From Pain, Poetry: Howard Barker’s Blok/Eko and the Poetics of Plethoric Theater


Matthew Roberts


The article focuses on Howard Barker’s critical engagement with Aristotle’s aesthetic theory, and its influence on classical and naturalistic theater, in order to elucidate the significance of plethora as it pertains to his Theatre of Catastrophe. The essay proceeds to read Barker’s recent and most ambitious play, entitled Blok/Eko (2011) in order to argue that it functions as a meta-theatrical exploration of the very conditions of catastrophic theater, as well as Barker’s critical engagement with Aristotle. Reading the play alongside Barker’s elaboration of plethoric theater, which Barker defines as a theater of excess that transgresses the dominant theatrical aesthetics of its time, I argue that Blok/Eko inhabits an important position within Barker’s oeuvre,as the play’s conventions situate the audience in a position that is structurally analogous to the position that his early catastrophic protagonists had occupied. Specifically, whereas previous catastrophic protagonists undergo painful experiences that both foster, and explode, self-knowledge, Barker’s plethoric theater displaces this structure into specific theatrical conventions that cause individual audience members to experience a sense of self-loss that is coupled with the opportunity for self-exploration. The article concludes by reflecting on the significance of plethoric theater more generally, positing that while Barker explicitly writes against the dominant theatrical aesthetic of his historical context, it is precisely by doing so that he creates a future for theater itself.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.