By Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” – “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats
“Pity in History,” currently running at PTP/NYC 2016 at Atlantic Stage 2, raises rich and enduring questions about how humankind might navigate through times when “things [are] fall[ing] apart; the centre [is not] hold[ing];/[and] mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and emerge relatively unscathed and stable. Why are there wars? In war, which side is right and which is wrong? Is God on anyone’s side? What is idolatry and does idolatry create moral decay? What does art have to offer in the resolution of conflict? Does art need to contribute anything to the making of peace? Are politics and art always at odds? Does humanity learn from history and what are those lessons?
Whether it the sophistication of Yeats “slouching beast” or the whimsy of Burns “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” it remains without question, as the officer Factor asserts, “everything is upside down now and the only skill worth having is skill with a rifle.” Howard Barker addresses these – and other – enduring questions in his 1985 BBC commissioned play (for television) “Pity in History.” Set during the English Civil War that ushered in Oliver Cromwell’s Republic and refashioned the role of the monarchy in British rule. Howard Barker’s skills as a wordsmith permeate this project and those skills are preserved in the current stage production.
Under Richard Romagnoli’s astute direction, the Potomac Theatre Project/NYC has reimagined Barker’s television play for the live stage with considerable success. “Pity in History” is a powerful vehicle for the reexamination of the playwright’s concerns for the present loosened “blood-dimmed tide” that seems to be washing up on American and European shores in the form of nationalism, isolationism, nativism, and hegemony. The cast is uniformly excellent as is the overall staging of this important play. Each cast member delivers an authentic performance that exponentially strengthens the brilliant work of this ensemble cast.
It would be difficult – and it is unnecessary here – to summarize “Pity in History’s” plot skillfully driven by the engaging conflicts of its well-defined characters: Gaukroger a mason (Steven Dykes) and his apprentice Pool (Matt Ball), Boys a sergeant (Christo Grabowski), Croop a chaplain (Christopher Marshall), Factor an officer (Jay Dunn), Murgatroyd a dying cook (Jonathan Tindle), Venables a widow (Kathleen Wise) who wants to memorialize her husband in stone, and five soldiers trying to understand the vicissitudes of war.
Over against the military-religious arguments about mercy: “When shall we show mercy? (Boys) “The day we have won” (Soldiers), the mason Gaukroger proffers that there is “no pity in history.” He tells his apprentice Pool, “Rain falls. Dogs bite. Nurses steal. Shall I go on?” Barker’s premise is a challenging one. Humanity wants desperately to stop autocracy and demagoguery. Citizens want to challenge politicians who care nothing about constituents and make empty promises about reforms and restoring national greatness. But perhaps, if we believe Gaukroger, all humanity can do is wait for the next “savior” to slouch toward the horizon with new visions and promises of peace.
Perhaps the best we can do is what Pool suggests to Michael Gaukroger after returning from his failed attempt at soldering: “Stick with it, Michael, eh?” After expressing his belief, Pool kisses Gaukroger’s hand then apologizes. Michael asks, “Sorry? Why?” Pool responds, “I know ‘ow you ‘ate sentiment.” Perhaps what might save us through the next bout of anarchy is a decent dose of sentiment, a history that pities.