Theatre Union and the Greeks

Fascism was taking hold across Europe and global war looked ever more likely. MacColl began to consider Agit-Prop theatre too blunt an instrument in the increasingly high-stakes cultural war, but also aesthetically too ‘crude in the age of Appia. Don’t discount beauty’.28 Fringe theatre in Britain was also inspired by the London publication in 1931 of Léon Moussinac’s The New Movement in the Theatre, with its scintillating photographs of Russian and Soviet experimental non-naturalist productions and modernist set designs by Pablo Picasso and George Grosz. MacColl and Littlewood revelled in the copy in Manchester Central Library, finding it ‘a veritable treasure-trove of concepts and ideas’.29 Besides Piscator’s production of The Good Soldier Schwejk, it was in this book that they discovered Alexander Tairov’s Phèdre and, most importantly, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s polemical Lysistrata, first performed in the Art Theatre, Moscow in 1923.30

1936 heralded the pair’s first joint theatrical project, Theatre Union, with their tagline ‘The Theatre of the People’. Their manifesto boldly proclaimed:

The theatre must face up to the problems of its times; it cannot ignore the poverty and human suffering which increases every day ... If the theatre of to-day would reach the heights achieved four [sic] thousand years ago in Greece and four hundred years ago in Elizabethan England it must face up to such problems. To those who say that such affairs are not the concern of the theatre or that the theatre should confine itself to treading in the paths of “beauty” and “dignity”, we would say “Read Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Calderón, Molière, Lope-de-Vega, Schiller and the rest”.

Their commitment to their own theatrical development and the depth of study undertaken were extraordinary.

Theatre Union’s manifesto closed with a combative statement that the theatre of the future ‘will not be born in the genteel atmosphere of retirement and seclusion, but rather in the clash and turmoil of the battles between oppressors and the oppressed’.31 The overtly communist activities of Theatre Union, which would in 1945 become the famed Theatre Workshop, have been downplayed in most recent accounts. Stead’s ongoing research into recently declassified MI5 files of cultural figures of the period shows that a number of those revered cultural figures were viewed by the contemporary authorities as enemies of the state.32

Some of their views appear crude or misguided, but we need to resist the urge to create narratives which obscure their true allegiances, the product of social crisis and imminent war.

On 28th July 1940, for example, Theatre Union performed at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, as part of a Communist Party anniversary celebration. We know this because a Manchester policeman submitted a memo to MI5 the following day:

After Gallagher’s speech, a short play depicting the progress of the Communist Party during the past twenty years was given by members of “Theatre of Action”, led by Joan Miller (née LITTLEWOOD).33

Another report from the Lancashire Constabulary, dated 1st February 1939, states that Littlewood ‘is said to be highly intellectual and a keen communist’.34 At this time neither Littlewood nor MacColl appears to have been taking precautions to conceal their political inclinations. Even though MacColl was supposed to be serving in the 10th Battalion (Home Defence) of the King’s Regiment (and was even on a Special Observations List for his known communist sympathies35), he and Littlewood were living at his parents’ home in rural Lancashire and playing lead roles in performances at political rallies and celebrations of overtly communist organisations, including the Daily Worker and the Friends of Russia Society.36 Theatre Union even for a time rehearsed their plays and sketches in the Communist Party Headquarters at 88 Rusholme Road, Manchester.

James Smith reminds us that their revolutionary politics opened as well as closed doors to the company since there were sympathisers in influential positions.37 The picture that emerges from the now-declassified MI5 records—even when treated with due scepticism—is one of a theatre group actively involved in a semi-subterranean communist network throughout the cultural Cold War. It is a stark reminder that, in Britain, those suspected of being communists were under close surveillance, blacklisted from jobs and hounded by the secret services and their informants. It is difficult now to fathom the depths of the government’s paranoia at the time. Not only were people encouraged to inform on their friends and neighbours if they suspected them of communism, but even local policemen were sent to stake out and eavesdrop on the conversations of a group of young men and women sitting in a cottage in rural Lancashire, planning their next theatrical production. The tightening surveillance of the regional police and the escalating audacity of Theatre Union came to a head in March 1940, when the troupe performed their politically inflammatory ‘living newspaper’ Last Edition in Manchester, without sufficiently working around the licensing restrictions.38 The play was shut down by local police, who called it ‘thinly-veiled communist propaganda’, and MacColl and Littlewood were both prosecuted and fined.39

MacColl and Littlewood’s meeting was one of kindred spirits. They developed in each other a shared understanding of what theatre could and should do. Part of what a grass-roots revolutionary communist theatre troupe should do, as far as they were concerned, was to produce Athenian drama. Despite the immediate associations of ancient Greek and Roman classics with ‘bourgeois’ culture—generated by centuries of instrumentalisation in the consolidation of social division—MacColl and Littlewood simply identified much classical culture as constituting the ‘best’ and most beautiful art for modernity, whatever our politics.40 Their thinking echoes the seminal 4th thesis of V.I. Lenin’s resolution for the first all-Russia Congress of the Soviet artistic institution Proletkult (1920), where he argued that Marxist ideology had been victorious ‘because, far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch, it has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture’. Lenin had announced that only

further work on this basis and in this direction, inspired by the practical experience of the proletarian dictatorship as the final stage in the struggle against every form of exploitation, can be recognised as the development of a genuine proletarian culture.41

Lenin was reacting to ultra-left proposals put forward since 1917 that the art of non-socialist societies of the past needed to be jettisoned as ideologically retrograde.42 MacColl and Littlewood seem to have interpreted this directive as meaning that only the best, the most valuable remains of‘more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture’, was good enough for British workers. As we saw in Chapter 23, there were numerous publications from British Marxist intellectuals that promoted this view of the classical world.43 MacColl himself was fond of quoting an observation which they (it seems apocryphally) attributed to Engels: ‘The bourgeoisie have raised monuments to the classics. If they’d read them, they’d have burned them’.44

After the Last Edition debacle mentioned above, the group (struggling with the fine) resolved to settle down to an intensive period of study. They considered themselves to be ‘part of a world-wide movement to create a people’s art’.45 To do this they drew up a reading list, which became mandatory for members of Theatre Union, and later Theatre Workshop.46 The list (a copy of which remains in the Theatre Royal archive47) is a window into leftist popular classical scholarship and translations. It contains several works by the leading communist classicists discussed in Chapter 23, along with The German Jewish musicologist Curt Sach’s World History of Dance (1937). Other standard works of accessible criticism and classical translations are given, along with them Bukharin’s Historical Materialism (1925), The Communist Manifesto, and Engels’ The Origin of the Family. ‘To be read concurrently with’ the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, and various medieval plays through to Shakespeare, are works by Lenin on Imperialism and State and Revolution, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature and the Condition of the Working Class in England, Hyman Levy’s Philosophy for a Modern Man (1938) and Arthur Rothstein’s From Chartism to Labourism (1929).48

Rosalie Williams, then an English Literature student in Manchester, who became a key member of Theatre Workshop and a celebrated TV actor,49 recalled the intensity with which the members of Theatre Union were expected to educate themselves, alongside practical exercises:

we studied the periods of popular theatre and their dramaturgy—the Greeks, Molière, the Elizabethans, the Spanish theatre of Cervantes, trying to find out what they had in common that had appealed to ordinary people and which might provide some basis for our own work in theatre. We discovered that they all had a progressive approach to topical themes in their plays.’0

Each member would pick one area of special interest and present their findings to the rest. Their first port of call was the Manchester Reference Library, which Littlewood would later call ‘our Alma Mater’.’1 Both Littlewood and MacColl followed George Thomson in approaching classical literature in new ways, adapted in part from the Cambridge ritualists, especially Gilbert Murray, and social anthropology. Sharpened by their Marxist ideology, their view of Greek drama was of a primitive form of popular performance, the epitome of proto-communist theatre.

The company’s reception of the Greeks and their drama—largely unfettered as it was by associations with formal classical education and traditional classical scholarship—was more attractive to them than the ‘bourgeoise’ theatre of the West End, and indeed what they saw as the predominately pessimistic, conventional British socialist drama of the time.’2 But it was not only to the Greeks that they turned their attention, in the search for a people’s theatre. In the Theatre Workshop manifesto (1945) they were to tell the public:

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 Molière 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 the sound of its own voice and which will comment as fearlessly on Society as did Ben Jonson and Aristophanes.’3

The group followed the examples of both Nemirovich-Danchenko in Moscow and the Provincetown Players in New York,54 in working with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, twice, and differently.

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