There are few people in the theatre right now that I admire more than Howard Baker, few who posses such awe-inspiring integrity. I think integrity is not a word many theatremakers take into account when making career decisions. Only Trevor Griffiths, somehow, comes to my mind, when I think about the kind of stubborness with which Barker refuses to comply to either the material goals of commercial theatre and the trends in the art world. Like he says, he doesn't fit.
Howard Baker is a difficult writer and I must admit his Arguments for Theatre went over my head. But in a good way. I know that someday soon I will have to develop my own theoretical take on the medium, other than hurl volumes of Artaud, Brook and Barker at people. All dramatists should shape their own basic beliefs about the form of art they are choosing. Barker is one artist I can look up to and look for guidance in his texts. He is driven by a complete faith and wild trust in theatre, which is something that in our cynical world is almost always met with suspicion.
"Tragedy is the greatest art form of all. It gives us the courage to continue with our life by exposing us to the pain of life. It is unsentimental, it takes us seriously as human beings, it is not condescending. Paradoxically, by seeing pain we are made greater, it becomes a need."
It's not his ideas but his poetry that I keep coming back to Barker. I still remember reading most of Dead Hands standing up in the National Theatre bookshop, rooted to the ground by the power of his words.
I have only dipped my toes in Barker's body of work and though I have a long way to go so far all I've read has left a mark on me, both radio versions of Victory and Scenes from an Execution and the reading of Dead Hands, Gertrud - The Cry and He Stumbled. These are complex plays, full of unforgettable images and magnificent poetry. They leave me trembling. It's a very particular response that I associate with the sublime.
Now, I have to make a confession here: I have never seen a production of a Barker play just yet. Victory came at a hard time for me to see theatre and Found in the Ground well, let's say that the location of the Riverside Studios makes me lazy to get my ass there. But I think there's something more than that. I guess I don't want the feeling I've got when reading Barker plays in the privacy of my own bedroom, or listening to the radio adaptations, to be disturbed by the actual staging of his words. Barker plays live in some sort of abstract reality for me and I am still reluctant to face the materiality of them on stage. This is something I have to get over, of course, because plays are meant to be seen on stage. But maybe I'm not there just yet.
Impossible to overlook the fact that I feel specially close to Barker because he holds Shakespeare in such esteem.
"I am so far as I am aware not at all influenced by dramatists, expect for Shakespeare, who I have to say, it is impossible not to be influenced by if you hold language to be the major element of theatre. "
- Read Whatsonstage brief interview with Howard Baker (9 Oct 2009).
- The Telegraph on the 21x21 celebrations.
- Check out this excellent interview with Barker at the archives of Theatre Voice.
At the ceasing of the running:
What terrified us so?
At the fall of the cities:
Why did we inhabit them?
I love the way the grasses one genus
Following the other smother the dead cars
The strict order of their progress
I love the way her neck falls into
Soft lines and the hardening of her hands
The strict order of her decline
I sung the world no longer there
Hardly a dried flower of Apollinaire
Hardly a chair
And we would fail to know it in the market