Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class exploded onto the theatre scene when it was produced in Nottingham, England, in 1968. Its acerbic wit and tightly woven plot openly criticize England’s social hierarchy, specifically targeting the foibles and greed of the upper—the ruling—class. Barnes’s play peels back the veneer of respectability to reveal the ugly underneath, the rot that can exist at the very core of a life of privilege. The protagonist of the drama, Jack, the Fourteenth Earl of Gurney, is insane: he thinks he is Jesus Christ. His creed of Love proves completely unacceptable to the rest of the Gurney family, who try to get him committed so that they can take over the family estate.
Jack Gurney represents goodness, and it is for this breech of common sense that he does not fit into upper crust society. Ultimately a doctor of psychiatry succeeds in transforming Jack into a true Gurney—by the end of the play Jack believes he is God the Avenger, or Jack the Ripper, whose program of punishment and murderous intent is more consistent with the values of the ruling class. Thus the play ends unhappily but remains a comedy rather than a tragedy because of its quirky shifts in mood and its juxtapositions of music, dance, and playful dialogue; while it is a form of social criticism, it never appears to take its topic too seriously.
Relatively unknown until this play appeared, Barnes gained almost instant recognition as one of the moving forces in British theater after the production moved to London. The play came at the height of the 1960s counterculture movement, when the youth of the western world began to openly question the establishment. Barnes’s irreverent portrayal of upper class eccentricity, greed, and deviance fit in perfectly with the movement’s ideals. Yet the playwright’s ideas and facility with character have made The Ruling Class an enduring drama in subsequent decades as well.
Act I Summary
At the head of a long, formal banquet table, the Thirteenth Earl of Gurney presents a toast to England, ‘‘Ruled not by superior force or skill / But by sheer presence.’’ As they drink, the scene shifts to his bedroom, where the Earl goes through his bedtime ritual: donning a ballet tutu and a three-cornered hat and swinging momentarily from a silk noose blithely prepared by his aged butler, Dan Tucker. Something goes wrong tonight, however, and the old Earl actually hangs himself.
Act I, scene i
The Earl’s funeral is presided over by Bishop Lamptron, an asthmatic old man who appears magnificent in his stole and mitre.
Act I, scene ii
Back at the family castle, the family contends over who will inherit the estate. When the lawyer announces that it will be Jack, the Fourteenth Earl, Sir Charles, brother of the late Earl, and his wife Claire are aghast as is their dim-witted son, Dinsdale. Their protests are interrupted by Tucker, richer by the 20,000 pounds just bequeathed to him, who smashes a vase on the floor to get their attention. He announces Jack, the Fourteenth Earl, who enters, dressed like Jesus and spouting that he is God.
Act I, scene iii
Sir Charles brings in Jack’s psychologist, Dr. Herder, to get Jack committed as a paranoidschizophrenic.
Act I, scenes iv
Jack tells Claire that he knows he is God because when he talks to Him, he finds he is only talking to himself. Although there is logic to his madness, his ravings about love and equality are disturbingly ‘‘Bolshie’’ (communist) to his family.
Act I, scene v
Tucker tries to warn Jack that the family is plotting against him, but Jack repulses his ‘‘negativity.’’
Act I, scene vi
Jack reposes on a giant cross mounted to the wall while the others take tea. Two church ladies arrive to ask Jack to officiate at their Church party and are swept into a vaudeville chorus line with him. They want him to speak on a non-political topic, such as ‘‘Hanging, Immigration, the Stranglehold of the Unions.’’ His talk of love—particularly as it pertains to...
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