Doug Nicholls introduces a great new collection of political plays.
Trade union struggles over the years have inspired some of our greatest playwrights. They have also inspired many works of drama that packed a punch in their time but have since been largely – and unjustly – forgotten. This is a rich seam that Workers’ Play Time has only just begun to mine. Our call for the submission of trade union-related plays that might be showcased in an anthology by Workable Books led to so many wonderful submissions that we intend this to be Volume One in a series.
To get enough bread for your members, you must have roses too. To amplify our voice from the workplace to society as a whole and across the world, trade unionists and their supportive cultural workers have sung songs, written novels, created music, painted pictures, drawn cartoons, made films, and written and performed plays together. Cultural work is central to and an essential part of our struggle, as all of the contributors to Culture Matters well know. If you ignore it, you blunt your campaign, deaden your organization, and dull your education programme.
Before the moving image, generations of activists expressed their beliefs and perceptions in song, prints, poetry and plays. Events would be organized where all art forms would coalesce. We have always known that art, like science, is the most precious expression of human ingenuity, collectivity, imagination and passion. Our art is priceless, outside the market, and therefore tends not to be well known.
At the GFTU we are committed to making working-class art in all genres more popular. Going right back to the Middle Ages in Britain there has been a tradition of workers expressing their views of society and the evils of the ruling class in plays. Our best playwrights have always hated the ruling class and social systems that have alienated, exploited and treated people cruelly. They have ridiculed pompous people, satirized the selfish and greedy and exposed the viciousness of powerful elites while celebrating the noble virtues and courage of good people.
No-one did this better than Shakespeare, who might even be called our first great socialist playwright. He was socialist not because he used that word or believed that everything should be in public ownership, but because, in the terms of his own day, the two great social systems that he was living through – feudalism, which was in its death throes, and capitalism, which was just being born – both seemed inhuman to him. An alternative world must be possible, he thought.
So the plays collected here are genuinely in the Shakespearean tradition. They cover the whole of a historical epoch that witnessed the growth of industrial capitalism and the emergence from within it of a vision of a new socialist society. They are about the world created by the modern capitalism and imperialism that was only just beginning to take shape in Shakespeare’s day. And, most importantly of all, they are concerned with a force that did not exist in Shakespeare’s Britain – an organized working class.
They depict the working class in an industrialized country, and the organization of that class into the most fundamental of working-class organizations: trade unions. These were outlawed at the outset, as
Neil Duffield’s Bolton Rising and Neil Gore’s We Will Be Free! powerfully remind us.
The seven plays in this volume are about class-conscious workers who recognize that they have the power to change society – a power that did not exist until workers created it, and that resides in collective action and an indomitable sense of justice. Many of the plays lend themselves naturally to communal performance and discussion in the best traditions of popular education. One of the motivations for publishing the plays in book format is to encourage the burgeoning new generation of socialists to read and perform them again.
Two of the plays are closely linked to great trade union leaders identified with the GFTU – Mary Quaile and Will Thorne. Seeing their work immortalized in these wonderful plays by Jane McNulty and James Kenworth helps us to feel that their efforts are still flourishing today.
In practically every country you can think of there are writers of plays and theatre groups working to develop through their art a form of inspiration and consciousness amongst workers that enhances their sense of dignity and power and makes the normal seem downright weird.
Yet many of these active playwrights, directors and theatre companies do not have a national profile. This is often because they have written for, with and as part of working-class communities. They have been the anonymous writing about the anonymous – yet this is often the great strength of their work.
In Workers' Play Time you will find dramas about key elements of our life as a working class, presented in chronological order of the historical periods depicted. Bolton Rising, by Neil Duffield, reminds us of the bitterness and sacrifice involved in forming trade unions in the era of the Combination Acts, which were designed to prevent the formation of workers’ organizations. The fortitude, clarity, commitment, determination, bravery and vision of our pioneers is always humbling.
It is always amazing too to reflect on how our predecessors organized not just before mobile phones and social media, but before telephones, cars and bicycles. The power of face-to-face contact should never be forgotten, and this is one reason why returning to our dramatic traditions is itself so inspiring. There is nothing more moving than a live performance, to stir the passions.
We have the greatest actors in the world, all organized in Equity, playing to music performed by Musicians’ Union members on sets designed and managed by BECTU members. We should enjoy the work of our unionized cultural workers more.
We Will Be Free!, by Neil Gore, moves the time frame forward and delves into the stories of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their most renowned leader, George Loveless. Depicted by history and convention as innocent victims of circumstances, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as you can see in the pamphlets they wrote, were highly class conscious and dismissive of church and state and of the employers’ apparatus that was oppressing all working people.
They were part of that long-dissenting, radical tradition that had worked underground – often against all the odds, in secrecy and in fear of death – ever since the Peasant Revolts of 1381. The Tolpuddle Martyrs came just after the Captain Swing rioters, whose intense struggles against the landed rich paved the way for permanent organization of workers into unions.
Hannah, by Eileen Murphy, touches beautifully on one of the underestimated progressive consequences of the early trade union and socialist movement – the inclusion of women in the struggle for workplace democracy and the right to vote. The play portrays the life and struggles of the pioneering 19th-century labour-movement activist and suffragette Hannah Mitchell.
Dare To Be Free, by Jane McNulty, reminds us that the organization of women casual workers and the struggle against various forms of zero hours contracts has a long history. The need for the young to stand up for justice in the workplace has never been greater, and this play remains an inspiration as well as being ideally suited in length and style for education events to stimulate debate. As with many of our plays, the songs and music featured in this remind us of the rich seam of social commentary that has been expressed in our folk-song tradition. The GFTU has contributed to keeping this tradition alive by producing a double CD of working-class songs for democracy, resistance and peace.
A Splotch of Red, by James Kenworth, sets together two of the giants of the Labour Party and the trade union movement: Keir Hardie and Will Thorne. James Keir Hardie was the founder of the Labour Party and its first MP, being elected as Member for West Ham South in 1892. He was assisted in this by William Thorne (1857-1946), a Birmingham-born trade union leader who won the same seat in 1906, and later served as Labour MP for Plaistow between 1917 and 1945.
The two men represent a classic political opposition – Hardie the idealist and orator, Thorne the tactician, willing to compromise and deal with other politicians, including those of other parties, if it meant
attaining power. The dilemma they faced remains a central one in politics, particularly among those who wish to change things: is it possible to alter the system from within, or is it better to remain ideologically pure, even if this means, as the play’s Hardie puts it, ‘sitting on the sidelines’? Some say that this is itself a false dichotomy.
The play imagines the two men reborn in modern London, at a time of growing social inequality and fervent, fragmented opposition. As author James Kenworth says, it’s about ‘the issues that Hardie was writing about, and the fact that they haven’t gone away’. It’s also a reminder and celebration of the borough’s long tradition of dissent, and what the play calls ‘the awkward squad of West Ham’.
The Chambermaids, by Kathleen McCreery, movingly recounts the true story of a group of Grosvenor House Hotel chambermaids who, in 1979, took on Trust House Forte when their Jarrow-born shop steward was unfairly suspended, and were sacked and evicted. Divided by race, language, religion and culture, the maids found common cause in struggling for their rights as workers, as women, as immigrants and as trade unionists. In addition to the lasting resonance of the themes depicted, the play’s songs, humour, strong female characters, and an original stylized story-telling technique, provide real challenges to students and community theatre groups as well to professional performers. Regrettably, the high level of class and trade union consciousness highlighted in this play was at a high-water mark in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was first elected and the solidarity expressed seems at a long remove from the levels of awareness that might exist today in the hotel industry – or in any other industry, for that matter.
Out! On the Costa del Trico, the final play in the anthology, was collectively created by the Women’s Theatre Group. The great victory of the Dagenham machinists has a legendary status in the trade union movement and has been transformed into plays and films. The heroic struggle at the American-owned Trico windscreen-wiper factory in London, by largely Asian women workers, deserves an equal place in our folk memory. Some details of the dispute can be found in a Morning Stararticle written by one of the strike committee members, Sally Groves, as well as in a longer study by George Stevenson.
Another feature of the construction of this play, evident to varying degrees in our tradition of theatre, is that it was collectively assembled by the cast members rather than by an individual writer and used the voices, the ‘actuality’ as Banner Theatre called it, of interviews with those involved in the struggle. Never forget the Trico strike.
So the plays you have here span an important period in our history. They cover the 134-year struggle from the first charter for the universal franchise to the legislation that gave everyone over the age of 18 the vote. They move from a period when trade unions were illegal to one when over half the workforce were active in them and able to win equal pay for women, thereby settling another long-standing demand. They chart the shift from when Britain was a mainly rural country through the age when it was the most advanced industrial economy on earth, to the beginning of the period when it was the first nation to de-industrialize, adopting the free movement of capital and labour.
When the media in Britain was less controlled than it is now by moguls with no allegiance to any country, there was an outpouring of politically progressive drama on TV and in our theatres. This has been significantly silenced. We are now more used to the US-inspired TV diet of reality TV, competition-based programmes and endless documentaries, films and series about serial killers and violent criminals. A disgusting culture designed to portray human beings as deviant, menacing, criminal and homicidal has been deliberately foisted on our airwaves. This is not our culture. Human beings are essentially the opposite of this. We are naturally social, cultural, peace-loving and generous.
Many regional and local theatres where children and performers used to create progressive works have been closed; performance spaces have been blocked off to anything that doesn’t fill the cash registers. But there are increasing signs of resistance and renewal is happening. Our theatre is and has always been where the people are – in village halls, community centres, social clubs, even as pop-ups on canal sides, in farmers’ fields or from the backs of vans. To some extent, trade unions themselves have let the side down by never having established their own venue for a theatre of the oppressed.
Many of our great theatre groups have been mobile, going up and down the country for generations playing to the canteen audience, the demo, the trades and labour hall. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these passionate touring theatre companies. Naturally many of our most valuable theatre groups have been forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence, with no security of funding and in the absence of the permanent trade union or state support for progressive theatre that is clearly needed.
So at the GFTU we are proud to keep this Shakespearean tradition alive and to publish this anthology, which offers to a wider audience some superb plays that make us think, laugh and cry, while also making us feel more confident that, though our own actions, we are sowing the seeds of a better, socialist world.
We thank the authors for sharing their immense talents and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for their assistance with this endeavour by publicizing our call for plays. We hope that these plays will be taken up anew and performed again and again, and we hope that this book will stimulate interest in the rich tradition of progressive, working-class drama.
Workers' Play Time is published by New Internationist at £9.99. You can buy it here.