British playwright Howard Barker isn’t a young man, but he is an angry one. He doesn’t countenance niceties, and he actively discourages politesse. Whatever lies we tell ourselves in order to live in civil society, Barker reveals and reviles them. At times, he can seem merely contrary, a more sadistic Shaw. In The Europeans, now receiving its New York premiere from PTP/NYC, he presents ignoble rulers, sacrilegious priests, and grasping victims. But at his best—and The Europeans is sometimes very good indeed—Barker is more than merely oppositional. He creates situations so insupportable and characters so desperate that he leaves his audience unable to judge what the right action or moral behavior would entail.
The play opens in an appropriately calamitous setting: 1683 Vienna, at the close of the Ottoman siege, with Polish forces having liberated the city. In the first scene, the newly returned Emperor of Austria surveys the damage: “the pain which soddens every turf, the bowel which drops from every bush.” “I laugh,” he declares. Then he orders the court painter to capture the scene.
The 1683 rout effectively halted the Ottoman expansion, weaving the scattered city-states of Europe into a loose Christian alliance. Barker wrote his play in 1990, just before the foundation of the modern European Union, which likely gave the script special relevance. Lacking those current events, the play today appears more episodic than dramatic, more decadent than pertinent. The minimal plot centers on the relationship between the battle’s hero, General Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney), and a 16-year-old girl, Katrin (Aidan Sullivan), who was raped, mutilated, and impregnated by the Turks.
Like the court painter, Barker delights in creating records of extremity—and director Richard Romagnoli abets him. The production’s low lights and lowering music occasionally take the script’s self-seriousness to the point of parody, as when Katrin clutches a severed head to her breast-shorn chest. But Romagnoli doesn’t flinch at any of the play’s horrors or obscenities. Standing before the Emperor, Starhemberg begs for a new art, “which will recall pain,” an extravagant art “that will shatter the mirror in which we pose.” These are a general’s orders; Barker and Romagnoli obey.