The Ruling Class
PETER BARNES 1968
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class exploded onto the theatre scene when it was produced in Nottingham, England, in 1968. Its acerbic wit and tightly woven plot openly criticize England’s social hierarchy, specifically targeting the foibles and greed of the upper—the ruling—class. Barnes’s play peels back the veneer of respectability to reveal the ugly underneath, the rot that can exist at the very core of a life of privilege. The protagonist of the drama, Jack, the Fourteenth Earl of Gurney, is insane: he thinks he is Jesus Christ. His creed of Love proves completely unacceptable to the rest of the Gurney family, who try to get him committed so that they can take over the family estate.
Jack Gurney represents goodness, and it is for this breech of common sense that he does not fit into upper crust society. Ultimately a doctor of psychiatry succeeds in transforming Jack into a true Gurney—by the end of the play Jack believes he is God the Avenger, or Jack the Ripper, whose program of punishment and murderous intent is more consistent with the values of the ruling class. Thus the play ends unhappily but remains a comedy rather than a tragedy because of its quirky shifts in mood and its juxtapositions of music, dance, and playful dialogue; while it is a form of social criticism, it never appears to take its topic too seriously.
Relatively unknown until this play appeared, Barnes gained almost instant recognition as one of the moving forces in British theater after the production Page 186 | Top of Articlemoved to London. The play came at the height of the 1960s counterculture movement, when the youth of the western world began to openly question the establishment. Barnes’s irreverent portrayal of upper class eccentricity, greed, and deviance fit in perfectly with the movement’s ideals. Yet the playwright’s ideas and facility with character have made The Ruling Class an enduring drama in subsequent decades as well.
Peter Barnes was born January 10, 1931, on London’s East Side to parents of mixed religious backgrounds. His father was a British Protestant who willingly and rather superficially converted to Judaism to marry a Jewish woman. Although the family was not particularly religious, Barnes developed a fascination with the topic of religious belief and God, a fascination he explores in most of his major works. His other major theme is also believed to have originated from his family: an obsession with the ruling elite, its excesses and perversions—a contrast with his own working-class upbringing. Barnes did not finish secondary school and did not attend university but rather educated himself, believing that formal schooling corrupts the true artist.
Through his studies, Barnes developed a deep appreciation for Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson (The Alchemist), considering his work superior to that of his contemporary William Shakespeare, whom Barnes found snobbish and pretentious in comparison to the more earthy Jonson. There are echoes of Jonson’s straightforward plot lines and unaffected humor in all of the Barnes canon. Besides writing his own works, Barnes has adapted and translated plays that otherwise would not reach the English stage, including several Jonson plays and the Jacobean comedies of Thomas Middleton and John Marston. He has also produced and directed numerous works—including his own—for radio and television, especially for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company).
The BBC has supported Barnes’s career by teaming him with some of the most accomplished actors in Great Britain for a radio series called Barnes’s People. The original Barnes’s People (seven monologues) and its sequels, Barnes’s People II (eight duologues), Barnes’s People III (seven plays for three voices), and More Barnes’s People (more monologues) are “miniature” productions that feature stars such as Alan Bates, Claire Bloom, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Ian McKellen, and Peter Ustinov. Barnes writes his plays in the Reading Room of the British Museum in London, where he can concentrate on his work, “cut off from disturbances,” yet still be able to look up and “see other people, so you’re not isolated.”
Barnes’s most notable work for the stage is 1968’s The Ruling Class. The play received both the John Whiting Playwrights Award and the Evening Standard Annual Drama Award. Other plays of his that have gained critical and popular admiration include The Bewitched (1974), Laughter! (1978), and Red Noses (1985). Barnes has also written numerous works for film, including the screenplay adaptation of The Ruling Class in 1972. His other screenplays include a 1992 adaptation of Elizabeth von Armin’s novel Enchanted April.
At the head of a long, formal banquet table, the Thirteenth Earl of Gurney presents a toast to England, “Ruled not by superior force or skill / But by sheer presence.” As they drink, the scene shifts to his bedroom, where the Earl goes through his bedtime ritual: donning a ballet tutu and a three-cornered hat and swinging momentarily from a silk noose blithely prepared by his aged butler, Dan Tucker. Something goes wrong tonight, however, and the old Earl actually hangs himself.
Act I, scene i
The Earl’s funeral is presided over by Bishop Lamptron, an asthmatic old man who appears magnificent in his stole and mitre.
Act I, scene ii
Back at the family castle, the family contends over who will inherit the estate. When the lawyer announces that it will be Jack, the Fourteenth Earl, Sir Charles, brother of the late Earl, and his wife Claire are aghast as is their dim-witted son, Dinsdale. Their protests are interrupted by Tucker, richer by the 20,000 pounds just bequeathed to him, who smashes a vase on the floor to get their attention. He announces Jack, the Fourteenth Earl, who enters, dressed like Jesus and spouting that he is God.
Act I, scene iii
Sir Charles brings in Jack’s psychologist, Dr. Herder, to get Jack committed as a paranoid-schizophrenic.
Act I, scenes iv
Jack tells Claire that he knows he is God because when he talks to Him, he finds he is only talking to himself. Although there is logic to his madness, his ravings about love and equality are disturbingly “Bolshie” (communist) to his family.
Act 1, scene v
Tucker tries to warn Jack that the family is plotting against him, but Jack repulses his “negativity.”
Act I, scene vi
Jack reposes on a giant cross mounted to the wall while the others take tea. Two church ladies arrive to ask Jack to officiate at their Church party and are swept into a vaudeville chorus line with him. They want him to speak on a non-political topic, such as “Hanging, Immigration, the Stranglehold of the Unions.” His talk of love—particularly as it pertains to sex—drives them away. Dinsdale suggests that if Jack would produce a legal heir, his relatives could control him. But Jack surprises them by announcing that he is already married—to the “Lady of the Camelias.”
Act I, scene vii
Unsuccessful in convincing Jack he’s married a myth, the family demands he produce a miracle. Jack tries to levitate a table but only the drunken Tucker sees it, just before passing out. Offstage there is singing; it is the Lady of the Camelias.
Act I, scene viii
Claire argues with Charles about his foisting Grace Shelley (who is playing the Lady of the Camelias at his bidding), his former mistress, onto Jack after first trying to foist her off onto his now-dead brother. But she demurs, realizing her husband’s game might work.
Act I, scenes ix
Grace and Jack perform a love ritual, tweeting like courting birds. Dinsdale pops Jack’s joyful bubble by disclosing Grace’s true identity. Once again, Jack repulses this “negative insinuendo,” which he defines as “insinuation towards innuendo, brought on by increased negativism out of a negative reaction to your father’s positivism.” This confrontation with reality drives Jack to his wall-mounted cross for solace.
Act I, scene x
The Bishop and Sir Charles argue about Jack’s marriage. Meanwhile, downstage, Dr. Herder seduces Claire after having learned that her husband sits on the board of foundation that may fund his research.
Act I, scene xi
Jack’s time on the cross has purged him of doubts, and he blesses all and sundry, including the cockroaches, for it is his wedding day.
Act I, scenes xii through xv
The Earl plays the role of God in his own wedding. The marriage is consecrated with no one but the immediate family and Tucker to witness it.
The reception, too, is a lonely affair, with Bishop Bertie fretting about an actress daring to marry in white and Tucker “in his cups” (drunk). Sir Charles demands that they keep up the show, “The strength of the English people lies in their inhibitions.... Sacrifices must be made.”
In their bedroom, Grace readies herself for her next “performance” and is panicked by the Earl’s appearance on a tricycle. But he announces, “God loves you, God wants you, God needs you. Let’s to bed.” As the lights go out and the music swells, it becomes a successful wedding night.
Sir Charles and Claire interrogate Grace about her night, and she assures them that “His mind may be wonky but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of his anatomy.” Grace claims that she loves Jack. Dr. Herder admits that the “harsh dose of reality” of marriage might do Jack some good.
Act I, scene xvi
Dr. Herder stages a showdown designed to convince Jack he cannot be God. He has invited the insane McKyle, the “High Voltage Messiah,” to “occupy the same space” as Jack. The encounter proves devastating to Jack, who convulses in agony with every shot of McKyle’s imaginary volts. Claire herself convulses into labor, being nine months pregnant. When Jack comes to, he is reborn, calling
himself “Jack”—to Dr. Herder, a sign of sanity. Upstairs the newborn baby cries.
Act II, scene i
Act II opens in the drawing room, where the latest Gurney is being baptized. The room decor is now Victorian, and the cross is gone. Jack, dressed in a traditional suit and carrying a shotgun and now only “slightly out of ’synch’,” goes out for a constitutional. A shot is heard outside. Charles hopes Jack has “done the decent thing at last.”
Act II, scene ii
Jack has shot a game bird, barely missing Tucker. He has a moment of intimacy with Grace and realizes that he’s “got to stop talking” since the Master of Lunacy is coming to assess Jack’s sanity.
Act II, scene iii
The “Master,” Truscott, denies that he does the actual committing of lunatics, his “main concern is property and its proper administration.” Things look bad for Jack until he begins to sing an old Eton song and Truscott joins in. He pronounces Jack recovered.
Act II, scene iv
In a mad speech, Jack reveals that he has adopted the persona of Jack the Ripper.
Act II, scene v
Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell visit again, and this time the Earl impresses them with the idea that fear is the answer to society’s ills. Once again, they break into dance, then Grace takes them on a tour as Jack symbolically slits envelopes open at his desk.
Act II, scene vi
Claire has stayed behind to keep Jack company—and to attempt to seduce him. The lights dim and the set dissolves to Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper’s haunt. He stabs Claire. When the lights come up, the family discovers the body. Tucker is elated.
Act II, scene vii
Two policemen investigating the murder settle on Tucker as the culprit—opting for the traditional “the butler did it” solution. During their questioning, silverware he’d been hoarding drops out of his Page 189 | Top of Articlepocket, sealing his fate. Jack is cleared of any suspicion as Tucker is taken away.
Act II, scene viii
When he realizes that Jack murdered Claire, Dr. Herder attacks the Earl. The stress turns the tables on the doctor, who himself goes insane.
Act II, scene ix
Jack dons his robes to take his seat in the House of Lords. Charles suddenly ages. Grace gently chides Jack that they were more intimate when he was “batty,” but she voices her conviction that he’ll get around to her.
Act II, scene x
Alone, Jack groans and screams, madly.
Act II, scene xi
Jack rouses the House of Lords—mostly a pack or dummies and nearly dead old men—with a speech about the merits of punishment and order. Sir Charles shouts “He’s one of us at last!”
Grace pulls Jack close as the lights fade. Her scream reveals that Jack the Ripper has struck again.
See Bishop Bertram Lampton
Detective Inspector Brockett
Called in after the murder of Claire, Detective Inspector Brockett discovers Lenin’s books in Tucker’s suitcase and therefore arrests him for the murder.
Detective Sergeant Fraser
Fraser is Brockett’s assistant.
Sir Charles Gurney
Brother to the late Earl and uncle to Jack, the new Earl, Charles considers it is his family duty to get rid of Jack and take over the estate. He bickers with his wife Claire about how to eliminate his nephew and enlists the aid of his mistress to marry Jack and produce a legal heir he can control. He doesn’t mind giving up his mistress, not being “the sensitive type,” and is willing to sacrifice anything
“for the family”—or rather for his own gain. He is blind to his wife’s affair with Dr. Herder and his own son, Dinsdale, is a disappointment to him.
Lady Claire Gurney
Claire is married to Sir Charles, but that doesn’t stop her from having an affair with Dr. Herder, which she undertakes to elicit his support in committing her nephew. She also attempts to seduce Jack when he begins to show signs of improvement. She displays a sophisticated, tough exterior when she blandly lets on that she knows of her husband’s affairs. Claire is a caricature of the jaded grand-dame; she play-acts the role of a highborn lady while emptily pursuing the goal of saving the family name. She is a woman with no illusions.
The dimwitted son of Claire and Charles who has the knack of upper class snobbishness but none of its class. Dinsdale reveals his father’s plot to Jack, not out of honesty or distaste for the ruse but because he had been left out of the planning. Dinsdale’s biggest concern is whether Jack’s madness will affect his position in Parliament.
Jack Gurney, the Fourtheenth Earl of Gurney
Jack suffers from delusions of grandeur and, already a member of the peerage, the only step up for him is God. Therefore, he calls himself God, Yahweh, the Infinite Personal Being, and sleeps on a cross. He urges everyone to pray for “love and understanding.” When confronted with another paranoid-schizophrenic Page 190 | Top of Articlewho also thinks he is the sole divine being, he goes through a metamorphosis, or rebirth, and emerges as Jack. Although his family considers this a cure, he really has exchanged a divine and holy identity for an evil and profane one: Jack the Ripper. In his madness can be found a quirky logic that endears Jack to others.
Gurney, the Thirteenth Earl of Gurney
The prototypical British Lord, the Earl is very proper and dressed impeccably, complete with medals of honor on his chest, as he presides over the meeting of the Society of St. George. He is a judge, a “peer of the realm,” and the owner of a huge estate. He is about to marry a common girl, Grace Shelly, in order to provide his estate with an heir. He is eccentric and mentally unstable. He dies accidentally while enacting a hanging ritual, dressed in underwear, a ballet tutu, and a three-cornered hat.
Dr. Paul Herder
A German psychiatric doctor who comes to the Gurney estate at Sir Charles’s bidding to assess the possibility of committing Jack to an insane asylum. While at the estate, he seduces Claire so that she will aid him in obtaining funding for his experiments in rat schizophrenia, since Claire’s husband sits on the grant board. Herder refuses to commit Jack, preferring instead to observe whether the “harsh dose of reality” of returning to his family will cure him. When that fails, Herder arranges a showdown between Jack and the High Voltage Messiah, another paranoid-schizophrenic. When Jack turns violent and murders Claire, Herder himself goes insane in a classic case of “transference.”
Alexei Kronstadt, number 243
See Daniel Tucker
Bishop Bertram Lampton
The Bishop, Claire’s brother, is an imposing figure at the funeral of the Thirteenth Earl, but without his robes, he is a wheezy, balding old man who collapses after the slightest exertion. He conveniently fails to understand the circumstances of the Earl’s death.
Master of the Court of Protection
See Kelso Truscott, Q. C.
Master in Lunacy
See Kelso Truscott, Q. C.
McKyle, the High Voltage Messiah
The High Voltage Messiah, the Electric Christ, the AC/DC God, is clinically insane, a paranoid-schizophrenic who thinks he is the God of electricity. He’s been told that Jack thinks he too is God. McKyle has “obliterated hundreds o’ dupe-Messiahs” before; now he, being a Vengeful God, disabuses Jack of his megalomaniac pretensions as well.
The lawyer who reads out the Thirteenth Earl’s will to the amazed family.
One of two church matrons who ask Jack to preside over the opening of their Church Fete. The ladies get swept up into a singing and dancing chorus line with Jack. They are affronted by the sexual innuendoes of his “God is love” litany.
Mr. McKyle’s “assistant,” who is really his warden.
Grace is Sir Charles’s mistress, who willingly takes on the role of The Lady of the Camelias, or Marguerite Gautier, (both martyrs for love and important symbolically to Jack) as a way of advancing herself. Charles sets her up with Jack to provide the next Gurney heir. She starts out by using Jack, but his quirky innocence earns her genuine affection.
Every proper British club has its toastmaster, who raps for attention and repeats the toast in a stentorian voice for all to hear. The toastmaster is a well-dressed servant.
Another of the church matrons offended by Jack’s irreverent behavior.
Kelso Truscott, Q. C.
Truscott prefers the title “Master of the Court of Protection” over “Master in Lunacy” since his “main concern is property and its proper administration,” after all. Things do not go well for Jack’s assessment until he breaks into an Eton school song and Truscott joins in. Being old school chums, they share certain values, such as the need for discipline Page 191 | Top of Articleagainst the barbarians and homosexuals. Truscott’s verdict is that Jack is cured and sane.
The Earl’s personal manservant is aging but knows his place until he learns of the 20,000 pounds the Earl has left him in his will. Unfortunately, he lacks the imagination to leave, and so stays on as the family butler, though now he drinks to excess and makes rude remarks to the “Titled Turds.” He has an alternate identity: Alexei Kronstadt, number 243, a dues-paying member of the Communist Party; but he admits, he doesn’t “do anything.” He becomes an easy scapegoat for Claire’s murder, since everyone tacitly agrees that “the butler did it.”
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 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
Jack’s “insane” insistence on love, his refreshing perspective, and his ingenuous love begin to win her away from greed to true love. Eventually, Grace doesn’t want Jack “cured” out of fear that he will simply become another Gurney.
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.
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. Page 192 | Top of ArticleHe 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. Tread-well 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.
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.
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 Page 193 | Top of Articlein 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?”
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” reflected 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.
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.
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.
The Ruling Class opened in Nottingham, England on November 6, 1968, thanks to the foresight of two readers on the British Arts Council—drama critic Martin Eslin and director Stuart Burge—who read the script and pronounced Barnes “a bloody genius.” Burge took the play to Nottingham and directed it himself. At opening night, London’s Sunday Times drama reviewer Harold Hobson felt himself “suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the explosive blaze of an entirely new talent of a very high order.” Although he knew nothing of this playwright on that evening, he later wrote the introduction to the printed play, declaring that the performance he saw on its opening night was the perfect combination of “wit, pathos, exciting melodrama, brilliant satire, doubled-edged philosophy, horror, cynicism, and sentiment.”
When it moved to London in February of 1969, Robert Bryden of the Observer pronounced The Ruling Class “one of those pivotal plays... in which you can feel the theatre changing direction, a new taste coming into being.” Bryden’s colleagues at the Spectator and the Evening Standard disagreed; Hilary Spurling of the former dismissed it as “too boring to go into” and the latter’s Milton Shulman called the play “essentially shallow and glib.” In spite of the mixed reviews, the Evening Standard honored Barnes as 1969’s Most Promising Playwright and he earned the John Whiting Award for the Nottingham production.
The Ruling Class premiered in New York in 1971, directed by David William, who praised Page 195 | Top of ArticleBarnes for “the vision and the wit with which [he] has incarnated the life of the psyche: its tensions and paradox, hilarity and horror. For the play is both funny and frightening: a playful nightmare.” Julius Novick of the New York Times also noted the play’s psychological insights, stating that Barnes “has connected the perversions of privilege with the perversions of sexual feeling,” which become “sources of both loathing and consequent power.”
A year after the debut of The Ruling Class two other Barnes plays, Leonardo’s Last Supper and Noonday Demons, opened as a double-bill. Irving Wardle of the London Times declared that now Barnes was confirmed as “one of the most original and biting comics working in Britain.” The film version of The Ruling Class, released in 1972, earned Barnes more praise. Over the next ten years, Barnes cemented his status as one of the moving forces in modern British drama. He is considered an innovator whose critics do not always judge him by his standards but by the standards he is continually revising. Michael Billington of the Guardian praised him for having “broken the petty rules by which we judge plays.”
Bernard Dukore, who has written two critical books on Barnes, The Theatre of Peter Barnes and Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes, placed the playwright alongside Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn as “the playwriting giants of their generation in England.” Although Dukore admitted that he remains in the minority in his choices.
Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she discusses the ways in which the women’s roles in The Ruling Class reinforce its theme of social corruption.
The liberated 1960s valued sexual freedom as a natural right, a legitimate form of expression for those who rejected the rigid morals of the previous generation and of the conservative “establishment.” The Ruling Class’s protagonist, Jack, in his God-is-Love state expresses complete sexual freedom, courting his mate like a bird and successfully impregnating her. As Grace attests, “His mind may be wonky, but there’s nothing wrong with the rest of his anatomy.” His sexual freedom is of a part with his innocence and open-heartedness. But his naive attachment to an idealistic and impractical philosophy of “love and understanding” makes him unfit to “take his proper place in the world. “He is “living in a dream world” (but then, according to Tucker, so are all rich people).
Jack’s family desperately explores legal avenues of removing him, while he further terrifies them with his entreaty that they pray together. He defines prayer as “to ask, to beg, to plead.” Of course, pleading is distasteful to those who command, who “kick the natives in the back streets of Calcutta.” Jack cannot take his place in the ruling class until he accepts its systematic and brutal oppression of other classes and leaves off pleading to God or anybody else. When, through a form of shock psychotherapy, he is transformed to a reactionary and oppressive upper class gentleman, Sir Charles declares Jack “one of us at last.” He has changed socially, but this change has wrought the perversion of his sexual nature, too. As God the Avenger (or Jack the Ripper), Jack punishes prostitutes, including the one woman who met his ideal, Grace Shelley.
The transformation of his sexual feelings parallels the transformation of his social being as he embraces the most distasteful aspects of ruling class behavior: ruthlessness and sexual deviance. In The Ruling Class, playwright Peter Barnes has, according to New York Times writer Julius Novick, “connected the perversions of privilege with the perversions of sexual feeling ... [which] is an important source of both loathing and consequent power.” For Barnes, social power and social deviance are inextricably linked.
The perversions of sexuality and its inflection on the perversions of power and privilege reveal themselves in Jack’s relationships with the female characters, Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell, Claire, and Grace Shelly. Although the first two are minor characters, they carry their weight in terms of symbolic significance in this carefully engineered play. It is not the fact that Jack is insane that shocks Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell but that his insanity consists of rejecting values they hold dear: they become offended by his comment that England is “a country of cosmic unimportance,” and they are miffed that he won’t speak at their church fete on their preferred topics of “hanging, immigration,”
or “the stranglehold of the Unions.” They flee altogether when they realize that his ministry of love includes sexual love.
Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell serve in the play as measures of upper class morality, which is uptight and repulsed by natural sexual expression. Their attitude toward sexual expression is conveyed by the wax fruit of Mrs. Treadwell’s hat. Fruit traditionally symbolizes fertility, thus wax (fake) fruit symbolizes sterility. These are women who present a good front but do not “bear fruit.”
Wax fruit first appears in the prologue, when the late Thirteenth Earl says that everything “tastes like wax fruit” after “the power of life and death” of being the hanging judge. The old Earl felt a sense of supreme power in his evening ritual of selfhanging; facing death made him feel fully alive. The Earl whets his appetite for dinner with his brush with death, in his zeal to avoid the wax fruit—or boring aspects of living. With the two church ladies, wax fruit is also equated with sexual frigidity or barrenness. Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell mindlessly join with Jack in his song about toeing the line (“down on the heels, up on the toes”) but cannot withstand his sermon of love that acknowledges their sexual natures. They have no sexual natures; they are wax fruit. When they return later in the play, they find a Lord more along their lines, who, like them, disapproves of girls who “show their bosoms and say rude things about the queen.” They accept the Earl when he accepts their value of suppressing sexuality.
Claire’s sexual nature is suborned to her greed. An “ice-cold biddy” according the voluptuous Grace, Claire openly acknowledges that her husband seeks sexual gratification elsewhere—with Grace, in fact. At the same time, Sir Charles sanctions his wife’s affair with Dr. Herder, essentially prostituting her as a means to wrest the estate away from his nephew. Claire plays this role dutifully and with feigned passion. She drops the affair without regret when the game changes, and Dr. Herder no longer needs to be kept quiet. Her passion is finally aroused when Jack trades his litany of love and understanding for a litany of vengeance and cruelty. Whereas she had found her nephew repulsive during his Jesus, God-is-love phase, he proves irresistible to her during his Jack the Ripper, God the Avenger phase.
Jack the Ripper exudes power; he can make Claire “feel alive,” and he is the acknowledged master of the estate. She can afford to love a man one step up on their social ladder. Her life of pretensions has deadened her, and now she wants Page 197 | Top of ArticleJack to “wake” her, “with a kiss.” Like the late Earl, however, she has an attraction to death. She tells Jack how a prowler outside her window made her shiver with excitement. But it is “impossible” for the ruling class “to feel,” so she wants Jack to say he loves her “even if it isn’t true.” She blindly, and pathetically, plays a perverted duet with him, whispering “lover” in response to his filthy talk of “maggots,” “gut-slime,” and “gullet and rack.” He calls her Mary, conflating her with Jack the Ripper’s prostitute victims. Having scorned him in his loving phase, she becomes his first guilty victim in his avenging phase. Instead of feeling alive herself, Claire sacrifices her life so that Jack can shriek, “I’m alive, alive!” With dramatic irony, Sir Charles tells Jack that he has finally “behaved like a Gurney should”; that is, he has murdered a prostitute—Sir Charles’s own wife—and blamed the crime on the butler.
Grace comes from the lower class but has “done it all, from Stanislavski to Strip ... greasy make-up towels, cracked mirrors, rhinestones and beads.” According to Claire, Grace made her living “on her back.” However, although Grace freely indulges in sex, she is not sexually free: sex is her stock in trade. An actress-prostitute, she assists her lover Sir Charles by play-acting the role of the Lady of the Camelias, Jack’s ideal lover. Dumas’s Camille was a martyr to love, but Grace’s Camille, as she points out to Claire, carries a wax flower, one that cannot wilt. In Grace’s case, the wax flower takes on a new meaning, now symbolizing the resilience and artificiality of plastic. Like the wax camellia, Grace is here for show, but she is also required to blossom and bear fruit.
Grace plays the role of a twentieth-century Mary Magdalene, the whore-mother-lover, to Jack’s Jesus. Unexpectedly, Grace falls in love with Jack, because of the very qualities that obstruct Jack’s ascension to the ruling class. Perhaps because she is not of the upper class, she is more vulnerable and open to the truth contained within his madness. She has not been contaminated with upper class perversions, although she desperately wants to be called “Lady Grace Gurney.”
Ironically, just when Grace begins genuinely to love Jack, having started the relationship as an empty charade, she becomes his victim. Like Claire, Grace finds the power of the Avenger God irresistible and wants his attentions, complaining that he was more loving when he was “batty.” Of course, his new status as a proper gentleman precludes an
interest in healthy sex. Now Grace, like Claire, fulfils Jack the Ripper’s appetite for vengeance against whores. It matters little when Jack says “She betrayed you,” whether he refers to Grace’s relations with his uncle or to her complicity in his “cure.” Either way, she has prostituted herself, ruthlessly using her attractions to control him. When she voices genuine encouragement over his upcoming speech to the House of Lords, her words take on an ironic quality. “Don’t worry, you’ll kill ‘em,” she says, “and then you’ll get around to me.”
Once again, the threat of death is conflated with sex, since she means getting around to having sex with her, not killing her. Her murder is somewhat justified by her guilt, and Jack is deemed sane because “It’s a sign of normalcy in our circle to slaughter anything that moves.” She has become dispensable to the ruling class now that she has produced the wanted heir. The play becomes a tragedy with her death, since she and her love represented Jack’s only hope for true redemption: salvation through love and the power to resist taking his place in the ruling class.
Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
In this essay, Page provides an overview of Barnes ’s play, delineating the action of the play and the manner in which the narrative satirizes the British class system.
The Ruling Class is a large-cast, epic, state-of-England play, resembling others of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, such as The Workhouse Donkey, by John Arden, and Brassneck, by Howard Brenton and David Hare. It is in 27 scenes, with prologue and epilogue, and opens with the 13th Earl of Gurney delivering a speech praising England, parodying
Shakespeare’s Richard II: “this teeming womb of privilege, this feudal state... this ancient land of ritual”, followed by the National Anthem. An abrupt switch follows the first of many: the Earl returns home to Tucker, his faithful old butler, and speaks, with the rich language typical of Barnes’ work, of passing the death sentence (for he is a judge, too): “If you’ve once put on the black cap, everything else tastes like wax fruit”. Then the Earl disconcertingly puts on a cocked hat and ballet skirt, climbs a step-ladder, puts his head in a silk noose, swings and accidentally kicks over the steps and hangs himself. The Earl’s funeral is conducted by a “magnificently dressed” Bishop, who then disrobes on stage and changes into “a small, bald-headed, asthmatic old man”. The will is read and Tucker is left £pound;20,000. He breaks into the Edwardian music hall song: “I’m Gilbert the Filbert the Knut with a ‘K’”; Barnes continues using songs for contrast and surprise.
The heir, the 14th Earl, appears, dressed as a Franciscan monk. He believes he is God, explaining this with the brilliant line: “When I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself”, adding “What a beautiful day I’ve made”. Shocked, his family decides to have him marry, and—as soon as he has fathered an heir—he is declared insane. He is convinced he is already married to the Lady of the Camelias, so Grace, his uncle’s mistress, is dressed as Marguerite Gautier and makes a stunning entrance singing Latraviata. The Earl arrives for his wedding night on a unicycle. In the continuing series of theatrical coups, a psychiatrist brings together the Earl and a Scotsman who also believes he is God, and the shock to the Earl is expressed by an eight-foot beast “dressed incongruously in high Victorian fashion”, wrestling with him.
In the second half of the play the Earl changes to a stern, authoritarian, judgemental man, thinking he lives in the Victorian era. The Master of Lunacy, brought in to certify him, will not, for they are both Old Etonians. The Earl comes to believe that he is Jack the Ripper—an impression reinforced by the setting of “a dark huddle of filthy houses ... an impression of dark alleys”. He murders his sister-in-law and lets Tucker be arrested for it, and Tucker reveals that secretly he is a Communist. The Earl, now seen as “normal” by his circle, goes to the House of Lords, represented very strikingly on stage, by “tiers of mouldering dummies... covered with cobwebs”. Here he speaks as the Old Testament God, in favour of stern punishment, and finally he is seen stabbing the loving Grace.
Barnes wrote in a programme note, never reprinted:
In a playhouse... we can use vivid colours, studied effects, slapstick, slang, songs, dances and blasphemies to conjure up men, monsters and ghosts. We can also raid mystery plays, puppet shows, Shakespeare (damn his eyes!) and demagogy to create a comic theatre of conflicting moods and opposites where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. This comedy is about the withdrawal of light from the world, the obstinacy of defeat, and asks again the question, is God a 10,000 foot tall, pink jelly bean?
The two acts of the play contrast the ideas of a loving God and a vengeful one and show that society is ruled by the latter concept. Along the way are satirical swipes at many aspects of British life: mockery of bishops, members of parliament, the House of Lords, the aristocracy, psychiatrists. Some of this is high-spirited, yet Barnes insists that this is a serious commentary on what was wrong with Britain: “I cared about the abuses and vices I was attacking. So much so that I was full of hate for them ... I was taking the ruling classes as a symbol of what I was really attacking, which was something deeper than just blood sports”.
This long play has a Jacobean richness (Barnes later adapted several of Ben Jonson’s plays for stage and radio) in language, incident, and variety. It is also varied, surprising, and hugely theatrical. The Ruling Class anticipates aspects of the political debate of the 1980’s: what were “Victorian values”, and were they a good thing?
Source: Malcolm Page, “The Ruling Class” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, p. 694.
In this essay, the critic provides an overview of the 1972 film version of The Ruling Class, which Barnes adapted from his stage text. In addition to a detailed plot synopsis, the review finds the film to be thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
A controversial comedy with plenty of tragedy mixed in, this was adapted by the playwright for the screen and would have been better with a crueler set of fingers at the typewriter to remove some of the indulgences. It’s too lengthy but has many wonderful moments and mixes satire with farce and pain to create a movie with many faults, though it remains unforgettable. Andrews is a member of the House of Lords. He comes back to the family manse after having delivered a scathing speech to Parliament, and his alcoholic butler, Lowe, helps him prepare for what is apparently his nightly ritual. He dons long underwear, a tutu, a Napoleonic hat, puts a silken noose around his neck, and will swing a few times before landing on the ladder top that gives him safety and his life. This night, he inadvertently kicks the ladder over and dies of strangulation, thus leaving his membership in the House of Lords and his estate to his insane son, O’Toole. The sum of 30,000 pounds has been bequeathed to Lowe, but the rest of the family, Mervyn (Andrews’ brother), Browne (Merwyn’s wife), and Villiers (their dotty son) are shocked upon hearing the will read by Sim, their local bishop. Lowe chooses to stay in service, but now that he is rich, his attitude changes. He begins spouting communist slogans, drinking in public, and telling everyone in the family exactly what he thinks of them. O’Toole has been in a mental hospital for the last several years and he returns dressed as Jesus, a role he insists he is playing for real. He admits that when he prays to God, he finds that he’s talking to himself. O’Toole spends many of his hours on a huge cross in the large living room and prates about distributing the family’s wealth to the meek and downtrodden, something that frightens the others in the family who would never stand for that. There is only one way to rectify matters: have O’Toole sire a child, then toss him back in the looney bin and the family can assume control of the money by becoming the unborn child’s guardians. Mervyn has been keeping a woman on the side, Seymour, and his plan is to get O’Toole and her wed as soon as possible. O’Toole, however, keeps telling everyone that he’s already married to The Lady of the Camellias. Seymour arrives, dressed as Camille, sings a snatch from “La Traviata,” and O’Toole is convinced that she is who she says she is. They get married and Seymour falls in love with O’Toole and admits that this is all Mervyn’s plan. O’Toole sighs, understands, and, in his Jesus fashion, forgives them as they know not what they do. He totally accepts Seymour, they sing a duet of “My Blue Heaven,” and he rides her into the bedroom on his tricycle. She’s instantly pregnant.
O’Toole’s doctor, Bryant, wants to help and works on the crazed peer through the months of the pregnancy. Seymour is about to deliver their child when Bryant shows O’Toole the folly of his ways by introducing him to Green, another nut-case who thinks that he, too, is Jesus. O’Toole is shattered by meeting Green and must admit that he isn’t Jesus at all; he’s Jack. Everyone in the family is thrilled that he’s come to his senses and ceases preaching the gospel of love and truth. What they don’t know is that the “Jack” he refers to is, in fact, “Jack the Ripper,” which they learn the hard way when O’Toole kills his aunt, Browne, then tosses the blame for it on Lowe’s drunken shoulders. O’Toole takes his seat in the House of Lords and makes a stinging speech that endorses bigotry and revenge and sets the sleeping peers on their feet, madly applauding the nonsense he’s espoused. By this time, Mervyn, Bryant, and Sim have all gone bonkers themselves and so the castle is almost empty. O’Toole returns home and Seymour runs to put her arms around him. O’Toole responds by stabbing her. She screams her last and in the background, their child repeats, “I am Jack!” so there’s no question that the genetic strain of madness has been passed through O’Toole’s loins to his young son. There’s hardly a segment of British society that comes out of this unscathed: the public school system, the Houses of Parliament, snobbism, the Church, Jesus, homosexuality, servants, the upper classes, and just about everything else it’s fashionable to decry. It’s caustic, funny, often goes too far and stays too long to make the points. O’Toole was oscar-nominated as the mad earl and bites off Barnes’ speeches with Shavian diction. Lowe steals every scene he is in and the creators of the TV show “Benson” may have looked long and hard at Lowe’s irrascible butler before they turned him into a black man. There is more than just a passing similarity in the two. Sim’s role as the aged bishop is one of his best in a long career. A lot of money was spent on this movie, making it one of the best produced British films of the year. Barnes’ play was produced in England in 1969, then had a short run in Washington Page 200 | Top of ArticleD. C., in 1971, but it has yet to find anyone in the Broadway area to mount it. Joseph E. Levine, who made his fortune making sandals-and-swords Italian films was the presenter here, a far cry from his Steve Reeves epics. Interiors were done at Twickenham with locations shot in Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Surrey, Hampshire and London.
Source: Anonymous. Review of The Ruling Class in The Motion Picture Guide: N-R, 1927–1983, edited by Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, Cinebooks (Chicago), 1986, p. 2684.
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.
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.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693100022