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Howard Barker’s “Pity in History” Is a Brutal Play of Big Ideas


There are more ideas chewed up and invigoratingly spit out in five minutes of Howard Barker’s 65-minute Pity in History than in many plays of greater length. Originally written by Barker for BBC television in the mid-Eighties, Pity in History is getting its theatrical premiere from the vital Potomac Theatre Project, which has been producing his plays for thirty years. Somewhat neglected in his own country, the demanding and iconoclastic Barker is a major playwright and theorist who has described his own work with the term “Theatre of Catastrophe.” His troupe in London is called the Wrestling School, because Barker wants his audiences to wrestle with what he offers them.

The would-be cynical mason Gaukroger (Steven Dykes) functions as a protagonist of sorts in Pity in History, which is set during the seventeenth-century English civil war, even though Barker indicates in his script that it takes place in “the present.” Gaukroger is doing his best to stay alive and solvent by working on a memorial for the dead husband of a rich widow named Venables (Kathleen Wise), who enters the stage in a form-fitting pink dress that pops amid the green fatigues of various soldiers. An army cook named Murgatroyd (Jonathan Tindle) spends most of the play dying on a stretcher, and he refuses to go quietly or with “dignity.” Like Gaukroger, this cook — whose death throes make everyone around him impatient — is too invested in the pleasures of life to relinquish them for any abstract concept.

Any attempt to describe what happens in a Barker play falls short if you do not quote from the muscular language he uses. The meaty flavor of his writing is so intense, and his point-of-view shifts so seamless, that our expected reactions to what his characters say are constantly being thwarted, waylaid, even mocked. This tactic eventually allows Barker to reveal a vein of romanticism that is as durably hard and uselessly beautiful as the stone with which Gaukroger works. Toward the end of Pity in History, Gaukroger says, “I carved a hand, and I imagined its destruction. I made love to my wife, and I imagined her an old woman. I ate, and even as I looked at the plate, I imagined myself starving. And now the hand is destroyed, and the old woman is an old woman, and I’m starving. It’s no preparation…”

Much like Galactia, the anti-heroine of Barker’s best-known work, Scenes From an Execution, Gaukroger is too in love with his own life to stand by any moral principles. He knows that he would do just about anything if it meant a little more sunlight, a little more sex, a little more time to create. Barker plays are often about how everything gets destroyed in the end, and the style of his work viscerally imitates that process for us. The result, in Pity in History, has both the thrill of destruction and the nourishment of creation.

Pity in History
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street
Through August 6