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Last updated:06 May 2015

Political Theatre in Britain 1928-1986

By Howard Goorney

Epilogue to the collection: Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop, Political Playscripts 1930-1950

Though all theatre is, in a broad sense 'political', the term 'political theatre' has been accepted as defining a left-wing theatre, critical of the capitalist system and expressing in its work the need for radical change.

The first organised political theatre in this country was the Workers' Theatre Movement, which spanned the period from 1928 to 1938. 1968 saw the upsurge of alternative theatre and the formation of several socialist theatre groups. Linking these two movements was the pre-war work of Theatre Union in Manchester and the post-war work of Theatre Workshop.

The Workers' Theatre Movement of the thirties, as important a cultural and political manifestation in its own time as the alternative movement of the seventies, has been almost completely ignored in the mainstream of writing on theatre history, and such information as is available is limited, in the main, to specialist journals such as History Workshop.

The third edition of the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, though it claims 'an effort has been made to provide information on every aspect of the theatre up to the end of 1964' has nothing to say on the subject. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of World Theatre, published by Thames and Hudson in 1977, deals solely, in seventy words, with agitational theatre in the U.S.S.R. and Germany before the Second World War, though Theatre Union does get a brief mention under 'Littlewood'. Methuen's Encyclopedia of World Drama, published in 1970, and the Penguin Dictionary of Theatre have no entry under Street theatre, Agit-Prop or Political theatre. Surprisingly, even David Edgar wrote in the Theatre Quarterly of winter 1979, 'There are two reasons why 1968 can be taken as the starting date of political theatre in Britain'.

Uranium 235: a documentary play by Ewan MacCollPolitical theatre goes back even earlier than the start of the Workers' Theatre Movement in 1928, but that year marks the beginning of an attempt to organise left-wing theatre on a comparatively widespread scale. It was directly agitational, rejecting completely all the theatrical conventions of the time, embracing the class-struggle and identifying itself closely with the Communist Party. The revolutionary nature of its work was unable to survive the formation of the Popular Front in 1936 - the alliance between the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the left wing of the Labour Party. Also, unemployment had declined, industrial strife was easing and progressive forces felt that the urgent need was to unite against what was then seen as the main danger- the rise of fascism all over Europe. To alert a broader section of the people to this new threat, the direct, simple sketches of street agit-prop had to give way to indoor theatre, full-length plays and, consequently, the need to improve the artistic and technical levels of performance. Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl had led the way with Theatre of Action in Manchester as early as 1934, culminating in the production of Last Edition in 1940, paving the way for the even more complex requirements of plays like Uranium 235 in the post-war years.

Though little has been documented of the many groups that made up the Workers' Theatre Poster advertising Underneath by John McGrath, performed by 7:84 theatre companyMovement a great deal is known about the present-day alternative theatre. Unlike the Workers' Theatre Movement it is an accepted part of the theatrical scene. Until recently public subsidy has been available to many of them on the basis of their merit. Now, in the political climate of the 1980s, these are being withdrawn from the more radical groups such as 7:84 and they are now fighting for their survival. Many of its writers are established 'names' and their plays are published. Some of these, like John Arden, David Mercer, John McGrath, had been writing since the fifties, but 1968 marked the beginning of the upsurge of left-wing theatre groups in this country, alongside other theatre groups with no specific political commitment.

It is significant that the formation in 1928 of the Workers' Theatre Movement and the rise of political theatre in the late sixties both had, as their springboard, a rejection of orthodox Labour politics and the need to seek out a more radical solution to the injustices of capitalism though the differences in the economic conditions of the two periods was considerable. 1928 was a time of depression, high unemployment and poverty, and the Workers' Theatre Movement, born out of discontent and struggle, was an integral pan of the political movement of the working class. 1968 on the other hand, was a time of comparative prosperity, unemployment was low and the recession had not yet bit the consumer society. Nevertheless, the Labour government that had come to power in 1964 had failed to effect any of the expected radical changes. From the resulting disillusionment and the political awareness of students, intellectuals and young theatre workers, some of whom were from the working class, sprang the theatre of protest. Some groups adopted agit-prop techniques, taking their theatre to non-theatrical venues: halls, clubs, pubs, community centres, places of work and out on to the streets, in much the same way as the Workers' Theatre Movement had done.

Flyer for a Theatre Workshop production of The Quare Fellow by Brendan BehanIt may be that Harold Hobson was overstating the case when he said "I doubt if there would have been any Fringe without Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood", but the influence on the work of some of the pioneers of the political theatre in the late sixties has been acknowledged, not least in their appreciation of the need to develop the physical skills of the actors, the value of the use of common speech in the theatre and the advantages resulting from group work.

Albert Hunt has said that these were just some of the elements in Theatre Workshop productions he saw over the years that inspired his subsequent work with the Bradford College of Art group. His memorable large-scale piece of street theatre The Russian Revolution and drama documentaries like John Ford's Cuban Missile Crisis in turn influenced much of the political theatre of the seventies, including the work of groups like General Will and Welfare State.

Poster for an North West Spanner production of I am a mongrelJohn McGrath has also acknowledged the influence of Theatre Workshop on his work with 7:84 Company and their commitment to create a popular working class theatre. How this can best be achieved has exercised the minds of everyone engaged in political theatre since the twenties. The agit-prop theatre of those years took their sketches to those directly concerned with specific issues - at their places of work, into clubs or out into the streets; and since the late sixties this form of theatre has been developed by groups like North-West Spanner, Belt and Braces and Red Ladder.

Agit-prop certainly ensures that your message gets to the intended audience, and its impact is immediate, but it has obvious limitations. It is unable to cope with the complex historical progression of events, or with rapid transitions of time and place, essential to a play like Uranium 235. To effect this and to create the right atmosphere for each scene the help of music and lighting is needed and a flexible form of staging to break up the stage area for the movements of the actors. So a certain amount of technical equipment is necessary, but provided a group is prepared to load and unload this on to a vehicle and rig and de-rig stages, plays of this kind are mobile and can reach working-class audiences in own clubs and halls.

All this was done in the one-night-stand tours of Theatre Workshop from 1945 to 1952, which included the South Wales mining villages, the miners' halls of the North-East and the Scottish coalfields. We didn't always play to good houses, but we knew that whoever turned up was almost bound to be working class - there were very few others around. A notable success in our search for working-class audiences was the five performances of Uranium 235 which we played at Butlin's Holiday Camp at Filey in May 1946. Each episode was applauded as though it was an item on a variety hill, and the enthusiasm shown for what must have been, for most of the audience, a novel theatrical experience, confirmed our belief that there was no need to compromise or 'play down' to working people.

There were no recognised venues or touring circuits in the forties and fifties as there are now, and every hall had to be sought out and booked. We were the only political theatre touring at this time. We had no subsidy, and playing six one-night stands a week for months at a time was very hard work. Notable amongst the many groups now touring the country is John McGrath's 7:84 Company, whose work with popular theatre forms, song, dance and documentary drama has attracted new audiences to the theatre in Scotland and England. David Scase, a founder-member of Theatre Workshop, directed Johnny Noble for the 7:84 Company in 1983. At the time of writing this company, as might be expected, has lost its subsidy. Perhaps they should follow Lord Gowrie's advice and seek commercial sponsorship!

An important stimulus to this creation of new audiences has been the setting-up of local community Programme of the Belt and Braces Roadshow - A day in the life of the worldtheatres all over the country, usually in non-theatre locations - though occasionally conventional theatres have been put to good use. A feature of the work of Peter Cheeseman (who was also influenced by Theatre Workshop), at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, has been to extend the Living Newspaper form into historical documentaries of local interest, using idiomatic speech and researched by his own group of actors. The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, also attracted a largely working-class audience, particularly when John McGrath worked there in 1971 and 1972.

Unfortunately much of socialist theatre tends to play to the converted, thereby restricting its audience to the politically aware, and is thus unable to extend the boundaries of theatre to the apolitical majority. The attraction of a ready made, sympathetic response is understandable, but it is the 'unknown quantity' in an audience that provides the challenge to new ideas and stimulating theatre. It also needs to be accessible to working people, which cannot be said of cultural institutions like the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company or even the Royal Court. That is not to say that socialist writers like Howard Brenton, David Edgar, David Hare, Edward Bond and others should not be writing for these theatres any more than that socialist actors shouldn't act there. They have to make a living, and the mainly middle-class audiences can only benefit from being exposed to some of the harsher realities of life through some of the plays of these writers.

Flyer for A Short Sharp Shock by Howard Brenton and Tony HowardDavid Edgar wrote a few years ago: 'the most potent, rich and in many ways politically acute theatrical statements of the past ten years have been made in custom-built buildings patronised almost exclusively by the middle class'. He quotes scenes from the plays of Edward Bond, Barry Keeffe and Howard Barker to illustrate this point. Many of those working in socialist theatre would disagree, but in any case, however exciting they may be in theatrical terms, the impact of these political statements is largely negated if they are inaccessible to those most directly concerned - the working class. David Edgar goes on to assert that the form and language of these plays requires, for their understanding, a cultural or academic background denied to the vast majority of people, thus rendering them even more inaccessible. It is possible to write 'up' as well as 'down'!

It is a concept of theatre that differs substantially from that which motivated the work of Theatre Workshop and the pre-war Manchester groups that preceded it. From the early thirties political theatre set out to identify, in its work, with the lives and language of the industrial working class. The aim was for a theatre that was widely understood while still able to deal with complex subjects though a wide variety of theatrical styles. This was epitomised in plays like Uranium 235 which reached out to a wide variety of audiences - from the Comedy Theatre in London's West End to the holiday-makers at Butlin's Camp in Filey.

While plays written for the 'prestige' theatres cannot be said to contribute to the building of a popular theatre, these writers have of course also written extensively for socialists groups, and their contribution in this area has been considerable.

My concern is that the theatre should play a part in enriching the lives of many more people. I believe that the Theatre Workshop Manifesto of 1945 still holds good as the basic foundation for a People's Theatre, and that our first production, Johnny Noble, embodied, to a large extent, our conception of theatre:

  • The great theatres of all times have been popular theatres which reflected the dreams and struggles of the people. The theatre of Aeschylus and Sophocles, of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, of the Commedia dell'-Arte and Moliére derived their inspiration, their language, their art from the people.
  • We want a theatre with a living language, a theatre which is not afraid of its own voice and which will comment as fearlessly on society as did Ben Jonson and Aristophanes.
  • Theatre Workshop is an organisation of artists, technicians and actors who are experimenting in stage-craft. Its purpose ja to create a flexible theatre-art, as swift moving and plastic as the cinema, by applying the recent technical advances in light and sound, and introducing music and the 'dance theatre' style of production.

A popular theatre cannot be built solely on the basis of contemporary plays concerned with the political or social ills of our society. The plays inherited from the great theatres of the past, the Greeks, the Elizabethans, the Commedia dell'arte and the Spanish theatre of Lope de Vega, are the heritage of all people and must not remain, as at present, the privilege of the few. These playwrights wrote for a popular theatre of their own time and many of their themes are still relevant today. Who has matched Ben Jonson's exposure of greed and corruption in Volpone and The Alchemist or the tyranny of power in Lope de Vega's The Sheepwell? The Théátre National Populaire of Roger Planchan and the political theatre of Erwin Piscator in Weimar Germany, both succeeded in creating a popular theatre on the basis of a wide repertoire of plays including the classics. To their names could be added that of Joan Littlewood.

It was no doubt easier in those optimistic days of 1945 to take a long-term view of the function of the theatre and how it could play its full part in the better times we were certain lay ahead. After all, we had a Labour government with a massive majority ready to lead us to the millennium. Our friendship with the Soviet Union had been cemented in war, never to be broken. Fascism had been defeated, a secure future lay ahead for all mankind, and we were determined to build a theatre worthy of that future. It could be said that the political reality turned out to be a lot less worthy than our theatre; and in the 1980's we see MacMillan's phrase 'the unacceptable face of capitalism' translated into grim reality. The forces of reaction have never been stronger, and the political and industrial strength of the working class is divided and ineffective in the fight against the evils of our society and the ultimate horror - the threat of nuclear extinction. The miners were defeated by the disunity within their own ranks and the lack of organised workers' support rather than by the government and the N.C.B.

The cutting of arts subsidies following on the abolition of the G.L.C. and the Metropolitan Boroughs threatens the existence of many groups in the Alternative Theatre movement. No effective proposals have been made by central government to replace the funding previously provided by local government. The disbanding of theatre groups with a social commitment can only be welcomed by a government antagonistic to all progressive institutions. It is part and parcel of the attack on the quality of life and those who strive to enhance it. If we accept that the legacy of man's achievements in our art galleries and museums must be accessible to all, then, equally, the great plays of the past must be made available, not only on paper in libraries but in performance. They are our allies in the struggle for a more civilised society.

The capacity for theatre to stimulate man's critical awareness and question the accepted tenets of our society makes it a danger to conformism. Rather a 'mass' culture based on Bingo, the Generation Game and soap opera, which serves as an opiate, and whose very triviality ensures that it does not impinge on the workings of society or those who live in it. The concept that Art generally, including theatre, exists to enrich our spirit, to inform and extend our horizons is quite alien to those who are content to see it as a form of relaxation for a largely middle-class minority. The alternative tTheatre movement is not only fighting for its own survival but also, hopefully, for this concept of theatre. In the words of Bertold Brecht:

How can the theatre be entertaining and instructive at the same time? How can it be taken out of the hands of intellectual drug traffic and become a place offering real experiences rather than illusions? How can the unliberated and unknowing man of our century with his thirst for knowledge and freedom, the tortured and heroic, misused and inventive man of our terrible and great century, himself changeable and yet able to change the world, how can he be given a theatre which will help him to be master of his world?


Resources about political theatre in the library collection

Andrew Davies, Other theatres: the development of alternative and experimental theatre in Britain (1987) - Shelfmark: H58

Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl and Stuart Cosgrove, Theatres of the left, 1880-1935: workers' theatre movements in Britain and America (1985) - Shelfmark: E47

Ness Edwards, The workers theatre (1930) - Shelfmark: A58

Catherine Itzin, Stages in the revolution - political theatre in Britain since 1968 (1980) - Shelfmark: J04

Erwin Piscator, The political theatre (1980) - Shelfmark: J05

Arthur Sainer, The radical theatre notebook (1975) - Shelfmark: J06

Baz Kershaw, The politics of performance: radical theatre as cultural intervention (1992) - Shelfmark: Q12

John Willett, The theatre of Erwin Piscator: half a century of politics in the theatre (1986) - Shelfmark: M34

Alan Filewod and David Watt, Workers' playtime: theatre and the labour movement since 1970 (2001) - Shelfmark: I12

David Bradby, Louis James, Bernard Sharratt (eds.), Performance and politics in popular drama: aspects of popular entertainment in theatre, film and television 1800-1976 (1980) - Shelfmark: I21

Eric Bentley, The theatre of commitment: and other essays on drama in our society (1967) - Shelfmark: J47

Leonard Abraham Jones, The British Worker's Theatre, 1917-1935 (no date) - Shelfmark: E74

Murray Melvin, The art of the Theatre Workshop (2006) - Shelfmark: I40

Howard Goorney, The Theatre Workshop story (1981) - Shelfmark: E47

Howard Goorney and Ewan MacColl (eds.), Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop: political playscripts 1930-50 (1986) - Shelfmark: E47

Joan Littlewood, Joan's book: Joan Littlewood's peculiar history as she tells it (1995) - Shelfmark: E47

Elizabeth MacLennan, The moon belongs to everyone - making theatre with 7:84 (1990) - Shelfmark: I12
Norman Veitch. The People's: being a history of The People's Theatre Newcastle upon Tyne 1911-1939 (1950) - Shelfmark: I34

Progressive Players, The story of twenty-five years 1920-1945 (ca. 1945) - Shelfmark: AG Independent Labour Party Box 8

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