The Time of the Barracudas, pr. 1963
Sclerosis, pr. 1965
The Ruling Class: A Baroque Comedy, pr. 1968
Leonardo’s Last Supper, pr. 1969
Noonday Demons, pr. 1969
Lulu, pr. 1970 (conflation of Frank Wedekind’s Der Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora)
The Bewitched, pr., pb. 1974
The Frontiers of Farce, pr. 1976 (adaptations of Georges Feydeau’s On purge Bébé! and Wedekind’s Der Kammersänger)
Antonio, pr. 1977 (radio play), pr. 1979 (staged; adaptation of John Marston’s plays Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge)
Laughter!, pr., pb. 1978
Collected Plays, pb. 1981
Red Noses, pr., pb. 1985
Plays: One, pb. 1989
Revolutionary Witness, and Nobody Here but Us Chickens, pb. 1989
Sunsets and Glories, pr., pb. 1990
Plays: Two, pb. 1993
Corpsing, pr., pb. 1996
Plays: Three, pb. 1996
Dreaming, pr., pb. 1999
Jubilee, pr., pb. 2001
Tango at the End of Winter, 1991 (a play by Kunio Shimizu)
The White Trap, 1959
Not with My Wife You Don’t, 1966 (with others)
The Ruling Class, 1972 (adaptation of his play)
An Enchanted April, 1992 (adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel)
Voices, 1995 (with Nicholas Meyer; in U.S. as Voices from a Locked Room)
The Man with a Feather in His Hat, 1960
The Spirit of Man, 1989
Merlin, 1998 (with David Stevens)
Noah’s Ark, 1999
Arabian Nights, 2000
Barnes’ People I: Seven Monologues, 1981
Barnes’ People II: Seven Duologues, 1984
The Real Long John Silver, and Other Plays: Barnes’ People III, 1986
The Spirit of Man and More Barnes’ People: Seven Monologues, 1990
Peter Barnes, an inventive and challenging dramatist, combines a hatred of the class system with a savage, satirical, and wildly comic style. Born in the East End of London to working-class parents, Barnes was the older of two children. His parents moved to Clacton-on-Sea, a resort area where they operated an amusement park and where Barnes was educated. After leaving school at seventeen, he worked for the Greater London Council before serving in the Royal Air Force from 1949 to 1950.
Upon his return to civilian life, Barnes wrote film reviews for the Greater London Council, resigning in the early 1950’s to become a freelance film critic. In 1956, he joined Warwick Films as a story editor, where he was responsible for selecting material for possible filming by the studio. From 1959 to 1966, Barnes wrote seven screenplays, including The White Trap and Not with My Wife You Don’t, and a television script, The Man with a Feather in His Hat. Feeling constrained by the commercial parameters and desiring to express his own ideas freely, Barnes turned to the stage.
The Ruling Class: A Baroque Comedy, brought Barnes to international prominence. In the work, Barnes aimed for a “comic theater of contrasting moods and opposites, where everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous,” and he satirizes the values, viciousness, perversions, and manipulations of the British ruling class. Barnes’s view of society becomes even bleaker in Leonardo’s Last Supper, where the famous artist is brought to a charnel house after having been prematurely declared dead. In the midst of his joy over his second chance to continue his creativity, he is killed by the poor family who needs the burial money. In the companion piece, Noonday Demons, two fourth century hermits argue about which of them is the one to whom God speaks until one kills the other. Using language that combines archaisms and contemporary slang, Barnes underscores the parallels with contemporary debates about capitalism, religion, and self-interest. The style is comic and vituperative in the manner of Ben Jonson.
Although Barnes left school at seventeen, he has been and is an enthusiastic and disciplined self-educator. As a result, he is not only an unusually literate dramatist but also a prolific adapter of works by dramatists whom he particularly admires. In 1970, he combined two of Frank Wedekind’s plays into Lulu. He is particularly drawn to Jonson’s avaricious characters and abundant vulgarity of language and situation, qualities that are readily apparent in Barnes’s own work.
In The Bewitched, Barnes continues his preoccupation with the power of a ruling class, the profit motive, and murder in the name of God. It is a huge play with more than thirty scenes and forty characters. Laughter! provoked even more commentary, as Barnes explores in graphic theatrical terms further links between insanity, political power, and comedy. Red Noses, set during the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, continues Barnes’s preoccupation with comedy and social upheaval. The Red Noses are a religious group of entertainers who try to divert the populace; in the process, they discover the revolutionary possibilities of the stage in combating the oppressive forces of the church and state. With the end of the plague, repression is reestablished and Barnes’s hope that “laughter linked with revolution might be the best of both worlds” is not yet achieved.
Because producers were often reluctant to stage his plays because of their controversial nature, Barnes became involved in writing for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Barnes’ People I, Barnes’ People II, and Barnes’ People III are collections of seven short pieces, each exploring the forms of the monologue, the dialogue, and three voices respectively. With his bleak vision Barnes explores individuals “unique in their creative energies for good and evil,” ordinary people trapped in an unjust and horrifying society.
Barnes’s play Dreaming dramatizes the story of Captain John Mallory, a heroic warrior who has just taken part in the Battle of Tewkesbury at the end of the War of the Roses. In some respects, it is a typical Barnes play: full of sharp wit, violence, and biting social criticism. Dreaming contains thirty-four characters and unusual scenes, such as characters that fall in open graves and characters who skate and perform other feats. This fact demonstrates that Barnes continues to write plays his way, whether or not they can be staged practically.
Barnes is opposed to naturalism, and he has created a theatrical style all his own, though it reflects those works that have captured his eclectic interests. His plays have been called Baroque and Jacobean, terms that link them to the late Renaissance, a period that fascinates him. His plays mirror the same kind of world in decay, marked by extravagant language, macabre violence, and grotesque verbal and visual images. He has also been influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, and his works both reflect and parody epic theater and the Theater of Cruelty. He is a theatrical playwright whose style juxtaposes comedy, shock effects, music, social commentary, popular culture, and literary allusions to break through the complacency of the audience.