September 9, 2007

Last News of Peter

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

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

C 2005 Martin Heavisides

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