As already noted, this is true not only in Blok/Eko, but throughout all of Barker's work. It should therefore come as no surprise that the name "Tot" is rather revealing. In the first place, tot is the German adjective meaning dead, and der Tod is the German noun meaning death. Furthermore, Tot's name recalls the Egyptian god, Toth. According to Ancient Egyptian mythology, Toth is the god of both writing and death. More specifically, Toth, the god of hieroglyphics, also dresses the dead, records the weight of souls, and measures the days that belong to the lives of both gods and mortals. As Derrida observes in Jacques Derrida, La dissemination (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972), 104, Toth enumerates history. The fact that Barker's Tot is explicitly made to suffer, so much so that he often lives at the threshold between life and death, in order to write suggests that in his proper name is inscribed a religious and literary history that is consonant with his character and the play's broader interrogation of the aesthetic implications that emerge from the connection between death and writing.

(18) Howard Barker, Blok/Eko (London: Oberon Books, 2011), 70-72.

(19) Aristotle, Poetics, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 36, 37 (translation mine).

(20) Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 14 (translation mine).

(21) Barker, Blok/Eko, 77-78.

(22) Ibid., 115-16.

(23) Gritzner, "Poetry," 343.

(24) Furthermore, by this point in the analysis it may be apparent that Tot seems to stand in for Barker insofar as Tot not only clearly stages and incarnates Barker's aesthetic vision, but he also exemplifies Barker's own situation with respect to how his work repeatedly stands in opposition to mainstream society and accepted aesthetic categories.

(25) Howard Barker and Mark Brown, Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe (Bristol: Intellect, 2011), 139-40.

(26) Barker, Death, 34.
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Author:Roberts, Matthew
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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