The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Women's Roles and Theme of Social Corruption

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1566

The liberated 1960s valued sexual freedom as a natural right, a legitimate form of expression for those who rejected the rigid morals of the previous generation and of the conservative ‘‘establishment.’’ The Ruling Class’s protagonist, Jack, in his God-is-Love state expresses complete sexual freedom, courting his mate like a bird and successfully impregnating her. As Grace attests, ‘‘His mind may be wonky, but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of his anatomy.’’ His sexual freedom is of a part with his innocence and open-heartedness. But his naive attachment to an idealistic and impractical philosophy of ‘‘love and understanding’’ makes him unfit to ‘‘take his proper place in the world. ‘‘He is ‘‘living in a dream world’’ (but then, according to Tucker, so are all rich people).

Jack’s family desperately explores legal avenues of removing him, while he further terrifies them with his entreaty that they pray together. He defines prayer as ‘‘to ask, to beg, to plead.’’ Of course, pleading is distasteful to those who command, who ‘‘kick the natives in the back streets of Calcutta.’’ Jack cannot take his place in the ruling class until he accepts its systematic and brutal oppression of other classes and leaves off pleading to God or anybody else. When, through a form of shock psychotherapy, he is transformed to a reactionary and oppressive upper class gentleman, Sir Charles declares Jack ‘‘one of us at last.’’ He has changed socially, but this change has wrought the perversion of his sexual nature, too. As God the Avenger (or Jack the Ripper), Jack punishes prostitutes, including the one woman who met his ideal, Grace Shelley. The transformation of his sexual feelings parallels the transformation of his social being as he embraces the most distasteful aspects of ruling class behavior: ruthlessness and sexual deviance. In The Ruling Class, playwright Peter Barnes has, according to New York Times writer Julius Novick, ‘‘connected the perversions of privilege with the perversions of sexual feeling . . . [which] is an important source of both loathing and consequent power.’’ For Barnes, social power and social deviance are inextricably linked.

The perversions of sexuality and its inflection on the perversions of power and privilege reveal themselves in Jack’s relationships with the female characters, Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell, Claire, and Grace Shelly. Although the first two are minor characters, they carry their weight in terms of symbolic significance in this carefully engineered play. It is not the fact that Jack is insane that shocks Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell but that his insanity consists of rejecting values they hold dear: they become offended by his comment that England is ‘‘a country of cosmic unimportance,’’ and they are miffed that he won’t speak at their church fete on their preferred topics of ‘‘hanging, immigration,’’ or ‘‘the stranglehold of the Unions.’’ They flee altogether when they realize that his ministry of love includes sexual love.

Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell serve in the play as measures of upper class morality, which is uptight and repulsed by natural sexual expression. Their attitude toward sexual expression is conveyed by the wax fruit of Mrs. Treadwell’s hat. Fruit traditionally symbolizes fertility, thus wax (fake) fruit symbolizes sterility. These are women who present a good front but do not ‘‘bear fruit.’’

Wax fruit first appears in the prologue, when the late Thirteenth Earl says that everything ‘‘tastes like wax fruit’’ after ‘‘the power of life and death’’ of being the hanging judge. The old Earl felt a sense of supreme power in his evening ritual of selfhanging; facing death made him feel fully alive. The Earl whets his appetite for dinner with his brush with death, in his zeal to avoid the wax fruit—or boring aspects of living. With the two church ladies, wax fruit is also equated with sexual frigidity or barrenness. Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell mindlessly join with Jack in his song about toeing the line (‘‘down on the heels, up on the toes’’) but cannot withstand his sermon of love that acknowledges their sexual natures. They have no sexual natures; they are wax fruit. When they return later in the play, they find a Lord more along their lines, who, like them, disapproves of girls who ‘‘show their bosoms and say rude things about the queen.’’ They accept the Earl when he accepts their value of suppressing sexuality.

Claire’s sexual nature is suborned to her greed. An ‘‘ice-cold biddy’’ according the voluptuous Grace, Claire openly acknowledges that her husband seeks sexual gratification elsewhere—with Grace, in fact. At the same time, Sir Charles sanctions his wife’s affair with Dr. Herder, essentially prostituting her as a means to wrest the estate away from his nephew. Claire plays this role dutifully and with feigned passion. She drops the affair without regret when the game changes, and Dr. Herder no longer needs to be kept quiet. Her passion is finally aroused when Jack trades his litany of love and understanding for a litany of vengeance and cruelty. Whereas she had found her nephew repulsive during his Jesus, God-is-love phase, he proves irresistible to her during his Jack the Ripper, God the Avenger phase.

Jack the Ripper exudes power; he can make Claire ‘‘feel alive,’’ and he is the acknowledged master of the estate. She can afford to love a man one step up on their social ladder. Her life of pretensions has deadened her, and now she wants Jack to ‘‘wake’’ her, ‘‘with a kiss.’’ Like the late Earl, however, she has an attraction to death. She tells Jack how a prowler outside her window made her shiver with excitement. But it is ‘‘impossible’’ for the ruling class ‘‘to feel,’’ so she wants Jack to say he loves her ‘‘even if it isn’t true.’’ She blindly, and pathetically, plays a perverted duet with him, whispering ‘‘lover’’ in response to his filthy talk of ‘‘maggots,’’ ‘‘gut-slime,’’ and ‘‘gullet and rack.’’ He calls her Mary, conflating her with Jack the Ripper’s prostitute victims. Having scorned him in his loving phase, she becomes his first guilty victim in his avenging phase. Instead of feeling alive herself, Claire sacrifices her life so that Jack can shriek, ‘‘I’m alive, alive!’’ With dramatic irony, Sir Charles tells Jack that he has finally ‘‘behaved like a Gurney should’’; that is, he has murdered a prostitute— Sir Charles’s own wife—and blamed the crime on the butler.

Grace comes from the lower class but has ‘‘done it all, from Stanislavski to Strip . . . greasy make-up towels, cracked mirrors, rhinestones and beads.’’ According to Claire, Grace made her living ‘‘on her back.’’ However, although Grace freely indulges in sex, she is not sexually free: sex is her stock in trade. An actress-prostitute, she assists her lover Sir Charles by play-acting the role of the Lady of the Camelias, Jack’s ideal lover. Dumas’s Camille was a martyr to love, but Grace’s Camille, as she points out to Claire, carries a wax flower, one that cannot wilt. In Grace’s case, the wax flower takes on a new meaning, now symbolizing the resilience and artificiality of plastic. Like the wax camellia, Grace is here for show, but she is also required to blossom and bear fruit.

Grace plays the role of a twentieth-century Mary Magdalene, the whore-mother-lover, to Jack’s Jesus. Unexpectedly, Grace falls in love with Jack, because of the very qualities that obstruct Jack’s ascension to the ruling class. Perhaps because she is not of the upper class, she is more vulnerable and open to the truth contained within his madness. She has not been contaminated with upper class perversions, although she desperately wants to be called ‘‘Lady Grace Gurney.’’

Ironically, just when Grace begins genuinely to love Jack, having started the relationship as an empty charade, she becomes his victim. Like Claire, Grace finds the power of the Avenger God irresistible and wants his attentions, complaining that he was more loving when he was ‘‘batty.’’ Of course, his new status as a proper gentleman precludes an interest in healthy sex. Now Grace, like Claire, fulfils Jack the Ripper’s appetite for vengeance against whores. It matters little when Jack says ‘‘She betrayed you,’’ whether he refers to Grace’s relations with his uncle or to her complicity in his ‘‘cure.’’ Either way, she has prostituted herself, ruthlessly using her attractions to control him. When she voices genuine encouragement over his upcoming speech to the House of Lords, her words take on an ironic quality. ‘‘Don’t worry, you’ll kill ’em,’’ she says, ‘‘and then you’ll get around to me.’’

Once again, the threat of death is conflated with sex, since she means getting around to having sex with her, not killing her. Her murder is somewhat justified by her guilt, and Jack is deemed sane because ‘‘It’s a sign of normalcy in our circle to slaughter anything that moves.’’ She has become dispensable to the ruling class now that she has produced the wanted heir. The play becomes a tragedy with her death, since she and her love represented Jack’s only hope for true redemption: salvation through love and the power to resist taking his place in the ruling class.

Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

The Ruling Class

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795

The Ruling Class is a large-cast, epic, state-of- England play, resembling others of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, such as The Workhouse Donkey, by John Arden, and Brassneck, by Howard Brenton and David Hare. It is in 27 scenes, with prologue and epilogue, and opens with the 13th Earl of Gurney delivering a speech praising England, paroT dying Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘‘this teeming womb of privilege, this feudal state . . . this ancient land of ritual’’, followed by the National Anthem. An abrupt switch follows the first of many: the Earl returns home to Tucker, his faithful old butler, and speaks, with the rich language typical of Barnes’ work, of passing the death sentence (for he is a judge, too): ‘‘If you’ve once put on the black cap, everything else tastes like wax fruit’’. Then the Earl disconcertingly puts on a cocked hat and ballet skirt, climbs a step-ladder, puts his head in a silk noose, swings and accidentally kicks over the steps and hangs himself. The Earl’s funeral is conducted by a ‘‘magnificently dressed’’ Bishop, who then disrobes on stage and changes into ‘‘a small, bald-headed, asthmatic old man’’. The will is read and Tucker is left £20,000. He breaks into the Edwardian music hall song: ‘‘I’m Gilbert the Filbert the Knut with a ‘K’’’; Barnes continues using songs for contrast and surprise.

The heir, the 14th Earl, appears, dressed as a Franciscan monk. He believes he is God, explaining this with the brilliant line: ‘‘When I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself’’, adding ‘‘What a beautiful day I’ve made’’. Shocked, his family decides to have him marry, and—as soon as he has fathered an heir—he is declared insane. He is convinced he is already married to the Lady of the Camelias, so Grace, his uncle’s mistress, is dressed as Marguerite Gautier and makes a stunning entrance singing La traviata. The Earl arrives for his wedding night on a unicycle. In the continuing series of theatrical coups, a psychiatrist brings together the Earl and a Scotsman who also believes he is God, and the shock to the Earl is expressed by an eight-foot beast ‘‘dressed incongruously in high Victorian fashion’’, wrestling with him.

In the second half of the play the Earl changes to a stern, authoritarian, judgemental man, thinking he lives in the Victorian era. The Master of Lunacy, brought in to certify him, will not, for they are both Old Etonians. The Earl comes to believe that he is Jack the Ripper—an impression reinforced by the setting of ‘‘a dark huddle of filthy houses . . . an impression of dark alleys’’. He murders his sisterin- law and lets Tucker be arrested for it, and Tucker reveals that secretly he is a Communist. The Earl, now seen as ‘‘normal’’ by his circle, goes to the House of Lords, represented very strikingly on stage, by ‘‘tiers of mouldering dummies . . . covered with cobwebs’’. Here he speaks as the Old Testament God, in favour of stern punishment, and finally he is seen stabbing the loving Grace.

Barnes wrote in a programme note, never reprinted:

In a playhouse . . . we can use vivid colours, studied effects, slapstick, slang, songs, dances and blasphemies to conjure up men, monsters and ghosts. We can also raid mystery plays, puppet shows, Shakespeare (damn his eyes!) and demagogy to create a comic theatre of conflicting moods and opposites where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. This comedy is about the withdrawal of light from the world, the obstinacy of defeat, and asks again the question, is God a 10,000 foot tall, pink jelly bean?

The two acts of the play contrast the ideas of a loving God and a vengeful one and show that society is ruled by the latter concept. Along the way are satirical swipes at many aspects of British life: mockery of bishops, members of parliament, the House of Lords, the aristocracy, psychiatrists. Some of this is high-spirited, yet Barnes insists that this is a serious commentary on what was wrong with Britain: ‘‘I cared about the abuses and vices I was attacking. So much so that I was full of hate for them . . . I was taking the ruling classes as a symbol of what I was really attacking, which was something deeper than just blood sports’’.

This long play has a Jacobean richness (Barnes later adapted several of Ben Jonson’s plays for stage and radio) in language, incident, and variety. It is also varied, surprising, and hugely theatrical. The Ruling Class anticipates aspects of the political debate of the 1980’s: what were ‘‘Victorian values’’, and were they a good thing?

Source: Malcolm Page, ‘‘The Ruling Class’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, p. 694.

Review of The Ruling Class

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994

A controversial comedy with plenty of tragedy mixed in, this was adapted by the playwright for the screen and would have been better with a crueler set of fingers at the typewriter to remove some of the indulgences. It’s too lengthy but has many wonderful moments and mixes satire with farce and pain to create a movie with many faults, though it remains unforgettable. Andrews is a member of the House of Lords. He comes back to the family manse after having delivered a scathing speech to Parliament, and his alcoholic butler, Lowe, helps him prepare for what is apparently his nightly ritual. He dons long underwear, a tutu, a Napoleonic hat, puts a silken noose around his neck, and will swing a few times before landing on the ladder top that gives him safety and his life. This night, he inadvertently kicks the ladder over and dies of strangulation, thus leaving his membership in the House of Lords and his estate to his insane son, O’Toole. The sum of 30,000 pounds has been bequeathed to Lowe, but the rest of the family, Mervyn (Andrews’ brother), Browne (Merwyn’s wife), and Villiers (their dotty son) are shocked upon hearing the will read by Sim, their local bishop. Lowe chooses to stay in service, but now that he is rich, his attitude changes. He begins spouting communist slogans, drinking in public, and telling everyone in the family exactly what he thinks of them. O’Toole has been in a mental hospital for the last several years and he returns dressed as Jesus, a role he insists he is playing for real. He admits that when he prays to God, he finds that he’s talking to himself. O’Toole spends many of his hours on a huge cross in the large living room and prates about distributing the family’s wealth to the meek and downtrodden, something that frightens the others in the family who would never stand for that. There is only one way to rectify matters: have O’Toole sire a child, then toss him back in the looney bin and the family can assume control of the money by becoming the unborn child’s guardians. Mervyn has been keeping a woman on the side, Seymour, and his plan is to get O’Toole and her wed as soon as possible. O’Toole, however, keeps telling everyone that he’s already married to The Lady of the Camellias. Seymour arrives, dressed as Camille, sings a snatch from ‘‘La Traviata,’’ and O’Toole is convinced that she is who she says she is. They get married and Seymour falls in love with O’Toole and admits that this is all Mervyn’s plan. O’Toole sighs, understands, and, in his Jesus fashion, forgives them as they know not what they do. He totally accepts Seymour, they sing a duet of ‘‘My Blue Heaven,’’ and he rides her into the bedroom on his tricycle. She’s instantly preg- nant. O’Toole’s doctor, Bryant, wants to help and works on the crazed peer through the months of the pregnancy. Seymour is about to deliver their child when Bryant shows O’Toole the folly of his ways by introducing him to Green, another nut-case who thinks that he, too, is Jesus. O’Toole is shattered by meeting Green and must admit that he isn’t Jesus at all; he’s Jack. Everyone in the family is thrilled that he’s come to his senses and ceases preaching the gospel of love and truth. What they don’t know is that the ‘‘Jack’’ he refers to is, in fact, ‘‘Jack the Ripper,’’ which they learn the hard way when O’Toole kills his aunt, Browne, then tosses the blame for it on Lowe’s drunken shoulders. O’Toole takes his seat in the House of Lords and makes a stinging speech that endorses bigotry and revenge and sets the sleeping peers on their feet, madly applauding the nonsense he’s espoused. By this time, Mervyn, Bryant, and Sim have all gone bonkers themselves and so the castle is almost empty. O’Toole returns home and Seymour runs to put her arms around him. O’Toole responds by stabbing her. She screams her last and in the background, their child repeats, ‘‘I am Jack!’’ so there’s no question that the genetic strain of madness has been passed through O’Toole’s loins to his young son. There’s hardly a segment of British society that comes out of this unscathed: the public school system, the Houses of Parliament, snobbism, the Church, Jesus, homosexuality, servants, the upper classes, and just about everything else it’s fashionable to decry. It’s caustic, funny, often goes too far and stays too long to make the points. O’Toole was oscar-nominated as the mad earl and bites off Barnes’ speeches with Shavian diction. Lowe steals every scene he is in and the creators of the TV show ‘‘Benson’’ may have looked long and hard at Lowe’s irrascible butler before they turned him into a black man. There is more than just a passing similarity in the two. Sim’s role as the aged bishop is one of his best in a long career. A lot of money was spent on this movie, making it one of the best produced British films of the year. Barnes’ play was produced in England in 1969, then had a short run in WashingT ton, D. C., in 1971, but it has yet to find anyone in the Broadway area to mount it. Joseph E. Levine, who made his fortune making sandals-and-swords Italian films was the presenter here, a far cry from his Steve Reeves epics. Interiors were done at Twickenham with locations shot in Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Surrey, Hampshire and London.

Source: Anonymous. Review of The Ruling Class in The Motion Picture Guide: N-R, 1927–1983, edited by Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, Cinebooks (Chicago), 1986, p. 2684.

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