Read an Excerpt
Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre
By Robert Leach
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2006 Robert Leach
All rights reserved.
Class Against Class
The 1926 General Strike was a marvellous 'performance'. It had almost no direct political impact, but it conveyed a whiff of revolution and exposed the smooth betrayal of the workers by their political and trade union leaders. Its enactment set the political stage for the next decade or more, when politics was often best understood as performance: the Jarrow 'Crusade', the ritualised mass signing of 'Peace Pledge' cards, even Ramsay MacDonald's Palace Revolution, a sort of Shakespearean usurpation, after which, he claimed, 'every Duchess in England would want to kiss me'. During the General Strike, the participants played (and watched) cricket, went to concerts and attended theatrical performances. But the reality of capitalism remained, along with its crisis and the depression of the workers.
In the deepening slump, the working class were apparently 'extras', largely unable to influence what was happening. They were too exhausted by a home life of poverty in perhaps a two-room slum with a shared outdoor privy, and racked by disease—polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis and rickets. At work, 'rationalisation' was the vogue word: it meant processes speeded up, multiple sackings and wage cuts. The depression lent life a 'quality of fatality', made it seem an almost 'impersonal calamity'.
Yet working-class life was not without its drama, as Ewan MacColl discovered. The factory where his father worked was
An awesome, exciting place. The glare of the open furnace bathes everything in a fiery glow, the heaps of sand on the floor, the iron rails with the bogies on them and the giant ladles. And there is the noise, the scream of compressed air from the fettling room, the sustained roar of the furnaces, the clank of metal and the rattle of steel chains as the overhead gantry lowers its grab for a tub of newly tapped molten metal. Then a hooter sounds. 'Stand back there,' says my father as he pushes me against a wall, 'don't move!' And suddenly the air is filled with a swirling mass of yellow cloud. For a minute or two I am convinced that I am choking to death. As it begins to clear the moulders and their apprentices appear like devils struggling through the flames of hell. One of them pulls me to him and gives me a quick hug. His shirt smells scorched. It is my father, though he looks different here in the foundry.
It was not the same kind of performance as that of politics, but it was not necessarily less dramatic. More tragic were the accidents at work, which often devastated working-class lives. The lack of any sort of National Insurance provision or employers' liability—the reason for MacColl's father's anxiety for his son—greatly intensified the suffering. When 265 miners and three rescuers were killed in a terrible pit disaster at Gresford Colliery in North Wales in 1934, those left behind had no recourse to compensation, despite a spirited performance on their behalf—and for no fee—by Sir Stafford Cripps, a left-wing barrister who put their case to the official inquiry. The truth was recorded in a grim folk ballad of the time:
A fortnight before the explosion,
To the shotfirer Tomlinson cried,
'If you fire that shot we'll be all blown to hell,'
And no-one can say that he lied.
The fireman's reports they are missing,
The records of forty-two days;
The colliery manager had them destroyed
To cover his criminal ways.
The Lord Mayor of London's collecting
To help both our children and wives.
The owners have sent some white lilies
To pay for the poor colliers' lives.
After 1926, the overwhelming majority of working-class people, when they thought of politics, probably thought of themselves as 'Labour'. But the Communist Party, which had been founded in 1920 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, seemed an increasing threat to this allegiance. The struggle between the two groupings was fierce and lasted until the Second World War. Labour tried to purge the movement of Communists, while the Communists labelled Labour members 'social fascists' and promulgated a policy of 'class against class'. When Labour won the election of 1929, the working class, and especially the poor, looked to the new government for relief. They got little. In August 1931, the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, discarded Labour in favour of the Conservatives and his duchesses. 'Class against class', indeed!
That September, in economic crisis, the now 'National' government cut the wages of—among others—the armed forces. Immediately, large numbers of naval ratings stationed at Invergordon, apparently organised by Communists, mutinied. They held a series of meetings and effectively went on strike. The government was forced to backtrack, there was a run on the pound, and MacDonald, perhaps panicking, called a general election. The incident was to stimulate a popular workers' drama, The Spirit of Invergordon, but the election results did not justify such progressive hopes. MacDonald's soi-disant 'National' government was returned with 551 MPs. The combined opposition totalled 57 MPs.
With Labour thus enfeebled, the 1930s seemed a decade of opportunity for the Communists. Their membership, a little over 2,000 in 1930, rose steadily to reach nearly 20,000 by 1939. To people who were idealistic and angry about the ongoing situation, Communism offered the apparently real dream of belonging to a movement that was changing the world. Many were proud of their membership of the Comintern, were inspired by Russia, and supported all the contacts with the Soviet Union that could be arranged. These were often cultural and theatrical—the Russian Ballet visited Britain, the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin found dedicated minority followings, and when the Moscow Art Theatre visited London in 1928 even The Times was excited by its ensemble, commenting on the 'quality of collective understanding conveyed to the audience in a group of performances so fused in imagination that they give an impression of one performance, not of an aggregate of personal achievements'. The Communist theory, propagated in the newly established Daily Worker, was that economic strikes would lead to political strikes, which in turn would lead to revolution. Consequently, though few in number, Communists were always to be found at the battlefront of the class war, and they added a noisy, flamboyant, even theatrical, element to the workers' struggles.
Most significantly, many Communists fought alongside the unemployed, whose numbers inexorably rose to one and a half million at the end of 1929, and then dramatically to over three and a half million by the middle of 1932. The government seemed powerless against this, and when a delegation of the unemployed visited the Ministry of Labour in 1929, they were ejected by the police. But unemployment was real enough, and terrible enough. It meant genuine hunger, a feeling of uselessness, and exclusion from the social and cultural life of the community. 'Nothing to do with time; nothing to spend; nothing to do tomorrow nor the day after; nothing to wear; can't get married. A living corpse; a unit of the spectral army of three million lost men.' George Orwell calculated that two million unemployed men meant effectively over ten million persons underfed.
The Communists organised the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM), though they struggled to keep control of it: Wal Hannington, the NUWM leader, sat on the party's Central Committee for most of the 1920s and 1930s, except between 1932 and 1935. The NUWM demanded 'work or full maintenance', and by 1932 it boasted 37,000 members, paying fourpence per month in 386 branches. A prime function of NUWM was to reduce out-of-work men's personal and social alienation, and to provide mutual support for each other. They held meetings, organised educational activities and mounted demonstrations, for instance outside labour exchanges after Lord Trenchard, chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, banned them from meeting there. As a consequence, pitched battles between police and unemployed workers were fought across London for weeks.
They particularly protested against the cruelty and humiliation of the means test, an extraordinarily intrusive way of judging an unemployed person's circumstances, but without the results of which no 'dole' could be paid. Its potency may be judged by the case of a man named Taylor, whose body was found in December 1932 in the Birmingham canal. At the inquest,
The widow said that her husband had been very depressed and nervous on account of being out of work. There had been a decided change in his condition since 12 November when he had to go before the means test committee in connection with his benefit. A son said his father's benefit had been reduced under the means test, from 27s 3d per week to 10s 9d. The coroner.... in recording a verdict of 'suicide whilst temporarily insane,' said, 'This man's worries following a "means test" provided the last push sufficient to make him temporarily insane and in that state he threw himself into the canal.'
Situations such as this were repeated many times.
In response, the NUWM organised 'Hunger Marches', the first in 1927, but with increasing efficiency and impressiveness over the following eight years. In January 1929 they marched from Scotland to London, gathering supporters all the way. In March and April 1930, marchers converged on the capital from all over Britain. At the end of the 1932 march, over 200,000 people attended the final rally in Trafalgar Square. The marches were colourful, raucous and theatrical, especially at the rallies held along the way and at the climax of the event. There were bands, banners and a scaffold stage for the speakers bedecked with bunting, slogans and flags. The marchers sang songs, the 'Internationale', the 'Red Flag', and others such as (to the tune of 'The Youthful Guardsman'):
From Scotland we are marching,
From shipyard, mill and mine,
Our scarlet banners raise on high,
We toilers are in line.
For victory we'll fight: we'll show the enemy our might.
Chorus: We are the Hunger Marchers of the Proletariat,
We are the Hunger Marchers of the Proletariat.
These demonstrations roused the ire of their opponents, and street battles between police and the unemployed were vicious but regular occurrences across Britain. Thus, in the autumn of 1932, bloody battles were fought in Liverpool and Birkenhead, West Ham, Belfast and other places in September; in October, police, backed by Coldstream Guards, attacked over 100,000 demonstrators in Hyde Park, and there were further battles in Trafalgar Square and across London. In Glasgow, 50,000 unemployed fought with police all day on 1 October. The battle lasted till midnight, and flared again next day. In Birkenhead
The police, without any apparent reason, made a baton charge. Unemployed and employed workers stood their ground, and one policeman was thrown through a plate-glass window. The crowd took up the offensive and the police were ultimately compelled to run; but they rallied again, and a pitched battle ensued. Workers tore up railings to defend themselves and the fighting went on until past eleven at night, thirty-seven policemen being carried to hospital. Most of the wounded among the workers were taken into the homes of their class to have their wounds dressed, in order that they should not be marked for police arrest.
If it sounds like the Wars of the Roses, it was certainly as violent, and as dramatic.CHAPTER 2
The World of the Theatre
On the seething stew of social, political and unemployed life—part epic, part melodrama—the British theatre resolutely turned its back. The leading academic theatre historian of the time, Allardyce Nicoll, commented in 1936: 'The English theatre, lacking the spirit for experimentation, is artistically and mentally moribund'. In performance it employed a form of diluted naturalism, which Joan Littlewood called 'representationalism', and it determinedly excluded intellectual or 'highbrow' plays, and perhaps especially drama from the European continent. Ibsen was much too modern and dangerous!
The Fabians, Granville Barker and Bernard Shaw, had made some attempt to raise political issues in their plays before 1914, and so had the Suffragettes, especially Elizabeth Robins, Cicely Hamilton and Githa Sowerby. But Shaw was decidedly 'safe' by 1930 and, since women had been given the vote, the awkward women playwrights had been discarded. Isolated examples of more challenging drama, such as Joe Corry's In Time of Strife, about the 1926 General Strike, or R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, set at the front in the First World War, are still powerful, but both are wholly naturalistic in form. More unusual, perhaps, was Hubert Griffith's Red Sunday, telling the story of the Russian Revolution, and structured around the relationship between Lenin and Trotsky, though with scenes of the murder of Rasputin, the tsar's abdication, and so on. A collage of swift, naturalistic scenes, it opened at the Arts Theatre, a private club, in London, on 27 June 1929. Formally more daring than In Time of Strife or Journey's End, Red Sunday nevertheless lacks the kind of epic form its content cries out for; and its production was met by a leading article excoriating it in The Times and by the Lord Chamberlain with a total ban on public performances.
Part of the problem was that information about the more challenging and experimental theatre of Europe was not easy to find. A few articles in often obscure magazines were published, and there were a few books about it, most notably perhaps Leon Moussinac's The New Movement in the Theatre, published in Britain in 1931. Proclaiming theatre 'a visual experience', Moussinac presented a series of large photographic plates of contemporary European productions, mostly from Russia, Germany and France, with several from the USA and just three from Britain. We no longer ask for beauty, that dead thing', he declared, 'but for the shock-values'. His analysis of the history of theatre was startling to conventional British wisdom:
Once the idea of a stage-property had suggested itself there was no end to the number of accessories that the actor found he required, until finally the art of acting was degraded to the practice of dressing up in real diamonds in order to be drowned—and why not really drowned? we feel obliged to ask—in hundreds of gallons of real water.
Decrying naturalism as a 'superstition' and its audiences as 'stupid and docile', he argued that the contemporary Russian theatre had destroyed these 'obsolete conventions'. He quoted 'the Communist' director, Vsevolod Meyerhold—'I construct the idea: a scaffold is enough for me'—and included photographs of his boldest Soviet productions, The Magnanimous Cuckold and Ostrovsky's The Forest, pointing out how Meyerhold's Constructivist stage was 'bare in its length and breadth, so that not an inch of its dimensions is lost to the audience'. The setting then had the function of 'a gymnastic apparatus in a circus, giving play to the performance of the actors, and placing their gestures and movements in relief. For the theatre is in its nature a realm of action.'
Moussinac's book showed other productions from Russia, including by Vakhtangov and Tairov, as well as German works by Karlheinz Martin, Leopold Jessner, Erwin Piscator's The Adventures of Gallant Private Schwejk, Hoppla, wir leben! by Ernst Toller, Rasputin, and Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny (sic). All these suggested that naturalist characterisation had now given way to a 'new gallery of types', and Moussinac compared Communist theatre to the commedia dell'arte, pointing also to the way the Russian revolutionary theatre troupes performed in halls and factories, and on street corners, rather as commedia troupes had. The 'enthusiasm' necessary for this theatre 'is a mass phenomenon', Moussinac continued, 'and is manifested only by the masses. Only a people's theatre can achieve this intensity [...] The Russians are the Greeks of the modern world.'
Excerpted from Theatre Workshop by Robert Leach. Copyright © 2006 Robert Leach. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.