Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bite of The Night - by Howard Barker

I've been reading this play for a week. On and off. I should go back and read it again, to grasp, to wallow in it, to follow the fissures. What I think I will do is forge ahead and read more of his plays. Develop my muscles. Some sort of a training program.

My God.

Shakespeare is alive today. Just as difficult, epic.

There's a scene at the end where Helen (the one of Troy) who has been central to the play - an object of desire, be-armed, then be-legged - and then at the end strangled, but not dead - so they shovel dirt in her mouth until she is silenced. Trying to write about this play I feel like that. Like there is dirt shoved in my mouth. That this art is not reducible to description.

This play is hard work. Barker is hard work. The antithesis of so many discussions about what plays are these days. He has his own company - maybe still does? - in Sheffield, U.K. The Wrestling School. I had the good fortune to see two plays there in the early 90s. Both difficult, challenging, furious theater.

In a pathetic attempt to describe - the play is in 3 acts. It is set in Troy. A mythical Troy. There are 25 plus characters, including Helen and Homer. There are soap-boilers, old ladies, scholars, students, soldiers, children, archeologists, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, laborers, officials, Kings, poets, and queens. There are prologues. Many scenes in each act. There are big images, horrible violence, diatribes, betrayals, over-lapping times, philosophical actions and digressions, political screeds. Troy after Troy is built and destroyed with different leaders and different morals. Desire remains and the danger of desire - embodied in Helen. Homer wanders through, an impotent old man. It's an over-whelming play, and I need more muscles to really write about it.

He begins with an opening prologue, delivered by a soap boiler. It seems as good a place as any to start this week (maybe month) long reading of Barker plays, so here you are:

They brought a woman from the street
And made her sit in the stalls
By threats
By bribes
By flattery
Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don't understand art

Sit still, they said

But I don't want to see sad things

Sit still, they said

And she listened to everything
Understanding some things
But not others
Laughing rarely, and always without knowing why
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

If that's art I think it is hard work
It was beyond me
So much of it beyond my actual life

But something troubled her
Something gnawed her peace
And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything
This time understanding different things
This time untroubled that some things
Could not be understood
Laughing rarely but now without shame
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

That is art, it is hard work

And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said if you will
I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured
(First Prologue)

And so do I.

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