The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Act I Summary

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Prologue 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 sex—drives them away. Dinsdale suggests that if Jack would produce a legal heir, his relatives could control him. But Jack surprises them by announcing that he is already married—to the ‘‘Lady of the Camelias.’’

Act I, scene vii Unsuccessful in convincing Jack he’s married a myth, the family demands he produce a miracle. Jack tries to levitate a table but only the drunken Tucker sees it, just before passing out. Offstage there is singing; it is the Lady of the Camelias.

Act I, scene viii Claire argues with Charles about his foisting Grace Shelley (who is playing the Lady of the Camelias at his bidding), his former mistress, onto Jack after first trying to foist her off onto his nowdead brother. But she demurs, realizing her husband’s game might work.

Act I, scenes ix Grace and Jack perform a love ritual, tweeting like courting birds. Dinsdale pops Jack’s joyful bubble by disclosing Grace’s true identity. Once again, Jack repulses this ‘‘negative insinuendo,’’ which he defines as ‘‘insinuation towards innuendo, brought on by increased negativism out of a negative reaction to your father’s positivism.’’ This confrontation with reality drives Jack to his wallmounted cross for solace.

Act I, scene x The Bishop and Sir Charles argue about Jack’s marriage. Meanwhile, downstage, Dr. Herder seduces Claire after having learned that her husband sits on the board of foundation that may fund his research.

Act I, scene xi Jack’s time on the cross has purged him of...

(This entire section contains 894 words.)

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doubts, and he blesses all and sundry, including the cockroaches, for it is his wedding day.

Act I, scenes xii through xv The Earl plays the role of God in his own wedding. The marriage is consecrated with no one but the immediate family and Tucker to witness it.

The reception, too, is a lonely affair, with Bishop Bertie fretting about an actress daring to marry in white and Tucker ‘‘in his cups’’ (drunk). Sir Charles demands that they keep up the show, ‘‘The strength of the English people lies in their inhibitions. . . . Sacrifices must be made.’’

In their bedroom, Grace readies herself for her next ‘‘performance’’ and is panicked by the Earl’s appearance on a tricycle. But he announces, ‘‘God loves you, God wants you, God needs you. Let’s to bed.’’ As the lights go out and the music swells, it becomes a successful wedding night.

Sir Charles and Claire interrogate Grace about her night, and she assures them that ‘‘His mind may be wonky but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of his anatomy.’’ Grace claims that she loves Jack. Dr. Herder admits that the ‘‘harsh dose of reality’’ of marriage might do Jack some good.

Act I, scene xvi Dr. Herder stages a showdown designed to convince Jack he cannot be God. He has invited the insane McKyle, the ‘‘High Voltage Messiah,’’ to ‘‘occupy the same space’’ as Jack. The encounter proves devastating to Jack, who convulses in agony with every shot of McKyle’s imaginary volts. Claire herself convulses into labor, being nine months pregnant. When Jack comes to, he is reborn, calling himself ‘‘Jack’’—to Dr. Herder, a sign of sanity. Upstairs the newborn baby cries.


Act II Summary