The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

The Ruling Class opened in Nottingham, England on November 6, 1968, thanks to the foresight of two readers on the British Arts Council—drama critic Martin Eslin and director Stuart Burge—who read the script and pronounced Barnes ‘‘a bloody genius.’’ Burge took the play to Nottingham and directed it himself. At opening night, London’s Sunday Times drama reviewer Harold Hobson felt himself ‘‘suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the explosive blaze of an entirely new talent of a very high order.’’ Although he knew nothing of this playwright on that evening, he later wrote the introduction to the printed play, declaring that the performance he saw on its opening night was the perfect combination of ‘‘wit, pathos, exciting melodrama, brilliant satire, doubled-edged philosophy, horror, cynicism, and sentiment.’’

When it moved to London in February of 1969, Robert Bryden of the Observer pronounced The Ruling Class ‘‘one of those pivotal plays . . . in which you can feel the theatre changing direction, a new taste coming into being.’’ Bryden’s colleagues at the Spectator and the Evening Standard disagreed; Hilary Spurling of the former dismissed it as ‘‘too boring to go into’’ and the latter’s Milton Shulman called the play ‘‘essentially shallow and glib.’’ In spite of the mixed reviews, the Evening Standard honored Barnes as 1969’s Most Promising Playwright and he earned the John Whiting Award for the Nottingham production.

The Ruling Class premiered in New York in 1971, directed by David William, who praised Barnes for ‘‘the vision and the wit with which [he] has incarnated the life of the psyche: its tensions and paradox, hilarity and horror. For the play is both funny and frightening: a playful nightmare.’’ Julius Novick of the New York Times also noted the play’s psychological insights, stating that Barnes ‘‘has connected the perversions of privilege with the perversions of sexual feeling,’’ which become ‘‘sources of both loathing and consequent power.’’

A year after the debut of The Ruling Class two other Barnes plays, Leonardo’s Last Supper and Noonday Demons, opened as a double-bill. Irving Wardle of the London Times declared that now Barnes was confirmed as ‘‘one of the most original and biting comics working in Britain.’’ The film version of The Ruling Class, released in 1972, earned Barnes more praise. Over the next ten years, Barnes cemented his status as one of the moving forces in modern British drama. He is considered an innovator whose critics do not always judge him by his standards but by the standards he is continually revising. Michael Billington of the Guardian praised him for having ‘‘broken the petty rules by which we judge plays.’’

Bernard Dukore, who has written two critical books on Barnes, The Theatre of Peter Barnes and Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes, placed the playwright alongside Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn as ‘‘the playwriting giants of their generation in England.’’ Although Dukore admitted that he remains in the minority in his choices.

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism