Howard Barker’s Pity in History is a deeply thought-provoking play, which uses the events of the 17th-century English Civil War (a fight to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with a parliamentary government) but is set in contemporary times, to explore the meaning of life, death and relationships. Barker wrote the play in 1984 for BBC television, and its antiwar attitude is clear. It opens on a British platoon that comes to represent any thuggish mass that makes up a military unit. It’s easy to imagine this very same platoon in the Falklands, Afghanistan, or Iraq. After all, war is war, and all war is hell.
The play takes place in a cathedral where the British platoon has taken shelter. Here, they have brought Murgatroyd (Jonathan Tindle), their cook, who has been accidentally shot and is bleeding profusely. As Murgatroyd lies dying, he also philosophizes and complains. He questions dying for the military, and says “I accuse the army of failing to teach its soldiers ‘ow to die” he spits, “They teach you ‘ow to kill, what about dying, I will raise this with my MP! Regulations on dying gracefully.” His questions are reasonable but reason is dismissed in these circumstances. Instead, he’s accused of having delusions. “Say something sensible,” Murgatroyd grumbles, “and they call you delirious.”
Those in command find Murgatroyd a downer and don’t want the men in the platoon thinking about death. When Apps (Kaitlynd Collins) who has been accused by Murgatroyd of shooting him, asks Sergeant Boys (Christo Grabowski), “what’s it like to die?” Boys says: “the question has no answer because it’s not a question, and because it has no answer, it is not a question.” Apps claims: “It is a question!” to which Boys vehemently counters: “No, it’s a mood. Real questions have real answers. How do you govern? Who needs a king? Who owns the land? Who owns the river? All you can do is ask real questions, and the moods will sink to the bottom.” But Boys’ ideas open up a philosophical can of worms. There are many more philosophical questions that don’t have ready answers, and each scene is like opening a Pandora’s box.
Gaukroger (Steven Dykes), a stonemason, is trying to make a living in desperate times. But, he’s also interested in small comforts and in good craftsmanship. His apprentice, Pool (Matt Ball) seems totally uninterested but also confused. When Pool returns from the shops with Gaukroger’s sandwich, Gaukroger complains that there’s no pickle. Pool says, “There ain’t no pickle. There ain’t no shops, only soldiers.”
Gaukroger has been commissioned by an aristocratic widow, Lady Venables (Kathleen Wise), to create a monument in her husband’s honor. He toils away in the cathedral but is under threat from the men in the platoon who are ready to destroy everything in their quest to eliminate idolatry. They are ready with mallets to break the church’s stained glass, and Graukroger’s monument is next in line; after they destroy it, he becomes the play’s unexpected philosopher. A big and burly man with meaty hands, more working class than cultured, he considers himself an artist and rails against destroying the art—the sculpture, paintings, stained glass—which he sees as the artifacts of civilization. If not for art, what would be left to show how a society lived, and thought?
The cast includes Factor (Jay Dunn), a commanding officer in a red beret, and soldiers Spork (Sam Tompkins Martin), Spillman (Connor Wright) and Skinner (Victoria Jane Isquith). The mobile set (by Mark Evancho) is on wheels which allows the actors to move easily from scene to scene. These actions are tightly composed under Richard Romagnoli’s precise and effective direction which highlights Barker’s poignant and poetic language.
Although Murgatroyd and Gaukroger both offer a voice of reason in the midst of death and destruction, they don’t have straightforward answers. Instead they have smart and well-phrased questions, and we hope someone will come out in one piece to answer them. But in the end, Gaukroger, the only civil man left standing, doesn’t get the pickle he wants for his sandwich, nor is he paid for his work. And his stone carving to honor a dead man is destroyed. What’s left of society? War is, indeed, hell.
The PTP production of Howard Barker’s Pity in History plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia through Aug. 6. Evening performances for both plays are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and the specific dates of either play, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ptpnyc.org.