Re-forming The Europeans : Howard Barker's contemporary tragedies and the crisis of continental identity

Reynolds, James (2016) Re-forming The Europeans : Howard Barker's contemporary tragedies and the crisis of continental identity. In: Tragedy and the Contemporary : TaPRA interim event; 07 May 2016, Glasgow, U.K.. (Unpublished)


Howard Barker wrote The Europeans ¬for the RSC during the first European Parliament (1979-84). The commission was rejected in 1984, but was nevertheless Barker’s first proper "Catastrophe" – a post-dramatic mode of tragedy, distinguished by its extension of anagnorisis into full-length form. The Europeans revealingly contrasted Trevor Nunn’s 1985 RSC musical, Les Miserables – a split in artistic direction with important consequences. Nevertheless, Barker has continuously pursued Catastrophe as an innovation in the tragic form since then. Prescient in exploring the schisms between Judeo-Christian and Islamic culture, Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe is most consistently contemporary (current and "relevant") through its applicability to the crises of Europe. With notable exceptions, new writing rarely explores “Britain’s uneasy relationship with Europe” (Sierz, 2011), but Barker describes himself as “in every way a European” (2006), and ceaselessly explores pivotal moments of tragedy underpinning the emergence of the idea of Europe, linking distant conflicts with more recent tragic experience – the Russian Revolution, World War I, the Holocaust. But Barker’s plays are “not hidebound” by history (Brown, 2015), achieving contemporaneity through their focus on the survival and resilience – or otherwise – of individual identity in response to tragedy. This focus (and, by the same token, this contemporaneity) is assisted by the exclusion of detailed contextual information from Barker's text. Rather, Barker searches through (and uses) the ruined fragments of Europe – “Death’s estate” (Barker, 1984) – to formulate notions of European identity. The Viennese Empress from The Europeans miniaturises Barker’s approach; “we must invent the European now, from broken bits”. Through the formal innovation of Catastrophe, and the presentation of characters whose identities re-form in response to tragic events – a process parallel to Europe's re-formation in response to its own traumatic history – Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe reads as positively transgressive, resisting limiting models of national identity, and, equally, of tragic form.

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