Operation Olive Branch

The post-war Lysistrata, opening in 1947 under the new name of Operation Olive Branch, did just this. It challenged the motives behind the war, presenting it as an extension of the class war by other means. It also hinted that the government was colluding with arms traders (or the Shield and Spear Manufacturers’ Federation at Pylos).64 The company had expressed this view explicitly in Last Edition (1940). MacColl grew to regret it, which is perhaps why both these plays still languish in archives. Theatre Union, by virtue of their strong counter-capitalist and anti-war conviction, rather than any kind of blind subservience to ‘the [Stalinist] line’, found themselves on the ‘wrong side of history’ in this period.

MacColl said Operation Olive Branch was

a more radical reworking of the text in which soldiers’ scenes were interpolated between scenes of striking women and where recondite references to obsolete religious practices were cut out in favour of lines and short sequences borrowed from The Acharnians, The Thesmophoriazusae and The Peace.65

Amphitheus crashes in as a deus ex machina and there are other, more subtle Aristophanic imports. The Theatre Royal archive holds a sound desk copy of the script, probably from the 1953 staging when it was rebranded as Lysistrata, ‘the sauciest classic ever written’.66 Operation Olive Branch opened in Middlesbrough in January 1947, and toured numerous towns in northern England (as was the company’s common practice of bringing theatre to the people).67

Preparation for every element of the play had been intense. The Theatre Royal Archives hold a folder of materials produced by the artist and life-long CPGB member Ernest ‘Ern’ Brooks (1911-1993), who painstakingly sketched visual interpretations of the comedy’s characters (Figure 25.3), drawing on his study of the scholarship chosen for the group by MacColl and Littlewood (Figure 25.4). As can be seen in the few remaining production photographs (e.g. Figure 25.4),

Early character sketches of Aristophanes’ old men by Ern Brooks, reproduced by courtesy ofTheatre Royal Stratford East Archives Collection, London

FIGURE 25.3 Early character sketches of Aristophanes’ old men by Ern Brooks, reproduced by courtesy ofTheatre Royal Stratford East Archives Collection, London.

Production photograph from Lysistrata, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1953, reproduced by courtesy ofTheatre Royal Stratford East Archives Collection, London

FIGURE 25.4 Production photograph from Lysistrata, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1953, reproduced by courtesy ofTheatre Royal Stratford East Archives Collection, London.

Brooks’ designs were taken seriously; the actors’ bodies and faces were contorted into the other-worldly stoops and grimaces of the artist’s sketchbook.

When Jean Newlove, a student of the famed dance artist and theorist Rudolf Laban, joined the company, her new techniques enabled the actors to sharpen character through posture and movement, complemented by the Appia-style lighting and stage design by John ‘Camel’ Bury (1925-2000), and classicising costumes designed by Brooks’ wife and artistic collaborator Barbara Niven (died 1971). The hard work paid off. Operation Olive Branch (1947) made waves, winning for Littlewood her first London run—playing at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in Northwest London.68 The staging of the play was reported to ‘take one’s breath away ... The pictorial beauty is astonishing’.69 Nevertheless, it was no commercial success; the show was pulled before its fortnight’s run played out.70

Operation Olive Branch was quickly translated into German and performed in East Berlin, where it became popular enough to be brought out in paperback in 1948,71 and then restaged in 1961 under the joint direction of Littlewood and Horst Schonemann.72 This production at the Maxim-Gorki-Theater was also filmed and broadcast by the state TV broadcaster DFF.73 Littlewood encouraged the actors to improvise, drawing on their own experiences of the war:

I added a scene where soldiers shuffled away from the Front, their feet swathed in sacking, as at Stalingrad, and those actors were magnificent. As it turned out they had all been anti-Hitler, some had been in camps, some had been through the hell of winter soldiering in Russia, but of course they hadn’t expected to use their experience in a Greek comedy.74

Her bold direction and commitment to the sanctity of satire were not in the least bit hindered by the austere theatrical atmosphere she felt surrounded by at the Maxim Gorki Theatre. In her autobiography, she recalls how she

had fun with Lampito, the girl from Sparta ... First, I gave my impression of the tough C[ommunist] P|arty] rep, who attended my East-West press conference. It went down very well. All the actresses were dying to play the part.

“Mocking a Party member?” said Walter, who was the Party representative in the company.

“Why not? Is the Party above satire?”

As can be seen from Littlewood’s recasting of the Spartan Lampito as an East German CP rep, there was at the heart of Theatre Workshop a fearless, urgent and irreverent responsiveness to the present. The performed script could end up diverging from the rehearsal script. We are extremely fortunate to have a sound desk copy of MacColl’s script (Theatre Royal Archives, probably 1953) since this copy needed to be constantly updated and true to the actual performance.

MacColl recast the title role, Lysistrata, as a British champion of the working classes. He put contemporary socialist political terminology in her mouth:

This is no time for tears and lamentations. We have work to do. Lampito, you hurry back to Sparta, and start things moving there. The rest of you will cover Boeotia, Corinth, and the Peloponnese. Work as you’ve never worked before. Organise all the women in your own districts. Form area committees and rural groups. Organise! Organise!75

Aristophanes’ doddering old men became British World War I veterans, and their scenes (at least in the 1947 version) echoed the Westminster ritual of the House of Commons, which members of the group had visited. One of the old men (mis) quotes Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade when he explains to a questioning youth ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die’.76 Another old man (Philocleon, the name borrowed from the elderly democrat in Aristophanes’ Wasps) exhorts a younger man, ‘Things change, boy, change! The people you praise yesterday you have to fight to-day. You’ve got to keep up with the times’.77

This is a reference to the altered attitude of Britain towards the Soviet Union after the Anglo-Soviet Agreement, the formal military alliance against Germany signed on 12th July 1941. The friendly relationship was notoriously celebrated in Winston Churchill’s ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech in Fulton, Missouri, on 5th March 1946, in which he praised ‘the valiant Russian people’ and ‘my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin’.78 The role of the Magistrate was explicitly recast as Winston Churchill (played by Howard Goorney in 1947 and Joby Blanshard in 1953), as shown by MacColl’s skilful imitation of Churchillian apocalyptic speech patterns. The connection was made stronger still by the actor in question mimicking Churchill’s gestures and cadences:

Everywhere the barbarians are on the march; yesterday the slaves in the cobalt mines were revolting for more food. Last week colonial savages were revolting for home rule and today the women are asking, nay ... demanding peace. Need I say, gentlemen, that immorality can hardly go further! My friends, the democracy is in the balance! We must defend it, if needs be, with our lives.


The palpable allusions to Churchill are further confirmed by Littlewood, who recalled that the old men bore ‘a distinct resemblance to Churchill, Petain, Patton and their crew’.80 MacColl himself stated on BBC Radio in 1978 that the audience immediately recognised the ‘cant phrases’ of hypocrisy.81

The justification for war had been questioned at the end of Act 2. The Magistrate insists that ‘This war is a war of the people in defence of our ancient way of life’, but Lampito answers: ‘It is a war carried on for private interest at public expense’.82

MacColl also included what he called ‘interpolated’ soldier scenes,83 original scenes for the beginning of Act 3, which depicted Allied working-class soldiers, mostly Scotsmen, killing time at the Front. They chatted and played cards, balancing the women’s struggle in Athens and creating emotive dramatic irony. The Scottish Myrrhine’s beloved husband, for example, who—unbeknownst to her—is under guard as a deserter, is stabbed to death on stage by a fellow soldier. The role of the Deserter was a mouthpiece for MacColl’s pacifist views:

Whit’s Athens to me that I should fecht for’t? Whit has Athens ever brocht to Anagyra but dule [grief] and greetin’ [crying]? Athens to me means the wastit croft and the fell evictions o’ sib fowk.84

The Deserter’s lines were written by MacColl in Lallans, a literary version, invented by the Communist Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, of lowland Scottish dialect.85 The ‘fell evictions’ he speaks of are the Highland Clearances of the 18th to 19th centuries, for which the English will perhaps never be forgiven. The fourth soldier responds unconvincingly to the Deserter’s question, ‘We brought you civilisation’,86 before killing him in a rage. He is reprimanded pointedly by his comrade: ‘You killed him out of envy; because he loved life more than your twisted death’.87

MacColl had intended to the play the role of Deserter himself. The week before the opening of Operation Olive Branch (July/August, 1947), however, two plain-clothes policemen—operating on an anonymous tip-off—arrested James H. Miller (i.e. MacColl) for desertion.88 The show went on, but MacColl had to wait until 1953 to play the Deserter, in the newly permanent home of Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London.

In the creative hands of Theatre Workshop the seams of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata were unpicked and a new play was skilfully woven together, uniting the company’s political vision and world-changing historical events taking place around them. The company’s commitment to their art as an active social instrument was remarkable. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan would later describe Littlewood’s dramatic contribution as the ‘pursuit of a dream of theatre as a place of communal celebration, a Left wing shrine of Dionysus dedicated to whipping the Puritan frown from off the popular image of Socialist art’.89 But the techniques of Operation Olive Branch, and Oh, What a Lovely War! were developed in the earlier phase in the work of Theatre Workshop in the 1930s, when classical civilisation, especially Greek literature, was inspiring every aspect of British leftwing intellectual and cultural life.

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