Peter Barnes was a controversial English playwright with an international reputation. His plays are all complex, seriocomic or satirical studies in opposites and extremes. For the most part, he wrote highly theatrical, nonrealistic, antiestablishment plays, which employ elements of farce; alienation or dislocation effects such as the rapid succession of short, contrasting scenes or the unexpected introduction of songs and dance; and surrealistic devices. His work contains echoes of English Renaissance dramas, English music hall, American vaudeville, musical comedy, and motion pictures. His theatrical language is richly textured, full of neologisms; literary, biblical, and historical allusions; and British and American slang. In his historical plays, he created special, eccentric languages with their own period flavor. Most of his own radio plays are more realistic, but his characters and situations are always extraordinary or disturbing. Barnes constantly attacked the corruption of the powerful, the greedy, and the obsessed, and defended the victims of society: the lonely, the old, the dispossessed, and the disadvantaged.
Although Barnes’s view of the world was pessimistic, he expressed, particularly in the plays after 1978, a glimmer of hope that the world could be improved. Laughter can be used by the powerful to divert attention from their oppression of the less fortunate, but it can also be a major source of good, and Barnes’s plays reverberate with irreverent laughter at social or religious pretensions and an absurd universe. Barnes’s work is distinguished by its disturbing subject matter, its rough, often vulgar energy, and its spectacular stage effects. His universe is in turmoil, with no clear direction or purpose. Barnes mirrored ontological anxiety by playing on the paradoxes and ambiguities of life and by juxtaposing contrasting moods, which ultimately prevent any true comic or tragic resolution.
Barnes also made considerable contributions to the theater and to radio drama as reviver, editor, adapter, and director of plays, both English and European, hitherto neglected in England. His own collections of radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) earned for him the Giles Cooper Award for Radio Drama in 1981 and 1984. For his stage plays, he won the John Whiting Award in 1968 and the Evening Standard Award in 1969 for The Ruling Class, and the Olivier Award for Best Play of the Year, 1985, for Red Noses. In 1989, Nobody Here but Us Chickens won the Royal Television Society Award as the year’s best television drama.