Rotten To The Core

The Arts

Peter Barnes is a writer who’s still misunderstood by critics seeking easy tags. His work was elaborately constructed, intellectually rigorous and controversial, his language exact and demanding. But it must also have been a bugger to memorize.

Barnes was born in Bow in 1931, but his parents soon moved to a geriatric coastal town to run an amusement arcade. Appropriately, his writing links death and jokes to create a dark carnival atmosphere. A part-time theologist, film critic and screenwriter, Barnes was one of the great proponents of anti-naturalism, a dazzling response to the dreary kitchen sink novels and plays of the fifties.

At a time when Monty Python was reconfiguring comedy, a number of authors including Peter Nichols, John Antrobus and Alan Bennett started incorporating surrealism, disjunction and Pirandello-esque antics into their work. Barnes proved too uncomfortable for middle class audiences, never more so than in ‘Laughter!’, a horrifying but deeply moral comedy about office workers providing the paperwork for crematorium chimneys in Auschwitz, who are forced to realise their complicity.

Beloved by serious theatre actors like Guinness and Gielgud, Barnes later softened a little to write period comedies and monologues (perhaps because he became the father of triplets in his seventies), but not before turning out ‘Red Noses’, one of the few slapstick comedies set during the time of the Black Death. For this raucous tale of a troupe of performers touring afflicted French villages, he won a well-deserved Olivier award.

Barnes’ screenplay for the film ‘Enchanted April’ secured an Oscar nomination, and his history plays became more naturalistic, although he was always capable of dazzling coups de théâtre. He wrote ‘Write what you know is good advice for journalists. I write what I imagine, believe, fear, think.’ To read his intense, rarely performed plays now is to see how far the theatre of ideas has lately fallen.

Would-be writers should read playscripts to understand that conversation is not dialogue. The crime writer Ngaio Marsh was so influenced by Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ that she used it as a template for a novel, ‘Death and the Dancing Footman’. Plays can teach writers how to condense ideas and allow for multiple interpretations, and Barnes is one of the best.

‘The Ruling Class’ is Barnes’ masterwork; a troubling 1968 satire about madness and the inheritors of Albion, and is one of the most English modern plays I can think of, apart from Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’, which is more concerned with rural magic.

This is a play of big themes, tying the church, the state, class, money, sex and insanity into a very tangled and at times almost impenetrable knot. What it has at its centre is a grandstanding performance for a male lead, who is required to pass through a vast array of emotional states in its two and three-quarter hour running time. He’s also required to strip, fence, dance and ride a unicycle.

The plot? Jack is the next Earl of Gurney, his father having severed the line (and himself) by auto-erotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu. Unfortunately, Jack has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by his funding-chasing German doctor, and as the estate passes to Jack’s male heir – if he can be persuaded to have one – he must be made sane long enough to procreate, after which he can be committed and the line, its property and position in the House of Lords, can continue.

So what’s a little madness in a highborn English family? The Gurneys have help on their side from the Bishop, the local Tories and Grace, a call-girl who’s willing to be sold off as a brood mare. But there’s a problem. Jack says he’s married – to Marguerite, La Dame Aux Camelias, Miss La Traviata herself. Oh, and one other small problem – he’s convinced he’s God. ‘How do you know?’ asks his half sister-in-law. ‘Simple,’ he replies. ‘When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.’

So all that’s left to do is convince him that he’s not God, get Grace pregnant and call the doctors back. Except that the cure works rather too well, and Jack becomes such a red-clawed arch-Tory that he turns from being the God of Love to the Angel of Death. It’s a vote-winner with the Far Right, but the family doesn’t realise what they’ve unleashed. Jack’s mask of sanity has in fact slipped and he is now Saucy Jack, the Ripper himself…

This is such an overripe, mad confection that it’s hard to take in at one sitting, as Barnes’ best works always are. There’s the Eton Boating Song, a fight with a giant demon and a battle with an electric Christ, there are sunflowers everywhere and a gigantic crucifix, and it might feel at first as if somebody in the sixties did a tad too many class As, but Barnes puts method in this madness, so that by the time Jack appears in the House of Lords for his maiden speech, appearing before an audience of rotting skeletons, we’ve taken everything the playwright can throw at us and absorbed the point – that England is proudly corrupt to the core, mad and bad and dangerous to know – but there’s only one way to its inside track and that’s by playing the game, no matter how distasteful it may be.

The handsome 1972 film by Peter Medak garnered an Oscar nomination for the lead, Peter O’Toole, who was ably supported by Alistair Sim, Coral Browne, Arthur Lowe and William Mervyn. So why hadn’t the play been performed for forty years? Since the sixties lurid black comedies like this have died on the vine, so like ‘Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs’ it probably took a star to drive it back to the stage. In the ‘Malcolm’ case it found a powerhouse lead in Ewan McGregor. Now James McAvoy leads the charge for Peter Barnes once more.

14 comments on “Rotten To The Core”

  1. Jan says:

    Difficult to see how one of the of the (very) few slapstick comedies set during the time of the Black Death could fail to put bums on seats really.

    I mean how could that not work?

  2. admin says:

    I think growing up in an amusement arcade must have had an effect.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    ” … conversation is not dialogue.”

    I don’t understand. Do you mean that conversation in general is different from the dialogue of a play? Or are you using dialogue in the sense of a constructive, two-way conversation? Or … ?

    It takes me back half a century to my headmaster asking us to write an essay on the difference between poetry and prose. Obvious things come to mind, but there must be something more subtle?

    I’ve asked questions, but they may be better left unanswered.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    I think Arthur Lowe stole the film as the Communist butler.

  5. admin says:

    If you write down conversation verbatim it is astoundingly vague and circuitous. Scripted dialogue distills conversation into something sharper, more pointed, more elegant.

  6. Jan says:

    Chris is that me or this Peter Barnes fella you are referring to?

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    Understood. I’ve read transcripts of legal proceedings. Written out, the words of the most eloquent barrister seem those of a rambling dimwit.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Orson Welles used overlapping dialogue in his movies, people talking over each other so you had the sense of an overheard conversation or argument rather than a ‘he said then she said’ script. It worked for him in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Amberson’s and the exquisite Touch of Evil.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    And producers allow directors to overlap film dialogue now. Peter O’Toole would have been magnificent in that insane play – it’s Laurence in England.
    There should be a point to every bit of dialogue. It should set the scene, advance the plot, or confirm character.

    I enjoy reading plays so that I can run them in my head with usually rather vaguish settings and not very good costuming, but with very active directing. I cast myself in the best roles, of course, no matter how inappropriate.

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    I always remember Peter O’Toole’s delivery of the line on when asked why he believes he is god, wonderful. Films like the If trilogy and even Sir Henry of Rawlinson’s End are wonderful pieces of madness about society and class.


  11. Roger says:

    If I remember rightly, one problem with The Ruling Class is that it needs a large cast.
    There’s also the fact that the play is apposite now. Boris Johnson makes the Earl of Gurney look like a principled one-nation Tory.

  12. admin says:

    Like most of the sixties playwrights, Barnes’ plays had huge casts – unfeasible now.

  13. Brian Evans says:

    I saw an excellent amateur production of this in the late 70s done by the LCC Players from County Hall as it was then They did it in the nearby Shell Theatre. As mentioned above large cast plays are difficult now due to cost, and most amateur groups don’t have enough members.

    What Roger said is quite chilling so perhaps the play is very much up for a revival so people can draw ironic modern parallels.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Roundabouts and swings. And we just keep switching from the one to the other to the profit of… whom?

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