Melancholy Ontology, Evental Ethics, and the Lost (m)Other in Howard Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe: An Analysis of 13 Objects


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Without a bent for melancholia there is no psyche, only a transition to action or play. —Julia Kristeva, Black Sun1

[The play] is not about life as it is lived at all, but about life as it might be lived, about the thought which is not licensed, and about the abolished unconscious. —Howard Barker, Arguments2

Howard Barker (1946–) creates a tragic world, the avowed arché and telos of which are death. However, far from being tantamount to cessation, nihilistic terminus, or the perfection of life, death comes to designate not just the unknown, but the unknowable. It thus involves a state of nonknowledge that forecloses the normative values of use and exchange, and the orders of meaning and morality.3 As such, death in Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe features as essentially inscrutable, being at once phenomenon and nonphenomenon, which is to say, neither phenomenologically perceptible nor representable, belonging to the order of enigma, secret, and silence.4 Barker refers to his Art of Theatre as “crucially an art of death” and, endowing it with an ontologically liminal position, locates his theatre on the bank of the river, which serves as the border between the dead and the living.5 He declares tragedy “the labour of death” and characterizes tragic art primarily as an art that promotes the “feeling for death.”6 Resonant with Schopenhauer’s attestation to the pivotal role of death in human life and thought—whereby death is “the real inspiring genius or the Muse of philosophy,” without which “there would hardly have been any philosophizing”—Barker discerns death as the most fundamental subject of art and philosophy, declaring it “the subject of all philosophy and all theatre.”7 Resonant with the later Freud’s postulation of death as a fundamental drive and ultimate aim of life (“life is a detour to death”)8 and Heidegger’s ontological-existential consideration of death as immanent in human life,9 Barker observes: “Tragedy’s a priori—that we live only to be destroyed by life—renders the notion of wrong decisions meaningless.”10


1. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 4.

2. Howard Barker, Arguments for a Theatre, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 52.

3. See Howard Barker, Death, the One, and the Art of Theatre (London: Routledge, 2005), 7, 38, 58, 64, 68, 99, passim.

4. See ibid., 19, 25, 28, 31, 33, passim.

5. Ibid., 7, 20.

6. Ibid., 22, 65.

7. Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1966), 2:463; and Barker, Death, the One, 18.

8. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 18:7–64; and Penguin Freud Library 11:269–338, 274. See also Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 39.

9. As Martin Heidegger observes: “Death…is a phenomenon of life,” and “Death is a way to be.” Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 290, 289; see also 294.

10. Barker, Death, the One, 97. Death indeed constitutes the metaphysical abgrund of Barker’s Art of Theatre where it features not as tantamount to cessation and termination or necessarily to the perfection of life, but as involving a state of non-knowledge, ontological possibility, and repudiation of (use, exchange, and normative-moral) values.

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