British socialist theatre in the 1930s

Among such groups, especially before the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, there was a belief in the Soviet programme. Whatever our worldview, we need to bear in mind that while our privileged historical vantage point allows us to see the horrors lurking below the surface, it also demands that we handle with due sensitivity the inspirational dreams that captivated a whole generation. This included those under-celebrated intellectuals (discussed in Chapter 23) who were instrumental in forging a new relationship between the British public and ‘high culture’, not least ancient Greek and Roman literature and theatre, as well asartists. The creative individuals were less enthused by economic theory than by what Alick West called ‘heighten[ing] men’s consciousness’, a process which they believed revolutionary socialism promised.13

Many socialists became disillusioned by the end of the 1930s. C. Day Lewis wrote in 1940 that the events in Spain were ‘a death to us, Munich a mourning’.14 But MacColl and Littlewood remained revolutionaries, even if their relationship with the CPGB over the years was intermittently distant and volatile. Both earned substantial MI5 folders, in which can be found files, photos and press cuttings that record the activities of these two ‘known’ and ‘active’ communists. There is correspondence between MI5 operatives and BBC officials that documents Littlewood and MacColl’s blacklisting from most jobs in the Corporation, even before they were finally and literally barred from their place of work in 1940.15 They sustained consistent creative dialogues with the political causes and cultural movements of the CPGB, even though their views could rarely be said to have been completely ‘in tune’ with other CPGB-affiliated theatrical organisations, such as the Workers’ Theatre Movement (WTM) and New Theatre League (NTL).

The idea of‘being in tune’ suggests a more consistent and uncontested communist cultural policy than ever materialised in practice during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. Those socially diverse and opinionated individuals who served on the various CPGB boards were generally committed to the Leninist organisational method of ‘democratic centralism’, and in Britain there was especially fiery debate surrounding cultural policy. But stakes were considerably lower than they were in the Soviet states. By speaking their minds and challenging their political allies’ interpretations of the Marxist scriptures, British communists may have been jeopardising their position in the Party, but they were rarely risking their lives."’ MacColl and Littlewood’s relationship with the CPGB was mutually beneficial, but frequently strained. Their theatrical development was rarely far out of line with the directions of other theatre groups of the left, but technically they were streets ahead.

In 1931 MacColl formed an Agit-Prop theatre troupe called the ‘Red Megaphones’, who (like the WTM, whose scripts they sometimes used) saw their art as a weapon in the class struggle. ‘Agit-Prop’ was a self-consciously revolutionary style pioneered in improvised performances outdoors or in factories in the Soviet Union, and in Germany by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.17 Like some of their German, Czechoslovakian and Italian counterparts, the Red Megaphones performed in the streets and made appearances at open-air rallies, protesting against the evils of capitalism and, more specifically, the unfair treatment of workers in Lancashire’s textile industry.11* MacColl adopted the slogan of the London-based WTM troupes, ‘A Propertyless Theatre for the Propertyless Class’.” Both Littlewood and MacColl, in later life, likened Agit-Prop to the outdoor theatrical activity of past cultures, and especially ancient Greek drama, which they both presented as proto-communist drama. MacColl, for example, wrote: ‘It was what it must have been like in the time of Aeschylus in great popular theatre. Crude? Yes, but as honest as we knew how to be’.20

The 1930s witnessed a general shift in Communist International, or ‘Comintern’, policy from what is usually dubbed the ‘Class Against Class’ strategy (which called for Communist Parties to distance themselves from and fight against other left-wing parties) to the so-called ‘Popular Front’ (PF) strategy. This encouraged a unified stance with other liberal political parties to combat directly the rising fascism across Europe.21 The movement was officially endorsed by the Comintern, in the Seventh World Congress in Moscow, 1935.22 Comintern head Georgi Dimitrov’s speech argued that fascism had to be defeated in the cultural as well as the political sphere:23

Communists who do nothing to enlighten the masses on the past of their people ... voluntarily hand over to the fascist falsifiers all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation ... The proletariat of all countries has shed much of its blood to win bourgeois-democratic liberties, and will naturally fight with all its strength to retain them.24

The Marxist left responded resoundingly to Dimitrov’s call to promulgate the often-submerged historical exempla of popular radicalism. As Elinor Taylor notes, Dimitrov’s speech ‘seemed to enter the bloodstream of the left almost immediately’.25

This was then a pivotal moment in British cultural history, and triggered a frenzied exploration of the potential of culture, only a few years after MacColl and others advocating political theatre had been rebuked as time wasters by CPGB pundits. It set in motion a snowball of publications through the 1930s displaying the historical struggles against and victories of the people over vested interest. Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword, for example, in 1939 printed A Handbook of Freedom: A Record of English Democracy through Twelve Centuries, surveying British popular radicalism from serfdom to socialism.26 The book is a prime example of the PF’s so-called ‘national turn’, since it is concerned with the portrayal of distinctly English proto-communism. But the British left by no means restricted itself to British history: the classically trained communist writers of the 1930s trawled the outer margins of the Western tradition from its ancient Greek origins to the present day. It was not only expensively educated Communists and sympathisers who reached back to Greece and Rome, but also working-class young men and women, like MacColl, who used translations of the ancient writers and engaged with an impressive amount of classical scholarship.

As we have seen, in 1934Joan Littlewood left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), marched Northwards and settled in Manchester, where she was attracted by the militant and mesmerising MacColl. The historian Raphael Samuels (1934—1996) too was astounded by MacColl’s fiery personality and energy. Samuels reflected in the 1980s, that MacColl was

the first real revolutionary I had ever met, terrifyingly well organised, whether engaged in tracing the etymology of a word in a Scottish tinker’s song, or ... organising a production of Aristophanes’ Frogs from a minesweeper in the Pacific with the putative cast ... spread out in the Royal Navy halfway across the world.27

Sadly, no trace of MacColl’s Frogs survives. Perhaps it was never made.

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