The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Critical Context

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The Ruling Class is but one of several plays by Peter Barnes that convey similar themes. The power of the ruling class, the abuse of authority, the lack of humanity and concern for the lower classes, and the role of God in the modern world are all concerns of the playwright. Barnes’s own background helped determine this attitude. He was born to a working-class East End (Cockney) family that operated an amusement stall at a seaside resort. As a child, he witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, and the struggles of the immediate postwar era. His first efforts at playwriting were social commentaries but were not successes. The Ruling Class was a major success, winning for him the John Whiting Award and the 1969 Most Promising Playwright Award. After that time he wrote numerous plays with similar themes, but none was as successful as this play.

While some detractors dismissed The Ruling Class as shallow, most critics agreed that it was an excellent play, consistently amusing and penetratingly satirical. Barnes was an admirer of Ben Jonson, the seventeenth century English satirist; The Ruling Class was definitely influenced by Jonson’s style. Theater critic Harold Hobson, in his preface to the published edition of the play (1969), deemed it one of the four most important theatrical events in British theater since 1945. He put The Ruling Class in the same category as Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956), and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (pr. 1958). In sum, The Ruling Class is a rare combination of humor, satire, message, and style that remains fresh and enjoyable.

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Critical Overview