Peter Barnes (playwright)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Peter Barnes (10 January 1931 – 1 July 2004) was an English Olivier Award-winning playwright and screenwriter. His most famous work is the play The Ruling Class, which was made into a 1972 film for which Peter O'Toole received an Oscar nomination.

Barnes was educated at Marling School in Stroud, Gloucestershire and performed his national service with the Royal Air Force. After this he spent a short period working for London County Council.

Bored with his job, Barnes took a correspondence course in theology. It was at this time that he began to visit the British Museum reading room, which he used as an office on a daily basis. During this period he worked as a film critic, story editor, and a screenwriter. He achieved critical and box-office success with his baroque comedy The Ruling Class (1968), which debuted at the Nottingham Playhouse. The play was notorious for its anti-naturalistic approach, unusual in theatre at the time. Critic Harold Hobson deemed it to be one of the best first plays of its generation. Following a successful three-month run in the West End, Barnes adapted the play for the 1972 film of the same name, which featured a highly acclaimed performance by Peter O'Toole.

Mature works[edit]

Following his initial success, Barnes wrote a series of plays offering apocalyptic visions of various periods in history:

  • Leonardo's Last Supper (1969) portrayed Leonardo da Vinci being prematurely declared dead, with his subsequent "resurrection" in a filthy charnel-house.
  • The Bewitched (1974), which he produced with the RSC, showed the Spanish state attempting to produce an heir for Carlos II, whom Barnes portrayed as being impotent and imbecile.
  • Laughter! (1978) was his most controversial work, a double-bill that jumped from the reign of Ivan the Terrible to a satire based on the tedious bureaucracy required to sustain Auschwitz.
  • Red Noses (1985) depicts a sprightly priest, originally played by Antony Sher, who travelled around the plague-affected villages of 14th century France with a band of fools, known as God's Zanies, offering holy assistance. It was for this play that Barnes won his Olivier award.

Later life[edit]

In his later years Barnes turned his attention more in the direction of films, radio, and television. His screenplay for Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April earned him a nomination for the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1992. He also wrote several hugely successful mini-series for U.S. television, including Arabian Nights, Merlin and Noah's Ark. For BBC Radio 3 he wrote a series of monologues entitled Barnes's People, for which he attracted a large number of well known actors: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. His television miniseries for ABC and NBC were the most popular miniseries of the day with record audiences.

Barnes did carry on writing his historical comedies throughout the 1990s. These include Sunsets and Glories (1990), Dreaming which transferred to London's West End (1999), and Jubilee (2001). He was the Royal Shakespeare Company's most produced living playwright at the time.

Barnes's second wife, Christie, gave birth to his first daughter Leela in 1998 when he was 67. Barnes, who received much American mainstream media attention for his movies and acclaimed US television miniseries in later life, quickly became a tabloid obsession in 2002 when his wife gave birth again, this time to triplets Abigail, Nathaniel and Zachary, who are now all actors and are following their father's path in Hollywood as well as their sister Leela. Wife Christie became a nationally acclaimed author of the parenting book, The Paranoid Parents Guide. She also works with entertainment agencies and casting directors in entertainment career development and career consulting.

The last play that Barnes completed was Babies, which is based on his experiences as an elderly father. Barnes's film scripts continue to be produced after his death including Easy Virtue with Colin Firth, Kristen Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel. John Irvin directed his Moon and the Stars with Alfred Molina about the film business in 1930's Rome. A notable revival of his Noonday Demons was produced by renowned theatre designer John Napier. Barnes television miniseries are shown yearly as holiday favorites.

Selected filmography[edit]


  • Woolland, Brian (2004). Dark Attractions: The Theatre of Peter Barnes. London, Methuen, ISBN 0-413-77442-2.

External links[edit]