Peter Barnes Essay - Barnes, Peter

Barnes, Peter

Barnes, Peter 1931–

Barnes, a British film critic, editor, director, and playwright, writes gothic comedies, many of which employ historic settings to caricature modern evils.

The Bewitched was the finest modern play I'd read in years: the most extraordinary, the most theatrical and—yes, but without a single nudge or sidelong glance at the audience—the most pertinent to British society in the 1970s. It imposed itself with the feeling of a classic; but this wasn't only because it spoke, as the greatest Elizabethan and Jacobean plays do, to modern concerns in a seventeenth century accent. I knew I was in the presence of something remarkable because, in scene after scene, it led me over ground no playwright had trodden before, to climax after climax of a daring which defied you to imagine how it could ever be staged. Time and again, it produced the effect which A E Housman called the one infallible test of poetry: it made my scalp prickle with cold excitement.

Another sign of a major work of art is that it should bring together, crystallised within a single image or statement, tendencies which have appeared, apparently unconnected, in other works preceding it. In the literature of the 1830s, for example, there is a strain of apparently groundless terror and foreboding which links works as disparate as Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall', Dickens' Barnaby Rudge and Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii. In Carlyle's French Revolution their vague fears and intimations of apocalypse acquire a focus and name: this, you realise, was the great doom hanging over the early Victorian imagination. Similarly, in the British drama of the 1960s, a new tone of comedy and disillusion seems to raise its head. In the black farce of Joe Orton, the metaphysical wit of Tom Stoppard, the Goyescan horror of Edward Bond's Early Morning and Lear, there is a common note which one could only, at the time, describe loosely as Jacobean—a sense of things falling apart, a bitter delight in their new randomness, an appalled disgust at the superstition and brutality revealed by the collapse of the old order, which brought to mind Ben Jonson, Donne and Webster. By comparison, the playwrights of the 1950s—John Osborne, Arnold Wesker—seemed like survivals from a more confident, neo-Elizabethan age: isolated Raleighs offended by the new era's lack of respect for language, craft, the principle of merit.

Peter Barnes gathers all these threads together in The Bewitched. It is a neo-Jacobean play which crystallises, clarifies and pins down what it is that links the Jacobeans and his contemporaries. Partly, it does so by being genuinely Jacobean in thought and texture: only a writer saturated as Barnes is in the language of Jonson, Marston and Middleton (he has taken time out from his own career to edit The Alchemist, The Devil is an Ass and Antonio and Mellida for contemporary audiences) could have produced the brilliant, thorny, fantastic speech of Carlos' courtiers, the two great verse tirades the stammering king speaks in the lucid aftermath of epilepsy. But more than that, it penetrates to the heart of the Jacobean melancholy which is also our own: the discovery that 'the new philosophy casts all in doubt', that the universe is absurd and all the comforting beliefs in which we were reared are frantic constructs to mask this intolerable truth. (pp. 18-19)

The Bewitched is no more a play about monarchy than The Ruling Class was a play about aristocracy. What makes it bitingly relevant to Britain in the 1970s is the scathing examination of the belief that any category of people, royal or not, is 'special': peculiarly-fitted to govern empires, occupy positions of privilege, command more wealth than others…. The most striking difference between the British playwrights of the Sixties and their predecessors of the Osborne generation is that they, the neo-Elizabethans, saw themselves as forerunners of a meritocratic revolution, an opening by universal education of all careers to the talents, which would create a new aristocracy of mind, rather than birth or inherited wealth. Peter Barnes and his contemporaries challenge that definition of equality, satirising with grim Jacobean wit the society meritocracy has built…. 'Bewitchment's the cause of our present ills', explains Father Froylan, the royal confessor, to Carlos 'it holds us in dream.' Spain's dream, as Peter Barnes has written it, is our nightmare, pinned down and crystallised. It would be pleasant to think that his mocking, despairing laughter might still wake us. (p. 19)

Ronald Bryden, in Plays and Players (© copyright Ronald Bryden 1974), May, 1974.

Few plays demonstrate more cogently the shortness of the distance between comedy and tragedy than Peter Barnes's The Bewitched…. Deeply sensitive to the injustices, cruelties, and absurdity of all hitherto practiced social and political systems, [Barnes] turns his pain into laughter—a laughter that borrows heavily from the most mundane and lowly sources yet grows in dignity and stature as we realize how humane its roots are, and how formidable the sacred cows it has the courage to attack.

The Bewitched deals with Carlos II of Spain, the last of his dynasty, whose death in 1700 plunged Europe into the terrible War of the Spanish Succession. An epileptic, generally sickly, mentally deficient ruler—the product of ghastly inbreeding—whose desperate and vain efforts to beget an heir, preposterously abetted by the entire court, turn the grandiose Spanish empire topsy-turvy, is the proper linchpin for Barnes's anarchist comedy. For Barnes is indeed an anarchist in the best sense: one who execrates all power because he is not afraid to draw the full rather than, as most of us do, the partial consequences of the proposition that all power corrupts. His play is written in rage and despair at royalty, the nobility, the clergy, the army, the police, but also at the most ordinary, simple people, who need only to come into any sort of power to become a public menace. Yet Barnes's sadness and anger are almost always couched in jest—raw and low-down vaudeville or subtly biting irony—and never assume a high moral tone.

The chief device is discrepancy. First, between kinds of humor…. A deeper discrepancy lies in the language itself: partly modern, partly archaic, and studded with peculiar apocopes, metatheses, and just plain bad grammar to create a sense of ludicrousness or unease. But the supreme discrepancy is between the pomp and majesty of the trappings of empire and the sardonic or even scatological way in which they are treated; between the horrors of superstition, religious intolerance, mass torture and executions, social exploitation and political assassinations, and the jeeringly absurdist tone Barnes sedulously adheres to….

[This] long play [is] bursting with precise historical documentation that flows easefully into absurdist humor. [The] great lesson of The Bewitched is that historical grandeur and terror are ultimately indistinguishable from farce, just as farce has finally to be paid for with high tragedy. What makes the play particularly fine, though, is that its absurdism remains contained and believable, and that the author never loses his sympathy for such basically dreary characters….

Despite venial flaws, The Bewitched is the most substantial, skillful, relevant, wise, and necessary play I have seen in years, and fully as funny as it is painful.

John Simon, "London Diary VI: The Best," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), September 2, 1974, p. 56.

The title [of The Bewitched] is puzzling, since though witchcraft, popular hunger for the irrational, and exorcism are introduced as topical elements in the play, they constitute only a bit of trimming. The scene is early eighteenth-century Spain, the story that of assorted efforts to stimulate the deformed, epileptic king Carlos II into producing an heir—the failure of which, in the distorted world of dynastic politics, led to a major European war, to widespread devastation and immense suffering. We may, if we wish, apply its message to our own times, and reflect ruefully or hysterically, according to temperament, on the inadequacies of men in power; but such reflections amount to no more than a wail of dismay at the fact that rulers, whether they are born great, achieve greatness, or have greatness thrust upon them, remain human beings replete with human weaknesses; and whereas Mr. Barnes' other major play, The Ruling Class, achieved in a disjointed way a certain sardonic point, The Bewitched seems to me no more than a prolonged—very prolonged … wallow in disgust for its own sake. (p. 41)

[There is] many a sadomasochistic jape involving, for example, a pet parrot, cripples, Jews and a busy little dwarf (whom we all, cultured fellows that we are, have been happy to recognize as derived from Velasquez) while the assorted rival factions play out their deadly games. The implication is, of course, that meanwhile the people suffer—as god knows they do; but it would require X-ray eyes to detect in the piece much actual interest in or concern for the people. Shakespeare can—as in the night scene before Agincourt—suffuse a whole play with a feeling for the people; Mr. Barnes, whatever his ostensible moral, is here plainly obsessed with the situation he deplores and in his deployment of diverse theatrical techniques, involving a manufactured language of artificial archaisms, deliberate anachronisms, jokey vaudeville interludes ('I'm here to test your faith'—'Testing, testing, one, two, three'…), or a bit of song and dance used for what a more sympathetic critic would I suppose describe as devastating irony, and so on. In the interminable mêlée a number of excellent actors swirl round, like bits of clothes in the royal laundromat…. [The Bewitched is] a tumultuous bore to those unable to accept its author's chosen approach. (pp. 41-3)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.

Peter Barnes is an enthusiastic antinaturalist with an admiration for Ben Jonson and a delight in baroque verbiage. In … The Bewitched…, he takes a historical subject—the decay of Spain under its last Hapsburg monarch, the near-idiot Carlos II—which is fascinating in itself and perhaps even in some way relevant to our own predicament, but effectively smothers it under a vast heap of stylistic feathers. The lesson is not that Barnes strays too far from naturalism, for he does not, in spite of his pastiche language, but that like Shaw he cannot allow audiences to approach the play at any point on their own terms, and constantly shouts down their curiosity with his shrill "I'm telling you."…

[This] play strives too hard to be significant; it gives out a feeling of strain, which is, as one might expect, a fairly constant presence in the work of these middle generation writers, men as it were liberated but still remembering their shackles. (p. 66)

John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1974–1975 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1975.