Howard Barker at the Segal Center

Howard Barker has been one of the most creative, disturbing and controversial playwrights in Great Britain, ever since his first play was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1970.  How ironic that The Wrestling School and this prolific dramatist, referred to by The Times as “Britain’s greatest living dramatist,” had their application for funding rejected by the Arts Council England in 2007, when Barker’s new play supposedly lacked “relevance.” But then again, maybe not; Barker’s plays advocate for imagination, not for usefulness.

For anyone new to his efforts as a playwright, director, poet or theorist, the Segal Center’s day-long celebration provides an opportunity to be introduced to a wide range of Barker’s work.  For those who of us who have been “disturbed or amazed” by Barker’s plays, this is a chance to deepen our appreciation for what he has been able to achieve and how he has achieved it.  For all of us, Barker’s visit to the Segal Center is an occasion to discover what Barker and his theatre company are wrestling with today.  With an assortment of screenings, readings, a panel discussion on Barker in the United States, and a discussion with the playwright, this kind of event is what makes the Segal Center such an asset for both CUNY and the larger theatre community.

Barker’s vision of the theatre does not encourage collusion between the audience and the stage.  In his 1989 book Arguments for a Theatre, Barker compares catastrophic theatre, which he champions, with humanist theatre, which he rejects.

The humanist theatre

We all really agree.

When we laugh we are together.

Art must be understood

Wit greases the message

The actor is a man/woman not

unlike the author.

The production must be clear.

We celebrate our unity.

The critic is already

on our side.

The message is important.

The audience is educated

and goes home




The catastrophic theatre

We only sometimes agree.

Laughter conceals fear.

Art is a problem of understanding.

There is no message.

The actor is different in kind.

The audience cannot grasp

everything; nor did the author.

We quarrel to love.

The critic must suffer like

everyone else.

The play is important.

The audience is divided

and goes home




Barker doesn’t tell us what to think because, for him, that would only diminish the power of theatre.  Barker’s audiences are not spoon fed.  Like his characters, Barker wants us to make judgments on our own.

I am looking forward to what I hope will be a “catastrophic” day.


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