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“sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts” (that is, public school), he has withdrawn from reality and become the Prince of Peace.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,...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)