The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

The Ruling Class is first and foremost a scathing indictment of the English aristocracy and the insanity of a world dominated by a class whose only qualification is an accident of birth. The play is also a look into the worlds of fantasy and of the subconscious. It may also be construed as a statement by Peter Barnes about his interpretation of the ruling order of the universe.

The very phrase “the ruling class” has a connotation in Great Britain that those not familiar with the country cannot understand. From the medieval period to the present day, British politics and society have been either dominated or strongly influenced by the principle of deferring to one’s “betters.” One was born into a particular class, and one usually remained in it. Status was determined by who was born where and in what order. From the opening scene of The Ruling Class to the last scene, it is clear that Barnes finds all of this to be absurd. He is appalled that a tiny part of the population owns a grossly disproportionate share of the wealth and power in his country. His intent, then, was to satirize this situation as savagely as he could. In this he succeeded.

The fourteenth earl of Gurney symbolizes all that is wrong with the system. Because of primogeniture, this benevolently mad individual inherits great wealth and power. Indeed, according to Barnes, the earl typifies the insane decadence created by the power of generations past. The humorous paradox provided to this grotesque caricature is Tucker, the closet communist butler. This juxtaposition provides not only comic comparisons but also critical statements about who is insane and who is not and about who deserves status and who does not.

In Great Britain, aristocracy-bashing has long been popular. In 1909 David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of a movement to control the political power of the House of Lords, said in a speech, “They have no qualifications—at least, they need not have any. . . . They need not be sound either in body, or in mind. They only require a certificate of birth—just to prove that they are the first of the litter. You would not choose a spaniel on these principles. . . .” Barnes was only one in a long line who exploited this issue; however, he did it better than most.

At another level, The Ruling Class is a dual look at the mind and the universe. It is patently obvious that both the thirteenth and the fourteenth earls are quite mad. The questions that arise from such a situation deal with the causes of the insanity. Are they insane from inbreeding or from decadence? Is that insanity a trait of the ruling class in general? If they are insane, why are they not institutionalized? Are wealth and power all that are required if one is to be labeled eccentric instead of mad? Intertwined with that theme is the theme of the ruling order of the universe. The juxtaposition of the God of Love in act 1 and the God of the Law of the Old Testament in act 2 roughly parallels Barnes’s view of the ruling class. The fourteenth earl is cured of his benevolence and thus becomes acceptable to his peers. This ironic symbolism reveals Barnes’s opinion about British aristocrats. He damns them for their emphasis on the status quo regardless of humanity or truth.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

Greed Greed is evident in all of Barnes’s characters save the insane Jack. In the first half of the play, he represents the opposite of greed: Christian charity and ‘‘the...

(This entire section contains 715 words.)

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unity of universal love.’’ Alas, this unrealistic solution to life’s challenges defines him as clinically insane. The so-called sane members of the Gurney family, who vie for control over Jack’s ownership of the estate, are all driven by greed. Sir Charles hopes to commit his nephew so that he can manage the estate— and reap its power and riches— himself, Claire compromises her integrity by staying with Sir Charles even though they both have other lovers, and the Bishop seems more concerned about the late Earl’s promise of ‘‘the Overseas Bishoprics Fund’’ than about guiding the family spiritually.

When Sir Charles hears the reading of the will, which transfers the Gurney estate to Jack, he complains that his brother has ‘‘let his personal feelings come before his duty to his family.’’ Charles would never let love get in the way of money. By contrast, Jack seems singularly disinterested in the value of his inheritance, spending his time meditating on his personal cross and urging the others to pray to the God of Love. In his madness, Jack adheres to better values than do his sane family members. In Grace the greed that drove her to adopt the persona of the Lady of the Camelias contests with her growing love for a man who treats her unlike her other lovers have done. As Claire announces nastily, Grace has made her living ‘‘on her back,’’ trading sexual favors for social advancement and money. But On the other hand, Tucker, who revels in his inheritance of 20,000 pounds, wants ‘‘more, more, more.’’ He is caught red-handed with stolen silverware; this petty theft libels his character enough to make it easy to pin Claire’s murder on him. Here is where the classes divide in Barnes’s world: Tucker’s greed sends him to prison, while the Gurney family’s greed lands them in Parliament.

Insanity According to Dr. Herder, Jack’s insanity consists of not believing ‘‘what other people believe’’; he can’t see reality but has his own reality designed to win him love. He is a paranoid-schizophrenic suffering from delusions of grandeur, and, since he is already at the top of British society, he can only satisfy his megalomania by being God himself. His insanity, however, rests on a logical basis. He finds that when he talks to God he is talking to himself. He might have concluded, with the rest of modern western civilization, that God therefore does not exist, but he instead believes that he exists within himself.

As a peer of England with a vast estate, positions of honor, and a personal manservant, Jack is a kind of god. His God before his encounter with the High Voltage Messiah is the God of Love. He is peaceful and peace-loving, harming no one. But because he stands in the way of his family’s greed, he either has to be cured or locked up, out of the way. When he transforms into Jack the Ripper, he declares that he has ‘‘finally been processed into right-thinking power.’’ He is no longer ‘‘the God of Love but God Almighty. God the lawgiver, Chastiser and Judge.’’ This new form of insanity is harder for the other characters to detect, for he acts like one of them. His reactionary speech at the House of Lords, a vitriolic plea to reinstate punishment as a way of controlling ‘‘the weak,’’ leads Sir Charles to shout ‘‘He’s one of us at last.’’ In a sense, he is cured, as the Master of Lunacy has declared him. In fact, his newfound charisma proves irresistible to women— both Claire and Grace desire him and Mrs. Treadwell and Mrs. Piggot-Jones follow him slavishly.

Insanity is often defined in terms of legal responsibility. One who is insane cannot be held legally responsible. Jack as the God of Love was irresponsible and a social misfit. Jack as the God of Justice is eminently responsible, a leader in the highest social and legal circles of the land. The question of his sanity raises the question of the sanity of England’s social system.


Act Summaries