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The theatre of the organised working class 1830-1930

By Ros Merkin

Abstract

This study of the theatre of the British Labour Movement had\ud its roots in 1985 when History Workshop published a collection\ud of documents relating to the Workers' Theatre Movements in\ud Britain and America between 1880 and 1935. In his introductory\ud essay in Theatres of the Left, Raphael Samuel concludes that\ud there are no traditions in British Labour Theatre except those\ud which have been broken or lost, that\ud There is no continuous history of socialist or\ud alternative history to be discovered, rather a\ud succession of moments separated from one another by\ud a rupture (1).\ud Since this conclusion was reached, others have repeated\ud Samuel's assertion in varying forms. So, Andrew Davies talks\ud of "scanty Chartist theatrical activity" and of the mainstream\ud lab6ur movement in the 1920s remaining "uninterested in\ud cultural matters" and Ian Saville asserts that\ud the conception of a partisan, organised theatre\ud devoted to spreading the socialist message\ud throughout the working classes only began to take\ud shape in Britain in the mid-1920s (2).\ud Yet a cursory glance at the theatre which preceded the\ud Workers' Theatre Movement, a glance which Raphael Samuel\ud provides in his introductory essay on theatre and socialism in\ud Britain, reveals I a plethora of activity in the labour\ud movement. From the Chartists and the Owlenites in the nineteenth century, through the Socialist Sunday Schools and\ud the Socialist League to the Clarion movement, the Independent\ud Labour Party and the Labour Party, the theatrical activity\ud pointed to by Samuel is startling in comparison to anything we\ud can see today. What follows is an attempt to look at some of\ud those moments, to look at the plays they produced and at both\ud how and why working class political organisations looked to\ud the theatre, to try to ascertain if they were indeed no more\ud than broken threads and if so to try to account for why this\ud may be the case. It is also an attempt to re-examine some of\ud our notions of what is political theatre, for since the\ud discovery of the work of the Workers' Theatre Movement and\ud subsequently of the Actresses Franchise League much has been\ud made of these as the starting point of political theatre in\ud Britain. Yet, for a country with one of the longest traditions\ud of organised working class movements, such assertions seem at\ud best strange, at worst dishonest.\ud One clue as to the reason for such claims can be found in the\ud characterisation of the theatre of the organised working class\ud prior to the Workers' Theatre Movement which has become common\ud currency. It was, in the words of Colin Chambers, primarily\ud of ethical and anti-militarist rather than directly political",\ud or in the words of Raphael Samuel:\ud First, the belief that it is their mission to bring\ud the working class into contact with "great" art (ie\ud capitalist art) and second, the tendency to produce\ud plays which may deal with the misery of the workerss\ud may even deal with the class struggleg but which\ud show no way out, and which therefore spread a\ud feeling of defeat and despair (3).\ud Such definitions of what is (or rather what is not) political\ud theatre rest very heavily on a notion that political is most\ud importantly propaganda. If the theatre that existed in\ud connection with political organisations prior to 1926 was not\ud propagandist then it follows for some that it was not\ud political. What follows is therefore also an attempt to\ud uncover a different approach, by looking at the groups own\ud justifications for their involvement in theatrical ventures as\ud part of the struggle for socialism

Topics: DA, PN2000
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:4166

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Citations

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