Authors: Peter Barnes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and screenwriter

Author Works


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

Radio Plays:

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.{$I[AN]9810001376}{$I[A]Barnes, Peter}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Barnes, Peter}{$I[tim]1931;Barnes, Peter}

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.

BibliographyBarnes, Peter. “Theater of the Extreme: An Interview with Peter Barnes.” Interview by Mark Bly and Doug Wager. Theater 12(Spring, 1981): 43. Barnes talks about his relationship to Brechtian imagination and rules for the theater, as a catalyst for social change. Barnes calls for the revival of English dramatic classics and states that “comedy transcending tragedy” is a characteristic of modern times.Dukore, Bernard F. Barnestorm: The Plays of Peter Barnes. New York: Garland, 1995. Dukore revises his earlier work on the playwright to create the most significant scholarship on the plays of Barnes. The book is comprehensive and covers all of the major plays in detail.Golomb, Liorah Anne. “The Nesting Instinct: The Power of Family in Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class and The Bewitched (with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare).” Essays in Theatre 17 (1998): 63-75. Golomb’s article covers two important plays by Barnes as well as the issue of the dramatist’s portrayal of family.Hiley, Jim. “Liberating Laughter: Peter Barnes and Peter Nichols in Interviews with Jim Hiley.” Plays and Players 25, no. 6 (March, 1978): 14-17. Barnes discusses Laughter!, his 1978 play at the Royal Court, dealing with “man’s inhumanity to man” in the form of Ivan the Terrible and Auschwitz. “Cruelty …has progressed into something more systematic” than the personal affair of the feudal times, he says. Discusses his adaptation of Ben Jonson’s plays and his controversy with critics over his style and content.Hinchliffe, Arnold P. British Theatre, 1950-1970. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974. A journalistic style introduces the “rocket that came from Nottingham” with his play Sclerosis, produced at the Traverse Theatre. The author notes that Barnes “had been a playwright for ten years and screenwriter for fourteen” before his success with The Ruling Class. Also discusses Lulu and two one-act plays. Good midcareer assessment.Sterling, Eric. “Peter Barnes’s Auschwitz and the Comedic Dilemma.” European Studies Journal 17-18 (2000-2001): 197-211. This article analyzes Barnes’s ideas on comedy and how it can be dangerous and a weapon used against the vulnerable, such as during the Holocaust.Weeks, Stephen. “Peter Barnes.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Weeks’s section on Barnes is a very helpful tool for those interested in doing scholarship on the playwright.Worth, Katharine J. “Forms of Freedom and Mystery: Beneath the Subtext.” In Revolutions in Modern English Drama. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1972. This chapter places Barnes in the company of Samuel Beckett, Joe Orton, and Heathcote Williams. Worth describes Barnes as taking the “farce in curious new directions, mixing it with melodrama in a most unlikely and distinctive style.” Also contains a long discussion of The Ruling Class.Worthen, W. B. Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Deals with Laughter! at length. “To read Laughter! as about Auschwitz alone is crucially to misread the play’s theatrical design,” says Worthen, adding that the play “stages the spectator’s performance as part of its critique of history.” Good index.
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