April 2005  | This Issue

Michael Bettencourt

Howard Barker Strikes Again

recently saw Lee Blessing's play Going to St. Ives, where I spent a workman-like evening of theatre.  A full-length two-hander, the play's story pairs a world-renowned British eye surgeon with the mother of an African dictator (think Idi Amin) who has come to London to have surgery on her eyes.  The doctor eventually asks a favor of the mother: to convince her son to release four imprisoned doctors.  She agrees, for a price: that the doctor procure for her a poison that she can use to kill her son and end his reign of terror.  Against her ethics and common sense, she agrees, and thus ends Act I.  (There is a sub-story about the murder of the doctor's son by a stray bullet fired during a gang altercation that ties the women together as mothers.)

Act II takes place in the African country, in the mother's house. She has  been condemned for the murder, and the doctor, who has been working tirelessly to get her released, has come, as part of an agreement with the government, to get the mother and spirit her out of the country into exile.  The mother refuses, choosing instead to suffer the execution the officials have planned for her as a way of redeeming herself for the murder of the her son.  The play ends with the two women bonded in tragedy, staring off into silence drinking tea while waiting for the executioners.

Good actors, dialogue with some snap (if not freshness), simple stage design, and so on.  What made it workman-like for was that the machinery of the play was so transparent. I could begin to predict just when Blessing would job in the plot twist, the reveal that shifts the action, the second act monologue (in this case, by the mother) that is supposed to grip our hearts with a wrenching story of moral ambiguities, the quiet descent of the lights at the end that signals the audience that they can prepare to clap. All the modules were expertly in place, and the ending note of sentimentalized mourning gives the audience just the right moral frisson that convinces them that they have been to the lip of Hell-Mouth and come back to tell the tale.

Perhaps I had this reaction to the play because in the foyer, to while away the wait-time before the house opened, I read further into British playwright Howard Barker's new book of theatre-thoughts, Death, The One, and the Art of Theatre.  Everything Barker says in this book, just as he did in his Arguments for the Theatre, felt like a tonic blow against the machined  apparatus I was about to see.

The book is a little difficult to summarize because Barker writes it as a series of aperçus rather than an extended argument, but he makes a primary distinction  between the theatre, which Barker links with congeniality, and the art of theatre, which he links with tragedy.   He draws the primary distinction between them this way: "The play of the theatre asks how shall we live?  The tragedy asks how should we die?" (94) He goes on to draw out the differences even more finely:

Since theatre ceased to make death its subject it surrendered its authority over the human soul.  Since it allowed itself to be incorporated into mundane projects of political indoctrination and social therapy it abdicated its power.  Always theatre is suborned by the idealism of its makers.  Always it is traduced by the sentimental.  In the art of theatre we pity the idealist as one pities the man with a fatal disease.  This pity is strictly circumscribed.  Whilst many have tried to make hospitals from theatres we keep our stage infection-free (2).

Tragedy, for Barker, is the sole source of theatre's power.  Tragedy is synonymous with death, but not death as the enemy or spoiler of life because "life," to Barker, as it was to Ecclesiastes, is a vale of misery that cannot be escaped, and death offers release from, not betrayal of, life.  The purpose of any art, insofar as art can have any purpose at all, is to give us the means to make something beautiful of our inevitable dissolution before that dissolution takes us away.  This beauty is not meant to lift us, (en)lighten us, heal us, teach us, but simply allow us to live without sentimentality and hope and other moral delusions and make an ecstasy of their disappearance.  As Barker says, "How should we enter death?  Is this not the subject of all philosophy and all theatre, despite the protestations of all philosophy and all theatre that they are instruments for living?" (18)

All of this, and more, in Barker's book may appear counter-intuitive, that is, countering the watered-down Christian ethos we bring in to the theatre of redemption and forgiveness and resolved conflicts and just desserts and bald-faced sentimentality demonstrated by crying and identification: "The appetite for identification, which characterizes the theatre, has no place in tragedy, where the death of the protagonist is perfection, i.e., never a cause for tears...debased democracies make tears the lingua franca of collectivity ("See how human I am" says the weeping politician, "I'm just like you...") (90)  But Barker is trying to put into play a theatrical practice that allows us to see as gifts what we might "normally" consider debits, and by these gifts craft an honest life in the face of a death that will consume us all at any moment.

Thus, Going to St. Ives.  With Barker in mind, Blessing's machinery became all too apparent, his intentions steeped in the usual modus operandi of arc and conflict and well-worn moral niceties.  It was hard to be engaged with something so mechanical, no matter how much skill the machinist had put into covering over the cogs and wheels.

Barker is not a warm writer; his aesthetic is astringent.  But there is something bracing for me about being in the company of such a thinker who asks that we risk being who we think we aren't or shouldn't be in order to understand who we are before it all goes into oblivion.

©2005 Michael Bettencourt
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays
produced in New York, Chicago,
Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more commentary and articles by
Michael Bettencourt, check the Archives.

Your Comments Are Appreciated -Click

All prior issues are secured in the Scene4 archives.
To access the Archives:

Scene4 Archives-Click

Have you read the Classifieds?

Scene4 Magazine Subscribe

Scene4 Email This Page To A Friend-Click

© 2000-2005 Scene4 - International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media - AVIAR-DKA Ltd. All rights reserved (including author and individual copyrights as indicated). All copyrights, trademarks and servicemarks are protected by the laws of the United States and International laws. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.