The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Ruling Class begins with three sharp raps of a gavel. At a banqueting table, the thirteenth earl of Gurney offers a toast to England and to the ruling class. In a parody of John of Gaunt’s apostrophe to “this England” in Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), the earl eulogizes England’s class structure. While the British national anthem plays, the scene shifts to his lordship’s bedroom, where he is preparing to indulge in one of his diversions—hanging himself. Dressed in a three-cornered hat, a ballet skirt, long underwear, and a sword, he steps off a stool. After dangling for a few seconds, he regains his balance on the stool and delivers a soliloquy that betrays his madness. He tries it again but accidentally kicks over the stool. The thirteenth earl is dead.

Following this prologue, act 1 begins. After a funeral scene, the action moves to Gurney Manor. Sir Charles, Lady Claire, Dinsdale Gurney, and Bishop Lampton are discussing the disposal of the estate. Matthew Peake, a desiccated and deferential solicitor, enters and reads the will. Tucker, the butler, is left twenty thousand pounds; after a pause, he begins singing and dancing. Virtually everything else is left to the earl’s insane son, Jack. While the others shout angrily, Tucker reenters, smoking a cigar. He picks up a large vase, drops it (thereby getting everyone’s attention), and announces Jack, the fourteenth earl of Gurney.

The new earl is dressed as a monk and speaks softly and gently. He says that he has returned to take his proper place in the world. After asking that all pray with him, he declares himself to be the Son of Man, the God of Love, the Naz. In the next scene Dr. Herder, proprietor of a mental institution, tells Sir Charles that his nephew is a paranoid schizophrenic but not dangerous. Because his parents had “sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts” (that is, public school), he has withdrawn from reality and become the Prince of Peace. He can speak only of love and of sharing with his fellow man.

Sir Charles is appalled. Not only is his nephew mad, but he is also a “Bolshie.” Moreover, he sleeps on a cross and refuses to answer to the name Jack—to any name of God, yes; but to Jack, no. Because the will stated that no contesting of it was permitted, however, nothing can be done—unless there were to be an heir. Since Jack believes himself to be married to the Lady of the Camellias, Sir Charles decides to use his mistress to play that part. Perhaps Grace can captivate Jack, marry him, and produce an heir. Then Sir Charles can have him committed. He will then be able to do as he wishes with the estate. Tucker tries to warn Jack, but Jack will not hear of it and leaves. Tucker, quite drunk,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The aim is to create, by means of soliloquy, rhetoric, formalized ritual, slapstick, songs and dances, a comic theatre of contrasting moods and opposites, where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. And we hope never to consent to the deadly servitude of naturalism or lose our hunger for true size, weight and texture.

The above statement by Peter Barnes appeared in the original program notes for The Ruling Class in 1968. Without question, Barnes meant what he wrote. The thematic devices he listed are certainly utilized to the fullest possible extent in his play. Barnes preferred using ludicrous or slapstick backdrops to enunciate his points, while using dialogue twists and shifts to keep the playgoer’s attention throughout. Indeed, the playgoer’s senses are visually and verbally assaulted so that, by the end of the play, a veritable collage of images has been implanted in the mind.

An example may be seen in the first five minutes of the play. The thirteenth earl of Gurney is something of an eccentric: After a hard day as a judge, he likes to indulge himself with a kinky diversion, hanging himself for a moment or two. In this first scene, the earl has shed his clothes down to his long underwear. After donning a sword and scabbard, a ballet tutu, and a three-cornered cocked hat, he slips his head into a noose, steps off a stool, dangles, then regains his footing. After this bizarre scene, the earl delivers a brief...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Liberal 1960s
The 1960s were a time of defiant liberation in society, from politics, art, and music to dress, hairstyles,...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Juvenalian Satire
Satire’s goal is to effect social improvement— or at least chastisement for the follies of human nature....

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1969: In England as in the United States, young people deepen the chasm between their generation and their parents’ generation. In...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

In what ways are Sir Charles and Claire representative of stereotypical upper class people? In what ways is Daniel Tucker representative of...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The film version of The Ruling Class was produced by Keep Films, starring Peter O’Toole, in 1971. Barnes wrote the screenplay for...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Barnes’s play Bewitched (1974) sets his themes of greed, religious superficiality, and the corruption of the ruling elite in the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Billington, Michael. Review of The Ruling Class in the Guardian, January 25, 1978, p. 10.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barnes, Philip, ed. “Peter Barnes.” In A Companion to Post-War British Theater. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1986.

Blumenfeld, Yorick. “The London Show.” Atlantic 224 (August, 1969): 99-101.

Bull, John. “Peter Barnes.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Dukore, Bernard F. Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes. New York: Garland, 1995.

Dukore, Bernard F. The Theatre of Peter Barnes. Exeter, N.H.: Heinemann, 1981.


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