The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Characters Discussed

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Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred

Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred, the fourteenth earl of Gurney. Declared a paranoid-schizophrenic by the medical profession, he has been institutionalized for seven years because he believes that he is God, the God of love who deals in compassion and justice. As the gentle J. C., he is the object of contempt and victimized by his family, who hope to inherit his estate. After a “cure,” which involves his meeting another mental patient who thinks he is the Messiah, he becomes Jack the Ripper, a malevolent and murderous man ruling with ruthless absolute authority. As a sadistic autocrat, he is regarded as a perfectly normal member of society, eventually taking his seat in the mummified House of Lords. As Jack, he represents in the extreme the attitudes of the ruling class about themselves and those below them in rank and in gender.

Daniel Tucker

Daniel Tucker, the Gurney manservant. A would-be lower-class revolutionary who despises the upper classes that he serves, he nevertheless remains with them, although he is incredibly insolent after he receives a sizable inheritance from the thirteenth earl of Gurney. His habit of servility accounts for the perpetuation of an unjust and dangerous class system. It even leads to his accepting a conviction for a murder that Jack commits.

Sir Charles Gurney

Sir Charles Gurney, the brother of the thirteenth earl of Gurney and uncle to Jack. Disappointed by not being named Jack’s guardian, which would have given him control of a substantial estate, he plots with his wife to marry Jack to his mistress, who would bear an heir. Charles is a pompous, self-righteous member of the upper classes.

Lady Claire Gurney

Lady Claire Gurney, the wife of Charles. A bored, self-indulgent, totally amoral woman, she beds many men, including Herder, right under her husband’s nose. She is tremendously attracted to Jack, responding sexually to the danger that she senses in him after his cure. In the middle of her seduction of him, he kills her, associating her in his mind with the prostitutes who were the victims of Jack the Ripper.

Grace Shelley

Grace Shelley, the mistress of Charles and the wife of J. C. A lower-class actress, she assumes the role of Marguerite Gautier, Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias, to whom J. C. has pledged his love. An acquisitive and conniving woman, she uses their child to cement her own fortunes and not those of the other Gurneys. At the chilling conclusion of the play, Jack murders her in the middle of a passionate kiss.

Dr. Paul Herder

Dr. Paul Herder, a thin, cold-mannered German psychiatrist. He prostitutes himself professionally and sexually to obtain a grant for his research on the brains of laboratory rats. He takes part in Charles’s schemes to delude Jack, and he seduces Claire. He is also a buffoon: He spouts psychological and medical jargon, all the while completely misdiagnosing Jack’s mental state and the horrendous outcome of his cure.


McKyle, the demented, self-proclaimed Electric Messiah. Claiming to exert his will on others through electrical charges, he is like an electroshock treatment for Jack, who is forced to give up his delusion about a God of love existing in this world.

Kelso Truscott, Q. C.

Kelso Truscott, Q. C., the Master in Lunacy and an Old Boy Etonian. Cleverly complimented and reminded of his class loyalty, he declares Jack as the Ripper recovered and totally sane.


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Bertie See Bishop Bertram Lampton

Detective Inspector Brockett Called in after the murder of Claire, Detective Inspector Brockett discovers Lenin’s books in Tucker’s suitcase and...

(This entire section contains 1137 words.)

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therefore arrests him for the murder.

Detective Sergeant Fraser Fraser is Brockett’s assistant.

Sir Charles Gurney Brother to the late Earl and uncle to Jack, the new Earl, Charles considers it is his family duty to get rid of Jack and take over the estate. He bickers with his wife Claire about how to eliminate his nephew and enlists the aid of his mistress to marry Jack and produce a legal heir he can control. He doesn’t mind giving up his mistress, not being ‘‘the sensitive type,’’ and is willing to sacrifice anything ‘‘for the family’’—or rather for his own gain. He is blind to his wife’s affair with Dr. Herder and his own son, Dinsdale, is a disappointment to him.

Lady Claire Gurney Claire is married to Sir Charles, but that doesn’t stop her from having an affair with Dr. Herder, which she undertakes to elicit his support in committing her nephew. She also attempts to seduce Jack when he begins to show signs of improvement. She displays a sophisticated, tough exterior when she blandly lets on that she knows of her husband’s affairs. Claire is a caricature of the jaded granddame; she play-acts the role of a highborn lady while emptily pursuing the goal of saving the family name. She is a woman with no illusions.

Dinsdale Gurney The dimwitted son of Claire and Charles who has the knack of upper class snobbishness but none of its class. Dinsdale reveals his father’s plot to Jack, not out of honesty or distaste for the ruse but because he had been left out of the planning. Dinsdale’s biggest concern is whether Jack’s madness will affect his position in Parliament. Jack Gurney, the Fourtheenth Earl of Gurney

Jack suffers from delusions of grandeur and, already a member of the peerage, the only step up for him is God. Therefore, he calls himself God, Yahweh, the Infinite Personal Being, and sleeps on a cross. He urges everyone to pray for ‘‘love and understanding.’’ When confronted with another paraT noid-schizophrenic who also thinks he is the sole divine being, he goes through a metamorphosis, or rebirth, and emerges as Jack. Although his family considers this a cure, he really has exchanged a divine and holy identity for an evil and profane one: Jack the Ripper. In his madness can be found a quirky logic that endears Jack to others.

Gurney, the Thirteenth Earl of Gurney The prototypical British Lord, the Earl is very proper and dressed impeccably, complete with medals of honor on his chest, as he presides over the meeting of the Society of St. George. He is a judge, a ‘‘peer of the realm,’’ and the owner of a huge estate. He is about to marry a common girl, Grace Shelly, in order to provide his estate with an heir. He is eccentric and mentally unstable. He dies accidentally while enacting a hanging ritual, dressed in underwear, a ballet tutu, and a three-cornered hat.

Dr. Paul Herder A German psychiatric doctor who comes to the Gurney estate at Sir Charles’s bidding to assess the possibility of committing Jack to an insane asylum. While at the estate, he seduces Claire so that she will aid him in obtaining funding for his experiments in rat schizophrenia, since Claire’s husband sits on the grant board. Herder refuses to commit Jack, preferring instead to observe whether the ‘‘harsh dose of reality’’ of returning to his family will cure him. When that fails, Herder arranges a showdown between Jack and the High Voltage Messiah, another paranoid-schizophrenic. When Jack turns violent and murders Claire, Herder himself goes insane in a classic case of ‘‘transference.’’

Alexei Kronstadt, number 243 See Daniel Tucker

Bishop Bertram Lampton The Bishop, Claire’s brother, is an imposing figure at the funeral of the Thirteenth Earl, but without his robes, he is a wheezy, balding old man who collapses after the slightest exertion. He conveniently fails to understand the circumstances of the Earl’s death.

Master of the Court of Protection See Kelso Truscott, Q. C.

Master in Lunacy See Kelso Truscott, Q. C.

McKyle, the High Voltage Messiah The High Voltage Messiah, the Electric Christ, the AC/DC God, is clinically insane, a paranoidschizophrenic who thinks he is the God of electricity. He’s been told that Jack thinks he too is God. McKyle has ‘‘obliterated hundreds o’ dupe- Messiahs’’ before; now he, being a Vengeful God, disabuses Jack of his megalomaniac pretensions as well.

Matthew Peake The lawyer who reads out the Thirteenth Earl’s will to the amazed family. Mrs. Piggot-Jones One of two church matrons who ask Jack to preside over the opening of their Church Fete. The ladies get swept up into a singing and dancing chorus line with Jack. They are affronted by the sexual innuendoes of his ‘‘God is love’’ litany.

Mr. Shape Mr. McKyle’s ‘‘assistant,’’ who is really his warden.

Grace Shelley Grace is Sir Charles’s mistress, who willingly takes on the role of The Lady of the Camelias, or Marguerite Gautier, (both martyrs for love and important symbolically to Jack) as a way of advancing herself. Charles sets her up with Jack to provide the next Gurney heir. She starts out by using Jack, but his quirky innocence earns her genuine affection.

Toastmaster Every proper British club has its toastmaster, who raps for attention and repeats the toast in a stentorian voice for all to hear. The toastmaster is a well-dressed servant.

Mrs. Treadwell Another of the church matrons offended by Jack’s irreverent behavior.

Kelso Truscott, Q. C. Truscott prefers the title ‘‘Master of the Court of Protection’’ over ‘‘Master in Lunacy’’ since his ‘‘main concern is property and its proper administration,’’ after all. Things do not go well for Jack’s assessment until he breaks into an Eton school song and Truscott joins in. Being old school chums, they share certain values, such as the need for discipline against the barbarians and homosexuals. Truscott’s verdict is that Jack is cured and sane.

Daniel Tucker The Earl’s personal manservant is aging but knows his place until he learns of the 20,000 pounds the Earl has left him in his will. Unfortunately, he lacks the imagination to leave, and so stays on as the family butler, though now he drinks to excess and makes rude remarks to the ‘‘Titled Turds.’’ He has an alternate identity: Alexei Kronstadt, number 243, a dues-paying member of the Communist Party; but he admits, he doesn’t ‘‘do anything.’’ He becomes an easy scapegoat for Claire’s murder, since everyone tacitly agrees that ‘‘the butler did it.’’