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.