"Gary the Thief" and "Plevna: Meditations on Hatred" by Howard Barker – Off Broadway Theater Review
FROM PAGE TO STAGE LEADS BACK TO THE PAGE
by Alexander Harrington
published July 24, 2010
Poems by Howard Barker: "Gary the Thief" and "Plevna: Meditations on Hatred"
now playing Off Broadway at Atlantic Stage Two
through July 31
As part of its fourth season since relocating to New York and changing its name
from the Potomac Theatre Project, PTP/NYC is presenting “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,” poems by playwright Howard
Barker, directed by Richard Romagnoli, that do not work as staged monologues.
In these performances, Barker’s figurative language is ostentatious and his syntax self-consciously
idiosyncratic. The poems are so densely written as to be near-impossible to
follow. In “Gary the Thief,” actor Robert Emmett Lunney switches between the voices of the
title character and a third-person narrator. In the theatre, I was able to discern that Gary
is arrested and tried for a crime that has outraged the public; in court, he denounces society’s hypocrisy; he goes to prison; he is
adopted by a group of revolutionaries as an authentic proletarian; he keeps a brain in a jar and eventually buries it. When I read the poem, I found it easier to follow and less linguistically flashy. The poem implies that Gary’s heinous crime is infanticide.
It makes clear that he later becomes a prison farm overseer. How this occurs is obscure,
though I assume the revolutionaries who have taken Gary on have come to power. This surmise is
supported by the fact that among his charges are “intellectual criminals” – dissidents?
Unfortunately, most of this does not come across in performance. What does come across are
clichés. Gary’s first lines are
Oh, you monkeys
I the thief
Piss over you
Oh, you cattle
I suck your udders
The weasel in the moonlight
Rising on hind feet.
Sitting in the theatre, it seems that Gary, the brutally honest thief, is going to shock us out of our bourgeois
complacency and shear us of our illusions. When Gary stands in the dock, he
My defense lies in your
Your greed dwarfs my offense
The very sandwich which the warder
Was yanked between the jaws
Of children thin as kites.
Hardly an original idea. In his 1728 The Beggars Opera, John Gay writes
You may observe such a similitude of manners in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the
fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road [highway robbers], or the gentlemen of the road the fine
And in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate
But many a king on a
If he wants to call his crown
Must manage somehow to get
More dirty work than e'er I
If one reads the poem, instead of
struggling to listen to it, the fact that, under a revolutionary government (at least it seems so), Gary becomes a warder of political
prisoners and calls into question his earlier attacks on bourgeois society. Then again, the
equation of totalitarianism with thugs is as old as Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
(though Stalinist apologist that he was, I doubt Brecht would have conceded the existence of leftist totalitarianism).
Lunney is easier to follow as the narrator than he is as Gary. This is,
in part, because, as the former, his voice is resonant and a pleasure to listen to; as the latter, it is flat and his words hard to
discern. However, Lunney’s physicality as Gary makes for some memorable images, such as when
he slyly smiles as he sniffs his fingers after having inserted them into his revolutionary mentor’s genitals.
“Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” takes its name from the site of a battle of the Russo-Turkish War in which the
Russians and their Slavic allies defeated the Ottomans (for the Slavs, this was a war of liberation). It is performed by Alex Draper, who is outstanding in The Lovesong
of the Electric Bear, which is playing repertory with these poems and with David Rabe’s A
Question of Mercy. The setting and costumes for the staging of “Plevna” compound the
difficulties of following a performance of this dense poem. The furniture and an imprecise
approximation of a tuxedo (more on this costume below) suggest that the speaker is at a cocktail party. On the page, the reader is immediately aware that the aftermath of a battle is being described from the
perspective of people on the battlefield, though it takes a while to discover exactly who the combatants (and non-combatants)
are. That Draper is clearly not on a battlefield obscures this.
The poem is not a predictable attack on governments and armies that brutalize innocent civilians: Barker stresses
that “All these were killed/ Not by the army/ But by neighbors.” In his program notes,
Romagnoli points out that Barker was prescient in that he wrote this play in 1988, before the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, which were a direct
result of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, and in which people turned on neighbors with whom they’d lived side-by-side for
An interesting aspect of the poem is the depiction of Tsar Alexander II:
Alexander the emancipator of
Whose stooping shoulders are
In the moulding palms of
Refuses not to watch children
In the midst of the poem, Barker leaves 1877 for the present
So all the makers of films who
pan the harvest
All the poets who harp on
The photographers of cemeteries
which have no edge
Collude in the mystery of
Its showing itself like
Flagrant exposer of his
It is probably this critique of modern-day aestheticizers of war that inspired the cocktail party
setting. But, after this apostrophe, the poem returns to Plevna, 1877, and again, the focus of
the poem is obscured by the staging.
A brief word about Draper’s costume, for which no designer is credited.
Draper wears a white shirt, a black satin bowtie, and a black pants and jacket, which are not a tuxedo and tuxedo pants. The whole look is meant to suggest a tuxedo, and the tie goes with a tuxedo. (This may seem like petty nit-picking, but it is the job of directors and designers to see to such
Both “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” work better on the page than they do on stage – or, at
least, better than they work in this production.
alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Stan Barouh
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read the other reviews of PTP/NYC's summer repertory
A Question of Mercy
Lovesong of the Electric Bear