Peter Barnes

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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...

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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 blind respect for hierarchical order.

The play deals in particular with the reign of Carlos II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs. The end product of prolonged inbreeding, Carlos is sickly, impotent, epileptic, and the pawn of unscrupulous politicians, leaders of church and court. The play records some of the intrigues and incredible devices used to keep Carlos alive and to induce him to produce an heir to the Spanish throne and thus preserve the privileged caste. Carlos dies childless, his throne passes to the Bourbons, and the terrible War of the Spanish Succession follows: “One million dead. Two million wounded. Western Europe is in ruins.” The reign of Carlos is “a glorious monument to futility.” In one of his few lucid moments in the play, Carlos presents Barnes’s most open attack on the system when he says,

Now I see Authority’s a poor provider.No blessings come from ’tNo man born shouldst ha’ t’, wield ’t . . .’Twill make a desert o’ this worldWhilst there’s still one man left t’ gi’ commandsAnd another who’ll obey ’em.


Laughter! is the most extreme and controversial of Barnes’s plays. Its thesis is voiced by the character of the Author, who introduces the play: “Comedy is the enemy,” the ally of tyrants. “It softens our hatred. An excuse to change nothing, for nothing needs changing when it’s all a joke.” He asks the audience to root out laughter, “strangle mirth, let the heart pump sulphuric acid, not blood.” This plea is accompanied by some diverting, zany stage business, including a whirling bow tie and trousers falling to reveal spangled underpants.

Part 1 deals with the reign of Ivan the Terrible; part 2 with Auschwitz. Ivan is reluctant either to wield power or to surrender it; nevertheless, in the name of authority, he slaughters thousands and kills his own son to protect him from the pain of exercising power. Finally, an Angel of Death, dressed like a seedy office clerk, confronts Ivan. After wrestling with this relentless antagonist, Ivan is petrified into a statue, befouled by bird droppings.

In part 2, the setting is Berlin, where petty bureaucrats Else Jost, Victor Cranach, and Heinz Stroop live out their working lives. It is Christmas Eve, 1942. They are visited by the snooping, fanatical Nazi, Gottleb. In spite of wartime shortages and constant fear of the authorities should they deviate from the expected norm, they manage a kind of drunken festivity, and induce an ambiguous vision of the truth behind their façade of loyalty. They rail against their superiors and intellectuals, and finally fire off a round of subversive anti-Hitler jokes. Gottleb then summons a vision of what their paperwork is really masking: the production of flues for the crematoriums at Auschwitz. Onstage, a graphic, horrible representation of the death agonies of those gassed by hydro-cyanide is shown with dummies in place of human beings. Horrified, the bureaucrats cannot translate coded office numbers into the brutal facts. They throw out Gottleb and find solace in being “ordinary people, people who like people, people like them, you, me, us.” The epilogue introduces the farewell Christmas concert appearance of the Boffo Boys of Birkenau, Abe Bimko and Hymie Bieberstein, whose awful dance and patter routine comes to an end as the gas does its work.

Red Noses

Red Noses, a most complex play, elaborates many of the themes found in The Bewitched and modifies some of the ideas expounded in Laughter! Faced with the horror of the Black Death, which has removed more than a third of the population of Europe, what can a small, bizarre group of entertainers do to improve the world? Given the facts that the Church, prayers, medicine, and wealth are helpless against the plague, Father Flote and his group of “Christ’s Clowns,” wearing red noses, can at least give the dying some consolation. They are sanctioned by Pope Clement VI and become agents of Church power, a distraction from the real world.

Yet Barnes also suggests that laughter can be associated with revolution and redemption. Opposed to the Floties are the Black Ravens, who see the plague as a chance to create an egalitarian society. Another opposing group, the Flagellants, seek no social change but defy the Church establishment and wish to atone for sin by self-inflicted punishment and direct appeal to God. Inevitably the Church cannot tolerate such deviations and eventually destroys both the Black Ravens and the Flagellants. The Church tolerates the Floties, however, even after the end of the plague, until Father Flote, realizing that there are valuable qualities in the beliefs of the two outlawed groups—that laughter is in fact revolutionary as well as a corrective to sin—defies papal authority and advocates SLOP, “Slow, Lawful, Orthodox Progress.” Laughter will no longer be only for losers but can be a force for social and personal improvement. The Church regards Father Flote’s defiance as a threat, and the Red Noses are executed. The importance of the individual, the need for social reform, and the positive power of “the laughter of compassion and joy” are at last united in a new and more positive way in a play that is highly complex and richly textured.

Barnes’ People I-III

The three collections of radio plays, too numerous to discuss here, are particularly interesting as illustrations of the transition Barnes makes from deep pessimism to a more positive view of the world. The outstanding play in Barnes’ People I is “Rosa,” about an aging, disillusioned, but still dedicated social worker. She has a brief, devastating vision of an army of geriatrics on the rampage, raging against the waste of their lives; her vision ends, however, and she knows that she must go on, working with the system, however imperfect it may be: “Slow, Lawful, Orthodox Progress.” “The Three Visions,” the last play of Barnes’ People III, is a discussion between Barnes at age thirty-one, Barnes at age fifty-five, and Barnes at age seventy-four. It is clear that however little he believes he has contributed to his profession, he goes on with the struggle and never compromises.


Barnes’s play Dreaming dramatizes the story of Captain John Mallory, a heroic warrior who has just taken part in the successful Battle of Tewkesbury, at the end of the War of the Roses, and who longs for home. To Mallory, home represents not a mere building but rather his family and friends. In this drama, which resembles a picaresque novel in its episodic form and its inclusion of many rogues, Mallory proceeds from scene to scene, encountering new characters and demonstrating his strength and bravery as he attempts to fulfill his dream of finding his home. He does come home and finds that his wife, Sarah, is displeased with him for having been gone for six years while fighting for the York side. He wakes up and realizes that he has been dreaming, that Sarah and their daughter, Anna, have been killed and are buried nearby. The rest of the play continues his quest to fulfill his dream of finding home. He even finds a woman who looks nothing like Sarah, Susan Beaufort, yet he initially makes himself believe—and even convinces her—that she is Sarah. He marries Susan and continues his quest to find her home—a dangerous task given that she is the last of the lucky Beauforts, the enemy of the duke of Gloucester. The play is pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic, in that Barnes suggests that Mallory’s dream of finding a home is unattainable. The drama also concerns the importance of heroism and bravery. As Mallory pursues his dream-quest, he is aided by valorous men and women: Bess, Davy, Jack Skelton, Jethro Kell, and his new bride, Susan Beaufort. They fight for—and die for—his dream. In Dreaming, Barnes portrays not only the beauty of idealism but also its inherent dangers in a world filled with self-centered and ambitious people. Mallory believes that he has achieved his goal when he sees the Beaufort castle (he hopes to find the home of his new in-laws), yet what he witnesses is actually a dream, an illusion. Gloucester hopes to murder Susan Beaufort (now Susan Mallory), but she has frozen to death. Shortly before she dies, Susan, comprehending Mallory’s guilt for leaving Sarah and Mallory’s desire for home, claims that she is now Sarah.

Dreaming is in some respects a typical Barnes play. It is full of sharp wit, violence, and biting social criticism. Despite the dark tone of the play, the characters are quite humorous. For instance, Marie tells Mallory that her late husband was so dull that “when he masturbated his hand went to sleep.” As the rogue Cobett dies, he leaves his legacy to his children: “Remember what I’ve taught you. Strive—reach for glory. You’re murdering cut-throats. Strive to be the very best murdering cut-throats . . . Make me proud.” Jethro Kell, the lucky Beauforts’ chaplain, possesses a crucifix that contains a sharp dagger that he employs as a weapon. Barnes most probably is satirizing the role of the Catholic Church in fifteenth century England. Furthermore, the lucky Beauforts are being wiped out by Gloucester and are thus anything but lucky. Dreaming, therefore, contains humor that is reminiscent of the wit that exists in previous dramas such as The Ruling Class and Laughter! As with these two plays, and others by Barnes, the characters are not three-dimensional but rather are types, vehicles who help the dramatist get across his satire. Dreaming contains thirty-four characters and unusual scenes such as characters who fall in and out of open graves and characters who skate and perform triple-axles and other feats. This fact demonstrates that Barnes continues to write plays his way—irregardless of whether they can be staged practically.

Barnes is a purist who, in many respects, writes for himself. For example, Barnes stages Laughter! despite his realization that it will anger some audience members. He has found success with his radio plays, Barnes’ People. These radio plays contain one, two, or three characters; it is ironic that in some respects, such as practicality, these radio plays, although they are brief, are more stageable than Dreaming and other Barnes plays that have been performed onstage. Although Barnes is quite witty, it can be argued that his best plays are his earliest ones, such as The Ruling Class and Laughter!


Barnes, Peter