What has become of the workers ‘movement that inspired the great workers’ plays?

WATCHING Unity Theater, Theater Workshop and Ewan MacColl’s plays from the 1930s to the nuclear age, Alan Riach wonders what happened to the labor movement that inspired them?

Last week we were talking about the “popular” and “bourgeois” plays of Joe Corrie and James Bridie respectively and refused to oppose them. In the history of Scottish theater, the complex whole is more important. But the story of specifically working-class experiences transformed into plays needs to be further exposed. Two companies and an extraordinary writer are at the center.

Unity Theater Company was established in 1940, drawing on various leftist theater troupes in the 1930s in America and abroad. Across the UK, Unity was a radical initiative initially generated by amateur companies, two of which turned fully professional after World War II, in London and Glasgow.

Glasgow Unity helped found the Edinburgh Fringe with productions such as their Scottish version of The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky (1947). They produced pieces by Joe Corrie, Robert McLeish with The Gorbals Story (1946) and Ena Lamont Stewart (1912-2006) in Men Should Weep (1947).

James Bridie’s criticism of them may have sparked some of the later antipathy towards his own work. From our point of view, it is more interesting to see these different aspects of Scottish theater as complementary. An alternative to the international, commercial, subsidized and official Edinburgh Festival, which frequently neglected Scottish work, was the People’s Festival (originally from 1951 to 1954, and relaunched in 2002).

Theater Workshop, founded in Manchester (England), by Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) and Ewan MacColl (1915-89) was also engaged. After the war Littlewood moved to the Theater Royal Stratford East in London and developed the company’s most famous production, Oh! What a beautiful war (1963).

The Scottish branch of Theater Workshop produced MacColl’s Johnny Noble (1945), a documentary ballad-opera. In his introduction to the anthology Agit-Prop to Theater Workshop: Political Playscripts 1930-50 (1986), MacColl recalled his first plays in the 1930s: at first he and his comrades had no the feeling that they were involved in art, but were rather “guerrillas using the theater as a weapon against the capitalist system”. It wasn’t until working on a screenplay that contained a passage from Gorky that he realized that there was “art” in it.

Later, in Last Edition, written with Littlewood, MacColl presented “Extracts from a Living Newspaper”: new staged on stage.

Imagine it: instead of rolling sound bites delivered into snapshots by overpaid newspaper presenters on a TV screen, you have live actors on a nearby stage presenting the human facts of reports, unemployed people, taken in a disaster pit, or the Spanish Civil War, or the results of the Munich Pact.

Immediately after World War II, MacColl wrote Uranium 235 (1946), asking what atomic energy threatened for the future. It set a precedent for the television series Edge of Darkness (1985) by Scottish screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009), in which the conflict between moral justice, business priorities, political authority and the nuclear industry is laid bare in a devastating context. dramatic story. Both books raise other unresolved questions.

Uranium 235 was published in 1948 with an introduction by Hugh MacDiarmid in which he identified its affinity with the 16th century Satyr of the Thrie Estaitis by David Lyndsay. Here, too, the people “subjected their leaders to the salutary test of ridicule.” The Satyr was produced at the Edinburgh Festival the same year, so MacDiarmid was timely. Inevitably, he said, Lyndsay’s play would be “shortened, rounded and modified” and it remains doubtful “whether such freedom would be granted to the arts in Scotland today as it was in Lyndsay’s day.

Nevertheless, he assures us, Uranium 235 is part of “a multifaceted movement to create a Scottish national drama”.

Uranium 235 begins with the scientist: “We have, if I may say so, over the last few years, made tremendous changes in what can be called the map of human knowledge… We can change the face of the Earth in two. generations.

Meanwhile, the Crooner sings, “Have fun, it’s later than you think, have fun while you’re still in the pink.”

And a voice comes into a microphone that tells about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War, the British in Malaysia and Greece, the French in Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Americans in Korea, etc. The coin has been updated over the years after it was first released. His argument is intact: “Men, women and children are dying by the millions because we couldn’t bother to think. If we don’t eat we will starve and if we don’t think we will die.

The play takes us from Athens, 470 BC. But since Democritus revealed that everything is made of atoms, parity has become defensible: a slave is worth a senator. This is not philosophy, the businessman tells us, it is treason. After that ? A woman can challenge her husband, a soldier, the general’s right to give orders.

And so on until 1300 AD, then 1450, then 1550, then the 19th century, with scientific discoveries leading up to the coin’s current era, the mid-20th century. After the intermission, a new character, the Puppet Master, appears, noting, “Everyone is a stage.” The scientist replies: “Yes, but we have not reserved the world for our production. And laughing, the Puppet Master replies, “No, but I did.” ”

And the final fugue of the descent ends with a shudder: “Act One, 1914. Rehearsal for Act Two, 1936. Act Two, 1939. Act Three…” Winsdscale, 1957; Kyshtym, USSR, 1958; Detroit, United States, 1966; West Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan and Three Mile Island, 1979. And in Great Britain, at the end of the play, we note the Magnox reactors of Windscale and Hunterston, Chapel Cross and Dungeness, Hinkley Point, Dounreay , time bombs in the daycare. They will take care of all our problems. After them, there are no problems. They do more than electricity. They generate a poison which causes cancer in the bones and the flesh, we kill ourselves, our children, our families and our friends.

A woman speaks: “You don’t seem to understand what’s at stake… Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and it takes about 10 half-lives for a radioactive material to become harmless. This means that plutonium must be kept out of the environment for a quarter of a million to half a million years. If at any time during this period it is released into the environment, the land and water are poisoned forever. ”

The puppeteer comments: “We can stop them, you know! “It won’t be easy, but” Do you think we could think about it? It is worth thinking about it.

And the Woman adds: “But don’t delay too long.

MacColl’s work is essential to the history of workers’ theater in Scotland, the revival of folk song, Hamish Henderson recording traditional singers literally on the pitch, the scholarly reassessment of folk culture at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh , and the literary significance of oral and textual culture, anti-nuclear folk songs of the 1950s and 1960s.

All are linked to this knot of politicized literary and scholarly activities, plays, songs, poems and demonstrations. And what was once the labor movement.

Where is he now ?


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