Wrong! What can the comforting deceptions of philosophy signify in the face of truth, which is always the same – nothing ends well. I should have studied emptiness, nothing, instead of virtue. The gods tried to tell me. One night I was huddled in my barrel, trying to sleep. The snow was falling outside and I heard the gods praising me for my discussion on emptiness, nothing. 'But I haven't said anything,' I told them. 'You haven't said anything as we haven't heard anything: that's true emptiness,' they replied. I should've studied emptiness and midwives should give up their calling; it's a crime against mankind to inflict life on another human being. – THE REAL LONG JOHN SILVER, pp. 50-51
Second of January, 1997. New year, old bills, no money, slow day in the book trade, no surprise, yard and church and charity sales mostly done till the spring, dealers not so much remarking they've seen the stock I'm showing them as how many times they've seen it already. Besides they're buying even more timorously than's usual for January after a deader than usual December in the used book trade so I'm pulling nonessential items off my own shelves.
At times I feel I could not track an elephant in six feet of snow, but at least I have provided a good home for scores of old jokes who had nowhere else to go. I have laughed a lot when I did not feel a lot like laughing and of course I have made a mess of my life, but then I have made a mess of all my shirts. I write hoping to make the world a little better and perhaps to be remembered. The latter part of that statement is foolish, as I can see, quite plainly, the time when this planet grows cold and the Universe leaks away into another Universe and the Cosmos finally dies and there is nothing but night and nothing. It's the end, but that is never a good enough reason for not going on. A writer who does not write corrupts the soul. Besides, it is absurd to sit around sniffing wild flowers when you can create them, and new worlds. – BARNES PLAYS ONE, p. ix
One of these is a first edition of LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER AND NOONDAY DEMONS, not that I'd ever part with it if it were my only copy, but I have it in the collection BARNES PLAYS ONE and I attach no particular importance to first editions. When offered $7.50 for it however I declined. Thought it might be worth more than that to Steven Temple, who had the only first I'd ever seen of THE RULING CLASS on his shelves, priced at a hundred. But he reminded me that Barnes' name doesn't even turn up in catalogues or current literary histories. Seven fifty got me swiftly nowhere (forty would have been worth talking about). Even if I had a duplicate, I wasn't going to part on those terms with a major text by the greatest playwright to grace the English stage since Jonson and Middleton.
Barnes is best known, though not personally, for THE RULING CLASS, usually described in cinema guides as a Peter Medak film, and by many of his fans as the greatest performance of Peter O'Toole's career. I don't know how many times I've talked at length about the film to somebody – people who've seen and enjoyed it tend to remember it vividly and with pleasure, recounting favourite scenes and lines by the half hour – and asked them eventually if they knew any of Peter Barnes' other work. Invariably the reply's been the same: "Who's Peter Barnes?"
. . . I often think of Robert Damies and smile despite myself. Damies tried to kill Louis XV with a penknife. Sentenced to have his right hand burnt off and then boiling pitch poured into his wounds and after that to be torn apart by horses, he commented, 'It's going to be a hard day.' It seems perverse to be even slightly optimistic when everything points to the final sunset. Yet even that prospect need not be totally black if we remember that the entire nuclear apparatus is dependent on communication and communication is dependent on telephone lines and telephone lines usually go 'kaput' in the rain. So it is highly likely the heads of state will not get to their bunkers in time. Now, I submit, that alone is cause for optimism. Besides, all things living and dead finally become redundant so we can at least hope that men and women will, one day soon, be replaced by an entirely new species, eternal and sublime. An exhilarating thought for generations I'll never see – I should live so long. – THE REAL LONG JOHN SILVER, p. ix
Well, besides THE RULING CLASS, play and screenplay, he's the author of LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER AND NOONDAY DEMONS (an evening's entertainment comprised of two one acts), THE BEWITCHED and LAUGHTER! – possibly the five finest plays for the English stage written in the 20th century, almost certainly the five finest by any one single playwright. (There is one other recent play in English I know of that compares with them, George Tabori's THE CANNIBALS, but unfortunately his oeuvre is even more out of print and obscure than Barnes' – I know from Viveca Lindfors' autobiography (she was married to him at one time) that Tabori wrote other plays, but I've never been able to find any of them.) Plus an open-ended sequence of one-, two- and three-character plays, mostly for BBC radio and television, that have occupied him in years since when he's often found it hard to interest producers in full-length plays for the stage. Many of the shorter plays go under the general title BARNES' PEOPLE, while others are grouped and anthologized under names like THE SPIRIT OF MAN and NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS. Plus a remarkably vital body of translation/adaptation, including plays by Jonson, Marston, Wedekind, Feydeau, the Japanese playwright Shimizu, the script for the film ENCHANTED APRIL, a great film that draws on a mildly interesting novel with a few fine epigrams sown through its pages and, let's not forget, he was one of four writers or so credited with the Tony Curtis/George C. Scott/Virna Lisi vehicle of the mid-1960s, "Not With My Wife You Don't".
EARL OF GURNEY: My heart rises with the sun. I'm purged of doubts and negative innuendoes. Today I want to bless everything! Bless the crawfish that has a scuttling walk, bless the trout, the pilchard and periwinkle. Bless Ted Smoothey of 22 East Hackney Road – with a name like that he needs blessing. Bless the mealy-redpole, the black-gloved wallaby and W.C. Fields who is dead but lives on. Bless the skunk, bless the red-bellied lemur, bless 'Judo' Al Hayes and Ski-Hi Lee. Bless the snotty-nosed giraffe, bless the buffalo, bless the Society of Women Engineers, bless the wild yak, bless the Picadilly Match King, bless the pygmy hippo, bless the weasel, bless the mighty cockroach, bless me. Today's my wedding day! – THE RULING CLASS, p. 51
You laugh, but just offhand how many Hollywood sex comedies can you recall that feature a film-within-a-film in black and white affectionately mocking the Italian neorealist films, concluding with the resonant line (in Italian with English subtitles): "Forgive me, Rosa, but when you put horns on a man's head, you put murder in his heart." There's a whole underground history in the movies of great moments like that contributed to pictures unworthy of them by writers, actors and sometimes directors who lacked effective control over the piece as a whole, and Barnes always claimed to be a writer who could do much with little.
So what was I trying to do in these plays? I wanted to write a roller-coaster drama of hairpin bends; a drama of expertise and ecstasy balanced on a tightrope between the comic and the tragic with a multi-faceted fly-like vision where every line was dramatic and every scene a play in itself; a drama with a language so exact it could describe what the flame of a candle looked like after the candle had been blown out and so high-powered it could fuse telephone wires and have a direct impact on reality; a drama that made the surreal real, that went to the limit, then further, with no dead time, but with the speed of a seismograph recording an earthquake; a drama of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' where a lion, a tinman and a Scarecrow are always looking for a girl with ruby slippers; a drama glorifying differences, condemning heirarchies, that would rouse the dead to fight, always in the forefront of the struggle for the happiness of all mankind; an anti-boss drama for the shorn not the shearers. – BARNES PLAYS ONE, p. viii
"Every scene a play in itself." The BARNES' PEOPLE plays are single scenes, they observe the Aristotelian unities to the millisecond, that is to say each play takes place in its own real time, no more, no less and at one point of action only, but what worlds they open up! Maya, an aging saint of the Christian church in its first bloom of youth (542 AD) tells in THE JUMPING MIMUSES OF BYZANTIUM of his life, consecrated to faith and voluntary poverty, and of the incident which enriches it immeasurably by planting at the core of his faith a sacred seed of doubt. Two beautiful young street performers – Theophilus and Mary – who live to all appearances the typically wanton life of such itinerants, tell him that their lives are outwardly sinful but inwardly ascetic and consecrated to Christ. He prays with them till dawn. He is fully persuaded until after he has left their hovel and reflected. They couold be true saints, so indifferent to the judgment of the world they go out of their way to appear sinful, or wantons of unusual sophistication who make saintliness, for one giddy night, their ultimate debauch. Unable to determine which, he begins to question every ironhard judgment he has framed of right and wrong, taking a humble, compassionate role in the social world of Byzantium, in place of the fierce ascetic renunciation of the world and its snares he had previously adopted.
MAYA: You'll say, reading this: 'Stupid holy fool – or just plain old fool – of course they were lying. They tricked you. You made them famous.'
Yes, that may be true. I'll soon know, absorbed into the universal mind of God who knows all things. It wouldn't surprise me to discover they were two tricksters, but I held her face in my hands and looked into her eyes . . . pretty picture. . . the light and the face, and the bright costumes in the flame. . . Of course I'll enter God's house, sit on his right hand, meet the disciples and the Archangel Gabriel and bathe in everlasting light, but I confess above all I'm dying to know the truth about the Jumping Mimuses of Byzantium. – BARNES PLAYS ONE, pp. 431-432
Anna, the 113 year old heroine of YESTERDAY'S NEWS, tells an interviewer the story of her life on an evening she's to be presented to the Queen. In Thatcher-conservative cadences ("A conscience wouldn't have helped us in two world wars.") language dry as dust mingled with day-old spittle, she tells of a life heroically given over to the one consistent principle of Thatcherism: untrammeled greed. Beginning with the sale of her maidenhead in collusion with her mother (twenty times between the ages of thirteen and eighteen), she makes her living at various times as a whore, madame, white slaver, dope peddler, back alley abortionist, traitor (her role in two world wars was to sell secrets to the Germans) and murderer of at least one inconvenient husband. (The strict divorce laws of the time were responsible; if she could have divorced him, she wouldn't have gone to the trouble of contriving his murder.) From time to time she takes note of and attempts to seduce her handsome young interviewer. Then she remembers the story she mentioned at the beginning, that she wants to tell the Queen when presented:
ANNA: You've got lovely hair, young man. I was going to tell the Queen the story of Mrs. Allen wasn't I? She was a charlady in one of my brothels. After her husband died, her neighbours said she'd come home drunk and was an unfit mother. So the authorities took away her little four-year-old girl and put her in a home.
Some time after I gave Mrs. Allen a hat of mine which she loved. She said her neighbours wanted to take the hat away too just because she loved it. So one evening she got hold of a hammer and nail, put on the hat, stood in front of a mirror, put the nail in the middle of her head and hammered it into her skull. They couldn't take the hat away from her as they took away her baby. It shows you shouldn't brood on yesterday's news; 'tisn't healthy. I'm still interested in myself. That's what keeps me going. You've got lovely hair, young man. The sentences are sounding like a lot of noise now. – BARNES PLAYS ONE, p.452
Ackerman, a university lecturer on religion, tells in SLAUGHTERMAN how he lost his faith and at the same time his profession (as a kosher butcher) when (contrary to dietary law) a pregnant cow slipped in for slaughter, and he had to deliver a live calf out of the dead mother's belly. Dramatic as the occasion was, his embrace of agnosticism is a marvel of moderation; he suggests all the Holy Books should have inscribed on their title pages: "Important if true." A far more traumatic loss of faith is the subject of THE HEIRS OF DIOGENES. The Greek philosopher of life stripped to its barest and simplest elements is visited at his barrel by a disciple, Crates, who has stripped himself so bare he is clothed in nothing but grime and dirt (though very capaciously in that) and considers the barrel Diogenes lives in, and his virtuous principles, to be wildly extravagant luxury: and by Alexander, who has stripped himself of soft vices and virtues alike, the better to clothe himself in the armour of soldiers and the blood of victims in their tens of thousands, and in nations subject to his will.
DIOGENES: I've spawned monsters. Everyone is a fingertip from madness: there's a crack in the universe. When I died I wanted to be buried face down because I thought soon everything would be turned upside down and righteousness would prevail (. . . ) I look on you two and despair eats the soul. I'd throw away my books but I haven't got any: break my staff but I've never had one; renounce my world but I already have. It's hard to make a gesture that's meaningful when your life's suddenly without meaning. All I can do is go back deeper into my barrel, into the darkness. – THE REAL LONG JOHN SILVER, pp. 50-51
THE PEACE OF WESTPHALIA; DANCING; THE PERFECT PAIR; THE THREE VISIONS (Barnes at 55 confronts himself at 31 and 74); CONFESSIONS OF A PRIMARY TERRESTRIAL MENTAL RECEIVER AND COMMUNICATOR NUM III MARK I; THE END OF THE WORLD – AND AFTER; GLORY; ROSA; NO END OF DREAMING
(NATHAN: Have you ever noticed, Grossard, how cities are like dreams?
They are made up of our desires and fears. Anything imaginable can happen in them.") MORE THAN A TOUCH OF ZEN (a Judo instructor takes two spastic students as a supreme personal challenge and begins devising a system of judo that will turn their uncontrollable muscle spasms into an effective martial arts style); THE NIGHT OF THE SINHAT TORAH (an ever-popular Barnes theme: God put on trial), to name only a few, all have in common that they condense into 15-30 minutes a world of speech and action almost any living playwright would be thrilled to cram into a full-length play.
Now, dressed in three-cornered hat, ballet skirt, long underwear and sword, the 13th Earl of Gurney curtseys and moves toward the steps, trembling slightly in anticipation.
13TH EARL OF GURNEY: Close. I can feel her hot breath. Wonderful. One slip. The worms have the best of it. They dine off the tenderest joints. Juicy breasts, white thighs, red hair colour of rust. . . the worms have the best of it.
(He climbs up the steps, stands under the noose and comes to attention.) It is a far, far better thing I do now, than I have ever done. (He slips the noose over his head, trembling.) No, Sir. No bandage. Die my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do. Is that you, my love? Now, come darling. . . to me. . . ha!
(Stepping off the top of the steps, he dangles for a few seconds and begins to twitch and jump. He puts his feet back on the top of the steps. Gasping, he loosens the noose.)
13TH EARL: Touched him, saw her, towers of death and silence, angels of fire and ice. Saw Alexander covered with honey and beeswax in his tomb and felt the flowers growing over me. A man must have his visions. How else could an English judge and peer of the realm take moonlight trips to Marrakesh and Ponder's End? See six vestal virgins smoking cigars? Moses in bedroom slippers?
Naked bosoms floating past Formosa? Desperate diseases need desperate remedies. (Glancing towards the door.) Just time for a quick one. (Places noose over his head.) Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. There's plenty of time to win this game and thrash the Spaniards too! (Draws his sword.) Form squares men! Smash the Mahdi, and Binnie Barnes!
(With a lustful gurgle he steps off. But this time he knocks over the steps. Dangling helpless for a brief second he drops the sword and tries to tear the noose free, gesturing frantically.) – THE RULING CLASS, pp. 6-7
Barnes very often concerns himself with death, as you'd expect any self-respecting comic visionary to do. The 13th Earl's death is easier than that of the 14th Earl, who has what's best in him killed by a doctor and a social order concerned for his sanity, because what's best in him is bound up inextricably with delusions of a world ruled by gentleness and love. He lives on with the stink of his own death in his nostrils, continuous and inescapable, a stink which he concludes, uncharitably but in the circumstances not unreasonably, is not merely personal but universal, and sets in to work making it personal and literal for the circle of family and friends who've participated in his killing cure. (He has not of course become sane. He believed he was God in the first act; he believes the same in the second; but the cruelty of the world as he finds it has persuaded him he was wrong in believing himself a God of love; he trades the Shepherd's staff for the flick-knife of Jack the Ripper.)
Especially given their typically plodding pace, you could exhaust a Ph.D thesis, or several, on the passage I quoted above, still come nowhere near exhausting its meanings and reverberations. (A friend told me once, back in his student days, of an academic volume he saw barracked at Robarts library in Toronto: THE FIRST LINE OF MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. They do run on, these latter-day Scholastics, I suppose the publish or perish mentality's responsible, but do they have to bore you so stiff you start wishing they'd think really seriously about the alternative? Then again, it's axiomatic that we aren't obliged to notice them, and few do whose tenure doesn't depend on it, which is more than you can say for the equally boring and far more offensive excresences of commercial advertising, TV? sure, you can mute that or turn it off altogether but you can't block out a huge screaming freeway billboard showing the sun rising out the front of a pair of girl's jeans, or a bus, Art Centre or subway station consecrated to the busy sucking industry of high-profit low-humanity multinationals.)
On the other hand it's no good glossing o'er the fact that when a full-length play moves continuously at the intricate speed of passages such as I've quoted, it's a bugger to try synposize it without gutting its life and dramatic force. 'S not even possible really to represent the shorter plays – every piece I gave a summary of has themes, echoes, wizardries of pyrotechnic invention I've barely been able to hint at.
One of the reasons I quote Barnes as often as I do is that without his words, it's practically impossible to begin convey the intricacy, depth, lightness of patter and sheer explosive exuberance of his plays; another, that he's as irresistible as Jack Gurney the fourteenth Earl in full soaring flight, drawing all and sundry (all singing! all dancing!) in as accomplices, willy-nilly, in the music-hall tragicomedy of his life's delusion.
'Course the mandarins of the literary and theatrical world seem well able to resist Peter Barnes. I suspect the academic reputation of a great many playwrights – most of Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Ionesco once upon a time, more than a little of Harold Pinter – rests very largely on the fact that the most plodding Englitphids CAN summarize them without taking much off their intrinsic interest or merit. Their tendency to be produced so much? From a director's standpoint, a piece comparatively empty of meaning is easier to fill up with stage invention: from an actor's, the job's made a great deal easier if you never essay roles that might risk exposing a limited understanding, on your part, of theatre, people or both. A friend who's since passed on (and never so far as I knew had any of the plays he wrote in collaboration with his third wife produced) recounted to me this capsule critique by a dramaturge: "Tough play, Morrison. [His name was Morrissey.] You'd need actors to do this." That's half the problem with Barnes; the other half is that you need human beings to play him – not robots of coquelicot, the method, or movie-of-the-week style (choked voice at an expected revelation flush with welling up of strings on the soundtrack – do North Americans never meet death, betrayal or love unaccompanied by the strains of ersatz Mantovani?)
Let's try, nevertheless, what synopses of the major plays will do. LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER imagines that Da Vinci was in a narcoleptic coma when he was taken for dead and brought to the handiest Charnel House for disposition of his remains. Waking up on the slab, he is so invigorated to discover himself still alive he begins capering, calculating mathematical proportions and planning how in a fury of activity he'll complete all the projects he's left unfinished in the 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 or whatever years remain but it's not to be. He can't come to terms with the family he's fallen among on a ransom to make up their losses (Da Vinci being a client of almost unique prestige and monetary value) and the Lascas, father and son, drown him in the bucket they use for excretions, spit and vomit. Even this isn't the worst of the indignities Leonardo suffers; centuries later he is being summed up by a lecturer in a rote speech so bloodless and cold ("Now that he is truly dead, we may safely say") it suffers by comparison with the sickly sweet ballad that wells up to close the play: "Do you smile to tempt a lover – Mona Lisa?/Or is it the way to hide a broken heart?/Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa/Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?"
Hmm? not too shabby, but it leaves out so much, such as a disquisition on the plague and its treatment (and the lucrative market for shit as a preventive) immmaculate in its scholarship but given in a style somewhere between compressed epic narrative and British music hall sketch; or a visit from Death, played on this occasion by a snotnosed zitfaced adolescent.
NOONDAY DEMONS tells of St. Eusebius' battles with the devil (who tempts him in his own voice but with a cockney accent) and with St. Pior who bursts in upon Eusebius' cave of solitude, empty except for the mountain of ironhard petrified dung in the middle of it, with the claim that he, Pior, has been sent by God to claim it as his retreat. Both can live with almost indescribable deprivation and hardship, but neither can bear to share his dwelling with another living soul, so they dispute the matter with words, with miracles, with blows.
(Eusebius has put aside every human vanity but snobbery; he argues at one point that his sacrifices to become a hermit saint are greater because he was born a wealthy aristocrat, Pior a poor farmer.) Eusebius wins, strangling Pior with the chain he wears for mortification of the flesh, kneels by his dungheap to say a prayer of thanks to God – but he is interrupted by a horror beyond any he has yet endured – the sight, across 17 centuries, of "St. Pior" and "St. Eusebius" bowing, to thunderous applause, at the end of a production of Peter Barnes' NOONDAY DEMONS.
THE BEWITCHED I'd guess would run about four hours on stage, it has a cast of thirty-five, but if you keep to basic information it's easy enough to sum up what it's about: the efforts of the whole secular and religious nobility of monarchical Spain to stiffen the prick of the drooling, pants-wetting, quasi-idiot epileptic King Carlos II (a product of only the highest-grade inbreeding) long enough for him to impregnate his cousin-wife Ana of Neuberg, producing a Spanish heir and forestalling a Europe-wide war of factions backing this or that Hapsburg monarch's claim to the throne. Within this overall scheme, plots, counter-plots and private agendas abound – Queen Mariana, Carlos' mother, hates Ana and wants to prevent her bearing a royal child for Spain; Bishop Pontocarrero and Father Motilla duel to the death over whose faith is better suited to remove the enchantment that keeps Carlos' cock from doodle doing; and all the time (in case of failure) rival claimants are being considered in terms of whose claim is less likely to offend the crowned heads of Europe and their armies, should it come to that. But essentially all the enterprises of the court – including an auto da fe organized exclusively to give King Carlos an erection (violence as pornography, an idea familiar enough from Hollywood action flicks) – every motion of a remarkably vigorous, creative and robust dramatis personae is directed, impotently, to curing Carlos' impotence (or at need, substituting the cuckoo service of a courtier, Duque de Almirante, chivalrously dedicated to the interests of Queen Ana – this is the frigid, antisexual Father Motilla's favourite scheme). All the efforts of the court, because they are dedicated to the hollow idol of hereditary privilege with empty, pitilessly stupid authority at its core, achieve nothing – with extreme prejudice; no good, no creative end, many deaths at court and by play's end, a war that will murder a million waiting in the wings, a war their every effort, far from forestalling, has only helped make more inevitable. All this and great musical numbers too:
ALL(singing): The ache, when they're burnt at the stake/ Or the thrill when you're in at the kill/Or the chase f' the alien race/That's entertainment.
ALCALA(singing): It may be a fight f'control o' a Queen.
FROYLAN(singing): A witch getting ditched f' souring the cream.
MOTILLA(singing): A truly heavenly scene.
VALLADARES(singing): When a heretic and the rack meet.
CARLOS(singing): And the heretic end in mincemeat.
ALL(singing): The liar who is thrown on the pyres/By the priest who will make him deceased/F' the faith o' the whole Christian race/Lord thy world is a stage/Thy stage is a world o' entertainment. – BARNES PLAYS ONE, pp. 265-266
LAUGHTER! may be Peter Barnes' single greatest work, certainly it's condensed in expression and extreme in audacity even for him. There's a leap of five centuries between Act I, TSAR and Act II, AUSCHWITZ, and an almost equally profound leap in language. The mediaeval cadences in which Ivan the Terrible speaks out the fear in his soul that drives him to grapple absolute power to himself, could not differ more from the dry abstraction of the civil service office whose banks of files conceal and promote the workings of Auschwitz – language so refined away from ordinary expression in the 'war of the memos' passage that begins the act, that it can't be translated back into evocative speech of any kind. For Else, Stroop and Cranach who staff the office this is all to the good; they are ordinary people doing a simple job of work; if unimaginable horrors proceed from its performance they'd prefer not to know. A whiff of the mediaeval comes back with the frankly brutal SS man Gottleb, who describes Auschwitz and then shows it to them where it hides behind their eight foot banks of files. Abstraction – the chanting of letter and number codes, the language of memos – triumphs over imagination for the civil servants, closing the files on the hideous hell they conceal once more, a triumph, they proclaim at the close of the act, with obscene self-assurance, for 'the brotherhood of man'.
BIMKO: Dear Lord God, you help strangers so why shouldn't you help us? We're the chosen people.
BIEBERSTEIN: Abe, what did we have to do to be chosen?
BIMKO: Do me a favour, don't ask. Whatever it was it was too much. . . Hymie you were right, this act's dead on its feet.
(The spot fades out.)
BIEBERSTEIN: Oh mother. . .
(They die in darkness.) – LAUGHTER!, p. 70
One of the devices by which Barnes is able to make the disparity between Ivan the Terrible's language/world order and the Nazis' a creative tension rather than an incoherent mess of incompatibles is framing the play between two vaudeville turns that directly challenge the power of comedy as a force for social change. One of these I've quoted the tragic tail of; the other is the 'Author's' Introduction, in which his attempts to question the social usefulness of comedy ("Standard equipment for the losing side. . . nothing needs changing if it's all a joke") keep being interrupted by visual slapstick – his bowtie suddenly beginning to twirl, pants falling to reveal spangled underpants. The key bridge though is the introduction of two characters at first act's close who speak the abstract language of the second. The first of these is Samael, the angel of death, monocled and suited up like a 19th century Russian bureaucrat. The second, heard but not seen, is a dry lecturer in Russian history summing up Ivan the Terrible's career of piking, gutting, maiming and mass slaughter in terms that allow him claims as a great statesman and heroic leader. (It is one of Barnes' keenest insights that the typically bloodless, anti-imagistic language of the Academy is a weaker form of the decadent, dehumanizing language the Nazis used to camouflage their almost unimaginable barbarities; and it's surely no coincidence that immediately following the loudspeaker disquisition Tsar Ivan – turned into a statue where he stands – is covered head to toe in pigeon shit for a first act finale.)
(i) There are few playwrights in the English language whose best play for the stage compares with RED NOSES, only three other than Barnes I can think of in the 20th century who've written one that's better, but it's weak in comparison with his own best. Certianly its premise is audacious enough: that the Black Plague of 1348 was a gentle scourge compared to the social order it interrupted and to a degree overthrew; that it was even in some respects a liberating, revolutionary force. And that idea isn't arrived at by gerrymandering the evidence; the evocation of the Black Plague in Act I is a masterpiece of economy and savage (hilarious) pathos: but the social order, a pyramid structure at whose peak sits the wolflike Pope who has ironically christened himself Clement VI, is more deliberate than the Plague in its terrors, though scarcely, it seems, more conscious (Pope Clement VI fears the ravages of anarchy: "The restraints, customs and laws of centuries buckle, the old moulds crack – happen they should crack – but the green force that liberates the poet and thinker also frees the maniac with a butcher's knife." Wouldn't you assume from this that he favours only such restraint as allows the poet and thinker to thrive, but prevents the violence of the maniac butcher? Why then is his action and speech, otherwise, exclusively dedicated to strangling free thought, to that end allowing state butchery to proliferate, manias compatible with his own to choke existence like rampant stinkweed in a garden?) The plague, moreover, has an end, at which point the depredations of the social order reassert themselves full throttle.
A regular feature of Barnes' plays is the duel of ideas – between J.C. and the Electric Messiah in THE RULING CLASS, Pior and Eusebius in NOONDAY DEMONS, between just about everybody and everybody else in THE BEWITCHED, but RED NOSES features the first such duel of his in a full-length play to end, not in victory and defeat but in a draw – understanding and reconciliation. Grez the leader of the Flagellants disapproves of Father Flote because the monastic order of clowns he has created under special dispensation of Clement VI, causes people to turn away from Grez' specialty, suffering, to laughter as a riposte to the 'wingy plague worms'. Scarron of the Black Ravens, corpse bearers who grease the possessions of the rich with pus from buboes of the dead, sees Flote as a force taming and tempering what could be useful revolutionary rage. They come to 'grease him dead', but in the contest that ensues the three factions discover a commonality of concern. The theme of reconciliation and community gives to much of RED NOSES a translucent lyric rapture only hinted at (between strangulated gasps) in the dark earlier plays. This becomes a consistent alternate voice in Barnes' later work (you can see it at full force already in THE JUMPING MIMUSES OF BYZANTIUM) but unfortunately in this his first attempt at it, he frequently fumbles; all the weakest moments in the play are passages that fail to illuminate this new theme.
To begin with, the song the Floties (and eventually the tri-revolutionary congress) sing to express their brotherhood ("Join together, that's the plan. It's no secret. Man helps man.") is as vacuous as 'The Brotherhood of Man' from LAUGHTER! (and tends increasingly to lump together, nameless, most of the people it describes as individual and of equal consequence – but another weakness of the play is that for the first time he brings in characters, such as the Boutros brothers, who are walk-ons, never seen as sharply individual). Father Flote the central character keeps going in and out of focus – sometimes full of tender power and charisma, at others a hollow automaton delivering speechs that might as well come with a flashing neon sign:
'Author's Message'. As always when a writer telegraphs instead of integrating his vison (I should know, I've Western Unioned enough of 'em myself in pieces I've had to revise or abandon) these speeches read as if an attendant with a bladder would be useful, to slap the speaker on the side of the head and bring him back into the world.
Still, the play has wonders and marvels enough for any ten average nights of theatre, such as the gold butterflies whose beauty expresses something in the soul of the goldsmiths Le Franc and Pellico that never quite emerges from their meanminded speech; Sonnerie, driven mute by grief at the death of his family but who speaks with rare eloquence through the bells he's covered with from head to toe; Father Flote, reaching out with his hand to a leper whom even the plague shuns, inviting her to dance. A play which, as he promises in the introduction, "Wishes you good thoughts, but above all good feelings."
As does SUNSETS AND GLORIES, a glowing rhapsodic song of Innocence about what earthshaking events follow in Catholic Europe of the Middle Ages when, contrary to centuries of established precedent, a gentle monk of exemplary holiness is elected Pope. My only major quarrel with it is that periodically Barnes interrupts its actions and illuminations to indulge his delusion that he can write original song lyrics. His uses (and parodies) of popular song along with opera and high church litany in earlier plays, like his constant streams of allusion to the most widely diverse literary sources were always enlightening and enriching, but his original lyrics tend to be monotonous in their language, abstract and general in their application – defects that Barnes' supercharged, concrete and minutely particularized writing otherwise declares explicit all-out war against. I'd advise him to avoid original lyrics altogether in future if it weren't for one heartbreakingly poignant, simple and beautiful lyric near the end of the play, an elegy by two parents at the hasty burial of their murdered son and I must say it's increasingly irritating how many different highly complex forms and styles of writing Barnes seems able to master, often in combinations that would have seemed impossible until he showed how the mix could be effected. If he can't even remain consistently incompetent at something he's tried and failed at I don't know – how do you set yourself to emulate the achievement of somebody who won't stand still at the highest observable pinnacle but keeps aspiring higher? How do you ground yourself thoroughly and simultaneously in realism and ecstasy? And yet how, once knowing it can be done, do you settle back and settle for less? Maybe there are reasons even for other writers not to want to rush to recognize and embrace the standard Barnes aspires to and fulfills, especially when there's so much easy money to be made in journalism and television.
MORRONE: I see the spheres turn like the potter's wheel and the earth suspended from the cord of Christ's love. I pray for you, Holy Father. You live and win and lose by winning. I die and lose and win by losing. In due time I will come to harvest. What I plant will grow and the world will change and the day will come when the stars will be as fair as they are in Eden, the sun as bright, the sea as pure and the earth without those miseries which destroy its peace and beauty and mankind will be without the briars and thorns of pride, greed and violence. Evil will be blown away – mere chaff and stubble – and the sky, Benedict, oh, the sky. But others must gather in these fruits, these fruits of love. – SUNSETS AND GLORIES, p. 85
(ii) HEAVEN'S BLESSINGS – which doesn't appear to have been produced anywhere as yet – is worse in that respect: every song a faceted gem. It may be a greater achievement in adaptation than his ENCHANTED APRIL, since his source, the Book of Tobit, conspicuously lacks humour, narrative thrust and any sharp sense of the miraculous in the everyday, at least in the only translation I've been able to consult. Barnes' theatrical transcription has an intense quieted fire, a quality at all times of simultaneous motion and stillness – a live fish jumping from a stream that's actually a bolt of blue cloth tossed out across the stage, shapes speaking intricate rhymes that symbolize both their whirling, indistinct nature and the wind that hurls them on (you can understand where this might be quite a trick to stage) – a quality so elusive it may be literally indescribable, though I'm just fool enough to try. It even gives the devil his due:
TOBIAS: What are you doing here?
ASMODEUS: Indulging in sin. I've fallen in love with a human being. Thought I hate the light, I marvel at her soul which shines so bright. I can hear my mother say, 'Asmodeus, demons do not love.'
TOBIAS: Where did you come from?
ASMODEUS: The other side of the mirror. There's a world compressed there, forced to repeat and repeat the actions of men and women, all things negative to your positive. If you look deep into mirrors, you'll see silent armies standing ready to break through with Cain, Esau, Korah, Dartha and the Planets leading, sword unsheathed, banners unfurling. – BARNES PLAYS THREE, p. 139
This 'compressed world' much resembles the mindscape of the principal characters in Barnes' full-length plays from THE RULING CLASS to LAUGHTER!, and in shorter works such as YESTERDAY'S NEWS, AFTER THE FUNERAL and SILVER BRIDGES, but Asmodeus' vision of it is richer and nobler than Gottleb's, Tsar Ivan's, the Lascas', the NOONDAY DEMONS vaudeville saints', Gould and Vanderbilt's, Ralph Gurney's or Anna's, Pontocarrero's or Motilla's or Froylan's, partly no doubt because a thoughtful devil is likelier to arrive at an integral vision than a human being who abjures thought as something unspeakably abhorrent, but also because HEAVEN'S BLESSINGS is expansive and airy in its style and vison, there's no place in it for a purely constrictive perspective.
More of this later.
Nowhere but this play are you likely to learn the interesting news that "Sheep are stupid, but sensitive with it."
"The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery." – George Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebook G, Aphorism 42
BYE BYE COLUMBUS, produced on BBC for the quincentennial in 1992, shows that it's not necessary to be greedy, inhuman, unscrupulous, alternately pushy, cringing, bullying as the occasion warrants, but always and everywhere a pathologically self-persuaded liar to be remembered by history as a great explorer – but it helps. Doesn't necessarily argue that mental glaucoma, sexual tension like razor wire dripping exclusive poison and an emotional life as bright and elevated as the craters pocking the dark side of the moon are characteristic of monarchical marriages, but Ferdinand and Isabella, like every royal coupling in his oeuvre, offer no evidence to counter this thesis, plenty in its support (which mightn't prove much if Barnes were a less scrupulous weigher of evidence). Torquemada has a brief, nasty cameo, a bit by-the-numbers compared to the all-out force of the auto da fe and inquisition sequences in THE BEWITCHED. What most intrigued me were the revelations of everyday greatness dredged up out of their burial grounds in historical footnotes, such as the seaman Martin Pinzon whose navigator's skill made Columbus' most famous and successful voyage possible. Columbus blamed Pinzon for the loss of the Santa Maria, but it was only thanks to Martin that his inept captain didn't wreck the Nina and Pinta too. (Of course with a name like that he'd have to be an heroic individual, and very likely much undervalued as well.) Or the fishermen who 'discovered' America long before Columbus and never thought to exploit it as a source of slaves and gold:
COLUMBUS: I'm paying one thousand maravidis a month plus shares in all spoils taken and found including gold, silver and precious gems for a few days' sailing West. . . who'll sign?. . . No one? I know you're frightened. . . It's sailing West into the unknown isn't it?
FIRST SEAMAN: No. . . at a time when gentlemen like you are winning fame and fortune exploring the oceans, we fishermen of Rouen and St. Malo are making two voyages a year to the banks of Newfoundland with the fog rolling in and the souls of dead seals barking soft in the distance. We stay at sea for months of fishing without ever taking shelter on land. But that won't be noted in the records nor remembered by future generations because it's all in a day's work, and we're only first seamen, and second seamen, men without names. We're unknown so how can we be frightened of the unknown? – BARNES PLAYS TWO, p. 327
The play also features one of the finest parrots in Barnes' entire body of work, the only one to double as the voice of God. I can't tell you much about a number of Peter Barnes' projects in recent years – the mini-series MERLIN and ARABIAN NIGHTS, the feature film VOICES FROM A LOCKED ROOM or his last completed work, BABIES, which aired on Granada TV in England shortly after his death, except that they all sound promising. I've been unsuccessful to date in tracking down reading or viewing copies, at least coincident with being able to afford them. THE ARABIAN NIGHTS seems exactly right for Peter Barnes, not only or even mainly because of the flamboyant invention in the tales, but because of the core premise: a woman who can save her own life only by the continual invention of new stories – stories so compelling her murderous husband would rather hear the finish of each one than, as originally planned, cut off her head.
I only saw NOAH'S ARK by sheerest chance – caught Peter Barnes' name in the credits as screenwriter and of course had to watch. It's a compromised project – with the exception of a few passages he selected himself, the accompanying music – far too much of a bad thing – is ersatz Mantovani. Not only because he's the only screenwriter listed, but because of stylistic signatures in the writing, he can't wholly evade the blame for weaknesses such as the lameness and lack of passion in Noah's children and their wives. But I seriously doubt anyone other than Barnes could have been responsible for the script's happiest inspirations: the conflation of Noah with Abraham which allows him to begin the story with the episode of Sodom's destruction; rapid cuts, in the scene where Sodom is fireballed into rubble, from a dove quaking in its cage to a kitten mewing into view from under a heap of rags in an alley, to a snake slithering along the parched earth below another clay-baked dwelling which explodes from within; a senile priest, presiding at the sacrifice of a virgin, who can't remember the order of the ceremony or what it's to accomplish; the attack by Lot on Noah's Ark, using fireballs that are smaller versions of God's own. Noah asks God: "Why do you speak to me in my own voice?", which echoes the exchange from THE RULING CLASS: "How do you know you're God?" "Simple. When I pray to him I find I'm talking to myself."
As always there are the bits of inside information nobody else but Barnes can supply: God is five feet tall; His Will is a wild-haired woman in white pancake make-up, rearing on a spotted horse.
Until I read the introduction and excerpted scenes from LUNA PARK ECLIPSES in New Theatre Quarterly I'd been puzzled by Barnes' remark in a letter that DREAMING would be his first major production in the capitol in nearly ten years. LUNA PARK ECLIPSES, three years previous, had been a small experimental production seen by twenty five people. Deliberately written in non sequiturs so as to force the reader/ viewer to construct meaning and story line actively or e'en do without, it bears a superficial resemblance to Theatre of the Absurd, but it's amazing how superficial the resemblance actually is. Stripped of conventional plot, characterization and sequential meaning, a Barnes piece still reverberates with concern and involvement; tonally and textually it's at odds with the detachment characteristic of absurdist writing.
This goes a long way to explaining why Barnes' approach to 'rewriting' a Shakespeare play in DREAMING is so different from Tom Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Richard of Gloucester – not yet Richard III – has the role of nemesis in DREAMING, but in terms of its action is an infrequent walk-on. Barnes doesn't milk the "Shakespeare from below" joke as Stoppard does, only has Richard half-quote himself twice. He doesn't emphasize either the pathos or comedy of nonentities being suddenly thrust centre stage, because none of his characters strike him as nonentities, not even Gloucester who is ineffably shallow.
A more illuminating contrast is between DREAMING, probably his finest work to date in the lyric style that has come to dominate the later plays, and the earlier masterworks written in clotted blood and blood-dark fire.
This is less a matter of opposed styles than of emerged and submerged tendencies. The rhapsodic voice of Jack Gurney the 14th Earl in his first mad phase as the God of love is a more hectic, embattled version of the resonating voice that increasingly dominates the later plays, but the social order – which only kills Father Flote, Peter Morrone and Mallory in the later plays, but is otherwise unable to touch them – murders Jack Gurney from within, soul and dreams and flesh, leaving him a bitter, brittle shell life as it did his father Ralph, should he survive to the same age they'll call him an old fossil. At all times, at least as far as their action is concerned (their impact on the receptive consciousness is quite the reverse) these plays show the ugly triumph of a constrictive, anti-human vision over every possibility for diversity, generosity and expansion. Da Vinci in LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER is the only other consistent visionary of openness, and he wins the small victory of not being proved wrong, only dangerously impractical at one crucial juncture. (On the other hand the world his assassins the Lascas live in is every way smaller and meaner than the world da Vinci dies out of, and as all these plays demonstrate, THE BEWITCHED and LAUGHTER! particularly, a smothered, asthmatic vision is always impractical, especially as the basis of a social order, since in that case it progressively strangulates a community individual by individual.)
THE BEWITCHED has no character who consistently voices humane, expansive ideals, and those that do momentarily are fresh out of epileptic fits, in desert exile or at the point of death. As for LAUGHTER!, it's considerable humane resonance is entirely conveyed by undertone, structure, ironic balance; its characters live in mental boxes fed by endlessly recircling dead air, all of them utter strangers to any wider possibility in life. It's hardly surprising if, once having so thoroughly anatomized the choked movement, strangled utterance and inwinding logic of the Fascist heart, Barnes has felt impelled to look for wider, airier vistas in his writing since.
Precisely the elements of social control that increasingly dominate and choke out life in the five early masterworks become progressively more peripheral in each later play, until Richard of Gloucester, who would have dominated an act in LAUGHTER!, is a minor figure in DREAMING. Greed, which manacled almost all the characters in THE RULING CLASS to their own skeletons, which prompted the drowning of Leonardo in a bucket symbolically aswim with every variety of human waste, is a primary motive with Richard, and has appalling consequences, but among the characters the play is really about, it infects only the boy Davey, in whom it's recognizably an adolescent fantasy he stands an excellent chance (until he is killed) of growing out of. What the play is chiefly about is the bewildering variety of alternate social visions that subsist within an oppressive social order and cannot ever be perfectly stifled. Early on his journey home Mallory encounters a priest burying a peasant, stifling with rhetoric the revolt brewing among his survivors. After he blows the priest into an open grave, Mallory advises the peasants on the logic of rebellion but refuses to lead them, probably wisely, since revolutions that are LED tend to shuffle rather than alter the social order. He encounters a tiny Utopia in a cheery tavern with a roaring fire, complete with man/parrot duet: "Friends/ Though one's got feathers and one's got none." (One of many examples in DREAMING of the joyous mirth Father Flote in RED NOSES thought might be possible in a better world. Increasingly Barnes shows it thriving in this world, and considers the ability to turn happy cartwheels of language, at the near edge of the abyss, a hopeful sign.) Mallory arrives home, greets his wife Sarah, daughter Anna, eats soup with Sarah, snuggles next her in bed only to wake next morning to an empty bed, deserted house, two crosses marking the graves. He is met in the dust and ashes by fellow ex-soldiers Skelton and Davy and camp follower Bess, who succor him in his grief. He meets a woman, Susan Beaufort, one of two survivors of a mass poisoning by Richard (Bess becomes romantically entangled with the other, the ex-priest Jethro Kell). After marrying her under the delusion she is his dead wife Sarah, Mallory with his entire party flies across England to join forces with the Welsh Beauforts against Richard, arriving (Susan and Mallory only, the others all dying en route) just in time to see the Beaufort estate torched and smoking. Too late, but never mind. Real and awful as the play's horrors are, they reverberate less than its ultimate grandeur: the powerful individual force of its main characters, the bond of friendship that links them in an unbreakable, uncoerced unity.
MALLORY: Some kind of hero, me, with a sliver of ice in the heart. Not a hero's heart. So why did they follow my dream?
SUSAN: Most lives're matter of fact. We go here and there, do this, do that, and count the days. We're practical. . . we have to be. We build things and knock things down, eat, procreate and die. You gave us something else.
MALLORY: But I was never sure what it was.
SUSAN: But you believed it, that's enough!
MALLORY: I failed.
SUSAN: No, you let us glimpse another world.
MALLORY: Another world.
MALLORY: I'm thinking of another world. . .
The snow falls heavily, as they huddle closer. – DREAMING, PP. 71-72
Please to pay for me my best thanks to Miss Poole: tell her that I wish her a continued excess of Happiness – some say that Happiness is not Good for Mortals, & they ought to be answer'd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any one; a blight never does good to a tree, & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit, let none say the fruit was in consequence of the blight. – William Blake
My first experience of Googling was an attempt to learn what new Peter Barnes projects might be coming up, which instead led to the discovery that he'd died, suddenly and unexpectedly, the previous summer; that put me off the service for nearly a month. When I finally Googled Alasdair Gray it was with fear and trembling, but last I checked he was doing fine.
There were other, happier surprises. The year before, his second wife had given birth to triplets, which made him briefly notorious in the tabs (triplets in your seventies apparently being news in a way that merely writing a significant number of the finest plays in the history of the world is not), and inspired his last, most personal work, BABIES (posthumously telecast by Granada).
Not long afterward I read that Christopher Fry died at 97 which was a surprise. I hadn't known he was still alive.
Certainly he'd done no new work in decades, even up to the rather slight standards of his best work such as THE DARK IS LIGHT ENOUGH.
Peter could have made good use of another 24 years. The amount of fine work he was doing right up until the end suggests there was every reason to picture him going on till his dying day whenever that might be. He even wrote a masterpiece of criticism in those last years – a study for the British Film Institute of Ernst Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Masterpieces of criticism are far rarer than masterpieces of drama or fiction because it's not a requirement, any more than it is for journalism, that a critic be able to write, and most never learn how to.
(Strictly speaking, it's no more a requirement in drama and literature, but story-telling is a more primal urge, and sometimes people will write, even thoughtfully, even against explicit instructions from publishers and producers.)
Two passages from this study can be conflated into an informal artistic credo:
As in all the best comedy, the seriousness is *in* the comedy, not outside it. Every good joke must be a small revolution. In the great classic comedies of stage, film or novel, the jokes and gags themselves contain the deeper meaning critics crave. . . In the end I believe the only thing in the theatre that has the ring of truth is comedy.
[. . .]
Reality is more theatrical than the theatre. It is why naturalism looks so unreal and comedy so much truer than tragedy, which sentimentalises violence, misery and death and poeticises rotting corpses by calling them noble. The artistic rendering of the physical pain of those who are beaten down with rifle butts and iron bars contains the possibility that profit can be squeezed from it. Tragedy makes the unthinkable appear to have some meaning. It becomes transfigured, without the horror being removed, and so justice is denied to the victims. Comedy does not tell such pernicious lies. – TO BE OR NOT TO BE, pp.51-52, p. 77