Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Devil's due


East Bay company stages Clive Barker's supernatural courtroom drama

Clive Barker. Photo: David Armstrong
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One of author Clive Barker's scariest characters - Satan himself - rises up from hell in East Bay theatre company Ragged Wing's new staging of The History of the Devil.

Barker, who talked via phone from his Los Angeles home, says his play "takes a look at history through the wrong end of the telescope." The History of the Devil is more than a courtroom drama, but also an investigation into humanity's inhumanity.

With Satan up for parole, Barker sets up a quandary. "The devil says, 'Listen, it's time for me to get my moment before the court again.' He's definitely appealing. Part of the interest is that the audience is essentially the jury. We get a bunch of arguments put before us, dramatized. Depending on your politics, you may find there are different choices made by different people."

Best known for his horror films like the Hellraiser series, bestselling novels Imagica, Weaveworld, and dozens of films, novels, short stories, comics and published art collections, Barker's first artistic collaborations were in theatre.

One of his earliest plays, Devil was staged in Liverpool, England, which was also Barker's birthplace 56 years ago. Written in the early 1980s, and published in 1995 as part of a collection of plays called Incarnations, Barker wrote The History of the Devil for his own theatre, The Dog Company, with himself as director.

"The first play was called The Dog Play, but the theatre company wasn't yet named," said Barker. "So we named it after the dog. I got to turn it into a mutt."

For Barker fans, or the uninitiated, don't expect anything like his horror films in the play, which nevertheless carries a strong story.

"It really plays with a broad feel," Barker said. Theatre critic Clive Barnes called it "a cross between John Grisham and John Milton." With the alacrity of that early script, The History of the Devil ran for two years at the Edinburgh Festival, and toured Europe for over a year.

As other companies staged the play, Barker has made a few edits to the script, but "nothing of any great substance has been removed," he said. "I contemplated the two endings and allow the audience to vote. But I'm too much of a dramatist. I don't want to tell them what to think. I want to tell them what I think. The whole point about the play is, the devil feels he has suffered enough and wants to go back to heaven to make his final bid for liberty. He requests to be tried on the understanding that if he is found guilty, he will return to hell. But the devil argues that humanity is indeed culpable in many of his alleged crimes. If he can prove that, then he can go back to heaven."

Swiss witches

Redemption for a fallen angel is a theme that's run through some of Barker's later works. In his play, Barker combines the trickster's whimsy with accusations directed at mankind.

"The play is then shown in seven parts, each a short flight through history, in which the devil's identity changes radically," said Barker. "Sometimes, the devil's a drama critic. Then he's lost in the Greek empire, then in India. Everywhere, he is dealing in souls, in promises. He even meddles with the man who designed Chartres Cathedral; nobody knows who that is. We also go through a witch trail in Switzerland."


"Yeah, centuries ago, they went through a lot of them. The Swiss have a reputation for being pacifists. But on the witch front, they piled them up."

Since 1995, the play has been performed in several countries, often resulting in banned productions in places that deemed the content "too blasphemous." This attention helped launch the audacious script into notoriety, often playing to sold-out houses.

"I had a great time staging the plays, being part of an intense little community," Barker said of his theatre training, which led to his later ability to pen more than 30 screenplays, direct films (Lord of Illusions, Nightbreed), and produce dozens more, including the Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters . "In either medium, you have to be a collaborator.

"My experience is that people get very set in their ways quickly. By the time you're 30, all options are closed off. Every few years, that's when I tend to change direction."

His upcoming films include a remake of Hellraiser, the gory Midnight Meat Train, based on one of his short stories, as is Book of Blood, in which a young man ends up tattooed by ghosts. "Of course, he needs to be naked," said Barker. Fortunately, actor Jonas Armstrong was willing and gorgeous. "Horror allows us to get away with more than realistic movies."

With his ongoing projects, Barker said, "I have a wonderful life, painting, writing all day." He recalled the struggles of younger days. "I was very romantic then," said Barker. "The History of the Devil was a play about the things that consumed me at the time. I was 20, I think. Rebellion was part of my life then. For many, it's a time when you're coming out, and also fighting people who don't like you."

After all these years of success, Barker still seems highly amused that his boxed, torture-loving creatures and the hundreds of other ghouls and grand tales he's told haven't, like those Swiss witches, been burned by censors or conservatives. Violence and the macabre, Barker knows, fit right in with conservative culture. It's sex that confuses them.

Said Barker, "Throw a dick at them, and it's like the walls of Jericho are falling."

Therein followed a discussion of nudity in Barker's work, including some male actors' willingness to be more nude on screen than a few studios would allow.

"If it were an accidental dick in the middle of an otherwise reverential Hamlet, they wouldn't know," said Barker. "In some of my plays, the nudity is willfully argumentative."

The sexuality in his work has become more defined as he himself came out more than a decade ago. Barker mentioned that he's recently become an American citizen, and will vote in the next election. "I join the happy legions," he said sardonically, before moving to the continual struggle for equal rights, particularly the current anti gay-marriage state bill. He's been partnered for 17 years with photographer David Armstrong, who also has a daughter.

"I don't think much has really changed a lot," Barker said. "Because of our sexuality in our culture, we are still seen as outsiders. We're the next best thing to kick on Friday. We've got a preoccupation with sex in this culture. With a $6 billion-a-year porn industry, at the same time managing to be a culture that's very censorious, you can see the problem."

In light of current political situations, Barker's play is more than relevant. He added, "As long as we do bad things, we need someone to blame."

The History of the Devil opens Fri., Oct. 3, 8 p.m., at Central Stage, 5221 Central Ave., Richmond. Through Nov. 1.  Tickets ($15 - $30): (800) 838-3006.

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