Peter Barnes

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Peter Barnes was known primarily for a wide range of theater-related activities. He was an editor, adapter, and director of stage and radio plays and cabaret. He also wrote many screenplays as well as worked as a story editor for Warwick Films. Barnes drew an important distinction between his film work, in which he was simply practicing a craft, and his stage plays, which were the product of an inner compulsion.


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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.


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Barnes, Peter. “Theater of the Extreme: An Interview with Peter Barnes.” Interview by Mark Bly and Doug Wager. Theater 12(Spring, 1981): 43. Barnes talks about his relationship to Brechtian imagination and rules for the theater, as a catalyst for social change. Barnes calls for the revival of English dramatic classics and states that “comedy transcending tragedy” is a characteristic of modern times.

Dukore, Bernard F. Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes. New York: Garland, 1995. Dukore revises his earlier work on the playwright to create the most significant scholarship on the plays of Barnes. The book is comprehensive and covers all of the major plays in detail.

Golomb, Liorah Anne. “The Nesting Instinct: The Power of Family in Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class and The Bewitched (with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare).” Essays...

(This entire section contains 501 words.)

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in Theatre 17 (1998): 63-75. Golomb’s article covers two important plays by Barnes as well as the issue of the dramatist’s portrayal of family.

Hiley, Jim. “Liberating Laughter: Peter Barnes and Peter Nichols in Interviews with Jim Hiley.” Plays and Players 25, no. 6 (March, 1978): 14-17. Barnes discusses Laughter!, his 1978 play at the Royal Court, dealing with “man’s inhumanity to man” in the form of Ivan the Terrible and Auschwitz. “Cruelty has progressed into something more systematic” than the personal affair of the feudal times, he says. Discusses his adaptation of Ben Jonson’s plays and his controversy with critics over his style and content.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. British Theatre, 1950-1970. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974. A journalistic style introduces the “rocket that came from Nottingham” with his play Sclerosis, produced at the Traverse Theatre. The author notes that Barnes “had been a playwright for ten years and screenwriter for fourteen” before his success with The Ruling Class. Also discusses Lulu and two one-act plays. Good midcareer assessment.

Sterling, Eric. “Peter Barnes’s Auschwitz and the Comedic Dilemma.” European Studies Journal 17-18 (2000-2001): 197-211. This article analyzes Barnes’s ideas on comedy and how it can be dangerous and a weapon used against the vulnerable, such as during the Holocaust.

Weeks, Stephen. “Peter Barnes.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Weeks’s section on Barnes is a very helpful tool for those interested in doing scholarship on the playwright.

Worth, Katharine J. “Forms of Freedom and Mystery: Beneath the Subtext.” In Revolutions in Modern English Drama. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1972. This chapter places Barnes in the company of Samuel Beckett, Joe Orton, and Heathcote Williams. Worth describes Barnes as taking the “farce in curious new directions, mixing it with melodrama in a most unlikely and distinctive style.” Also contains a long discussion of The Ruling Class.

Worthen, W. B. Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Deals with Laughter! at length. “To read Laughter! as about Auschwitz alone is crucially to misread the play’s theatrical design,” says Worthen, adding that the play “stages the spectator’s performance as part of its critique of history.” Good index.


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