I confess that Scenes From An Execution has never been my favourite Barker play from the mid-1980s. I prefer The Castle, which John Calder published alongside Scenes in 1985; or, from a few years later, The Last Supper or Rome. In particular, The Castle – reminiscent of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ as a take on militarism and the logic of an arms’ race – has always seemed to engage with contemporary politics more effectively than the post-Falklands/Malvinas Scenes, although both plays discuss the writing of history rather than taking it as a given. By way of contrast, another mid-1980s play, Edgar’s Maydays, staged at the Barbican by the Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps exemplified what Barker called ‘a theatre of journalism’ (see ‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’ in Arguments for a Theatre, first edition, John Calder, 1989, 33; third edition, Manchester University Press, 1997, 36). Not least, plays like Scenes and The Castle were set against the kind of left realist theatre Barker had in mind when he started The Wrestling School and described a theatre of catastrophe. In Arguments for a Theatre, indeed, Barker distanced himself from ‘the liberal left who have, despite the apparently sweeping effects of political revolution, been left securely in office’ (‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’, first edition, 32; third edition, 34). Oppositional theatre could easily co-exist with Thatcherism and the assault on a political consensus that had existed since the 1940s.
All of which brings us back to Scenes From An Execution, which has just become the first Barker play staged by the National Theatre. In a radio interview Barker says the play was chosen because it is ‘conservative’; he goes on to say he is a writer of tragedy (the theatre of catastrophe) but Scenes is not a tragedy. One can even infer disappointment on his part that this is the play that marks his debut at the National, and perhaps even irritation at the kind of praise in reviews, where a narrative of acceptance is quite self-congratulatory. This is ‘one of Howard Barker’s most accessible and stringently witty works’ (The Independent); ‘probably Barker’s best known and most accessible piece’ (The Evening Standard); or ‘Barker’s most famous and accessible play’ (in this Guardian interview). One wonders how often such judgements are made by people with a working knowledge of Barker’s plays; and there might even be the assumption that an appearance at this particular theatre is what finally confirms the status of the play as, perhaps, a modern classic.
Hence, The Telegraph‘s somewhat Whiggish reading: ‘[H]is conclusion, that art which initially causes outrage is often eventually accepted into the canon of classics – and is somehow rendered safe in the process – strikes me as both true and wise.’ However, for The Guardian‘s reviewer, ‘this is a production that does rich justice to the play and makes nonsense of any suggestion that Barker, in having his work done at the National, has mirrored Galactia’s own absorption by the establishment’.
Here we should separate compromise of and by the writer/artist from the meanings that attach to acceptance, for Barker himself has said: ‘Scenes is the one they can get, so you might think they’d go “That was a success so we’ll go on to… what?” Because then the National has a problem.’ Implicitly, by selecting a play that stands outside the theatre of catastrophe, the National has confirmed its rejection of the bulk of Barker’s work. If so, it is quite understandable that The Telegraph, in the review already cited, cannot avoid sneering: ‘Unlike Barker, Galactia is imprisoned for her art, and one suspects Barker secretly envies his heroine for prompting the state into such drastic action when his own deliberately provocative work is often received with weary indifference.’ On the contrary, to return to ‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’, one might conclude, rather, that it is the plays of ‘the liberal left’ that have always been received with ‘indifference’ precisely because they confirm the realist status quo.
To investigate further the National’s packaging of Barker and this play we might consider the production programme. Here, in a brief introductory essay, Barker scholar David Ian Rabey offers a clear statement of Barker’s methodology:
He invents forms and contexts of mythic history, diffuse and ambiguous. Since the early-1980s his plays avoid both contemporary settings and historically documented ‘facts’ (though they are often inspired by events or figures in European history) in order to release and entitle an imaginative speculation on what might happen (rather than on what did, or must.
This account should then take us to the play’s opening moments, Galactia discussing what happens when men die in a sea battle. Her first words: ‘Dead men float with their arses in the air. Hating the living they turn their buttocks up. I have this on authority.’ That is to say, this is a fact, I know what I have been told. Or even: one does not have direct access to the world, only through language and representation. On-stage, as she sketches, Carpeta stands in for the dead man, arse upwards. Later in the play Galactia says: ‘It is not important to witness things. I believe in observation, but to observation you must lend imagination.’ Here we might be reminded that Scenes began as a play for radio: in the theatre Galactia’s painting might conceivably be revealed to the audience, but the listener knows this knowledge is always and necessarily inaccessible, one is left with comments by characters in the play.
However, the programme, blissfully unaware of such considerations, follows Rabey’s piece with a bizarre article on women artists, as though Galactia (and Barker’s writing of her) must be placed in some kind of realistic historical context. There are then shorter articles on the Battle of Lepanto and the Doge of Venice: again, the assumption can only be that appreciation of the play will be heightened by such background knowledge … although there is nowhere any mention of the 1980s or the Falklands/Malvinas War.