Plays by Peter Barnes

Barnes’ People: Eight Monologues

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Barnes’ People is a series of wonderfully varied monologues from deeply imagined individuals. Whether their stories are historical, fantastic or familiar, they are always intimate and human.

‘Confessions of a Primary Terrestrial Mental Receiver and Communicator: Num III Mark I’ is spoken by a man who finds a meaning for his life through covert correspondence with aliens.

‘The Jumping Mimuses of Byzantium’, spoken by an aged hermit, is based on a legend of a tumbling jester and a wanton prostitute with a nocturnal secret.

‘The Theory and Practise of Belly-Dancing’ is about finding a way to survive the everyday.

‘The End of the World – And After’ is spoken by William Miller, a preacher who amassed a large following by predicting that Christ’s Second Coming would occur in 1844.

A one-hundred-and-thirteen year old woman tells an interviewer about her calmly scurrilous life in ‘Yesterday’s News’.

‘Glory’ is the final oration of Peregrinus Proteus, an Ancient Greek philosopher famous for parricide, before he steps on to his own funeral pyre.

In ‘No End to Dreaming’, an old man tells his psychoanalyst about growing up in the Cracow ghetto and about his dreams.

The monologues were presented by BBC Radio 3 in 1981.

The Bewitched

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Bewitched is an astounding carousel of the grotesque and the lyrical, the baroque and the intimate, the horrific and the comic; Barnes’s vast play tells the story of Spain’s ill-fated King Carlos II in a luminous and visceral style.

In the seventeenth century, Spain’s political stability hinged on the continuation of the sovereign bloodline. Unfortunately Carlos, the son conceived by the elderly King Philip IV in the opening scene, has epilepsy, distorted limbs, impaired speech and mental confusion, the tragic result of centuries of royal inbreeding; in Carlos, the famous Hapsburg jaw had become so prominent that he could not chew. The play traces the grim attempts of his court to engineer the conception of an heir, involving a desperate exorcism and the burning of heretics as an aphrodisiac. Barnes offers a searing examination of the belief that certain persons are entitled to hold power, and a tragic account of a life of suffering, charged with pain and cold poetry.

The Bewitched was first presented in 1974 at the Aldwych Theatre, London.

Bye Bye Columbus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Peter Barnes mockingly dramatises the distinctly unheroic expedition of Christopher Columbus, which changed the face of the globe, though not entirely in the way he was expecting.

Columbus’s famous venture begins with a desperate struggle for funding, as well as an attempt to convince his backers that the /world was a lot smaller than everyone else thought. Eventually the Spanish King and Queen concede to his terms, which demanded extravagant personal rewards for services of dubious integrity. When he finally claims the Americas for the Spanish Empire, he isn’t entirely sure which country they are, but that doesn’t stop him finding ways to make money out of the people he found there.

Bye Bye Columbus is a wry and mocking portrait of a man who sailed halfway across the world for a hint of gold. The play was broadcast by BBC Television in 1992.

Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie is a riotous, Rabelaisian stew of a comedy concerning the demonic Charlie who is always trying to jump, with both feet, into his left trouser leg.

While making a television programme about buskers, Michael Aylmer finds Charlie Ketchum in a lodging house, clutching a trumpet and stinking to high heaven. Intending to do a special programme on this uniquely virulent and garrulous character, Michael invites him to stay at his house. But when Charlie tries to resume his wandering life accompanied by a few household movables, Michael’s wife Joan discovers to her cost that even after a bath and new trousers he is dangerous. The first act ends with his trial; the second act begins with his release from a psychiatric hospital.

Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie was written in 1966 and rewritten in 1991. It is the latter text which is presented here.

Dreaming

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Dreaming is an unhinged and fervid play, a comic-historical epic set in the bloody aftermath of the Wars of the Roses.

Captain John Mallory leads a band of renegades across the field of the Battle of Tewkesbury, where they plunder the bodies and slit the throats of the survivors. Impressed by his ruthlessness, Richard Duke of Gloucester, a wry twist on Shakespeare’s character who complains of being misquoted, offers Mallory and his sword a place in his court, along with power and riches. Mallory just wants to go home to his wife and child, but he’s been away six years . . . In this apocalyptic vision packed with ravishing images, Mallory leads his rag-bag troop across a battle-scarred land on a breathtaking quest in search of a dream – a dream of home.

Combining gallows humour and searing lyricism, Dreaming is a haunting and brutally funny story of heroism and human values.

Heaven's Blessings

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

As the play opens, Tobit has just finished digging a grave in the middle of the night. It is illegal to bury Jewish corpses in the city of Nineveh, and so he must bury them in secret, in the meantime concealing bodies in the wardrobe until he can get round to them. Things go from bad to worse when bird droppings fall into his eyes and blind him, but fortunately the angel Raphael turns up to make sure that events follow the correct Biblical course.

From an apocryphal book of the Bible, Peter Barnes extracts a charming epic comedy of Tobit, his wife, their schlemiel of a son and a cantankerous guardian angel, who together set out to reclaim an outstanding IOU, overcoming many dangers which test their faith to breaking point.

Jubilee

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Commissioned by the RSC, Jubilee is a mischievous comedy on the cynical foundation of the Shakespeare industry.

In 1769, the famous actor David Garrick is approached by greedy Stratfordian burghers and talked into staging the first theatre festival to celebrate the life of their town’s most famous son. Garrick is persuaded into arranging the festival by three RSC directions, who point out that founding the cult of Shakespeare will make him even more famous, as well as giving RSC directors something to do.

The Jubilee itself was a soggy catastrophe, providing Barnes with ample material for comic exuberance, but Barnes marks it as the starting point of a cultural obsession that deserves some light-hearted ridicule.

Barnes' ironic and irreverent comedy dissects the cult of the theatrical personality, with guest appearances from the Bard himself, Ben Jonson, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, Trevor Nunn, Sir Peter Hall and Peter Barnes. Jubilee premiered in 2001 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford.

Laughter!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Laughter! is a two act play that dramatises the screaming cruelty of Ivan the Terrible – the sixteenth century Russian Tsar – and the anaesthetized bureaucracy which administrated the Nazi concentration camps in the twentieth century.

Act One joins Ivan the Terrible in a torture chamber, raging in devout and deranged anguish as he slowly impales a man on a stake, and kills his own son. Act Two takes place in an administrative building in Berlin, 1942, where office-workers are have received new instructions for the systematic categorisation of deaths. Laughter!’s daring treatment of concentration camps, which involves a music-hall style routine, meant that the play had a troubled reception, but Peter Barnes does more than court controversy, probing the cavity between comedy and tragedy, examining the mechanisms – among them laughter – which dampen atrocity.

Laughter! was first performed in 1978 at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Leonardo's Last Supper

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Leonardo’s Last Supper, Peter Barnes explores a theatrical mode in which everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. A family of undertakers in a medieval charnel house prepare to bury Leonardo da Vinci; disposing of the Renaissance genius will be a lucrative coup for the family business, and so the atmosphere is jovial as they dress up as plague doctors and bicker around the corpse. But their dreams of prosperity and perfumed gloves are interrupted when the health of the deceased polymath suddenly improves.

Leonardo’s Last Supper was first presented with Noonday Demons in 1969 at the Open Space Theatre.

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Nobody Here But Us Chickens is a trio of entertaining and challenging comedies about people with mental or physical disabilities, emphasising their individuality without patronization.

The eponymous first part introduces George Allsop, a man dressed only his underpants who — very articulately — believes he is a chicken. He meets Charles Hern, who also believes he is a chicken, but has more sophisticated plans to go undercover as a man. In More Than a Touch of Zen two men with cerebral palsy attend a Judo class; their instructor is initially dismayed by their constant convulsions, but soon sees the beginnings of a brand new martial art. In Not As Bad As They Seem three blind people inadvertently enter into a bedroom farce as a wife tries to disguise from her husband that she is sleeping with his academic rival.

Nobody Here But Us Chickens was first broadcast by Channel 4 in 1989.

Noonday Demons

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Noonday Demons, Peter Barnes explores a theatrical mode in which everything is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous. St Eusebius is in devotional exile in the desert, alone apart from a tower of his own excrement, enduring extreme physical deprivation for the betterment of his soul and apologising to the maggots that live in his festering flesh. After a desperate struggle with a Cockney demon that speaks through Eusebius’s mouth, he is challenged by St Pior, a rival hermit, to a bizarre duel of piety. With a mixture of slapstick, rhetoric, religious fervour and red-blooded vernacular, Barnes creates a comic theatre of opposites.

Noonday Demons was first presented with Leonardo’s Last Supper in 1969 at the Open Space Theatre.

Red Noses

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Red Noses is a black comedy about the black death, a vibrant and slapstick hymn to the power of laughter and the human spirit.

There’s no cure for the plague, and Auxerre in France, 1348, is populated by the dying. Marcel Flote, who is afflicted by convulsions, tries to join a band of self-flagellating pilgrims and ends up in a slapstick routine. He has an epiphany: he must serve God by spreading laughter. Joined by Sonnerie, who communicates by shaking limbs covered in tiny bells, he forms a pious brotherhood of joy, the Red Noses of Auxerre, to give cheer to a pestilent and doomed world. His clowning is tentatively approved by the Archbishop Monsolet, but Pope Clement VI begins to be troubled by Flote’s compassion and joviality.

Written in 1978, Red Noses was not performed until 1985, when it was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London.

Revolutionary Witness

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Revolutionary Witness is a series of four direct and intelligent monologues about the French Revolution, excavating the individual voices from the historical tide.

‘The Patriot’ is spoken by a man selling souvenirs of the French Revolution: bones, stones and medals made from drawbridge chains are flogged as mementos of the uprising, and holy symbols of the new world order.

‘The Butcher’ is a man who has found it hard to understand very much, except that the Revolution was right and moral and its casualties deserve a hero’s pension.

‘The Preacher’ is a keen and articulate account spoken by a preacher with an uncompromising commitment to the revolution.

‘The Amazon’ is the complaint of a courtesan who led the mob wearing red silk on a black horse, and now sits mouldering in an asylum, recalling her life with unhinged lyricism.

Each monologue is based on the story of a real survivor of the French Revolution. Revolutionary Witness was televised by the BBC in 1989.

The Ruling Class

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Ruling Class is a witty, double-edged and idiosyncratic satire in which a man diagnosed with paranoid-schizophrenia inherits a peerage.

After the 13th Earl of Gurney’s morbid nightly indulgence turns into an accidental suicide, the title and estate passes to his son Jack, who has until hitherto been living in a psychiatric institution. He brings with him a belief in divine love, a penchant for sleeping upright on a cross and the conviction that he is the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. His family’s attempts first to manipulate and then to cure him result in the transformation of his ebullient and loquacious delusions into a far more sinister personality. The play is a unique collision of wit, pathos, melodrama, cynicism and horror, creating an iconoclastic and mesmeric theatre.

The Ruling Class was first presented at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1968.

The Spirit of Man

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Spirit of Man is made up of three short comic satires about man’s faith across the ages, the momentous subject deftly balanced between humour and solemnity. In three parts spanning thirteenth century France, Commonwealth England and nineteenth century Poland, Barnes examines the desire to believe and the terror of believing.

In A Hand Witch of the Second Stage Marie Blin is accused of being a witch, and is about to be tortured – when she confesses, and backs up her confession with an unearthly power. In From Sleep and Shadow, the Reverend Guerdon stands over the corpse of his wife Abegail, begging the wild and heretical ranter Israel Yates to bring her back to life. The Night of the Sinhat Torah sees the Seer of Lublin, the Rev Mendel and the Maggid of Kozhenitz gather to accuse God of crimes against Himself.

The trio was broadcast by BBC TV in 1989.

Sunsets and Glories

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Sunsets and Glories is set in late thirteenth-century Italy, where power struggles between Church and State inspire such characters as the spineless Charles II, paid killer Montefelto and 'madwoman' Maifreda.

Into this maelstrom steps Peter de Morrone, the saintly Pope Celestine V, provoking a bitter crisis of faith in the abiding values of violence and corruption.

Peter Barnes' mordant wit takes history and imbues it with a savage humour.

Sunsets and Glories premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, in June 1990.

Picture of Peter Barnes

Peter Barnes (1931-2004) was a British writer and director whose work includes The Ruling Class (Nottingham and Piccadilly Theatre, London, 1968), Leonardo's Last Supper and Noonday Demons (Open Space Theatre, London, 1969), The Bewitched (RSC, Aldwych Theatre, London, 1974), Laughter! (Royal Court Theatre, 1978), Red Noses (RSC, Barbican, 1985), Sunsets and Glories (West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 1990).

Over the course of his career he won many awards including the Evening Standard Award, 1969; the John Whiting Award, 1969; the Sony Best Play Award, 1981; the Laurence Olivier Award, 1985; the Royal Television society Award for Best TV Play, 1987; and was nominated for an Oscar in 1993.