Peter Barnes Essay - Critical Essays


Peter Barnes’s plays are a heady mixture of many theatrical forms in which the visual elements are important; the written text falls far short of offering the true effect of a good production. Barnes claims that “the aim is to create, by means of soliloquy, rhetoric, formalized ritual, slapstick, songs and dances, a comic theatre of contrasting moods and opposites, where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous.” Most reviewers and critics agree about the theatrical brilliance and ingenuity of his plays, but opinion is divided about the significance or depth of his views of the human condition. Barnes is concerned with the pressures of society (authority) that suppress openness of feeling and deny happiness (freedom). His plays attack class, privilege, and whatever prevents the realization of individual or group fulfillment. In his view, revolution, even anarchy, may be better than meek submission. Above all, Barnes reveals the fierce tenacity with which groups or individuals hold on to or grasp at power and make society less human. Even devotion to God conceals selfishness, encourages persecution, or is a form of madness or obsession. Barnes was constantly preoccupied with people’s inhumanity to others and with God’s seeming indifference to human suffering. Although most of his plays suggest that the world is beyond redemption, there are small but significant gleams of hope in the darkness, especially in the plays after 1978, and the comic vitality in all of his works mitigates Barnes’s anger and pessimism.

The Ruling Class

Barnes’s first published play, The Ruling Class, ridicules the English upper classes, the House of Lords, the Anglican Church, public schools (expensive private upper-class institutions), the police, English xenophobia, psychiatrists, snobbery, and complacency. The play begins with the death of the thirteenth earl of Gurney. Dressed in a tutu and military dress hat and jacket, and brandishing a sword, the earl indulges in a recreational mock-hanging in order to induce intoxicating visions; he accidentally kills himself. His son, Jack, the fourteenth earl, becomes the focus of the family’s efforts to marry him off to Grace Shelley, have him produce an heir, and then certify him insane. He is a threat because of his egalitarian views; he believes himself to be the God of Love reincarnated.

The loving earl is a paranoid schizophrenic with enormous energy and an eccentric verbal exuberance, but his delusions make him an easy victim. When asked why he thinks he is God, he replies, “Simple. When I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself.” His uncle, Sir Charles, persuades Grace, his mistress, a former actress and stripper, to impersonate Marguerite Gautier, the Lady of the Camelias, to whom the earl thinks he is already married. She arrives at a crucial moment dressed as the heroine of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (1853), complete with wax camelias, singing the famous “Godiam” aria. In this splendid scene, the earl sings and dances with her.

The main focus of the play is on Jack as the New Testament God of Love and what he becomes after Dr. Herder’s “cure”: the Old Testament God of Wrath and Justice and Jack the Ripper. No longer open, spontaneous, and joyful, Jack becomes repressed, Victorian, and as such acceptable to the ruling class. The pivotal scene is the confrontation arranged by Dr. Herder between the madman McKyle, the High-Voltage Messiah, and Jack, the God of Love. This scene presents the symbolic death of Jack as Jesus, and his rebirth, coinciding with the birth of Jack’s son and heir, as God the Father. Jack’s “change” is demonstrated by his being attacked by a surreal, apelike monster dressed in Victorian garb, a Victorian Beast who possesses him, although it is unseen by the others onstage, and Jack’s pummeling seems to be an epileptic seizure. Act 2 shows Jack’s successful efforts to establish his normality, dominate his family, and become a bulwark of respectability, while as Jack the Ripper he carries on a private war against sexuality by murdering his amorous Aunt Claire and, ultimately, his wife. His maiden speech in the House of Lords on the need of the strong to crush the weak receives rapturous applause: He is one of them at last.

Noonday Demons

Noonday Demons also deals with religion, this time the folly of the “saintly” anchorite’s wish to purge himself of the sins of the flesh. Saint Eusebius is shown in his cave in the Theban desert, ragged and in chains, attempting to rid himself of “old style man”: “In destroying my body I destroyed Space and Time,” he claims. He can see into the future and communes with angelic voices. Challenged and tempted by an inner demon, he successfully resists wealth, lust, and power. When another anchorite, Saint Pior, arrives and lays claim to Saint Eusebius’s cave, conflict between the two holy men quickly develops, each saint being convinced that he alone interprets God’s will and that the other must be a demon. Saint Eusebius kills Saint Pior, and he is again able to commune with the angels, but the play’s ending undercuts his triumph as, transported to the present, he can see how the theater audience watching Noonday Demons regards his life as meaningless and bizarre.

Leonardo’s Last Supper

Leonardo’s Last Supper, set in the grisly Ambois charnel house to which Leonardo da Vinci’s corpse has been taken, introduces the audience to the squabbling Lasca family, forerunners of modern morticians, fallen on hard times. They toast their good luck in having been sent a “golden carcass” that will restore their wealth and reputation. Yet Leonardo is not dead, although when he awakes in such a place he finds it hard to believe that he is alive. The Lascas are not interested in the gratitude of future generations for preserving “the universal man.” They are the new men: “Men o’ trade, o’ money, we’ll build a new heaven and a new earth by helping ourselves.” To them, Leonardo is a luxury, as are the things he represents: beauty, truth, knowledge, and humanity. Seeing their trade being taken away from them, they seize, kill, and prepare Leonardo for burial, a family happily reunited in their business pursuits.

The Bewitched

The Bewitched is long and complex, but one can recognize in it many of the themes explored in Barnes’s earlier plays, with a heightened savagery and ironic intensity to them: cruelty and violence performed in the name of a God of Love; demoniac possession and angry confrontations between “holy” men; the professional pride and dedication of destroyers of people, from doctors and astrologers to torturers for the Inquisition; the absurd tenacity with which the Spanish grandees cling to their often ludicrous privileges; and the unscrupulous ways in which people behave when driven to pettiness, greed, folly, jealousy, and murder. The Bewitched is a concentrated attack on the madness of people’s...

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