The Barker Poems: Gary The Thief, Plevna: Meditations on Hatred

Photo - Stan Barouh | (L-R): Alex Draper, performer of Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,
and Robert Emmet Lunney, performer of Gary the Thief

Reviewed: July 15, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 1 hour
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: Howard Barker
Directed by: Richard Romagnoli

Robert Emmet Lunney (Gary The Thief)
Alex Draper (Plevna: Meditations on Hatred)

Barker's Dry Acidic Voice
As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project brings forth two single-actor pieces from British playwright Howard Barker. Though coached in different voices and vocabularies, they both express Barker's contrarian notions about what constitutes virtue, redemption, and truth.
Gary The Thief charts how a character on the moral fringes of a society can, by keeping faith, in a twisted sort of way, with a moral calculus based on being a parasite, can reach a point where ethical emptiness becomes the seedbed of virtuousness change as the ego dissolves and uncertainty becomes the only certain thing.
Gary's story, expertly delivered by Robert Emmet Lunney (who played Starhemberg in PTP's 2009 production of Barker's The Europeans, begins in contempt: "You monkeys/You cattle/I tread your consciences like a brass heeled/Titan wades a sea of eggs." After going to prison, being appropriated by the revolutionaries, becoming a valuable bureaucratic apparatchik -- in essence, where his villainy is rewarded by those equally villainous but who are veneered in respectability and protected from punishment -- he comes to where he recognizes the emptiness of all that and is scoured clean of his attachments.
This is not Christian humility or Taoist No-Mind leading to spiritual renovation but something more valuable to Barker: the self-recognition of how we delude ourselves and how that recognition can lead to the only trustworthy state of being, one that is cool, dry, acidic, scornful (but without righteousness) -- in short, a state shorn of Christianized sentimentalities and the urge for things to make sense.
Alex Draper, who has appeared PTP's productions of Barker's No End of Blame and Scenes from an Execution, takes a very different approach with Plevna. (Plevna is a city in Bulgaria that became a key goal in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 -- a war, in other words, between Christians and Muslims, a topic also taken up in The Europeans). Though written in 1988, before the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s, it predicts the return of an already bloody history of wars prompted by religious allegiances to God and Allah.
Draper, entering as a bon vivant at a party, delivers his communiqu├ęs of horror with a chilling wit, and this drollery underscores Barker's point: that hatred, far from being a moral failing, is an engine that drives the rotation of the world, returned to again and again for its power and its satisfactions. As he says at the beginning of his meditations:

All these were killed
Not by the army
But by neighbors
Who in later years
To satisfy the curiosity of children
Talked of the peculiar speed
At which relations deteriorated...

But one said
One with a very ordinary eye
Even when smiling I nourished hate under my tongue
Which flooded
An abundant saliva
When politics exposed the fear
In those we lived among....

In wars of culture it is never enough to be dead.

Our Christian sentimentalities makes us long to believe that we are better than we are, that atrocities are aberrations of human nature rather than its core, that evil is a momentary lapse, but Barker will accept none of that special pleading. He ends Plevna with his own take on the matter. And given the blooded and cemeteried earth under our feet, who's to say that Barker is wrong, or too pessimistic, or morally churlish?

The possibility hate is intrinsic
The possibility hate waits to be born with every birth
The possibility it sits in the same mouth as grief
And floods the lip with pity's pouring
Rising like mercury through the phial
Flashing like the casement catching sun
Its succulence lending life to the tongue

Explain its durability among so much civility
its persistence in the blizzard of understanding
its how amidst welfare
its boldness in guilt

And how it thrives in innocent lives
Like the rat carrying its unwieldy gut along the
Grave channel

Michael Bettencourt