Howard Barker

Howard Barker bigraphy, stories - playwright

Howard Barker : biography

28 June 1946 –

Howard E. Barker (born 28 June 1946) is a British playwright.

Personal life

Barker divorced in the 1980s and has lived on his own in Brighton since then.

The Theatre of Catastrophe

Barker has coined the term "Theatre of Catastrophe" to describe his work. His plays often explore violence, sexuality, the desire for power, and human motivation.

Rejecting the widespread notion that an audience should share a single response to the events onstage, Barker works to fragment response, forcing each viewer to wrestle with the play alone. "We must overcome the urge to do things in unison" he writes. "To chant together, to hum banal tunes together, is not collectivity." Where other playwrights might clarify a scene, Barker seeks to render it more complex, ambiguous, and unstable.

Opposing the predominance of comedy in the contemporary culture, which unifies us through the banality of a shared response, he argues for the rebirth of a tragic theatre, which will force us to recognize our differences. Only through a tragic renaissance, Barker argues, will beauty and poetry return to the stage. "Tragedy liberates language from banality" he asserts. "It returns poetry to speech."Ibid., 18.


Barker frequently turns to historical events for inspiration. His play Scenes from an Execution, for example, centers on the aftermath of the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and a fictional female artist commissioned to create a commemorative painting of the Venetian victory over the Ottoman fleet. Scenes from an Execution, originally written for Radio 3 and starring Glenda Jackson in 1984, was later adapted for the stage. The short play Judith revolves around the Biblical story of Judith, the legendary heroine who decapitated the invading general Holofernes.

In other plays, Barker has fashioned responses to famous literary works. Brutopia is a challenge to Thomas More’s Utopia. Minna is a sardonic work inspired by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Enlightenment comedy, Minna von Barnhelm. In Uncle Vanya, he poses an alternative vision to Anton Chekhov’s drama of the same name. For Barker, Chekhov is a playwright of bad faith, a writer who encourages us to sentimentalize our own weaknesses and glamorize inertia. Beneath Chekhov’s celebrated compassion, Barker argues, lies contempt. In his play, Barker has Chekhov walk into Vanya’s world and express his disdain for him. "Vanya, I have such a withering knowledge of your soul," says the Russian playwright. "Its pitiful dimensions. It is smaller than an aspirin that fizzles in a glass. . ." But Chekhov dies, and Vanya finds the resoluteness to stride out of the confines of his creator’s world.

Barker’s protagonists are conflicted, often perverse, and their motivations appear enigmatic. In A Hard Heart, Riddler, described by the playwright as "A Woman of Originality" is called upon to use her considerable brilliance in fortifications and tactics to save her besieged city. But each choice she makes seems to render the city more vulnerable to attack, but that outcome seems to exhilarate rather than upset her. "My mind was engine-like in its perfection" she exults in the midst of destruction.Ibid., 42 Barker’s heroes are drawn into the heart of the paradoxical, fascinated by contradiction.


Though he is relatively unknown in his own country, Barker’s works have earned him a sizable following on the European mainland where his plays get more lavish productions, and many of his plays have been translated into other languages.

In Britain, Howard Barker formed "The Wrestling School" Company in 1988 to produce his own work in his native country.

There has been a small flurry of productions of Barker’s plays on the London Fringe since 2007, including some non-Wrestling school productions which seem to fare better critically. Notable among these have been Victory and Scenes from An Execution received acclaimed productions at the Arcola and the Hackney Empire respectively. In 2012 the National Theatre staged a production of Scenes from an Execution, starring Fiona Shaw and Tim McInnerny.