Rotten To The Core
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.