The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

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“sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts” (that is, public school), he has withdrawn from reality and become the Prince of Peace.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, then states that he is the only true Englishman at Gurney Manor and that he is also a communist.

When Grace is introduced to Jack, he is immediately taken with her. The two are married by the bishop and retire to the nuptial chambers. The next morning Grace tells Sir Charles that although Jack is “wonky,” there was nothing wrong with his maleness. In the next scene Grace is nine months pregnant. Dr. Herder, who has learned of the plan, is determined to cure Jack by confronting him with another messiah. While Grace is having her baby (a boy), Dr. Herder challenges Jack with Mr. McKyle, a “High Voltage Messiah.” Jack retreats to his cross but...

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is forced to come down and face McKyle. Overcome, he admits to being simply Jack. Act 1 ends on this note.

In the first scene of act 2, the potential fifteenth earl of Gurney is being christened. Sir Charles is ready to commit the fourteenth earl, but he is stopped by Dr. Herder, who declares Jack now to be stable. In several scenes Jack wrestles with his old personality and tries to force it into his subconscious. He is learning how to be cunning. Tested by Kelso Truscott, the Master of the Court of Protection, he is declared to be sane. In a frightening soliloquy Jack betrays the torment within him. He now believes that he is no longer the Messiah; instead, he has become God Almighty, the God of Justice. His distorted personality becomes the Moral Avenger of 1888, Jack the Ripper.

Jack and Grace are visited by two Tory ladies who wish him to speak to a party gathering. He learns that there is no death penalty in modern England. He and the ladies discuss the immoral times, and he suggests that the answer is to bring back fear, which will restore law and order. Jack breaks into song, a paraphrase of “Dry Bones.” In his version the bones are being broken on the rack, and the words have been transmuted from connected to disconnected bones.

Shortly thereafter, Lady Claire comes to Jack and attempts to seduce him. The scene shifts to the London of 1888. Jack, now the Avenging God, becomes the Keeper of Morals. He murders Claire with a knife. When the police investigate, Tucker is adjudged guilty, especially after he is discovered to be a communist. Clearly, Jack could not have done it. Before he is carried away, Tucker exclaims,You Gurneys don’t draw the line at murder. (Suddenly exploding with rage and fear.) Upper-class excrement, you wanna’ do me dirt ’cause I know too much. I know one percent of the population owns half the property in England. That vomity “one per cent” needs kosher killing, hung up so the blue blood drains out slow and easy.

After this outburst Jack is lauded by the policemen as a model of noblesse oblige. Shortly afterward, Dr. Herder accosts Jack. The two verbally spar, then fence with walking sticks. Herder realizes that, although Jack has killed Claire, he is normal, according to his peers.

Jack is now ready to take his seat in the House of Lords. Sir Charles challenges him, but Jack wins. He is now the head of the Gurney clan, and Sir Charles is put out to pasture. Even Dinsdale supports Jack instead of his father. Following a quick scene of Jack enduring terrible internal turmoil, the scene shifts to the House of Lords. After his installation, Jack speaks to the lords of the need to restore order through fear and intimidation. Moldering corpses and bloated, goitered lords applaud his ideas for restoring “normalcy.” In the last scene, Jack is alone amid the dummies. Grace enters, singing of her love for him. He kisses her passionately. As the lights fade, he reaches into the pocket of his parliamentary robes. A scream of fear and agony is heard.

Dramatic Devices

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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 soliloquy about himself and his class. The lightning-quick imagery created by Barnes in this speech sets the tone for the whole play. After this speech is delivered, the earl reinserts his head into the noose, saying, “Just time for a quick one.” He then accidentally kicks over the stool, thus ending his life and setting the stage for the play itself. The scene, with its bizarre humor and farce, its outrageous props, actions, and rhetoric, serves to introduce the playgoer to the various messages of the play.

While Barnes is not able to maintain the pace set by the prologue over the course of the entire play, various images do stand out as effective and memorable. The fourteenth earl has a messianic complex and believes himself to be the representative of the God of Love. If he is to function in society, his peers consider that he must be cured. It simply will not do to have a peer of the realm literally hanging on a cross. In a confrontation with another “messiah,” the earl is “cured,” and he gives up his cross. He then, however, became a representative of the God of Justice and Retribution, who is acceptable to the Conservative House of Lords. Instead of Jack the Messiah, he becomes Jack the Ripper. This theme of retribution is followed with a scene late in act 2, set in the House of Lords. As the fourteenth earl speaks of the necessity of floggings and hangings, cobwebs, skeletons, and goitered freaks applaud his pronouncements.

Barnes utilizes dramatic devices liberally and with effect to create a memorable and entertaining satirical comedy. Familiar lines from William Shakespeare are quoted and misquoted; snatches of familiar songs, such as “Dry Bones,” are injected, although with slightly changed lyrics. Parody and slapstick are intertwined with invective. While the message is often acerbic, the play is never overpowered by the propaganda, in large measure because of the vivid images created by the stagecraft of the playwright.

Historical Context

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The Liberal 1960s The 1960s were a time of defiant liberation in society, from politics, art, and music to dress, hairstyles, and morals. The ‘‘Liverpool poets’’ re- flected the mood of elation and questioning in its poetry of pop culture, while music throbbed to a new beat and students took to the streets to protest all forms of oppression. Alongside the monolithic publishing houses, small presses sprang into being and thrived, producing avant-garde works in a distributed network of artists.

Inroads were developing into every aspect of culture; power was being redistributed. In England, where the noble class had always enjoyed prestige, the attitude of the middle class toward gentility (and toward the whole concept of gentility) moved from muffled but tolerant resentment to active disrespect. While much of the rhetoric of the 1960s was rancorous, Barnes’s The Ruling Class introduced comedy to question the status quo. While the play does not urge social reform or raise an angry protest, it does prod the conscience—comedy being a gentle vehicle of liberation.

Theater British theatre changed dramatically—if not swiftly—after Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and his theatre of ‘‘alienation’’ or ‘‘estrangement’’ was introduced to London in 1956. In plays such as Mother Courage and Her Children, Brecht’s ‘‘alienation effects’’ interrupt the dramatic flow of the plot through unexpected use of songs, music, cue cards, and asides to the audience by the players themselves. Although Brecht himself had died that year, his Marxist views and his interest in using theater to elicit social change were quickly embraced by the leftist playwrights working in London. Barnes admits the profound influence of Brecht on modern theater, and echoes Brecht’s program of social reform when he says that his goal is ‘‘changing conventions, changing ideas, changing attitudes.’’

London theatre and Barnes were also affected by Samuel Beckett’s ‘‘Theatre of the Absurd,’’ which further questioned dramatic conventions such as plot and character; Beckett’s best-known example of this is his Waiting for Godot. Likewise, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty introduced the notion of expressionistic drama, a huge departure from the genteel drawing-room theater London had known until the 1950s. Musicals such as Hair (1967) and Oh, Calcutta (1969) introduced nudity and profane language to the legitimate stage. At first these theatrical developments shocked audiences, but by 1968 stage censorship had been abolished in England and audience interaction, open staging, anachronistic costuming, and revolutionary content had become standard fare; audiences now expected to be challenged as part of their entertainment.

In comparison to the intensity of experimentation in the work of Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party) and others during the 1960s, Barnes’s level of innovation seems rather tame. Rather than seeking to shock, his plays aim to ‘‘disturb and entertain.’’ Barnes picks and chooses among the fashions of the new theater, to create his own dramatic invention. The unexpected cuts to song and dance have a Brechtian flair, as does Jack’s telling Dr. Herder that he will have to ‘‘leave the stage’’ if he cannot abide hearing about Claire’s death. Like all of Barnes’s work, The Ruling Class is highly selfconscious, aware of itself as a work of art, and forcing this awareness onto the audience as well. Experimental theater continues but much of it has been absorbed and diluted by the mainstream.

The scene of Claire’s murder has its roots in the Absurdist tradition, and Dan Tucker’s card-carrying (but non-revolutionary) activities tip the hat toward the theatre of reform. The Ruling Class is an amalgamation of styles, with lines and references harvested from other works and humorously refashioned to Barnes’s new purpose. The total effect has often been termed a kaleidoscope of dramatic action, fitting the fragmented experience of postmodern culture.

Literary Style

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Juvenalian Satire Satire’s goal is to effect social improvement— or at least chastisement for the follies of human nature. Although Barnes has stated that ‘‘nothing needs changing when it’s all a joke,’’ satire uses humor as constructive criticism. In The Ruling Class Barnes ridicules the pretensions of the upper class by exaggerating their pompous behavior to the point of absurdity. Thus the Thirteenth Earl carries the eccentric behavior of the stereotypical British lord to a ridiculous extreme—self-hanging as excessive masochism. Barnes’s form of satire is known as Juvenalian satire, named for the Roman satirist Juvenal whose biting satires exposed the vices of the Roman elite. Horatian satire, named for Horace, is gentler and more urbane. Juvenalian satire confronts its target viciously, with anger. In Barnes’s version of this, no one is safe: from the bloated and sputtering Sir Charles and his dim-witted son, Dinsdale, to the grumbling butler Tucker and the two fatuous church ladies in grotesque hats—each is a butt of the playwright’s pointed ridicule.

Jack is not simply mad, he is mad with the arrogance of a peer of England, who considers himself so high up on the social ladder that the only conceivable form of megalomania available is to be God. The Ruling Class uses indirect rather than direct satire, the characters make outrageous statements whose merit they never seem to question; they do not criticize human foibles directly. Dr. Herder says with perfect seriousness that the one commandment a doctor should never break is ‘‘Thou shalt not advertise.’’ His statement constitutes a cynical assessment about a corrupt society, because he eschews the lesser vice of advertising while committing the greater vice of adultery in the service of advancing his career.

Satire has never gone out of style. Barnes admires the seventeenth century Jacobean comic dramatists—Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and John Martson—some of whose works Barnes has adapted for the modern stage. He is also influenced by George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman), a master of satiric barbs; Shaw, Barnes tellingly opines, ‘‘was at his most serious when least serious, most meaningful when most playful.’’ Likewise, the most humorous moments of The Ruling Class convey Barnes’s deepest disapprobation of England’s class system and its impact on the moral worth of its members.

Burlesque In The Ruling Class, Barnes not only satirizes human folly, he does so with elements of burlesque, in which the style of the work does not conform to the seriousness of the subject. Burlesque differs from satire in the form or style of the work. While satire pokes fun, burlesque puts the work’s style in opposition to its matter, such that an important topic is trivialized by its treatment, or vice versa. Burlesque can include unexpected episodes of song or dance, as when Jack, Mrs. Treadwell, and Mrs. Piggott-Jones suddenly burst into a chorus line singing ‘‘The Varsity Drag.’’ The song’s lyrics outline the theme of adherence to social conventions: one must ‘‘learn how it goes’’ as the song says. Blind and instant conformance, as exhibited by the spontaneous dance and song, are burlesqued in both the action, instant conformity to ridiculous behavior, and the words of the song. When the church ladies meet Jack again, they join him in another vaudeville act, singing a bastardized version of the spiritual ‘‘Dem Bones,’’ which celebrates the necessary hierarchy of the skeleton that can be broken on the wheel; the ladies join in because they agree with Jack’s social solution.

Barnes also burlesques phrases and high-sounding styles of speech, often pillaging literary works or pop culture and turning the phrases to his own use. When Jack intones biblically at the House of Lords, his message comprises the antithesis of Christianity, ‘‘The strong MUST manipulate the weak. That’s the first law of the universe—was and ever shall be world without end.’’ Barnes parodies biblical style and turns its spiritual message inside out in a verbal burlesque. Moments later the mood of the musical comedy is burlesqued as Grace sings a ballad reminiscent of the love song from The King and I, and Jack responds by stabbing her to death. Thus burlesque itself is burlesqued into the grotesque, where serious matter is treated with gruesome frivolity. The result is devastatingly comic, as when Sir Charles responds to seeing his wife’s corpse by saying, ‘‘All right, who’s the impudent clown responsible for this?’’

Compare and Contrast

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1969: In England as in the United States, young people deepen the chasm between their generation and their parents’ generation. In dress, hair styles, speech, music, and politics, young people express their opposition to the status quo.

Today: There is still considerable difference between generations, though current forms of protest are less rooted in cultural significance (such as the Vietnam War that galvanized 1960s youth) and more in generic, youthful rebellion.

1969: ‘‘Free love’’ and ‘‘love power’’ are mottoes of the hippie generation, who seek to cure the ills of society through acceptance and love. Sexual freedom, a natural outgrowth of their philosophy, is made viable through the introduction and wide availability of birth control.

Today: Sexual conduct has swung to a more conservative status due to a shift in the moral majority and a greater threat of socially transmitted disease than existed in the 1960s. The practice of birth control and abortion is being questioned and vigorously debated.

1969: Experimental theater is new and immensely popular. Audiences seek and expect to experience a ‘‘happening’’ at the theater, to be shocked and challenged as well as entertained.

Today: As with other aspects of society, theater too has returned to a more conservative mode. Experimental theater continues but much of it has been absorbed and diluted by the mainstream.

Media Adaptations

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The film version of The Ruling Class was produced by Keep Films, starring Peter O’Toole, in 1971. Barnes wrote the screenplay for the film, but because he did not like deferring to O’Toole’s editing decisions, the playwright never viewed the completed film.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bryden, Ronald. ‘‘Tricks in Toryland’’ in the Observer, Vol. 2, March, 1969, p. 17.

Novick, Julius. Review of The Ruling Class in the New York Times, 1971.

Simon, John. Review of The Ruling Class in New York Magazine, September 10-October 2, 1972.

Shulman, Milton. ‘‘Huntin’, Seducin’, etc.’’ in the Evening Standard, February 27, 1969, p. 17.

Spurling, Hilary. ‘‘Arts: Bond Honoured’’ in the Spectator, Vol. 222, March 7, 1969, p. 314.

Wardle, Irving. ‘‘Leonardo Clubbed’’ in the London Times, December 5, 1969, p. 7.

Further Reading Bock, Hedwig, and Albert Wetheim, editors. Essays on Contemporary British Drama, Verlag, 1981. Essays on leading figures and issues in British theater today.

Dukore, Bernard F. Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes, Garland, 1995. Provides a detailed analysis of each of Barnes’s plays and adaptations along with generalizations about his style.

Dukore, Bernard F. The Theatre of Peter Barnes, Heinemann, 1969. An earlier edition that discusses Barnes’s work up to 1980.

Hobson, Harold. Introduction to The Ruling Class, Heinemann, 1981. An edition of the play that discusses Barnes’s influence on British theatre.

Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama 1890-1990, Cambridge University Press, 1992. Assesses Barnes as a major force in modern British comedy.


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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.

Inveso, Marybeth. The Gothic Impulse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Kalem, T. E. “The Hangman God.” Time, February 15, 1971, 60-61.




Critical Essays