Howard Barker is a sixty-four-year-old enfant terrible. He is a playwright who does not believe in collaboration, who has no interest in sympathetic characters, and who dismisses politics in theater. And he is ruthlessly attached to the idea that “a good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal” while a good author “produce[s] a character who creates anxiety.” Unsurprisingly, his paintings (yes, he paints) look like this and his plays look like this.
Mr. Barker may at first sound like an adherent of “in-yer-face theatre,” a British movement from the ‘nineties that includes plays like Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking; but while Mr. Barker’s subject matter occasionally intersects with that of “in-yer-face”—we could imagine him writing a scene in which his protagonist masturbates and then eats a dead baby—the emotional accessibility (or ferocity) is not there.
In The Castle, currently being revived by the PTP/NYC, Mr. Barker keeps a cold, intellectual distance from his characters. The skeleton of the plot is fairly familiar: knights who have spent years fighting in the Crusades return home and, like Odysseus before them, find difficulty transitioning from warfare to domestic life. But their wives (certainly no Penelopes) have, in their absence, transitioned to lesbianism and created a cult of cunt, worshipping the female genitalia. One of the knights, Stucley (David Barlow), retaliates by reinventing Christ through the glorification of his penis. “I am of the opinion Christ slagged Magdalene,” he tells the priest Nailer (Brent Langdon), and “by His cock [he] communicated” his pity for her. Stucley also employs Krak (Quentin Maré), a captured Arab engineer, to build an enormous fortress: lifelessly, Krak reports, “He wants another wall, in case the first three walls are breached. The unknown enemy, the enemy who does not exist yet but who cannot fail to materialize, will batter down the first wall and leaving a carpet of twitching dead advance on the second wall, and scaling it, will see in front of them a third wall, buttressed, ditched and palisaded, this wall I have told him will break their spirit but he aches for a fourth wall, a fourth wall against which the enemy who does not exist yet but who cannot fail to materialize will be crucified.”
I have never been less sure of a play than I am of The Castle. I am not the one to know whether the emperor is exquisitely dressed or wearing nothing at all; it may be a masterpiece, and then again it may be garbage. (By his own definition, Mr. Barker is doubtlessly a genius.) I can only say that I certainly did not enjoy it, that I found the experience monotonous and exhausting, and that it will likely take years before I am on firm ground with Mr. Barker.