Vintage Barker: new writing in old bottles

Hudson, James (2015) Vintage Barker: new writing in old bottles. In: Howard Barker's theatre: wrestling with catastrophe. Methuen Drama Engage . Bloomsbury Methuen, London, pp. 113-130. ISBN 9781408185995

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While it is by now axiomatic to say that Howard Barker does not comfortably or conveniently fit into any generic categorisation, dramatic movement or school, the reasons behind this are rarely made explicit beyond Barker’s prescription that he would not join any club that would have him as a member. Nonetheless it is possible to locate Barker within particular dramaturgical genealogies, specifically considering his affiliation with two of Britain’s national theatre institutions prior to the inauguration of the Wrestling School: the unofficial confederacy of Leftist writers at the Royal Court in the 1970s and the RSC’s Warehouse Company in the late 70s and early 80s (the Wrestling School itself was an offshoot of what Jack Tinker described as the ‘national theatre of the fringe’, Joint Stock). Although Barker was therefore the beneficiary of producing and commissioning structures that prioritised the playwright as the originary point of creative emanation, in the mid-nineties this approach would become an end in itself, with the phenomenon of ‘New Writing’ becoming the prevalent determinant of play development processes designed to turn youth, rawness, contemporaneity and relevance into marketable entities. New Writing as a discourse is commonly credited as becoming dominant in two specific periods, with the Royal Court’s early artistic policy often perceived as marking its inception as an institutionally sanctioned practice and the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s distinguished by the repivoting of the British theatrical ecology upon new play development and the discovery of new, specifically young, writers. This chapter re-examines Barker’s positioning between these two periods, as a figure that is excluded from these taxonomies in critical comment, and yet still subject to the imposition of similar institutional pressures, commercial expectations and aesthetic predilections. The chapter suggests that while Barker’s theatre anticipated the replacement of the post-‘68 theatre of ideological persuasion with a theatre that appeals to corporeal sensation, offering no political frameworks as support or aspiration to its characters, the preponderance of New Writing was anchored in a type of naturalism to which Barker professed an allergic reaction as severe as his antipathy to politically progressive post-Brechtian dramaturgical models. The chapter argues that while the master-signifier ‘in-yer-face’, announced visceral spectacle and a generalised array of shock tactics as the radical gesture that defined the theatre of this period, with Sarah Kane’s work identified in some quarters as an exemplar of the Theatre of Catastrophe, the epithet often obscured the lack of dramaturgical innovation at the level of representational aesthetics cultivated by New Writing initiatives, with its vocabularies and methodologies of psychological realism, linearity of narrative, and social relevance. This chapter recognises the theoretical importance of Barker’s strident castigation of these precepts, even as they were inscribed as foundational principles in the discursive and material practices of New Writing.

Keywords:Howard Barker; New Writing; In-Yer-Face; Naturalism
Subjects:W Creative Arts and Design > W400 Drama
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts > School of Fine & Performing Arts (Performing Arts)
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ID Code:17634
Deposited On:11 Jun 2015 10:19

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