Dave Widgery

[Socialist Theatre]

(January 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, January 1976, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Female Transport, Steve Gooch, Pluto Press, 75p.

Sink Songs, Michelene Victor and Dinah Brooke, Playbooks, 45p.

The past six years have seen a silent renaissance in socialist theatre. Silent because it chose to turn its back on the London theatre circuit and critical whispering gallery and seek its unpublicised fortune in Trades Clubs, factory canteens and school gyms. Renaissance because the scale, the range and the sheer professionalism of the movement now surpasses the Workers’ Theatre Movement in the Thirties and has established a collective tradition within which performers can develop as part of a socialist movement not just a bunch of individual, temporary theatrical rebels. Those who remember the pioneer theatre group CAST kicking yet another chair from under Harold Muggins’ exploited arse or who saw the early versions of Agit-Prop Street Theatre’s cake play with all those top hats with dollar signs will probably be amazed to find that there are now over 30 independent Left wing theatre groups. Their politics range from harsh-Maoism to community-fun, but they are almost all highly professional, mainly full-time and play exclusively to working class audiences who would certainly think twice before setting foot in a conventional theatre. Red Ladder Theatre, probably at present the best established group, have, at the end of their second Northern tour this year, clocked up 120 performances of Strike While The Iron Is Hot, exclusively to Trades Councils, TU day schools, union branches, tenants’ associations. It’s not just an impressive achievement by the group but testifies to a new interest in theatre in the labour movement itself.

The individual playwright and the orthodox theatre building, the king pins of bourgeois theatre, tend to get played down in the modern socialist theatre movement in favour of collective writing and plays which are mobile and custom-built for a distinct audience like a union branch or conference or tenants on a particular estate. So socialist writers using a fairly conventional form still writing for a diversified audience tend to get overshadowed. But socialist theatre is not just drum-beating agitprop, brilliantly effective as that can sometimes be. Steve Gooch’s plays were mainly written for the Half Moon Theatre, a tiny East London theatre built out of an old synagogue by socialists fuelled by instant coffee, fags and devotion. Yet they already represent a very solid contribution to a modern realist theatre and Pluto should be supported in what must be the risky commercial enterprise of publishing them.

Female Transport explores a theme of the modern feminist movement; how women, brought up to suspect each other and compete for male approval can overcome this distrust in a new political solidarity. Only the consciousness raising takes place in a filthy sea cabin between 19th century Cockney women convicts. Their crimes are purse-cutting, prostitution, false-pretences; their sentences long stretches of penal servitude. They have either become as hard as nails or been driven nearly insane by prison confinement. To survive they have had to exaggerate their individuality, they are fiercely independent, of men and each other, well used to betrayal. Out of their cutting exchanges, put-downs, sexual banter, songs and chants, Gooch chips out highly convincing people, not the caricatures which sometimes pass for realism in radical theatre. As the ancient brig heaves towards Australia, it becomes a rolling cesspit of stale air, shackles and uncooked inedible food. Seasickness, ‘the irresistible wrestle’ Herman Melville called it, is everywhere and tea, forced marches on deck and the blustering of the surgeon the only protection.

Nancy, arrested for fighting a policeman at a radical meeting on Kennington Green, sees that ‘There’s no ’ope in ’ere less we all stick together’. At first her cabin mates leave her to rebel alone and singlemindedly endure the floggings and the tortures her defiance earns. But slowly a bitter, unsentimental solidarity arises among the women as their jailors argue about the profits from the voyage above them. When they emerge into the blinding Australian sunshine, they are different women.

The forced migrations of the 19th century area neglected ingredient in the emergence of modern capitalism. Although Australia was an unattractive colony, there was some spontaneous migration by single men. Organised female migration was directly organised by Government Commissioners as an instrument of colonial and population policy. Women were ‘shovelled out’ to Australia to breed, keep house and exert a civilising influence on the unruly males. If they had to be felons, too bad. It was widely believed that only kangaroos lived there anyway. In fact most of the women were destined for enforced prostitution and a life so brutal that on one occasion they led a prison riot to be allowed to stay in the jail. But it’s an important moment in Australia’s rebellious labour history which, in general, British socialists know too little about. Anyone looking for facts about conditions on the boats; the terrifying sea storms, the useless medicals – if you can stand, you’re fit – the profiteering owners, should get hold of Terry Coleman’s excellent Passage to America (Penguin paperback, 70p).

Sink Songs are political plays of a more private kind. They are about the relationships which make up our private lives and how even the love, family and friendships which protect us from the pressures of modern capitalism can become nightmarish too. Dinah Brooke’s plays are surrealistic farces about family life, like a feminist Till Death Do Us Part. Michelene Victor’s set of playlets are really staged dialogues with no action apart from the pattern of the voices. Each one is a situation-tragedy which takes a conventional relationship, mother adoring child, man courting woman, men competing, doctor and patient arguing and discloses the psychological power battle beneath the surface. The listener is taken behind the appearance of harmony and respectability to the real conflicts where the labels fall off, the politeness ceases and the nagging and bullying and sulking takes over. It’s hard not to recognise bits of oneself in the knots and to be reminded how, even in childhood and at school, we are saturated with values about assertiveness, success and power which are often first learnt and expressed in relations between men and women where, as Engels noted, ‘both sexes have been put in a false position from the beginning’. ‘It’s not personal. It’s the way things are’ says a rich kid in one play trying to persuade his working class school friend to scab on a factory occupation. Marxists who are interested in connecting ‘the way things are’ in personal relations to the pattern of dominance and power in capitalism as a whole will find all these plays illuminating.


Last updated on 9.2.2008