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Stage Histories

Post-War British Historical Drama


Paweł Schreiber

The book presents post-war British historical drama not only as a phenomenon within literature and theatre, but also as an alternative form of representing the past, not as much competing with historiography as complementing it. The author shows how some of the central concerns of late twentieth-century methodology of history were also crucial for the historical drama of that time by applying Hayden White’s classification of categories determining the shape of historical writing to the plays of Robert Bolt, David Hare, Howard Barker and Tom Stoppard. The plays discussed in the book offer not only different visions of past events, but also different visions of historiography itself.
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4. Howard Barker: History and Anti-history


Howard Barker is one of the most prolific British playwrights. Since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, he has published forty plays, as well as six collections of poems and two collections of essays. He cooperated with some of the most important actors of his time, such as Ian McDiarmid (whose performance in Terrible Mouth was called by Barker (1988: 131) “the greatest accomplishment of the actor’s craft”), Gary Oldman or Judy Davis. In spite of all this, Barker’s plays never achieved real popularity with the British public and never gained an important presence in the repertoire of the larger theatres. They are now mainly performed by The Wrestling School, a theatre group founded in 1988 by Kenny Ireland, aware of the crucial differences between Barker and other British playwrights, which required “the development of new techniques of presentation in both performance and design” (Roberts 2000: 23).

One of the reasons for this state of affairs is Barker’s conscious choice to write plays that are not immediately accessible to the audiences. In his article “Fortynine asides for the tragic theatre”, Barker (1988: 17) claims that the Britain of the 1980s, going through “the extinction of official socialism” became an authoritarian state, in which the ruling position is taken by those who control the finances. In this new form of dictatorship, “the accountant is the new censor” (Barker 1988: 17), as it is the potential income that determines the repertoire of the theatres. This form of...

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