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Martin H

Joined: Mon Dec 31st, 2007
Location: Toronto, Ontario Canada
Posts: 184





DIOGENES: I thought those who came after would be better.

Wrong! What can the comforting deceptions of philosophy

signify in the face of truth, which is always the same

--nothing ends well. I should have studied emptiness,

nothing, instead of virtue. The gods tried to tell me.

One night I was huddled in my barrel, trying to sleep.

The snow was falling outside and I heard the gods

praising me for my discussion on emptiness, nothing.

'But I haven't said anything,' I told them. 'You

haven't said anything as we haven't heard anything:

that's true emptiness,' they replied. I should've

studied emptiness and midwives should give up their

calling; it's a crime against mankind to inflict life

on another human being.


pp. 50-51

Second of January, 1997. New year, old bills, no money, slow

day in the book trade, no surprise, yard and church and charity sales

mostly done till the spring, dealers not so much remarking they've

seen the stock I'm showing them as how many times they've seen it

already. Besides they're buying even more timorously than's usual for

January after a deader than usual December in the used book trade so

I'm pulling nonessential items off my own shelves.


Act 1


At times I feel I could not track an elephant

in six feet of snow, but at least I have provided a

good home for scores of old jokes who had nowhere else

to go. I have laughed a lot when I did not feel a lot

like laughing and of course I have made a mess of my

life, but then I have made a mess of all my shirts. I

write hoping to make the world a little better and

perhaps to be remembered. The latter part of that

statement is foolish, as I can see, quite plainly, the

time when this planet grows cold and the Universe

leaks away into another Universe and the Cosmos

finally dies and there is nothing but night and

nothing. It's the end, but that is never a good enough

reason for not going on. A writer who does not write

corrupts the soul. Besides, it is absurd to sit around

sniffing wild flowers when you can create them, and

new worlds.



One of these is a first edition of LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER AND

NOONDAY DEMONS, not that I'd ever part with it if it were my only copy,

but I have it in the collection BARNES PLAYS ONE and I attach no

particular importance to first editions. When offered $7.50 for it

however I declined. Thought it might be worth more than that to Steven

Temple, who had the only first I'd ever seen of THE RULING CLASS on his

shelves, priced at a hundred. But he reminded me that Barnes' name

doesn't even turn up in catalogues or current literary histories. Seven

fifty got me swiftly nowhere (forty would have been worth talking about).

Even if I had a duplicate, I wasn't going to part on those terms with a

major text by the greatest playwright to grace the English stage since

Jonson and Middleton.

Barnes is best known, though not personally, for THE RULING

CLASS, usually described in cinema guides as a Peter Medak film, and

by many of his fans as the greatest performance of Peter O'Toole's

career. I don't know how many times I've talked at length about the

film to somebody--people who've seen and enjoyed it tend to remember it

vividly and with pleasure, recounting favourite scenes and lines by the

half hour--and asked them eventually if they knew any of Peter Barnes'

other work. Invariably the reply's been the same: "Who's Peter Barnes?"

. . . I often think of Robert Damies and smile

despite myself. Damies tried to kill Louis XV with a

penknife. Sentenced to have his right hand burnt off

and then boiling pitch poured into his wounds and after

that to be torn apart by horses, he commented, 'It's

going to be a hard day.' It seems perverse to be even

slightly optimistic when everything points to the final

sunset. Yet even that prospect need not be totally black

if we remember that the entire nuclear apparatus is

dependent on communication and communication is dependent

on telephone lines and telephone lines usually go 'kaput'

in the rain. So it is highly likely the heads of state

will not get to their bunkers in time. Now, I submit,

that alone is cause for optimism. Besides, all things

living and dead finally become redundant so we can at

least hope that men and women will, one day soon, be

replaced by an entirely new species, eternal and

sublime. An exhilarating thought for generations

I'll never see--I should live so long.



Well, besides THE RULING CLASS, play and screenplay, he's the


entertainment comprised of two one acts), THE BEWITCHED and LAUGHTER!--

possibly the five finest plays for the English stage written in the 20th

century, almost certainly the five finest by any one single playwright.

(There is one other recent play in English I know of that compares with

them, George Tabori's THE CANNIBALS, but unfortunately his oeuvre is

even more out of print and obscure than Barnes'--I know from Viveca

Lindfors' autobiography (she was married to him at one time) that Tabori

wrote other plays, but I've never been able to find any of them.) Plus

an open-ended sequence of one-, two- and three-character plays, mostly

for BBC radio and television, that have occupied him in years since

when he's often found it hard to interest producers in full-length

plays for the stage. Many of the shorter plays go under the general

title BARNES' PEOPLE, while others are grouped and anthologized under


remarkably vital body of translation/adaptation, including plays by

Jonson, Marston, Wedekind, Feydeau, the Japanese playwright Shimizu,

the script for the film ENCHANTED APRIL, a great film that draws on a

mildly interesting novel with a few fine epigrams sown through its

pages and, let's not forget, he was one of four writers or so credited

with the Tony Curtis/George C. Scott/Virna Lisi vehicle of the mid-1960s,

"Not With My Wife You Don't".

EARL OF GURNEY: My heart rises with the sun. I'm purged

of doubts and negative innuendoes. Today I want to bless

everything! Bless the crawfish that has a scuttling walk,

bless the trout, the pilchard and periwinkle. Bless Ted

Smoothey of 22 East Hackney Road--with a name like that

he needs blessing. Bless the mealy-redpole, the black-gloved

wallaby and W.C. Fields who is dead but lives on. Bless

the skunk, bless the red-bellied lemur, bless 'Judo' Al

Hayes and Ski-Hi Lee. Bless the snotty-nosed giraffe, bless

the buffalo, bless the Society of Women Engineers, bless

the wild yak, bless the Picadilly Match King, bless the

pygmy hippo, bless the weasel, bless the mighty cockroach,

bless me. Today's my wedding day!



You laugh, but just offhand how many Hollywood sex comedies can

you recall that feature a film-within-a-film in black and white

affectionately mocking the Italian neorealist films, concluding with

the resonant line (in Italian with English subtitles): "Forgive me,

Rosa, but when you put horns on a man's head, you put murder in his

heart." There's a whole underground history in the movies of great

moments like that contributed to pictures unworthy of them by writers,

actors and sometimes directors who lacked effective control over the

piece as a whole, and Barnes always claimed to be a writer who could

do much with little.


So what was I trying to do in these plays? I

wanted to write a roller-coaster drama of hairpin bends;

a drama of expertise and ecstasy balanced on a tightrope

between the comic and the tragic with a multi-faceted

fly-like vision where every line was dramatic and every

scene a play in itself; a drama with a language so exact

it could describe what the flame of a candle looked like

after the candle had been blown out and so high-powered

it could fuse telephone wires and have a direct impact

on reality; a drama that made the surreal real, that went

to the limit, then further, with no dead time, but with

the speed of a seismograph recording an earthquake; a

drama of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' where a lion,

a tinman and a Scarecrow are always looking for a girl

with ruby slippers; a drama glorifying differences,

condemning heirarchies, that would rouse the dead to

fight, always in the forefront of the struggle for the

happiness of all mankind; an anti-boss drama for the

shorn not the shearers.



"Every scene a play in itself." The BARNES' PEOPLE plays are

single scenes, they observe the Aristotelian unities to the millisecond,

that is to say each play takes place in its own real time, no more, no

less and at one point of action only, but what worlds they open up!

Maya, an aging saint of the Christian church in its first bloom of

youth (542 AD) tells in THE JUMPING MIMUSES OF BYZANTIUM of his life,

consecrated to faith and voluntary poverty, and of the incident which

enriches it immeasurably by planting at the core of his faith a sacred

seed of doubt. Two beautiful young street performers--Theophilus and

Mary--who live to all appearances the typically wanton life of such

itinerants, tell him that their lives are outwardly sinful but inwardly

ascetic and consecrated to Christ. He prays with them till dawn. He is

fully persuaded until after he has left their hovel and reflected. They

couold be true saints, so indifferent to the judgment of the world they

go out of their way to appear sinful, or wantons of unusual sophistication

who make saintliness, for one giddy night, their ultimate debauch.

Unable to determine which, he begins to question every ironhard judgment

he has framed of right and wrong, taking a humble, compassionate role

in the social world of Byzantium, in place of the fierce ascetic

renunciation of the world and its snares he had previously adopted.


MAYA: You'll say, reading this: 'Stupid holy fool--

or just plain old fool--of course they were lying. They

tricked you. You made them famous.'

Yes, that may be true. I'll soon know, absorbed

into the universal mind of God who knows all things. It

wouldn't surprise me to discover they were two tricksters,

but I held her face in my hands and looked into her eyes

. . . pretty picture. . . the light and the face, and the

bright costumes in the flame. . . Of course I'll enter

God's house, sit on his right hand, meet the disciples

and the Archangel Gabriel and bathe in everlasting light,

but I confess above all I'm dying to know the truth about

the Jumping Mimuses of Byzantium.

BARNES PLAYS ONE, pp. 431-432


Anna, the 113 year old heroine of YESTERDAY'S NEWS, tells an

interviewer the story of her life on an evening she's to be presented

to the Queen. In Thatcher-conservative cadences ("A conscience wouldn't

have helped us in two world wars.") language dry as dust mingled with

day-old spittle, she tells of a life heroically given over to the one

consistent principle of Thatcherism: untrammeled greed. Beginning with

the sale of her maidenhead in collusion with her mother (twenty times

between the ages of thirteen and eighteen), she makes her living at

various times as a whore, madame, white slaver, dope peddler, back

alley abortionist, traitor (her role in two world wars was to sell

secrets to the Germans) and murderer of at least one inconvenient

husband. (The strict divorce laws of the time were responsible; if she

could have divorced him, she wouldn't have gone to the trouble of

contriving his murder.) From time to time she takes note of and attempts

to seduce her handsome young interviewer. Then she remembers the story

she mentioned at the beginning, that she wants to tell the Queen when



ANNA: You've got lovely hair, young man. I was going to

tell the Queen the story of Mrs. Allen wasn't I?

She was a charlady in one of my brothels. After

her husband died, her neighbours said she'd come home

drunk and was an unfit mother. So the authorities took

away her little four-year-old girl and put her in a home.

Some time after I gave Mrs. Allen a hat of mine which

she loved. She said her neighbours wanted to take the

hat away too just because she loved it. So one evening

she got hold of a hammer and nail, put on the hat, stood

in front of a mirror, put the nail in the middle of her

head and hammered it into her skull. They couldn't take

the hat away from her as they took away her baby. It

shows you shouldn't brood on yesterday's news; 'tisn't

healthy. I'm still interested in myself. That's what

keeps me going. You've got lovely hair, young man. The

sentences are sounding like a lot of noise now.



Ackerman, a university lecturer on religion, tells in SLAUGHTERMAN

how he lost his faith and at the same time his profession (as a kosher

butcher) when (contrary to dietary law) a pregnant cow slipped in for

slaughter, and he had to deliver a live calf out of the dead mother's

belly. Dramatic as the occasion was, his embrace of agnosticism is a

marvel of moderation; he suggests all the Holy Books should have

inscribed on their title pages: "Important if true." A far more

traumatic loss of faith is the subject of THE HEIRS OF DIOGENES. The

Greek philosopher of life stripped to its barest and simplest elements

is visited at his barrel by a disciple, Crates, who has stripped himself

so bare he is clothed in nothing but grime and dirt (though very

capaciously in that) and considers the barrel Diogenes lives in, and

his virtuous principles, to be wildly extravagant luxury: and by

Alexander, who has stripped himself of soft vices and virtues alike,

the better to clothe himself in the armour of soldiers and the blood of

victims in their tens of thousands, and in nations subject to his will.

DIOGENES: I've spawned monsters. Everyone is a fingertip

from madness: there's a crack in the universe. When I died

I wanted to be buried face down because I thought soon

everything would be turned upside down and righteousness

would prevail (. . . ) I look on you two and despair eats

the soul. I'd throw away my books but I haven't got any:

break my staff but I've never had one; renounce my world

but I already have. It's hard to make a gesture that's

meaningful when your life's suddenly without meaning. All

I can do is go back deeper into my barrel, into the



pp. 50-51


VISIONS (Barnes at 55 confronts himself at 31 and 74); CONFESSIONS OF A



(NATHAN: Have you ever noticed, Grossard, how cities are like dreams?

They are made up of our desires and fears. Anything imaginable can

happen in them.") MORE THAN A TOUCH OF ZEN (a Judo instructor takes

two spastic students as a supreme personal challenge and begins devising

a system of judo that will turn their uncontrollable muscle spasms into

an effective martial arts style); THE NIGHT OF THE SINHAT TORAH (an

ever-popular Barnes theme: God put on trial), to name only a few, all

have in common that they condense into 15-30 minutes a world of speech

and action almost any living playwright would be thrilled to cram into

a full-length play.

Now, dressed in three-cornered hat, ballet skirt, long

underwear and sword, the 13th Earl of Gurney curtseys

and moves toward the steps, trembling slightly in


13TH EARL OF GURNEY: Close. I can feel her hot breath.

Wonderful. One slip. The worms have the best of it. They

dine off the tenderest joints. Juicy breasts, white thighs,

red hair colour of rust. . . the worms have the best of it.

(He climbs up the steps, stands under the noose and comes

to attention.) It is a far, far better thing I do now,

than I have ever done. (He slips the noose over his head,

trembling.) No, Sir. No bandage. Die my dear doctor? That is

the last thing I shall do. Is that you, my love? Now, come

darling. . . to me. . . ha!

(Stepping off the top of the steps, he dangles for a few

seconds and begins to twitch and jump. He puts his feet

back on the top of the steps. Gasping, he loosens the


13TH EARL: Touched him, saw her, towers of death and

silence, angels of fire and ice. Saw Alexander covered

with honey and beeswax in his tomb and felt the flowers

growing over me. A man must have his visions. How else

could an English judge and peer of the realm take

moonlight trips to Marrakesh and Ponder's End? See six

vestal virgins smoking cigars? Moses in bedroom slippers?

Naked bosoms floating past Formosa? Desperate diseases

need desperate remedies. (Glancing towards the door.)

Just time for a quick one. (Places noose over his head.)

Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. There's

plenty of time to win this game and thrash the Spaniards

too! (Draws his sword.) Form squares men! Smash the Mahdi,

and Binnie Barnes!

(With a lustful gurgle he steps off. But this time he

knocks over the steps. Dangling helpless for a brief

second he drops the sword and tries to tear the noose

free, gesturing frantically.)


Barnes very often concerns himself with death, as you'd expect

any self-respecting comic visionary to do. The 13th Earl's death is

easier than that of the 14th Earl, who has what's best in him killed by

a doctor and a social order concerned for his sanity, because what's

best in him is bound up inextricably with delusions of a world ruled by

gentleness and love. He lives on with the stink of his own death in his

nostrils, continuous and inescapable, a stink which he concludes,

uncharitably but in the circumstances not unreasonably, is not merely

personal but universal, and sets in to work making it personal and

literal for the circle of family and friends who've participated in his

killing cure. (He has not of course become sane. He believed he was God

in the first act; he believes the same in the second; but the cruelty

of the world as he finds it has persuaded him he was wrong in believing

himself a God of love; he trades the Shepherd's staff for the flick-

knife of Jack the Ripper.)

Especially given their typically plodding pace, you could

exhaust a Ph.D thesis, or several, on the passage I quoted above, still

come nowhere near exhausting its meanings and reverberations. (A friend

told me once, back in his student days, of an academic volume he saw

barracked at Robarts library in Toronto: THE FIRST LINE OF MILTON'S

PARADISE LOST. They do run on, these latter-day Scholastics, I suppose

the publish or perish mentality's responsible, but do they have to bore

you so stiff you start wishing they'd think really seriously about the

alternative? Then again, it's axiomatic that we aren't obliged to notice

them, and few do whose tenure doesn't depend on it, which is more than

you can say for the equally boring and far more offensive excresences

of commercial advertising, TV? sure, you can mute that or turn it off

altogether but you can't block out a huge screaming freeway billboard

showing the sun rising out the front of a pair of girl's jeans, or a

bus, Art Centre or subway station consecrated to the busy sucking

industry of high-profit low-humanity multinationals.)

On the other hand it's no good glossing o'er the fact that when

a full-length play moves continuously at the intricate speed of passages

such as I've quoted, it's a bugger to try synposize it without gutting

its life and dramatic force. 'S not even possible really to represent

the shorter plays--every piece I gave a summary of has themes, echoes,

wizardries of pyrotechnic invention I've barely been able to hint at.

One of the reasons I quote Barnes as often as I do is that without his

words, it's practically impossible to begin convey the intricacy, depth,

lightness of patter and sheer explosive exuberance of his plays;

another, that he's as irresistible as Jack Gurney the fourteenth Earl

in full soaring flight, drawing all and sundry (all singing! all

dancing!) in as accomplices, willy-nilly, in the music-hall tragicomedy

of his life's delusion.

'Course the mandarins of the literary and theatrical world seem

well able to resist Peter Barnes. I suspect the academic reputation of

a great many playwrights--most of Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Ionesco

once upon a time, more than a little of Harold Pinter--rests very

largely on the fact that the most plodding Englitphids CAN summarize

them without taking much off their intrinsic interest or merit. Their

tendency to be produced so much? From a director's standpoint, a piece

comparatively empty of meaning is easier to fill up with stage

invention: from an actor's, the job's made a great deal easier if you

never essay roles that might risk exposing a limited understanding, on

your part, of theatre, people or both. A friend who's since passed on

(and never so far as I knew had any of the plays he wrote in collaboration

with his third wife produced) recounted to me this capsule critique by

a dramaturge: "Tough play, Morrison. [His name was Morrissey.] You'd

need actors to do this." That's half the problem with Barnes; the other

half is that you need human beings to play him--not robots of coquelicot,

the method, or movie-of-the-week style (choked voice at an expected

revelation flush with welling up of strings on the soundtrack--do North

Americans never meet death, betrayal or love unaccompanied by the strains

of ersatz Mantovani?)

Let's try, nevertheless, what synopses of the major plays will

do. LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER imagines that Da Vinci was in a narcoleptic

coma when he was taken for dead and brought to the handiest Charnel

House for disposition of his remains. Waking up on the slab, he is so

invigorated to discover himself still alive he begins capering,

calculating mathematical proportions and planning how in a fury of

activity he'll complete all the projects he's left unfinished in the

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 or whatever years remain but it's not to be. He can't

come to terms with the family he's fallen among on a ransom to make up

their losses (Da Vinci being a client of almost unique prestige and

monetary value) and the Lascas, father and son, drown him in the bucket

they use for excretions, spit and vomit. Even this isn't the worst of

the indignities Leonardo suffers; centuries later he is being summed up

by a lecturer in a rote speech so bloodless and cold ("Now that he is

truly dead, we may safely say") it suffers by comparison with the sickly

sweet ballad that wells up to close the play: "Do you smile to tempt a

lover--Mona Lisa?/Or is it the way to hide a broken heart?/Are you

warm, are you real, Mona Lisa/Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of


Hmm? not too shabby, but it leaves out so much, such as a

disquisition on the plague and its treatment (and the lucrative market

for shit as a preventive) immmaculate in its scholarship but given in a

style somewhere between compressed epic narrative and British music hall

sketch; or a visit from Death, played on this occasion by a snotnosed

zitfaced adolescent.

NOONDAY DEMONS tells of St. Eusebius' battles with the devil

(who tempts him in his own voice but with a cockney accent) and with St.

Pior who bursts in upon Eusebius' cave of solitude, empty except for the

mountain of ironhard petrified dung in the middle of it, with the claim

that he, Pior, has been sent by God to claim it as his retreat. Both

can live with almost indescribable deprivation and hardship, but

neither can bear to share his dwelling with another living soul, so

they dispute the matter with words, with miracles, with blows.

(Eusebius has put aside every human vanity but snobbery; he argues at

one point that his sacrifices to become a hermit saint are greater

because he was born a wealthy aristocrat, Pior a poor farmer.) Eusebius

wins, strangling Pior with the chain he wears for mortification of the

flesh, kneels by his dungheap to say a prayer of thanks to God--but he

is interrupted by a horror beyond any he has yet endured--the sight,

across 17 centuries, of "St. Pior" and "St. Eusebius" bowing, to

thunderous applause, at the end of a production of Peter Barnes'


THE BEWITCHED I'd guess would run about four hours on stage,

it has a cast of thirty-five, but if you keep to basic information it's

easy enough to sum up what it's about: the efforts of the whole secular

and religious nobility of monarchical Spain to stiffen the prick of the

drooling, pants-wetting, quasi-idiot epileptic King Carlos II (a

product of only the highest-grade inbreeding) long enough for him to

impregnate his cousin-wife Ana of Neuberg, producing a Spanish heir and

forestalling a Europe-wide war of factions backing this or that Hapsburg

monarch's claim to the throne. Within this overall scheme, plots,

counter-plots and private agendas abound--Queen Mariana, Carlos' mother,

hates Ana and wants to prevent her bearing a royal child for Spain;

Bishop Pontocarrero and Father Motilla duel to the death over whose

faith is better suited to remove the enchantment that keeps Carlos'

cock from doodle doing; and all the time (in case of failure) rival

claimants are being considered in terms of whose claim is less likely

to offend the crowned heads of Europe and their armies, should it come

to that. But essentially all the enterprises of the court--including an

auto da fe organized exclusively to give King Carlos an erection

(violence as pornography, an idea familiar enough from Hollywood action

flicks)--every motion of a remarkably vigorous, creative and robust

dramatis personae is directed, impotently, to curing Carlos' impotence

(or at need, substituting the cuckoo service of a courtier, Duque de

Almirante, chivalrously dedicated to the interests of Queen Ana--this

is the frigid, antisexual Father Motilla's favourite scheme). All the

efforts of the court, because they are dedicated to the hollow idol of

hereditary privilege with empty, pitilessly stupid authority at its

core, achieve nothing--with extreme prejudice; no good, no creative end,

many deaths at court and by play's end, a war that will murder a

million waiting in the wings, a war their every effort, far from

forestalling, has only helped make more inevitable. All this and great

musical numbers too:

ALL(singing): The ache, when they're burnt at the stake/

Or the thrill when you're in at the kill/Or the chase f'

the alien race/That's entertainment.

ALCALA(singing): It may be a fight f'control o' a Queen.

FROYLAN(singing): A witch getting ditched f' souring

the cream.

MOTILLA(singing): A truly heavenly scene.

VALLADARES(singing): When a heretic and the rack meet.

CARLOS(singing): And the heretic end in mincemeat.

ALL(singing): The liar who is thrown on the pyres/By the

priest who will make him deceased/F' the faith o' the

whole Christian race/Lord thy world is a stage/Thy stage

is a world o' entertainment.

BARNES PLAYS ONE, pp. 265-266

LAUGHTER! may be Peter Barnes' single greatest work, certainly

it's condensed in expression and extreme in audacity even for him.

There's a leap of five centuries between Act I, TSAR and Act II,

AUSCHWITZ, and an almost equally profound leap in language. The

mediaeval cadences in which Ivan the Terrible speaks out the fear in his

soul that drives him to grapple absolute power to himself, could not

differ more from the dry abstraction of the civil service office whose

banks of files conceal and promote the workings of Auschwitz--language

so refined away from ordinary expression in the 'war of the memos'

passage that begins the act, that it can't be translated back into

evocative speech of any kind. For Else, Stroop and Cranach who staff the

office this is all to the good; they are ordinary people doing a simple

job of work; if unimaginable horrors proceed from its performance they'd

prefer not to know. A whiff of the mediaeval comes back with the frankly

brutal SS man Gottleb, who describes Auschwitz and then shows it to

them where it hides behind their eight foot banks of files. Abstraction

--the chanting of letter and number codes, the language of memos--

triumphs over imagination for the civil servants, closing the files on

the hideous hell they conceal once more, a triumph, they proclaim at

the close of the act, with obscene self-assurance, for 'the brotherhood

of man'.

BIMKO: Dear Lord God, you help strangers so why shouldn't

you help us? We're the chosen people.

BIEBERSTEIN: Abe, what did we have to do to be chosen?

BIMKO: Do me a favour, don't ask. Whatever it was it was

too much. . . Hymie you were right, this act's dead

on its feet.

(The spot fades out.)

BIEBERSTEIN: Oh mother. . .

(They die in darkness.)

LAUGHTER!, p. 70

One of the devices by which Barnes is able to make the disparity

between Ivan the Terrible's language/world order and the Nazis' a

creative tension rather than an incoherent mess of incompatibles is

framing the play between two vaudeville turns that directly challenge

the power of comedy as a force for social change. One of these I've

quoted the tragic tail of; the other is the 'Author's' Introduction, in

which his attempts to question the social usefulness of comedy ("Standard

equipment for the losing side. . . nothing needs changing if it's all a

joke") keep being interrupted by visual slapstick--his bowtie suddenly

beginning to twirl, pants falling to reveal spangled underpants. The

key bridge though is the introduction of two characters at first act's

close who speak the abstract language of the second. The first of these

is Samael, the angel of death, monocled and suited up like a 19th

century Russian bureaucrat. The second, heard but not seen, is a dry

lecturer in Russian history summing up Ivan the Terrible's career of

piking, gutting, maiming and mass slaughter in terms that allow him

claims as a great statesman and heroic leader. (It is one of Barnes'

keenest insights that the typically bloodless, anti-imagistic language

of the Academy is a weaker form of the decadent, dehumanizing language

the Nazis used to camouflage their almost unimaginable barbarities;

and it's surely no coincidence that immediately following the

loudspeaker disquisition Tsar Ivan--turned into a statue where he stands

--is covered head to toe in pigeon shit for a first act finale.)



Act II


(i) There are few playwrights in the English language whose best

play for the stage compares with RED NOSES, only three other than

Barnes I can think of in the 20th century who've written one that's

better, but it's weak in comparison with his own best. Certianly its

premise is audacious enough: that the Black Plague of 1348 was a gentle

scourge compared to the social order it interrupted and to a degree

overthrew; that it was even in some respects a liberating, revolutionary

force. And that idea isn't arrived at by gerrymandering the evidence;

the evocation of the Black Plague in Act I is a masterpiece of economy

and savage (hilarious) pathos: but the social order, a pyramid structure

at whose peak sits the wolflike Pope who has ironically christened

himself Clement VI, is more deliberate than the Plague in its terrors,

though scarcely, it seems, more conscious (Pope Clement VI fears the

ravages of anarchy: "The restraints, customs and laws of centuries

buckle, the old moulds crack--happen they should crack--but the green

force that liberates the poet and thinker also frees the maniac with a

butcher's knife." Wouldn't you assume from this that he favours only

such restraint as allows the poet and thinker to thrive, but prevents

the violence of the maniac butcher? Why then is his action and speech,

otherwise, exclusively dedicated to strangling free thought, to that

end allowing state butchery to proliferate, manias compatible with his

own to choke existence like rampant stinkweed in a garden?) The plague,

moreover, has an end, at which point the depredations of the social

order reassert themselves full throttle.

A regular feature of Barnes' plays is the duel of ideas--between

J.C. and the Electric Messiah in THE RULING CLASS, Pior and Eusebius in

NOONDAY DEMONS, between just about everybody and everybody else in THE

BEWITCHED, but RED NOSES features the first such duel of his in a full-

length play to end, not in victory and defeat but in a draw--understanding

and reconciliation. Grez the leader of the Flagellants disapproves of

Father Flote because the monastic order of clowns he has created under

special dispensation of Clement VI, causes people to turn away from

Grez' specialty, suffering, to laughter as a riposte to the 'wingy

plague worms'. Scarron of the Black Ravens, corpse bearers who grease

the possessions of the rich with pus from buboes of the dead, sees

Flote as a force taming and tempering what could be useful revolutionary

rage. They come to 'grease him dead', but in the contest that ensues

the three factions discover a commonality of concern. The theme of

reconciliation and community gives to much of RED NOSES a translucent

lyric rapture only hinted at (between strangulated gasps) in the dark

earlier plays. This becomes a consistent alternate voice in Barnes'

later work (you can see it at full force already in THE JUMPING MIMUSES

OF BYZANTIUM) but unfortunately in this his first attempt at it, he

frequently fumbles; all the weakest moments in the play are passages

that fail to illuminate this new theme.

To begin with, the song the Floties (and eventually the tri-

revolutionary congress) sing to express their brotherhood ("Join

together, that's the plan. It's no secret. Man helps man.") is as

vacuous as 'The Brotherhood of Man' from LAUGHTER! (and tends

increasingly to lump together, nameless, most of the people it describes

as individual and of equal consequence--but another weakness of the play

is that for the first time he brings in characters, such as the Boutros

brothers, who are walk-ons, never seen as sharply individual). Father

Flote the central character keeps going in and out of focus--sometimes

full of tender power and charisma, at others a hollow automaton

delivering speechs that might as well come with a flashing neon sign:

'Author's Message'. As always when a writer telegraphs instead of

integrating his vison (I should know, I've Western Unioned enough of 'em

myself in pieces I've had to revise or abandon) these speeches read as

if an attendant with a bladder would be useful, to slap the speaker on

the side of the head and bring him back into the world.

Still, the play has wonders and marvels enough for any ten

average nights of theatre, such as the gold butterflies whose beauty

expresses something in the soul of the goldsmiths Le Franc and Pellico

that never quite emerges from their meanminded speech; Sonnerie, driven

mute by grief at the death of his family but who speaks with rare

eloquence through the bells he's covered with from head to toe; Father

Flote, reaching out with his hand to a leper whom even the plague shuns,

inviting her to dance. A play which, as he promises in the introduction,

"Wishes you good thoughts, but above all good feelings."

As does SUNSETS AND GLORIES, a glowing rhapsodic song of

Innocence about what earthshaking events follow in Catholic Europe of

the Middle Ages when, contrary to centuries of established precedent,

a gentle monk of exemplary holiness is elected Pope. My only major

quarrel with it is that periodically Barnes interrupts its actions and

illuminations to indulge his delusion that he can write original song

lyrics. His uses (and parodies) of popular song along with opera and

high church litany in earlier plays, like his constant streams of

allusion to the most widely diverse literary sources were always

enlightening and enriching, but his original lyrics tend to be

monotonous in their language, abstract and general in their application

--defects that Barnes' supercharged, concrete and minutely particularized

writing otherwise declares explicit all-out war against. I'd advise him

to avoid original lyrics altogether in future if it weren't for one

heartbreakingly poignant, simple and beautiful lyric near the end of the

play, an elegy by two parents at the hasty burial of their murdered son

and I must say it's increasingly irritating how many different highly

complex forms and styles of writing Barnes seems able to master, often

in combinations that would have seemed impossible until he showed how

the mix could be effected. If he can't even remain consistently

incompetent at something he's tried and failed at I don't know--how do

you set yourself to emulate the achievement of somebody who won't stand

still at the highest observable pinnacle but keeps aspiring higher? How

do you ground yourself thoroughly and simultaneously in realism and

ecstasy? And yet how, once knowing it can be done, do you settle back

and settle for less? Maybe there are reasons even for other writers not

to want to rush to recognize and embrace the standard Barnes aspires to

and fulfills, especially when there's so much easy money to be made in

journalism and television.

MORRONE: I see the spheres turn like the potter's wheel

and the earth suspended from the cord of Christ's love.

I pray for you, Holy Father. You live and win and lose by

winning. I die and lose and win by losing. In due time

I will come to harvest. What I plant will grow and the

world will change and the day will come when the stars

will be as fair as they are in Eden, the sun as bright,

the sea as pure and the earth without those miseries

which destroy its peace and beauty and mankind will

be without the briars and thorns of pride, greed and

violence. Evil will be blown away--mere chaff and

stubble--and the sky, Benedict, oh, the sky. But others

must gather in these fruits, these fruits of love.



(ii) HEAVEN'S BLESSINGS--which doesn't appear to have been produced

anywhere as yet--is worse in that respect: every song a faceted gem. It

may be a greater achievement in adaptation than his ENCHANTED APRIL,

since his source, the Book of Tobit, conspicuously lacks humour,

narrative thrust and any sharp sense of the miraculous in the everyday,

at least in the only translation I've been able to consult. Barnes'

theatrical transcription has an intense quieted fire, a quality at all

times of simultaneous motion and stillness--a live fish jumping from a

stream that's actually a bolt of blue cloth tossed out across the stage,

shapes speaking intricate rhymes that symbolize both their whirling,

indistinct nature and the wind that hurls them on (you can understand

where this might be quite a trick to stage)--a quality so elusive it

may be literally indescribable, though I'm just fool enough to try. It

even gives the devil his due:

TOBIAS: What are you doing here?

ASMODEUS: Indulging in sin. I've fallen in love with a

human being. Thought I hate the light, I marvel at her

soul which shines so bright. I can hear my mother say,

'Asmodeus, demons do not love.'

TOBIAS: Where did you come from?

ASMODEUS: The other side of the mirror. There's a world

compressed there, forced to repeat and repeat the actions

of men and women, all things negative to your positive.

If you look deep into mirrors, you'll see silent armies

standing ready to break through with Cain, Esau, Korah,

Dartha and the Planets leading, sword unsheathed,

banners unfurling.


This 'compressed world' much resembles the mindscape of the

principal characters in Barnes' full-length plays from THE RULING CLASS

to LAUGHTER!, and in shorter works such as YESTERDAY'S NEWS, AFTER THE

FUNERAL and SILVER BRIDGES, but Asmodeus' vision of it is richer and

nobler than Gottleb's, Tsar Ivan's, the Lascas', the NOONDAY DEMONS

vaudeville saints', Gould and Vanderbilt's, Ralph Gurney's or Anna's,

Pontocarrero's or Motilla's or Froylan's, partly no doubt because a

thoughtful devil is likelier to arrive at an integral vision than a

human being who abjures thought as something unspeakably abhorrent, but

also because HEAVEN'S BLESSINGS is expansive and airy in its style and

vison, there's no place in it for a purely constrictive perspective.

More of this later.

Nowhere but this play are you likely to learn the interesting

news that "Sheep are stupid, but sensitive with it."

"The American who first discovered Columbus made

a bad discovery."

George Christoph Lichtenberg,

Notebook G, Aphorism 42

BYE BYE COLUMBUS, produced on BBC for the quincentennial in 1992,

shows that it's not necessary to be greedy, inhuman, unscrupulous,

alternately pushy, cringing, bullying as the occasion warrants, but

always and everywhere a pathologically self-persuaded liar to be

remembered by history as a great explorer--but it helps. Doesn't

necessarily argue that mental glaucoma, sexual tension like razor wire

dripping exclusive poison and an emotional life as bright and elevated

as the craters pocking the dark side of the moon are characteristic of

monarchical marriages, but Ferdinand and Isabella, like every royal

coupling in his oeuvre, offer no evidence to counter this thesis, plenty

in its support (which mightn't prove much if Barnes were a less

scrupulous weigher of evidence). Torquemada has a brief, nasty cameo,

a bit by-the-numbers compared to the all-out force of the auto da fe and

inquisition sequences in THE BEWITCHED. What most intrigued me were the

revelations of everyday greatness dredged up out of their burial grounds

in historical footnotes, such as the seaman Martin Pinzon whose

navigator's skill made Columbus' most famous and successful voyage

possible. Columbus blamed Pinzon for the loss of the Santa Maria, but

it was only thanks to Martin that his inept captain didn't wreck the

Nina and Pinta too. (Of course with a name like that he'd have to be

an heroic individual, and very likely much undervalued as well.) Or the

fishermen who 'discovered' America long before Columbus and never

thought to exploit it as a source of slaves and gold:

COLUMBUS: I'm paying one thousand maravidis a month

plus shares in all spoils taken and found including

gold, silver and precious gems for a few days' sailing

West. . . who'll sign?. . . No one? I know you're

frightened. . . It's sailing West into the unknown

isn't it?

FIRST SEAMAN: No. . . at a time when gentlemen like you

are winning fame and fortune exploring the oceans, we

fishermen of Rouen and St. Malo are making two voyages

a year to the banks of Newfoundland with the fog rolling

in and the souls of dead seals barking soft in the

distance. We stay at sea for months of fishing without

ever taking shelter on land. But that won't be noted in

the records nor remembered by future generations

because it's all in a day's work, and we're only first

seamen, and second seamen, men without names. We're

unknown so how can we be frightened of the unknown?



The play also features one of the finest parrots in Barnes'

entire body of work, the only one to double as the voice of God.

I can't tell you much about a number of Peter Barnes' projects

in recent years--the mini-series MERLIN and ARABIAN NIGHTS, the feature

film VOICES FROM A LOCKED ROOM or his last completed work, BABIES, which

aired on Granada TV in England shortly after his death, except that

they all sound promising. I've been unsuccessful to date in tracking

down reading or viewing copies, at least coincident with being able to

afford them. THE ARABIAN NIGHTS seems exactly right for Peter Barnes,

not only or even mainly because of the flamboyant invention in the

tales, but because of the core premise: a woman who can save her own

life only by the continual invention of new stories--stories so compelling

her murderous husband would rather hear the finish of each one than, as

originally planned, cut off her head.

I only saw NOAH'S ARK by sheerest chance--caught Peter Barnes'

name in the credits as screenwriter and of course had to watch. It's a

compromised project--with the exception of a few passages he selected

himself, the accompanying music--far too much of a bad thing--is ersatz

Mantovani. Not only because he's the only screenwriter listed, but

because of stylistic signatures in the writing, he can't wholly evade

the blame for weaknesses such as the lameness and lack of passion in

Noah's children and their wives. But I seriously doubt anyone other than

Barnes could have been responsible for the script's happiest inspirations:

the conflation of Noah with Abraham which allows him to begin the story

with the episode of Sodom's destruction; rapid cuts, in the scene where

Sodom is fireballed into rubble, from a dove quaking in its cage to a

kitten mewing into view from under a heap of rags in an alley, to a

snake slithering along the parched earth below another clay-baked

dwelling which explodes from within; a senile priest, presiding at the

sacrifice of a virgin, who can't remember the order of the ceremony or

what it's to accomplish; the attack by Lot on Noah's Ark, using

fireballs that are smaller versions of God's own. Noah asks God: "Why do

you speak to me in my own voice?", which echoes the exchange from THE

RULING CLASS: "How do you know you're God?" "Simple. When I pray to him

I find I'm talking to myself."

As always there are the bits of inside information nobody else

but Barnes can supply: God is five feet tall; His Will is a wild-haired

woman in white pancake make-up, rearing on a spotted horse.

Until I read the introduction and excerpted scenes from LUNA

PARK ECLIPSES in New Theatre Quarterly I'd been puzzled by Barnes'

remark in a letter that DREAMING would be his first major production in

the capitol in nearly ten years. LUNA PARK ECLIPSES, three years

previous, had been a small experimental production seen by twenty five

people. Deliberately written in non sequiturs so as to force the reader/

viewer to construct meaning and story line actively or e'en do without,

it bears a superficial resemblance to Theatre of the Absurd, but it's

amazing how superficial the resemblance actually is. Stripped of

conventional plot, characterization and sequential meaning, a Barnes

piece still reverberates with concern and involvement; tonally and

textually it's at odds with the detachment characteristic of absurdist


This goes a long way to explaining why Barnes' approach to

'rewriting' a Shakespeare play in DREAMING is so different from Tom


--not yet Richard III--has the role of nemesis in DREAMING, but in

terms of its action is an infrequent walk-on. Barnes doesn't milk the

"Shakespeare from below" joke as Stoppard does, only has Richard half-

quote himself twice. He doesn't emphasize either the pathos or comedy

of nonentities being suddenly thrust centre stage, because none of his

characters strike him as nonentities, not even Gloucester who is

ineffably shallow.

A more illuminating contrast is between DREAMING, probably his

finest work to date in the lyric style that has come to dominate the

later plays, and the earlier masterworks written in clotted blood and

blood-dark fire.

This is less a matter of opposed styles than of emerged and

submerged tendencies. The rhapsodic voice of Jack Gurney the 14th Earl

in his first mad phase as the God of love is a more hectic, embattled

version of the resonating voice that increasingly dominates the later

plays, but the social order--which only kills Father Flote, Peter

Morrone and Mallory in the later plays, but is otherwise unable to

touch them--murders Jack Gurney from within, soul and dreams and flesh,

leaving him a bitter, brittle shell life as it did his father Ralph,

should he survive to the same age they'll call him an old fossil. At

all times, at least as far as their action is concerned (their impact on

the receptive consciousness is quite the reverse) these plays show the

ugly triumph of a constrictive, anti-human vision over every possibility

for diversity, generosity and expansion. Da Vinci in LEONARDO'S LAST

SUPPER is the only other consistent visionary of openness, and he wins

the small victory of not being proved wrong, only dangerously impractical

at one crucial juncture. (On the other hand the world his assassins the

Lascas live in is every way smaller and meaner than the world da Vinci

dies out of, and as all these plays demonstrate, THE BEWITCHED and

LAUGHTER! particularly, a smothered, asthmatic vision is always

impractical, especially as the basis of a social order, since in that

case it progressively strangulates a community individual by


THE BEWITCHED has no character who consistently voices humane,

expansive ideals, and those that do momentarily are fresh out of

epileptic fits, in desert exile or at the point of death. As for

LAUGHTER!, it's considerable humane resonance is entirely conveyed by

undertone, structure, ironic balance; its characters live in mental

boxes fed by endlessly recircling dead air, all of them utter strangers

to any wider possibility in life. It's hardly surprising if, once having

so thoroughly anatomized the choked movement, strangled utterance and

inwinding logic of the Fascist heart, Barnes has felt impelled to look

for wider, airier vistas in his writing since.

Precisely the elements of social control that increasingly

dominate and choke out life in the five early masterworks become

progressively more peripheral in each later play, until Richard of

Gloucester, who would have dominated an act in LAUGHTER!, is a minor

figure in DREAMING. Greed, which manacled almost all the characters in

THE RULING CLASS to their own skeletons, which prompted the drowning of

Leonardo in a bucket symbolically aswim with every variety of human

waste, is a primary motive with Richard, and has appalling consequences,

but among the characters the play is really about, it infects only the

boy Davey, in whom it's recognizably an adolescent fantasy he stands an

excellent chance (until he is killed) of growing out of. What the play

is chiefly about is the bewildering variety of alternate social visions

that subsist within an oppressive social order and cannot ever be

perfectly stifled. Early on his journey home Mallory encounters a priest

burying a peasant, stifling with rhetoric the revolt brewing among his

survivors. After he blows the priest into an open grave, Mallory advises

the peasants on the logic of rebellion but refuses to lead them,

probably wisely, since revolutions that are LED tend to shuffle rather

than alter the social order. He encounters a tiny Utopia in a cheery

tavern with a roaring fire, complete with man/parrot duet: "Friends/

Though one's got feathers and one's got none." (One of many examples in

DREAMING of the joyous mirth Father Flote in RED NOSES thought might be

possible in a better world. Increasingly Barnes shows it thriving in

this world, and considers the ability to turn happy cartwheels of

language, at the near edge of the abyss, a hopeful sign.) Mallory

arrives home, greets his wife Sarah, daughter Anna, eats soup with Sarah,

snuggles next her in bed only to wake next morning to an empty bed,

deserted house, two crosses marking the graves. He is met in the dust

and ashes by fellow ex-soldiers Skelton and Davy and camp follower Bess,

who succor him in his grief. He meets a woman, Susan Beaufort, one of

two survivors of a mass poisoning by Richard (Bess becomes romantically

entangled with the other, the ex-priest Jethro Kell). After marrying

her under the delusion she is his dead wife Sarah, Mallory with his

entire party flies across England to join forces with the Welsh

Beauforts against Richard, arriving (Susan and Mallory only, the others

all dying en route) just in time to see the Beaufort estate torched and

smoking. Too late, but never mind. Real and awful as the play's horrors

are, they reverberate less than its ultimate grandeur: the powerful

individual force of its main characters, the bond of friendship that

links them in an unbreakable, uncoerced unity.

MALLORY: Some kind of hero, me, with a sliver of ice in

the heart. Not a hero's heart. So why did they follow my


SUSAN: Most lives're matter of fact. We go here and there,

do this, do that, and count the days. We're practical. . .

we have to be. We build things and knock things down, eat,

procreate and die. You gave us something else.

MALLORY: But I was never sure what it was.

SUSAN: But you believed it, that's enough!

MALLORY: I failed.

SUSAN: No, you let us glimpse another world.

MALLORY: Another world.


SUSAN: Mallory?

MALLORY: I'm thinking of another world. . .

The snow falls heavily, as they huddle closer.


Please to pay for me my best thanks to Miss Poole: tell

her that I wish her a continued excess of Happiness--

some say that Happiness is not Good for Mortals, & they

ought to be answer'd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals

& is utterly useless to any one; a blight never does good

to a tree, & if a blight kill not a tree but it still

bear fruit, let none say the fruit was in consequence of

the blight.

William Blake



My first experience of Googling was an attempt to learn what

new Peter Barnes projects might be coming up, which instead

led to the discovery that he'd died, suddenly and unexpectedly,

the previous summer; that put me off the service for nearly a

month. When I finally Googled Alasdair Gray it was with fear

and trembling, but last I checked he was doing fine.

There were other, happier surprises. The year before, his

second wife had given birth to triplets, which made him

briefly notorious in the tabs (triplets in your seventies

apparently being news in a way that merely writing a

significant number of the finest plays in the history

of the world is not), and inspired his last, most personal

work, BABIES (posthumously telecast by Granada).

Not long afterward I read that Christopher Fry died at 97

which was a surprise. I hadn't known he was still alive.

Certainly he'd done no new work in decades, even up to

the rather slight standards of his best work such as THE


Peter could have made good use of another 24 years. The amount

of fine work he was doing right up until the end suggests

there was every reason to picture him going on till his

dying day whenever that might be. He even wrote a

masterpiece of criticism in those last years--a study

for the British Film Institute of Ernst Lubitsch's TO BE

OR NOT TO BE. Masterpieces of criticism are far rarer

than masterpieces of drama or fiction because it's not

a requirement, any more than it is for journalism,

that a critic be able to write, and most never learn how to.

(Strictly speaking, it's no more a requirement in drama and

literature, but story-telling is a more primal urge, and

sometimes people will write, even thoughtfully, even

against explicit instructions from publishers

and producers.)

Two passages from this study can be conflated into an informal

artistic credo:

As in all the best comedy, the seriousness is *in* the

comedy, not outside it. Every good joke must be a small

revolution. In the great classic comedies of stage, film

or novel, the jokes and gags themselves contain the deeper

meaning critics crave. . . In the end I believe the only

thing in the theatre that has the ring of truth is comedy.

[. . .]

Reality is more theatrical than the theatre. It is why

naturalism looks so unreal and comedy so much truer than

tragedy, which sentimentalises violence, misery and death

and poeticises rotting corpses by calling them noble. The

artistic rendering of the physical pain of those who are

beaten down with rifle butts and iron bars contains the

possibility that profit can be squeezed from it. Tragedy

makes the unthinkable appear to have some meaning. It

becomes transfigured, without the horror being removed,

and so justice is denied to the victims. Comedy does not

tell such pernicious lies.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE, pp.51-52,

p. 77

C 2005 Martin Heavisides

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 Posted: Mon Apr 7th, 2008 05:00 pm
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in media res

Joined: Sun Jul 2nd, 2006
Posts: 1961
Martin H,

This was dense, wonderful and brilliant. And I (shamefully) did not know Peter Barnes' work, except the title of THE RULING CLASS/Peter O'Toole was in it, but have never seen it. I hope it is on Netlix.

Thank you for such a thoroughly clear and glorious piece of your own writing and analysis. I recommend everyone take the time to read it.

So many astutely wonderful things to mention, and I'll mention only one:

"he suggests all the Holy Books should have inscribed on their title pages: 'Important if true.' "


in media res

Last edited on Mon Apr 7th, 2008 05:23 pm by in media res

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 Posted: Mon Apr 7th, 2008 11:47 pm
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Martin H

Joined: Mon Dec 31st, 2007
Location: Toronto, Ontario Canada
Posts: 184
Thanks for your remarks, and thanks for reading through this. I did wonder if I wasn't making exhorbitant demands, posting a thread this size--but I thought if there was anyplace a study like this in some depth would be welcome, this site was as likely as any. Cheers, and again, thanks.

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 Posted: Tue Apr 8th, 2008 02:58 am
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in media res

Joined: Sun Jul 2nd, 2006
Posts: 1961
And I plan on reading it's richness again.

On behalf of the Forum members, we accept the compliment!

I had to make the choice of becoming a theatre scholar or a working actor. I made the latter. "And that has made all the difference." Underneath that actor there lurks an envious, underachieving scholar. I applaud you.

Many thanks.

in media res

Last edited on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 03:13 am by in media res

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