Saturday, January 21, 2006

Howard Barker on a Tangent

I love libraries. (Incidentally, however, I tend to hate academics. Nick says it is a necessary evil and that I have to maintain one foot in the world of academia, and the other in the rehearsal room). In the University of London's Senate House Library, I've often found myself overcome by the sheer possibilities. The shelves just speak of all the beautiful things I do not know. The smell of books intoxicates me. The objects themselves are treasures; I prefer to own them, so I can write my name in the back cover, make notes in the margins, and dog-ear each page. I see that as the mark of a book well-loved, like an ancient teddy bear missing an eye and a few patches of hair.

On this particular occasion, I was continuing my quest to discover the direction of contemporary playwriting. For anyone who doesn't know, I'm working with the three MATP writers as research toward that goal. Only problem is, the supporting literature for modern drama stops at about the year 2000, right after Kane and Ravenhill shook things up. Please, if you have any intriguing leads, let me know.

What was the point of this? Ah, yes, I was about to tell you that I discovered a glossy new book: Death, the One and the Art of the Theatre by Howard Barker.

Having just read his play Victory, my interest was piqued. It seems this is the logical follow-up to Arguments for a Theatre. Poor Howard, though. For all of us, from Artaud and Craig through today, who dream of that vague, fantastic, and unprecedented new theatre, he is speaking out. It's always frustrating to realize that audience don't necessarily care about the Art of the Theatre as we do, this child we have created in our minds, just out of reach...

This is an excerpt of the book, which is written thusly, in small sections of philosophical thought and theory, all aimed to defend what is sacred in theatre:

"The theatre thus: 'let us describe what the audience feels. It will thank us for it.' The art of theatre thus: 'let us describe what the audience does not know it feels. So what if it reviles us for it?'

Perhaps disturbing at points, he carries us into the heart of the art of theatre: death, and our human obsession with it. Certainly an interesting approach. I get the impression that he says the things others are thinking, but they are too frightened by the status quo to speak out.

As I read Dominic Dromgoole's The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting (I've discovered in Dominic Dromgoole my theatrical kindred spirit. His careful explanations of modern theatre and its creators are grounded in real experience and expertly related to the canon at large. I'm letting him hold my hand through the rough spots.), I learned that Barker is no stranger to controversy. "The audience is sick", he said.

Dromgoole himself goes on to ask, "If we love good work, rigorous work, demanding work, provocative work, pure work, then why does it always empty the houses? If audiences are upset by moments of truth and honesty, and love charm and manipulation, what does that say about them? If they prefer last year's tricks to genuine imagination, conservative comfort to hard questions, or unambitious achievement to wild ambition, then how should we respond?"

Both books are available on Amazon. Check them out. I'm anxious to find some answers.


Blogger Justin Kownacki said...

I'm fairly certain there's a corroboration between the audience's desire to escape reality when it's in a theatre and the playwright's (or any other artist's) need to feel like they're creating something of import which results in audiences fleeing the house when a Social Drama (or something similar) takes the stage.

I can never tell if Hollywood is kidding itself when it claims it creates escapist entertainment for the masses in times of turmoil or if it's just passing the buck, but I do know this: a guy who can barely make ends meet isn't rushing off to see Hotel Rwanda on DVD. "Art of Import" doesn't have to be heavy-handed, but the heavy-handed stuff is usually aimed squarely at the very same bourgeois audiences whose capitalist ways brought about the subjectified pandemic in the first place -- and thus, they're the least likely to want to listen.

How do you make something important that also speaks to a wide audience?

1:56 PM  

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