(Swans - July 26, 2010) It is almost seven years since Peter Barnes "checked out" on July l, 2004, but recollections of him never seem to cease. He and I went back to "the early days." He was one of the first writers I met when I arrived in London in the late 1950s and the one with whom I forged the strongest ties. Gillian Watt and his first wife Charlotte went out constantly on double dates, mostly to movies that Peter ruthlessly demolished in coffee-klatches afterwards. All screenwriters and playwrights seemed to be in a diabolical conspiracy to foist rubbish and keep his own works from public view.
Peggy Ramsay, the legendary literary agent, had sent me a copy of Sclerosis that, during a period of pathological Artaud-worship, struck me as the only contemporary play I had read that truly captured the sprit of Theatre of Cruelty. This was long before my collaboration with Peter Brook during the Theatre of Cruelty Season at the Royal Shakespeare Company and long before Artaud had emerged from the shadows as an intriguing theorist and pervasive theatrical influence. I directed it at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and then at the Aldwych, for a Sunday-night performance; the first Peter Barnes play professionally-staged in England. It was given a rough ride by some army veterans in the audience who took it to be a slur against the British occupation army in Cyprus. Peter's works were always offending somebody or other.
In those days, he wrote scorching little plays animated by malice and spite in which comedy and cruelty would regularly copulate. They revealed a palsied, Jonsonian view of humanity without a smidgen of sentimentality and were usually unredeemed by warmth or sympathy. They were always crudely funny, but even when they weren't funny, their crudeness had a lively Rabelaisian zest about them that made you snicker even when it didn't make you laugh. Peter adored Ben Jonson and the sprit of that cynical curmudgeon informed all of his best work.
When I directed Laughter at the Royal Court, there was the same backwash of revulsion. Jokes about Auschwitz and the concentration camps! Really, there has to be some limits even to bad taste, people complained. But, of course, with Peter there never was. Once his humor got right down to the bone, it started drilling through the calcium.
For several years, I tried to interest managements in Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, an assault on patronizing middle-class attitudes towards the poor exemplified by an altruistic couple who adopt a homeless drifter with disastrous results for one and all. It got as far as an option by an American producer and talks with Jason Robards in Hollywood, but ultimately unraveled; again the general consensus seemed to be it oozed with "bad taste." I did present a staged reading of the play in Malibu some years back and affluent members of the community, mirror-images of the respectable couple who took in the vagrant "Charlie," expressed their disgust to me in letters and phone calls. "Not a proper play for the Malibu community," I was told and they were probably right -- although anything deeper than Charlie's Aunt would, by the same measure, fail to please.
I was supposed to direct Peter's The Ruling Class in Nottingham. I had been with the play since its inception and even edited an early version for production but, when it came to pass, it clashed with the transfer of Fortune and Men's Eyes from The Open Space to the Comedy Theatre and it was simply impossible to do both at the same time. I don't think Peter ever entirely forgave me for opting for Fortune but it was the first West End transfer for The Open Space and my loyalties had to be there. We had a rapprochement a while later when I directed Leonardo's Last Supper and Noonday Demons, two short bitter plays of Peter's premiered at the Open Space.
Peter Barnes was probably the most brilliant anti-social playwright England produced in the last quarter of the 20th century. By "anti-social" I mean a writer who never bought into the genteel value-system that was swallowed whole by most of his contemporaries. He was fed up with a cruel kind of Britishness that corrupted politics and reveled in a sort of laissez-faire morality. The world, as he saw it, was full of chiselers and con-men, hypocrites and grifters, who were either ludicrous or malevolent or both. His cynicism was bred in the bone and so cunningly, that he could defer it at will and appear to be a member of the moral majority when the occasion arose. He was ruthlessly honest and honestly outraged by mendacity. It was a taste that took some getting used to, although many in England never felt inclined to acquire it.
They say that with a second marriage and a cluster of infants, he mellowed towards the end, but I doubt it. The Peter Barnes I knew was an unreformable maverick -- which is why we loved him. He had the temerity to reveal to the British public lies and deceptions that even now are still cherished. Wherever in limbo Peter may be, his unpalatable truths still rankle and always will.
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