Honouring the Audience: the Theatre of Howard Barker

  • Robert Wilcher


Howard Barkers career as a stage dramatist began with the production of Cheek in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in September 1970.1 Claw was produced at the Open Space in January 1975 and later that year Stripwell opened in the Royal Court Theatres main auditorium, to be followed by Fair Slaughter in 1977.2 Barker was not destined to become a Royal Court writer, however, although several more of his plays have been seen there. Looking back from the late 1980s, he recognised that what he had always wanted was ‘a licence to speculateandthe courage to dream’, ambitions which could not be comfortably accommodated to thedocumentarymedium favoured by a theatre that wasresolutely naturalisticin outlook.3 His own uncompromisingly avant garde stance has meant that some of his plays have remained unperformed for years, and although the Royal Shakespeare Company has mounted a number of productions, they have been confined to its studio spaces (The Warehouse and The Pit). Other plays have been taken up by provincial repertory companies or staged in small experimental theatres. Barker notes ruefully that the National Theatrehas been offered every play of mine in the last ten years and ignored every one’. 4 It was in response to this situation that in 1988 a group of actors set up The Wrestling School, a company dedicated to performing plays by Howard Barker.


National Theatre Idealistic Father Heroic Journey Radio Play Short Play 
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  1. 1.
    For a complete list to 1988 of the plays of Howard Barker (b. 1946), see Contemporary Dramatists, ed. D.L. Kirkpatrick (London: St James Press, 1988). Since Contemporary Dramatists, Barker has published: The Possibilities (1987), The Bite of the Night (1988), The Last Supper (1988), The Europeans and Judith (1990), and Seven Lears and Golgo (1990). With the exception of New Short Plays: 3 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1972), all Barker’s plays are published by John Calder (London). Page references to the appropriate volumes will be given in brackets after quotations, with date of publication after the first reference to each quoted play. It should be noted, however, that there are often considerable lapses of time between composition, first performance and publication of Barker’s texts. In this essay, the plays will be discussed roughly in order of composition.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For accounts of three early radio plays and the unpublished stage plays produced between Cheek and Claw, see David Ian Rabey, Howard Barker: Politics and Desire (London: Macmillan, 1989) pp. 10-41. This is the only comprehensive study of Barker’s work vublished to date.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Howard Barker, Arguments for a Theatre (London: Calder, 1989) p. 29.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. 32.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    ‘The Wrestling School: Nicholas Le Prevost Talks to Kate Kellaway’, Plays and Players (March 1990) 22.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Quoted in Oleg Kerensky, The New British Drama (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977) p. 243.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Barker’s statement in Contemporary Dramatists, ed. James Vinson (London: St James Press, 1977) p. 65.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Arguments for a Theatre, p. 52.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., p. 46.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    New Short Plays: 3 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1972) pp. 17, 34.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Arguments for a Theatre, p. 30.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The role of the artist is also a central theme in the radio play, Scenes from an Execution, broadcast in October 1984.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Tony Dunn, ‘Interview with Howard Barker’, Gambit: International Theatre Review, No. 41 (1984) 44.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid., pp. 34–5.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ibid., pp. 33–4.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Howard Barker, ‘Oppression, Resistance, and the Writer’s Testament’ [interview], New Theatre Quarterly, No. 8 (1986) 336.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Arguments for a Theatre, p. 22.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    ‘Oppression, Resistance, and the Writer’s Testament’, p. 337.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Arguments for a Theatre, pp. 51–62.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    ‘Off-beat track: Howard Barker meets Laurence Marks’, Observer, 21 February 1988, 24.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Arguments for a Theatre, p. 81.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Wilcher

There are no affiliations available

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