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Howard Barker

Howard Barker's plays are known for their fearless exploration of power, sexuality and human motivation. His texts overflow with rich language, challenging ideas, history, beauty, violence and imaginative comedy, all brought together within the extremes of human experience to create a powerful and compelling theatrical experience. 

Barker's texts are constructed on the premise that theatre is a necessity in society, a place for imagination and moral speculation, not constrained by the demands of realism or any ideology. Barker describes his work with the term Theatre of Catastrophe. In Barker's work, no attempt is made to satisfy any demand for clarity or the deceptive simplicity of a single 'message'; each performance is like a public challenge in which actors and audience are inspired to find meaning and resonance from a multiplicity of interpretations. 

Long considered the enfant terrible of contemporary British theatre and the subject of heated debate, whether loved or hated, his plays are impossible to ignore. 

On the European mainland especially, Barker is considered one of the major writers of modern European theatre. In recent years, 19 of his works have been staged in five languages in 12 countries as far afield as Canada, New Zealand and Slovenia. Yet in Britain, his home country, he is largely unknown.

Barker has also written a number of volumes of poetry and a collection of essays on the nature of theatre, published as Arguments For A Theatre (Manchester University Press). 

Interview with Howard Barker by Nick Hobbes
Chronology of Barker Productions 1970 - 2005
Howard Barker plays in French translation


  • Claw 
  • Victory 
  • The Love of a Good Man 
  • The Power of the Dog 
  • Scenes from an Execution 
  • The Castle 
  • The Europeans 
  • A Hard Heart 
  • Seven Lears 
  • The Bite of the Night 
  • The Possibilities 
  • Rome 
  • Hated Nightfall 
  • Judith 
  • The Gaoler's Ache for the Nearly Dead 
  • (Uncle) Vanya 
  • He Stumbled 
  • A House of Correction 
  • Ursula; Fear of the Estuary 
  • Gertrude The Cry

Calder Publications 
126 Cornwall Road 
London SE1 8TQ 
Tel: +44 (0)171 633 0599 

The Ecstatic Bible
Published Aug 2004
Oberon Books


  • Don't Exaggerate 
  • The Breath of the Crowd 
  • Gary the Thief 
  • Lullabies for the Impatient 
  • The Ascent of Monte Grappa 
  • The Tortman Diaries 
All published by Calder Publications 
[as left]


  • Terrible Mouth (Music by Nigel Osborne) 
Universal Edition


  • Arguments for a Theatre (3rd Edition)
    Manchester University Press

  • Death, The One and the Art of Theatre
    October 2004 by Routlage

To hear a selection of Howard Barker's poems read by Julia Tarnoky Click here

Howard Barker plays in French translation:

Les Sept Lears ISBN 2-905158-99-9
Tableau d'une Execution ISBN 2-905158-81-6
Les Europeens ISBN 2-87282-227-5
N'Exageres Pas ISBN 2-8774-414

The following Howard Barker plays are published in French by Editions Théâtrales - Maison Antoine Vitez (Collection Scènes Étrangères):

'uvres choisies volume 1 : Tableau d'une exécution (translated by Jean-Michel Déprats) / Les Possibilités (translated by Sinéad Rushe and Sarah Hirschmuller)

'uvres choisies volume 2 : Les Possibilités (translated by Sinéad Rushe and Sarah Hirschmuller) / La Douzième Bataille d'Isonzo (translated by Mike Sens)

'uvres choisies volume 3 : La Griffe (translated by Jean-Michel Déprats and Nicolas Rippon) / L'Amour d'un brave type (translated by Sinéad Rushe and Sarah Hirschmuller)

'uvres choisies volume 4 : Gertrude [Le Cri] (translated by Elisabeth Angel-Pérez and Jean-Michel Déprats) / Le Cas Blanche Neige [Comment le savoir vient aux jeunes filles] (translated by Cécile Menon)

To be published in November 2004:

'uvres choisies volume 5 : Treize objets (translated by Jean-Michel Déprats / Animaux au Paradis (translated by Jean-Michel Déprats and Marie-Lorna Vaconsin)

Éditions Théâtrales
38, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Jacques
75014 PARIS
01 53 10 23 00
Fax : 01 53 10 23 01

The Theatre of Howard Barker by Charles Lamb
is to be published in October 2004 by Routlage

Interview with Howard Barker by Nick Hobbes
From the programme for Scenes From an Execution   Dundee Rep April 2004

Can you explain a little about your life and background and how and why you started writing plays?
I was born in 1946. I came from a family of laundresses, policemen, soldiers, barmaids and tram drivers. I did not visit the theatre. None of us did. I had no prejudice against it, I knew nothing of it. When I came to the theatre I found it a difficult and hostile place. For all its socialist rhetoric it was and remains narcissistic and snobbish. Perhaps it always was. Perhaps it is a condition of its artistic form, after all, for all its pretensions to telling the truth that is precisely what it doesn't do, which is why I am drawn to it.

How would you describe your work? What have you tried to say in your plays?
I never 'say' anything in my work. I invent a world. Let others decide what is being 'said'. Nor do I claim to tell the truth or enlighten people. We are suffocated by writers who want to enlighten us with their truths. For me, the theatre is beautiful because it is a secret, and secrets seduce us, we all want to share secrets. That is also its politics, if it has any politics at all. And modern democracies hate secrets, they want everything transparent. Obviously the critics collaborate in this desire to expose everything to the light of day, they are the police force, after all. My work is characterized by one thing above all --- invention. In theatre we imagine the world, we do not record it, we are not documentary makers. I hold all social realism and journalistic theatre in contempt. It is a sordid habit. And the social realists have the impertinence to pretend they are 'telling the truth…'

Can you describe some of your influences as a writer?
So far as I'm aware I'm not at all influenced by dramatists, expect for Shakespeare, who I have to say, it is impossible not to be influenced by if you hold language to be the major element of theatre. Poets have mattered more to me, and these Europeans, above all Apollinaire, Rilke, Celan and Attila Jozsef. But serious artists make their own voice, and here too I affirm the value of invention - I do not pretend my characters speak the language of the street - a peculiar ambition of naturalistic writers - their discourse is a mixture of high literary tone and the sort of slang I learned in South London in my childhood, a rich metaphorical voice that reached back to the middle ages. I knew this when my mother swore at me, there were rhythms and words in her mouth that were atavistic, and beautiful too. So from different sources I made a language specially fitted for theatre. In more recent works, this is yet further developed.

Why do you write about the things you do? What drives you?
Certainly I never write for utilitarian reasons - to help others understand issues, to improve society and so on. I regard those as fatuous pretexts. Let us keep social work out of the theatre. I am compelled to write because I have an artist's personality, it is a psychologically-determined thing, one best not explored perhaps. I write because I feel must. And frequently I do not know what I am writing, and can talk of what I've written only a long time afterwards.

You describe your work as Theatre of Catastrophe. Can you talk about that?
Tragedy is the greatest art form of all. It gives us the courage to continue with our life by exposing us to the pain of life. It is unsentimental, it takes us seriously as human beings, it is not condescending. Paradoxically, by seeing pain we are made greater, it becomes a need. There is nothing 'pessimistic' about this. Tragedy doesn't understand pessimism, it's a critic's word. Tragedy tells us what the world is - it doesn't explain the world. My own tragedies have no moral meaning whatsoever. They are called catastrophic because a breakdown of order - social or personal - is always the starting point, and the protagonist must invent himself out of the ruins of a life. Often this journey leads to a bitter solitude. But so what? Theatre isn't a massage. We ask it to take us seriously.

Your work is perhaps more successful in Europe than at home. Why do you think that is?
My work is vastly more successful in Europe, America or Australia than it is here. The reason is simple enough - the English (I cannot speak of the Scots) are moralistic, and have made moralising their discipline since the reformation. They like to be told what to think, and their literary heroes are moralists. Shakespeare was the last English writer who was not a moralist - and I state this knowing it to be a controversial attitude - there is a profound quarrel in Shakespeare's psyche between his pre-reformation personality and the post-reformation sense of order and kindness, as it is viewed civilly. This civil kindness is in my opinion, a false note in his work, a compromise and essentially, a deceit. But leaving all this aside, the Europeans are not burdened with this predisposition to judge - they understand art is also speculative…I am a speculative artist, I ask what might be, I don't narrate what is…

And how do you feel about this?
It is painful to be to a large extent, an internal exile. But there are compensations. The success of my work abroad has made me an international writer, and I have a small and dedicated company, The Wrestling School, with whom I develop my theatre practice. We have a distinct style, we live on the margins, but it is the margins where the most interesting things happen, obviously. There is a law of aesthetics that prevents interesting things occurring at the centre, it stands to reason.

Do you have very strong political views? Can you explain what they are and how they inform your work?
I have plenty of political views and plenty of social and personal prejudices. I do not however, value them. The great beauty of art is its ability to break down the views of the artist. Why should we believe a dramatist? What is his opinion worth? No more than anyone else's. What we do trust is the power of his imagination, which has its own truths. What is the most exquisite experience in theatre is to see the art being seduced from itself…a sort of loss of control, where a character's autonomy erupts and declares its freedom from the will of his creator. When I write, I am not giving a lecture, I am speculating on behaviour. Sometimes this is dangerous, but it should be. As I say often, theatre is a dark place and we should keep the light out of it.

And you are known for having very strong views on art and culture. Can you explain these?
I don't know that my views on culture are so strong - I have a powerful sense of what it is to be a European, its breadth of ideas, its obsession with the human form, and I place myself firmly in its traditions as well as being conscious of the necessity to overturn them and interrogate them. It is extraordinary to me how such diverse passions originate in the same culture - take Bosch and Rembrandt, or in literature Celine and Thomas Mann. But this sort of contradiction I find in myself, and I don't try to solve it.

You are famous for your quote about sending all your plays to the National Theatre for rejection. Can you expand a little on why you said that?
I was trying to prove a thesis, and the National Theatre obliged me. Listen, a National Theatre is an ideological construct, it is not a benign provider of facilities to serious artists. Hall, Eyre, Nunn, Hytner, all knew of my work and its reputation, internationally as well as locally. Yet they have all resolutely declined to stage it. One might argue this neglect runs counter to their remit, which is to offer the best work in the English language. But that's never the issue. They are there to cultivate the national ideology, which might have been at one time, patriotic royalism, but is now liberal humanism. Still, it is an ideological function. Quality is not the first consideration, the first consideration is whether the text is compatible with the prejudices of the age, as interpreted by these carefully chosen individuals. It's not so far from the model of Soviet communism. You have a police force, but it's done at the level of the appointments. Let me say however, I shouldn't have declined the opportunity of this place staging my work because I write big plays and they have big theatres. At the same time I think there should not be a national theatre, the huge resources wasted here should be bestowed on a dozen vigorous independent companies.

© John Good Holbrook

Chronology of Barker Productions 1970 - 2005

* Indicates text unpublished. All others published by John Calder with the sole exception of Cheek by Eyre Methuen. Dates are of production opening nights. Dates in brackets indicate openings at particular venues.

Date Play Venue/Company Director

11.9.70 Cheek Theatre Upstairs William Gaskill Royal Court

19.11.70 No One Was Saved * Theatre Royal Court Upstairs Pam Brighton

15.2.72 Edward:Final Days* (Lunch-time show) The Open Space

15.2.72 Faceache* Recreation Ground

17.9.72 Alpha Alpha* Open Space Peter Watson

9.1.73 Rule Britannia* Open Space

12.3.73 Skipper, And My Sister And I* Bush Theatre

23.5.73 Bang* Open Space

30.1.75 Claw Open Space Chris Parr

14.10.75 Stripwell     Royal Court Chris Parr

13.6.77 Fair Slaughter    Royal Court Stuart Burge

28.7.77 That Good Between Us  RSC Warehouse Barry Kyle

19.10.78 The Love of Sheffield Crucible David Leland
A Good Man

15.12.78 The Hang of The Gaol      RSC Warehouse Bill Alexander

13.11.79 The Love of A Good Man    Oxford Playhouse Nicholas Kent UK Tour

26.2.80 The Loud Boy's Life     RSC Warehouse Howard Davies

8.11.80 Birth on a Hard Shoulder Royal Dramatic Theatre Stockholm   Barbro Larsson

11.2.81 No End of Blame Royal Court Nicholas Kent Oxford Playhouse

1.12.81 The Poor Man's Friend* Colway Theatre Trust Bridport    Ann Jellicoe

17.2.83 Victory Joint Stock/Royal Court Danny Boyle   UK Tour

15.3.83 Crimes in Hot Countries  Theatre Underground Charles Lamb Essex University

7.10.83 A Passion in Six Days   Sheffield Crucible Michael Boyd

14.11.84 The Power of The Dog Joint Stock/ UK Tour Kenny Ireland   Hampstead Theatre

?.?.85 Victory Rough Magic Theatre  Dublin

7.10.85 Crimes in Hot Countries   RSC Barbican Pit Bill Alexander

14.10.85 The Castle RSC Barbican Pit Nick Hamm

21.10.85 Downchild RSC Barbican Pit Bill Alexander

1.2.86 Women Beware Women   Royal Court Theatre William Gaskill

23.2.88 The Possibilities   Almeida Theatre Ian McDiarmid

8.3.88 The Last Supper Wrestling School Kenny Ireland
Leicester, Haymarket Royal Court UK Tour

31.8.88 The Bite of The Night   RSC Barbican Pit Danny Boyle

4.11.89 Seven Lears Wrestling School Kenny Ireland
Leicester Haymarket, Royal Court, UK Tour

24.11.89 Golgo Wrestling School Nick Le Prevost
Leicester Haymarket, Royal Court/ UK Tour

11.1.90 Scenes from An Execution    Almeida Theatre Ian McDiarmid

21.5.90 The Castle Moving Being Theatre Geoff Moore   St Stephen's, Cardiff

15.2.91 Victory Wrestling School/UK Tour Kenny Ireland
Leicester Haymarket, Théâtre de Gennevilliers, Paris

3.3.92 A Hard Heart Almeida Theatre Ian McDiarmid

25.3.92 Scenes from an Execution   Mark Taper Forum Los Angeles Allan Ackermann

10.6.93 Ego in Arcadia   Sienna, Italy Howard Barker

14.2.93 The Wrestling School/ UK Tour Kenny Ireland
Europeans Leicester Haymarket, Greenwich, London

2.11.93 Scenes from An Execution    Centre Dramatique de Solange Oswald Bourgogne, Dijon

8.3.94 Hated Nightfall Wrestling School/ UK Tour Howard Barker
Dancehouse, Manchester, Royal Court
European Tour:
(18.1.95) Hebbel Theater, Berlin
(7.2.95) Théâtre de l'Odéon, Paris
(29.3.95) Kanonhallen, Copenhagen
(11.4.95) Théâtre de la Metaphore, Lille

1.6.94 Scenes from An Execution   Würtembergische Landesbuhne, Beverly Blankenship

18.11.94 Seven Lears Théâtre de la Chamaille Nantes   Catherine Hunault

11.1.95 The Castle Wrestling School Kenny Ireland Riverside Studios, UK Tour
(18.1.95) Hebbel Theater, Berlin
(1.2.95) Théâtre de l'Odéon, Paris

28.2.95 Judith Leicester Haymarket Howard Barker
8/9.95 Revived for Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival, Luxembourg, Battersea Arts Centre

20.10.95 The Europeans   Escher Theater, Luxemburg Eric Schneider

?/?/96 Scenes from an Execution    Théâtre de Saint Gervais Geneva, Ann Bisang

18.4.96 (Uncle) Vanya    Wrestling School Leicester Haymarket, UK Tour Howard Barker
Revival for Copenhagen,
Limoges, Riga & Berlin

9.11.96 Scenes from An Execution    Khan Theatre, Jerusalem Ofira Henig

17.8.97 Wounds to the Face Wrestling School Stephen Wrentmore
Assembly Rooms Edinburgh

17.1.98 Judith Théâtre de Songes, Paris   Jerzy Kleszyk

17.3.98 Ten Dilemmas  Drama Studio Sheffield University

20.4.98 Ursula Wrestling School Howard Barker Birmingham Repertory, Riverside Studios

?.11.98 Seven Lears Théâtre de la Chamaille, Nantes.Claudine Hunault

6.3.00 The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo, Théâtre de Folle, Saint-Brieuc Tr Pensée Annie Lucas
. Mike Sens

17.6.99 Und Wrestling School Howard Barker   Riverside Studios

22.9.99 Scenes from Execution   Wrestling School Howard Barker
London Barbican Pit/ UK Tour

8.3.00 The Ecstatic Bible Wrestling School & Brink Productions, Adelaide Festival,
Howard Barker

1.11.00 He Stumbled, Wrestling School/Riverside Studios/UK Tour, Howard Barker

28.9.01 A House of Correction, Wrestling School Riverside Studios/UK Tour, Howard Barker

19.2.02 Brutopia Nouveau Théâtre de Besançon, Guillaume Dujardin

?.4.02 Wounds to the Face, CDN de Montluçon, Jean-Paul Wenzel

10.4.02 Judith Theatre in Action, Glasgow Citizens, David O'Neill

30.4.02 Victory, Edinburgh Royal Lyceum, Kenny Ireland

7.11.02 The Europeans, Colchester Mercury, Janice Dunn

5.11.02 Claw, Comédie de Genève, Anne Bisang

15.10.02 Gertrude Wrestling School Howard Barker
Plymouth/ Tour
Riverside Studios

18.3.03 The Last Supper, Théâtre Mains d'Oeuvres, Saint-Ouen, Nathalie Garraud
Tr. Mike Sens

18.4.03 Claw   Kazida Productions Jonathan Loe Greenwich Playhouse

3.10.03 13 Objects* Wrestling School Howard Barker
The Door, Birmingham, UK Tour, Riverside Studios

31.1.04 Und, Théâtre de la Source, Bègles,  Marie Pourroy,  Tr. Mike Sens

2.3.04 The Love of A Good Ma,  La Comédie de Genève,  Jean Paul Wenzel

18.1.05 Seven Lears, La Comedie de Agnès Bourgeois, Saint-Etienne   Tr. Mike Sens


The Wrestling School is an Arts Council of England Project Funded company and a member of ITC.  Overseas tours are supported by The British Council.