Peter Barnes gained almost instant recognition, from relative obscurity with his play “The Ruling Class” in the late 1960′s. 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.Barne’s ideas and facility with character, a broadly contextual critique on the sense of entitlement and the syndrome of Prince and Princess, have made The Ruling Class an enduring statement.
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….
In 1785,when Prince George first took Mrs. Fitzherbert to Brighton to spend the summer in what they thought of as “abject poverty” , he rented a small neat farmhouse from Thomas Kemp, who afterward built the splendid Georgian terraces of Kemptown. The Prince could not live in any building without letting his imagination begin to work on it. Already, his palace in London-Carlton House- had been more responsible than any other extravagance for his monumental debts. So in the intervals of his amorous delights, and when he was tired of the cruel practical jokes in which he took such schoolboyish delight, he paced about his farmhouse.
In the Prince’s mind, he knocked down walls and threw out bow windows, transforming the modest construction into a charming marine pavilion, suitable for a prince wallowing in marital bliss. Within eighteen months, one hundred and fifty workmen, under the direction of the Prince’s architect, Henry Holland, had turned dream into reality. Holland’s structure possessed the simplicity and elegance that Georgian architects achieved so effortlessly. Its central feature was a circular salon that was flanked by two wings with bow windows. The building veered toward austerity, and the only whimsey it contained was the Prince’s bedroom where a vast mirror enabled the Prince, and presumably Mrs. Fitzherbert, to lie in bed and watch not only the sea but their friends strolling up and down the Steine, as the wide grass lawn of Brighton was called- a quaint, but no doubt restful, pastime.
…A film seemingly out of its time, tilting at windmills such as the aristocracy, the church, foxhunting, the House of Lords. Who cared about these symbols of Old England after the swinging Sixties? And yet, however much it parodies a traditional farce – mad earl, bibulous butler and sadistic German psychiatrist – both play and film appeared between the great Profumo-Keeler society sex scandal of 1963, which rocked the British government, and the mysterious disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1973, after apparently murdering his nanny in mistake for his wife. Here life, and indeed death, seemed to imitate art, even in its most caricatured form….(Christie)
The Prince’s Brighton friends were an odd bunch: Beau Brummel for example , lived for clothes and spent the entire day dressing, parading, undressing, and parading again- as fastid
and as pure in his private life as in the cut of his coat. Others, like Lord Barrymore, never washed; his own and his brother’s fame rested partly on their practical jokes- propping up coffins in doorways, then ringing the doorbell, was a favorite- and partly on their wild extravagance, due mainly to excessive gambling and lavish theatricals.
And then there was Letty Lade: anyone who was particularly foul-mouthed the Prince would describe as “swearing like Letty Lade.” She had lost her virtue to “Sixteen-String Jack,” a highwayman hanged at Tyburn in 1774, enjoyed for a short time the bed of the Prince’s brother, the Duke of York, and finally married Sir John Lade, who finished life supremely happy as a public coachman on the London-Brighton run.
…The truth is that Barnes’ play, at least, was very much a product of the rupture of 1968, and its political message is that, beneath a veneer of modernization, very little had changed in Britain. An advocate of hanging and flogging (“we’ve forgotten how to punish,” Gurney proclaims to a rapturous House of Lords) will always be more welcome to the Establishment than a gently deluded religious mystic. But Barnes was never merely a cynic or a polemicist: steeped in the history of drama from the Jacobeans and Shakespeare’s rival Ben Johnson to Artaud and Brecht, he wanted to challenge English audiences’ cozy relationship with their theatre of “reassurance.” So the violent gear-changes from comedy, to pathos, to horror, are central to his eruption onto the British stage in the ’60s, along with such figures as John Arden, Edward Bond, and Peter Nichols...(Christie )
Many of the Prince’s friends were obsessed and ingrown characters. Great wealth and absolute social security combined to create a hothouse atmosphere in which human characters could flower like monstrous orchids- vivid, splotched, nightmarish, haunting. Brighton was for them a paradise, where for months on end they could forget the real world of lawyers, tradesmen, stewards, politicians, and above all, the threats and later the horrors of war.
The Prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert had begun their life in Brighton determined to live sparely. That resolution quickly vanished and his debts mounted: by 1795, to well over half a million pounds. Furthermore, there was no immediate heir to the throne. All his brothers either lived in sin or, like himself, had contracted marriages that no one would recognize: although George III had plenty of bastard grand children, the direct succession to his house seemed to be in jeopardy. And the Prince’s love for Mrs. Fitzherbert had withered to habit and habit itself had grown brittle.
…This fascination had undoubtedly been stoked by the previous decade’s new views on perversion and madness. In France, the Marquis de Sade had been culturally rehabilitated; while in Britain, under the influence of “existential” psychiatry, madness was increasingly seen as a social construct. R. D. Laing’s account of schizophrenia as essentially family-induced—a logical response to irrational pressures—was proving influential as a counter argument against advocates of ECT and drug treatment; and this is the backdrop to The Ruling Class’ elaborate staging of Jack’s madness and its “cure,” through a surreal confrontation with his opposite, the “electric messiah.”… ( Ian Christie )