Howard Barker is arguably Britain's greatest living dramatist and the author of such extraordinary plays as The Europeans, The Castle, Victory, and The Fence in Its Thousandth Year. His work is, in equal measure, uncompromising, spiritual, erotic, poetic, politically profound, morally ambiguous, bleakly humorous and proudly, defiantly tragic. With one foot in the tragedy of the ancients, and another planted resolutely in modernity, Barker has fashioned his own latter-day tragic theatrical genre, the Theatre of Catastrophe.
For the last 21 years, the primary vehicle of that genre (in Britain, at least) has been Barker's own theatre company, The Wrestling School. In celebration of the company's 21st anniversary, an international series of events, entitled "21 for 21", is being staged this month.
The programme reflects not only Barker's achievements as a dramatist, but also the fact that he is an accomplished poet (with such volumes as Lullabies for the Impatient and The Tortman Diaries) and a brilliant theatre theorist (with books including Arguments for a Theatre and Death, the One and the Art of Theatre). In Lisbon there will be readings of Portuguese translations of his poetry; in Cape Town, South Africa, they will produce the drama Judith: A Parting from the Body; and in Guanajuato City, Mexico, they are staging the play He Stumbled.
Here in Britain events are taking place from Melton Mowbray to Glasgow, Aberystwyth to Sheffield. The celebrations get under way in earnest with The Wrestling School's own production, directed by Barker, of the play Found in the Ground. The drama centres upon a former Nuremberg judge who has gone mad and is burning his entire library of books. From this act of destruction springs what The Wrestling School calls "a hurricane of wilful acts", a Barkerian feast of the grotesque and the beautiful, which will give us a unique perspective upon the horrors of modern Europe.
On 21 October itself, which is the key date of the events, the Royal Shakespeare Company will present a performed reading of The Castle at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, while the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow will stage a performed reading of (Uncle) Vanya, Barker's reworking of Chekhov.
Not everyone will be celebrating Barker's work in October. More highly acclaimed abroad (and, interestingly, in Scotland) than he is in his native England, Barker's theatre has faced deep hostility from the English theatre establishment. It is said, for instance, that, as artistic director of the National Theatre in London, Trevor Nunn hurled a copy of Barker's great play The Europeans across the room in disgust. None of Barker's plays has ever been staged at the National.
Barker's own theory as to why he is so reviled at the National, and by the London critics, is that he upsets their "liberal humanist" ideology - that his plays have no "utility" and no easily observable meaning, and they do not attempt to "morally improve" their audience.
The greatness of Barker's plays comes precisely from the great ambiguities, the searing metaphors and the multiplicity of implications - be they emotional, erotic, moral or political - which are embedded within them. Let the liberal humanists protest (Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph calls Barker "the wild man of contemporary British theatre"), those of us who seek a profound tragic theatre in the modern world should join in the celebrations of the work of Howard Barker.
Found in the Ground is at the Riverside Studios, London, until 11 October. www.21421.co.uk.