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Theatre of Catastrophe

The achievement of Barker's work has been its exemplification of the obligation of choice or refusal for the audience and performers alike. This works by throwing their sense of experience into flux. Through drama which pursues to the boundaries of the tolerable and explodes them. The relentless refusal of the expected, and the excess of transforming experiences is the essence of dramatic experience, involving the bewilderment of the audience in the face of persistent dislocation. The sense of having witnessed too much is crucial. It leads not to a drunkenness or a reeling exhaustion but a roaring sense of possibility and a rinsing out of accumulated expectations. Barker's own title for this form of theatre is Catastrophism.  

David Ian Rabey 
Howard Barker; Politics and Desire  
Published by Macmillan, 1989 +44 (0)171 881 8000  

Theatre of Catastrophe takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster's gut...  

The Humanist Theatre

We all really agree.  
When we laugh 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  


Howard Barker 
First published in 'Theatre en Europe', 1989 
Reproduced in Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester University Press 
Theatre of Catastrophe is not a discipline. This alone marks it out from the general world of theatre practice which masquerades as a market-place for competing truths but in practice just exchanges one moral imperative for another. In this instance of theatre, the audience is relieved of the infantile burden of being brought to the author's point of view - who cares about his point of view? - we ask him to be imaginative.

First Prologue to The Bite of the Night

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 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  

This 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 

Howard Barker 
The Bite of The Night