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Howard Barker[1] (born 28 June 1946)[2] is a British playwright, screenwriter and writer of radio drama, poet, and essayist writing predominantly on playwriting and the theatre. The author of an extensive body of dramatic works since the 1970s, he is best known for his plays Scenes from an Execution, Victory, The Europeans and The Possibilities, as well as being a founding member, primary playwright and stage designer for British theatre company The Wrestling School.

Howard Barker
Born28 June 1946
Camberwell, London, England

The Theatre of CatastropheEdit

Barker has coined the term "Theatre of Catastrophe" to describe his work.[3] 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[citation needed]. "We must overcome the urge to do things in unison" he writes. "To chant together, to hum banal tunes together, is not collectivity."[4] Where other playwrights might clarify a scene, Barker seeks to render it more complex, ambiguous, and unstable[citation needed].

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."[citation needed]


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. . ."[5] 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"[6] 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.<[citation needed] 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 won a following among some British playwrights, including Sarah Kane and David Grieg. Noted actors Ian McDiarmid[7] and Fiona Shaw[8] have received acclaim for their performances in Barker's plays. His plays get more lavish productions on the European mainland,[9] 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.[10]

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[11] and Scenes from An Execution[12] 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.

In 2016, Claudia Stavisky, the director of Théâtre des Célestins, will stage Howard Barker's play '‘Scenes from an Execution’'.


Stage playsEdit

  • Cheek (1970)
  • No One Was Saved (1970)
  • Bang
  • Edward - the Final Days (1972)
  • Alpha Alpha (1972)
  • Rule Britannia (1973)
  • My Sister and I (1973)
  • Claw (1975)
  • Stripwell (1975)
  • Wax (1976)
  • Fair Slaughter (1977)
  • That Good Between Us (1977)
  • Birth on a Hard Shoulder (1977)
  • Downchild (1977)
  • The Hang of the Gaol (1978)
  • The Love of a Good Man (1978)
  • The Loud Boy's Life (1980)
  • Crimes in Hot Countries (1980) (also performed as Twice Dead)
  • No End of Blame (1981)
  • The Poor Man's Friend (1981)
  • The Power of the Dog (1981)
  • Victory (1983)
  • A Passion in Six Days (1983)
  • The Castle (1985)
  • Women Beware Women, adaptation of Thomas Middleton (1986)
  • The Possibilities (1986)
  • The Bite of the Night (1986)
  • The Europeans (1987)
  • The Last Supper (1988)
  • Rome (1989)
  • Seven Lears(1989)
  • Golgo (1989)
  • (Uncle) Vanya, adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1991)
  • Ten Dilemas in the Life of a God (1992)
  • Judith: A Parting from the Body (1992)
  • Ego in Arcadia (1992)
  • A Hard Heart (1992)
  • Minna, adaptation of Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm (1993)
  • All He Fears, a specialist play for marionettes (1993)
  • The Early Hours of a Reviled Man
  • Stalingrad
  • 12 Encounters with a Prodigy
  • The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo
  • Found in the Ground
  • The Swing at Night, a specialist play for marionettes (2001)
  • Knowledge and a Girl
  • Hated Nightfall and Wounds to the Face (1995)
  • The Gaoler's Ache for the Nearly Dead (1997)
  • Ursula; Fear of the Estuary (1998)
  • Und (1999)
  • The Ecstatic Bible (2000) Prizewinner Adelaide International Festival co-production Brink Theatre (SA) and Wrestling School
  • He Stumbled (2000)
  • A House of Correction (2001)
  • Gertrude - The Cry (2002)
  • 13 Objects and Summer School (2003)
  • Dead Hands (2004)
  • The Fence in Its Thousandth Year (2005)
  • The Seduction of Almighty God by the Boy Priest Loftus in the Abbey of Calcetto, 1539 (2006)
  • Christ's Dog (2006)
  • The Forty (Few Words) (2006)
  • I Saw Myself (2008)
  • The Dying of Today (2008)
  • A Wounded Knife (2009)

Radio playsEdit

  • One afternoon on the 63rd level of the north face of the pyramid of Cheops the Great (1970)
  • Henry V in two parts (1971)
  • Herman, with Mille and Mick (1972)
  • Scenes from an Execution (1984)
  • Albertina
  • The Quick and the Dead, Radio 3 (2004)
  • The Road, The House, The Road (2006) broadcast on Radio 4 to commemorate his sixtieth birthday.
  • Let Me (2006) broadcast to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Third Programme (Radio 3)

Television playsEdit

  • Cows (1972)
  • Mutinies (1974)
  • The Chauffeur and the Lady (1974)
  • Prowling Offensive (1975) (not transmitted)
  • Conrod
  • Heroes of Labour (1976)
  • All Bleeding (1976) (not produced)
  • Credentials of a Sympathiser (1976)
  • Russia (1977) (not produced)
  • Heaven (1978) (not produced)
  • Pity in History (1984)
  • The Blow, film (1985)
  • Brutopia (1989)

Other writingsEdit

Barker has also authored several volumes of poetry (Don't Exaggerate, The Breath of the Crowd, Gary the Thief, Lullabies for the Impatient, The Ascent of Monte Grappa, and The Tortman Diaries), an opera (Terrible Mouth with music by Nigel Osborne), the text for Flesh and Blood, a dramatic scene for 2 singers and orchestra by David Sawer, and three collections of writings on the theatre (Arguments for a Theatre, Death, The One and The Art of Theatre, A Style And Its Origins).

Personal lifeEdit

Barker divorced in the 1980s and has lived on his own in Brighton since then.[13]


  1. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  2. ^ "Howard Barker Biography (1946-)". Retrieved 21 December 2008.
  3. ^ Barker, Howard (15 November 1997). Arguments for a Theatre. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-5249-1.
  4. ^ Barker, Howard (15 November 1997). Arguments for a Theatre. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-5249-1.
  5. ^ Barker, Howard (2004). Collected Plays Vol. 2 : Includes Love of a Good Man, the Possibilities, Brutopia, Rome, Uncle Vanga, and Ten Dilemmas. London, UK: Calder. ISBN 978-0-7145-4182-2.
  6. ^ Barker, Howard (1992). A Hard Heart ; The Early Hours of a Reviled Man. London, UK: Riverrun Press. ISBN 978-0-7145-4228-7.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Irvine, Lindesay (6 December 2006). "Podcast: Howard Barker talks | Stage |". London: Guardian. Retrieved 21 December 2008.
  10. ^ "The Wrestling School". Retrieved 21 December 2008.
  11. ^ Gardner, Lyn (10 March 2009). "Theatre,Stage,Culture section". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  12. ^ Gardner, Lyn (17 January 2007). "Scenes from an Execution". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  13. ^ Howard Barker: 'I don't care if you listen or not', The Guardian, 2012-10-01

External linksEdit

  • Official Site
  • The Wrestling School's page on Barker
  • [1] Special section on Howard Barker in Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol. V, Issue 1, May 2010. This features "Cruelty, Beauty, and the Tragic Art of Howard Barker" by Rainer J. Hanshe, "Access to the Body: The Theatre of Revelation in Beckett, Foreman, and Barker" by George Hunka, excerpts from Barker's Death, The One, and The Art of Theatre, which is introduced by Karoline Gritzner, and "The Sunless Garden of the Unconsoled: Some Destinations Beyond Catastrophe", a new and previously unpublished essay by Howard Barker, which is introduced by David Kilpatrick. The section also features high-resolution color reproductions of numerous paintings of Barker's.