When postmortems get political

Howard Barker's new play shows a king's autopsy on stage. How does such a gory spectacle so easily become a radical dissection of the body politic?
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The king has died, and the anatomist is waiting with scalpel poised. Soon he is reducing the former embodiment of regal power to entrails. Where once there was pomp and a crown, now there is an open skull; where once there was monarchical dignity, now there is an exposed bowel. Howard Barker's new play He Stumbled carefully dissects the disturbing relationship between the cold fact of the dead body and the projections and rituals which we impose on it, investing it with symbolic powers so that, in our minds, a piece of meat can live and breathe again.

The king has died, and the anatomist is waiting with scalpel poised. Soon he is reducing the former embodiment of regal power to entrails. Where once there was pomp and a crown, now there is an open skull; where once there was monarchical dignity, now there is an exposed bowel. Howard Barker's new play He Stumbled carefully dissects the disturbing relationship between the cold fact of the dead body and the projections and rituals which we impose on it, investing it with symbolic powers so that, in our minds, a piece of meat can live and breathe again.

Barker's challengingly bleak and visceral vision centres on the powers taken up by an anatomist when he visits a mythical kingdom which has been plunged into confusion after the death of its monarch. It takes the form of a thriller, so that from the moment the anatomist takes up his knife, he finds himself caught in the centre of a web of power games that leads eventually to his own annihilation.

The anatomist's own power is not forensic: rather it seems to stem directly from his contact with the king's body. Scientifically he is placing organs in jars, but he has also entered into a mystic contract which acknowledges the quasi-divine qualities of royalty, allowing the body to become a relic. By penetrating below the king's surface, he also penetrates the secrets of the court, and becomes a dangerous focus of attraction for the former queen, the king's son, assassins, and other courtiers drawn in by their fascination for his task.

To use words such as "mystic" and "relic" in connection with a corpse might seem to evoke the beliefs of earlier ages, but this play stirs up a fascination with the continuing potency that the dead body has in our culture. Although the speedy evaporation of religion means that concepts of an afterlife have less of a bearing on the way people now deal with death, it is only necessary to look at burning issues in the news - such as the row over dead children's missing organs, or the more religiously motivated need to restore dead bodies to their families in the Northern Ireland conflict - to realise that there will always be a deep emotional imperative to maintain a system of belief securing the sanctity of the dead.

Death at its most basic represents a level of powerlessness that no one can deal with: that simple "stopping" of existence, that retort to the arrogance of individuality, smashes through all the protective barriers that humans put up to make life seem meaningful. The rituals and beliefs surrounding a death, whether it be the sighting of a ghost or the elaborate construction of a mausoleum, are a desperate reassertion of the power the body has lost: no wonder that throughout the centuries the corpse has remained one of society's most politically dynamic tools.

As a consequence of the politics of the corpse, a chilling social theatre has erupted between those proclaiming the power of the dead person and those keen to display the opposite. It is impossible to eradicate from the mind the recent images when two Israeli soldiers were lynched by a Palestinian mob: the Palestinian triumphantly holding up blood-covered hands, the Israeli body that was hurled out of the police-station window to be stoned, dragged round the city square, and finally set alight.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault's vivid descriptions of ghoulishly elaborate public executions lead him to conclude that in this "magnificent theatre" there must be an affirmation of power and the state over the criminal "and of [the monarch's] intrinsic superiority". It is this concept of intrinsic political superiority that underlies several images in literature, such as Achilles dragging Hector behind his chariot round the walls of Troy and Macduff holding up Macbeth's head.

Barker's new play shows similarly disrespectful desecration of the body: at one point it seems as if the queen is made to drink a beaker of fluids from her husband's corpse, at another, the anatomist Doja describes himself as "the disemboweller of monarchs". When asked about his motivation for writing the drama, however, Barker emphasises that it is the "the mystical power of bodies that is always exciting. In European culture there are several examples of people using parts of rulers' bodies as relics and talismans: for example, if you visit Vienna, you can go to vaults where there are not just the bodies of the Habsburg emperors, but separated items. There were even canisters specially designed to takes these items from one place to another."

The mystic transformation of the king's overtly powerless dissected body into the epitome of power taps into some of the most fascinating theories surrounding death and politics. On the one hand it evokes the Renaissance theory that the soul of man - and the soul of the monarch in particular - was a microcosm of the state, so that the monarch's dissection would inevitably have deeper implications for living individuals dealing with the political disarray following his or her death. On the other hand it evokes a theory from the Middle Ages most famously described by Kantorowitz: that the king had two bodies, one mortal, one immortal. The former body was weak and transitory, but the latter managed to be both physical and and intangible at the same time. In this way it sustained the kingdom through both legal and religious codes of power.

The stirring paradox at the centre of He Stumbled is that although the anatomist gains so much power from his contact with the king's body, he is unresponsive to the social and symbolic forces he is unleashing. Barker explains: "The key to the play's metaphor is that while the surgeon may be a god in his own right, and has access, he actually knows nothing because science is blind." In an age where science is the prevailing religion, this arresting new work demonstrates that Barker has lost none of his ability to shock and provoke debate. The anatomist's death warns that you may ignore ritual and power games to focus on facts, but you do so at your own peril.

'He Stumbled' opens tonight and runs until 11 November, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6 (020-8237 1111)

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