No people’s history of classics in Britain would be complete without describing the class-conscious and sophisticated classical theatre pioneered by Theatre Workshop. Founded by the working-class communists Joan Littlewood (1914— 2002) and Ewan MacColl (1915-1989), this radical group of theatre-makers, especially in their interbellum incarnations as Theatre of Action and Theatre Union, fought bravely in the cultural wars of the 1930s for the rights of the working classes. Their engagement with classical, and especially Greek, theatre was informed by the public-facing, but cutting-edge scholarship discussed earlier, in Chapter 23.

A man called Jimmie Miller discovered a copy of Aristophanes’ comedies in a secondhand bookshop in Leeds in 1936. Miller (Figure 25.1) was an unemployed motor mechanic turned communist theatre-maker from Salford.1 Two years previously he had met Littlewood, who was to become his long-term creative collaborator and the most influential female British theatre director to date. Within a decade, Miller transformed himself. He proved himself to be a gifted playwright and a charismatic performer. With the assured theatrical knowledge of Littlewood and a head full of Marxist scholarship, he toured the UK and Europe with radical left-wing theatre troupes, gave Marxist lectures on theatre history and workshops on Stanislavsky’s system; he was invited to study at the Soviet Academy for Theatre and Cinema in Moscow.2 At the onset of World War II, he was drafted into the British Army, deserted after just six months, grew a beard, swore that he had been born in Scotland and changed his name to Ewan MacColl.3

A decade or so later, MacColl would even become the celebrated folk-singer and activist of the same name, who sang with and married Peggy Seeger, the half-sister of the even more widely celebrated US folk musician and communist,

Jimmie Miller [Ewan MacColl] Courtesy of The National Archives, KV 2/2175

FIGURE 25.1 Jimmie Miller [Ewan MacColl] Courtesy of The National Archives, KV 2/2175.

Pete Seeger. But this chapter closes our book by exploring the creative engagement of Littlewood and MacColl with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and how the rising tide of international communism in the 1930s influenced their responses to the ancient play.4 Their work on Lysistrata, which they both performed and adapted into a new musical drama, Operation Olive Branch, was indispensable preparation for the ensemble’s path-breaking satirical-epic musical of 1963, Oh, What a Lovely War!

MacColl was brought up in Salford, Lancashire, in an atmosphere thick with factory grime and class politics. His parents were Scottish socialists. His mother worked tirelessly as a charwoman and his father, Will Miller, was an iron moulder, often unemployed, who suffered from chronic bronchial asthma. He was also a trade unionist, supporter of the Socialist Labour Party, and fiery advocate for the broad syndicalism espoused by Daniel De Leon (see above pp. 199-201) and his followers.’ MacColl’s family was thus intellectually and politically active, but in financial difficulty. He qualified for the ‘annual poor children’s outing’ which, organised by local charities, helped children from the poorest families take a trip out of the city.6 Growing up in a blend of class-shame and class-consciousness, as Ben Harker’s fine biography details, a ‘red haze’ covered the teenager’s eyes, which would only develop over time and crystallise into increasingly clear vision of a revolutionary future.7

MacColl joined the Young Communists League, the British branch of the Young Communist International, after leaving school at 14. It was 1929, when the still small but rapidly growing Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was launching its ‘Class Against Class’ campaign; this resonated with the young MacColl’s anger at growing up in poverty, joblessness and boredom.8 Harker explains that, for MacColl,

communist analysis supplied a structural explanation for poverty and unemployment-the sources of his class-shame—and a revolutionary solution. Its culture of intellectual enquiry and debate provided a forum in which his hitherto secretive learning could be given an airing.9

On 11th October 1939, an MI5 report states that ‘James Henry Miller is a Communist with very extreme views’."’ MacColl’s parents’ cottage at the time was considered the headquarters of a secret communist espionage ring. Yet it was the headquarters of nothing more than MacColl and Littlewood’s fledgling theatre company, ‘Theatre Union’. The young artists were hell-bent on overthrowing capitalism and changing the world. But rather than as spies for the Soviet Union, they wanted to change it as revolutionary dramatists bringing the best of world theatre to the slumbering proletariat.

Littlewood was the daughter of an unmarried showroom assistant of a brush manufacturer in Stockwell, London. With the help of scholarships, she made it through school and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). In 1934 she packed it all in and tramped northwards, planning to stow away on a ship for America. She got as far as Manchester, where she met her match in MacColl.11 It was an ideal partnership. They were in tune not only politically but also in terms of their artistic ambitions. Theatre Union, which crystallised around them, was their first joint offensive on the cultural plane. Their manifesto read,

We live in times of great social upheaval; faced with an ever-increasing danger of war and fascism, the democratic people of the world have been forced into action. Their struggle for peace and progress manifests itself in many forms and not the least important of these is the drama.12

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