Forgotten authors No.29: Peter Barnes

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The Independent Culture

As the arteries of theatreland clog with clapped-out musicals, serious playwrights are more in danger of being forgotten than most novelists. Plays wither if they fail to enter repertoires; the shock of their experience fades, and only the scripts remain. Peter Barnes is still often misunderstood by critics seeking easy tags. His work was elaborately constructed, intellectually rigorous and controversial, his language exact and demanding. (It must have been a bugger to memorise.)

Barnes was born in Bow in 1931, but his parents moved to a coastal town to run an amusement arcade. Appropriately, his best writing links death and satire to create a dark carnival atmosphere. A part-time theologist, screenwriter and film critic, Barnes was one of the great proponents of anti-naturalism, a dazzling response to the dreary kitchen sink novels and plays of the Fifties. A number of authors including Peter Nichols, John Antrobus and Alan Bennett started incorporating surrealism, disjunction and Pirandello-esque antics into their work. Barnes wrote The Ruling Class, a satire about power that concerns a mad earl and his identification with Christ. (Asked how he knows he's Jesus, his lordship replies, "It's simple. When I pray to him I find I'm talking to myself.") A film version with Peter O'Toole was brave but problematic. Barnes proved too uncomfortable for middle-class audiences, never more so than in Laughter!, a horrifying but deeply moral comedy about office workers providing the paperwork for crematorium chimneys in Auschwitz, who are forced to realise their complicity.

Barnes later softened a little to write period comedies and monologues (perhaps because he became the father of triplets in his seventies), but not before turning out Red Noses, one of the few slapstick comedies set during the time of the Black Death. For this raucous tale of a troupe of performers touring afflicted French villages, he won a well-deserved Olivier award. His screenplay for the film Enchanted April secured an Oscar nomination, and his history plays became more naturalistic, although he was always capable of dazzling coups de théâtre. Barnes wrote: "Write what you know is good advice for journalists. I write what I imagine, believe, fear, think." His intense, rarely performed plays are available as books. To read them now is to appreciate how much the theatre of ideas has lately lost its nerve.