Saturday 26 January 2013

Marxism and Theatre

[mostly a book review of A Good Night Out by John McGrath. Some thought-experiment]

While I was writing my intro chapter for Modern British Playwriting: 2000-2009, I started reading John McGrath’s A Good Night Out. I had to stop again worried that if I carried on it was going to completely derail what I was writing.

A Good Night Out is a fascinating book and it’s ridiculous that I’ve only just read it. It is an immensely popular book among people who make theatre. A lot of people claim that they have found it “inspirational” or “influential”. Part of the reason I didn’t read it sooner might well have been the work of some of the people who had told me they found it inspirational. Having now read the book, what I am curious to know is: in what possible, discernible way have these theatremakers claiming to have been influenced by A Good Night Out actually been influenced? Because, with few exceptions, I can think of barely a single theatre, company, or -maker who show the slightest sign of ever having read, let alone understood this book.

The book itself comprises six lectures that McGrath gave as the inaugural Judith E Wilson Visiting Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1979. The lectures were first published in 1981 with a foreword by Raymond “Marxism and Literature” Williams and a preface by McGrath. My copy is the second edition, with an additional preface, also by McGrath, published by Nick Hern Books in 1996.

The first and most striking thing about the book is the sheer difference in possible ways of thinking between when it was written in 1979, three years after my birth, and now. The book is practically written in doctrinal Marxist and it is charged with much of the certainty that Marxism enjoyed back in the late ‘70s. I remark on this chiefly because it was the first thing that surprised me about the book, and about its many apparent fans. None of whom, to the best of my understanding, were Marxists. Vague lefties, yes; who isn’t? But this isn’t a book for general-lefties, this is a book that criticises the lack of dialectics in arguments; that critiques everything in terms of the class struggle; that entirely without irony describes elements as bourgeois and refers repeatedly to the ruling class.

If you are a Marxist, then you will be used to this language. If you are not a Marxist, then it ought to be a significant stumbling block. Imagine trying to read an assessment of theatre where all the references are to doctrines of the church, for example... – actually, at some point in the not too distant future I want to argue that recent Christianity might explain a lot more things about the way things are in today’s theatre than Marxist criticism does. However...

What is more striking than the Marxism, however, are the terms in which the working-class is discussed. It is salutary. While McGrath does not romanticise the working-class (“The nature of much working-class comedy is sexist, racist, even anti-working class. We all know the jokes about big tits and pakis and paddies and the dockers and the strikers... Therefore, without being pompous about it, comedy has to be critically assessed” - p.55), he does respect them, and expect things from them in a way that seems completely alien now.

Something else striking is precisely how much theatre – starting in 1956 with the Royal Court, and going on to discuss “post-Osborne theatre” – McGrath dismisses as “bourgeois”. Here’s a clue – it’s almost all of it. Joan Littlewood is saved from immolation. Brecht and Piscator are respected. A company called The Blue Blouse in early Soviet Russia are discussed with affection. Peter Cheeseman’s work in Stoke-on-Trent, the Liverpool Everyman and the Citz in Glasgow are smiled on. Companies like Belt and Braces, Monstrous Regiment and McGrath’s own 7:84 are in favour, as are playwrights John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, plus Dario Fo and Franca Rame. And that’s about it.

The narrative A Good Night Out recounts runs counter to the received wisdoms about the period. About how John Osborne, followed by Arnold Wesker, followed by Harold Pinter ushered in a Golden Important New Era. Of this work, McGrath says:
“Its greatest claim to social significance is that it produced a new ‘working-class’ art, that it somehow stormed the Winter Palace of bourgeois culture and threw out the old regime and turned the place into a temple of workers’ art. Of course it did nothing of the kind. What Osborne and his clever director Tony Richardson achieved was a method of translating some areas of non-middle-class life in Britain into a form of entertainment that could be sold to the middle classes.” (p.10). 
 McGrath then goes on to paint a detailed sociological portrait of the way in which the class system was also shifting post-Suez, effectively a retrenchment of degree.
“Just as a the aristocracy had managed between 1660 and 1800 to absorb, penetrate and largely become the rising bourgeoisie, so the middle classes in the 50s and 60s absorbed and penetrated the bright young working class youth, thrown up by the 1944 Education Act in appreciably large numbers, and... Lo! After a short while, we were them.” (p.12)

In the following chapter McGrath sets about proposing how theatremakers may set about creating “Working Class Theatre”. To this end he describes at some length a variety night at a Chorlton-cum-Hardy Working Men’s Club in Manchester, and starts to suggest that by appropriating these means, would-be Marxist revolutionaries may produce ideologically correct theatrical entertainments that will hasten the coming revolution. McGrath has dismissed most of the recent European classical repetoire:
“The tradition created among the European bourgeoisie by Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Galsworthy, Anouilh, Cocteau, Giradoux, Pirandello became a strong and self-confident tradition. It declared, without too much bother, that the best theatre is about the problems and the achievements of articulate middle-class men and sometimes women...” (p.15)

This is something that not even the communist director of the Volksbühne, Frank Castorf, has felt necessary. Here we perhaps begin to see a trace of McGrath’s Britishness. Rather than up-end an old play to make it fight against its own bourgeois values, he would rather create a totally new play from scratch.

Even more striking is McGrath’s attitude to theatre buildings themselves. (“...[the best theatre] performed in comfortable theatres, in large cities, at a time that will suit the eating habits of the middle class at a price that only the most determined of the lower orders could afford...” p.15 continuing from above-quoted passage.) Though I don’t think he says as much in so many words, the impression is that these buildings may as well be completely abandoned or given up on. The real successes McGrath describes either take place in venues which have grown themselves for and with a dedicated working-class audience, as in the case of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal in Stratford East, or else have taken themselves to working men’s clubs and community halls, as in the case of 7:84 Scotland’s tours, especially of the highlands of Scotland. Everything else is a bourgeois scam.


I confess I am more than a little conflicted by the book. On one hand, the precise, insistent Marxism is incredibly seductive. It is blunt, pugnacious and dispassionate. These are the things that are the case, it states. And this is what needs to be done with them. On the other hand, there are objections. The first is temporal: 32 years on from publication, the condition of the working-class in Britain is more alienated and fragmented than could have been imagined when A Good Night Out was written. The second is more theoretical, and it is to do with the question of whether specific forms can actually contain ideology. McGrath is reasonably convincing in the ways that he dismisses work seen at the Royal Court and National Theatre as bourgeois. However, he does not seek solutions to redeem them. At the same time, he admits that in their (then) present form, the forms of working class entertainment that he seeks to salvage are politically reactionary, sexist, racist and anti-working-class. It does not follow either logically or ideologically then that it is any better to adapt working-class forms for the purposes of what is, after all, a middle-class vanguard, than it is to give the working class ownership of bourgeois forms and sites. If the currency of the bourgeois form reinforces the status quo then it stands to reason that so must the working class form, and so his argument being made is primarily for the sake of convenience.

It was this point unresolved that made me realise I needed to stop reading the book while writing my chapter on the last ten years (well, ‘00-‘09) of British Theatre. Because, once you start reading A Good Night Out you quickly then find yourself worrying deeply about the state of British theatre today. The lack of points of comparison make it difficult to know where to even start. After all, not one of Britain’s major (or even minor) theatre institutions even pretends to profess Marxist, or even socialist ambitions. Dominic Cooke’s revolution at the Royal Court was after all to re-introduce depictions of the bourgeois middle class to the stage. His actual rationale for doing so made a lot of sense, and it was plainly not a blanket policy, but it was still a thing. A thing, I would argue, that spiralled a lot further out of control directly after the remit of my chapter closes at the end of 2009.

It is also difficult to think of a theatre or company that sets itself out as explicitly working-class. Partly, of course, this is due to false-class-consciousness narratives of race and gender. You can think of women’s theatre companies and black and Asian theatre companies, which may or may not appeal predominantly to the working-class, but an actual theatre or company aimed specifically at the working-class? Possibly Northern Broadsides? Possibly Red Ladder? Following on from that, how many theatres, if not explicitly then tacitly, appear to be aimed at the middle-class? However, whilst it’s easy enough, not to say fun, to denounce plays we don’t like anyway as bourgeois; when Polly Stenham, Emily Crowe and David Hare are filling our stages with plays about the problems of the privileged and wealthy. But who seriously wants to denounce Lucy Prebble as a class enemy? Or suggest that Simon Stephens is just painting comforting portraits of the poor for middle-class audiences?

It is worth reflecting that in 1979, McGrath was at least able to point to a cohesive, unionised, working-class with a distinct, identifiable culture (or cultures) of its own. One might argue that it was perhaps a rose-tinted view of dying forms, even then. This would be impossible to find now in Britain. Perhaps a distinct, identifiable working-class culture with historical roots still exists in some places, but far less so than thirty years ago. Increasingly, what now passes for working class culture is largely that which is mass produced by media magnates, billionaire brewery owners, and by supermarket chains with their eyes set firmly on pleasing institutional shareholders. At the same time, the working class has been made all but invisible by a middle class media, save to be depicted as a “feral underclass”. As a result, the middle class hates and fears the working class more now, when it knows next to nothing about it, than it did in 1979 after the height of the Winter of Discontent, when the unions organised against the ruling class interests and there was genuine fear that Britain might fall under Soviet control.


Quite by chance, since I started writing this piece, Michael Billington has addressed himself to the same question in the Guardian. He buys into the idea that the Royal Court’s representation of working class subjects, lives and characters was fundamental change enough. But then does go on to similarly point out that now even this has been eroded. That now the Royal Court, with some exceptions, is largely home to plays with middle- or upper-middle-class characters and subjects. Here, I think I have some sympathy with first McGrath’s argument and then Billington’s. I believe McGrath’s description of watching the managing director of a textile firm manifesting huge enjoyment watching David Storey’s The Contractor directed by Lindsay Anderson as “turning authentic working class experience into satisfying thrills for the bourgeoisie” (p.11). But, similarly, I also see how “watching Polly Stenham's No Quarter this month, set in the drawing room of a decaying manor” (Billington) doesn’t even manage that.

So we have three questions: form, content and location. Interestingly, for me. It was thinking about these aspects, and other work that I’d included in my chapter on 2000-2009 that made me think the situation wasn’t quite as dire as I’d first imagined.

On one hand, yes: for initially better intellectual reasons than Cooke is generally given credit for (“When you do a Shakespeare play you’re dealing with the king, or you’re dealing with people with power. Modern plays tend to be about people at the bottom of the heap. Why don’t we flip that around and look at the people who have power? Let’s interrogate that.” Dominic Cooke paraphrased by Ramin Gray – from, inevitably, the chapter), he did cut down down on the number of working-class people “represented” on the Royal Court stage. That said, he probably also cut down on the number of working class people misrepresented on that stage, sold as fodder to bourgeois audiences.

While McGrath appears to dislike intensely – or at the very least severely mistrust – the plays of Pinter, Ibsen and Chekhov, I would defend them as being more complex than the simple enactments of class privilege. One needs only to look at the energy which Castorf and other German directors invest in re-inventing these plays to discern that there is more to them than just bourgeois values. Similarly, can works by, say, Simon Stephens and Martin Crimp, whose characters range across the classes, and whose plays demand vigorous interpretation and realisation by directors, simply be dismissed as entrenchments of the status quo?


At the same time, theatres need to know who the new working-class actually are. As McGrath observes, thanks to the education act of 1944 and the subsequent retrenchments in the fifties and sixties, at the time when he was writing the character and demographic nature of the working-class in Britain had changed. In the thirty-plus years since it has changed again. (Interestingly, a quick look at Wikipedia notes that 7:84 theatre company would now have to be called 5:40 or 10:53 – still an obscenity, but not as great an obscenity.) Theatres must take note not only of McGrath’s concerns regarding representation, but also of his optimism and respect.

I also want to propose an extra dimension to McGrath’s assessment from 1979. Where A Good Night Out identifies Monstrous Regiment, 7:84, the Glasgow Citizens and Stoke-no-Trent’s excellence at serving working-class audiences, There are also theatres that achieve that today. Outside London, regional theatres like the Liverpool Everyman, Newcastle’s Northern Stage, Salford Lowry Centre, companies like Slung Low, Pilot Theatre, Red Ladder are still, at least partially reaching working class audiences – albeit, not with pieces about “the class struggle”. Similarly, largely within London, companies like Chris Goode & Co, Shunt, Punchdrunk, and Forest, plus Residence in Bristol, are making work which I would argue transcends class boundaries and takes place generally in reclaimed industrial spaces rather than purpose-built theatres. At the same time, theatres like The Bush and the Lyric, Hammersmith have de-emphasised any “middle-class-ness” of their own buildings – compared with say, the bars of the Young Vic, the Royal Court, or the National, which, nice though they are, are also a bit posh, charging far more than the average public house for a pint of beer in upmarket surroundings.

The crucial feature of these companies, I think, is that in a curious way, and without the discernable dogma of Marxist language – which has now acquired middle-class baggage of its own – they have picked up some of the spirit of the form and location that A Good Night Out argues for. With their reclaimed industrial spaces and the (generally) non-conventional forms of their pieces, perhaps unconsciously, these companies have echoed the less- class-divided atmospheres of raves, music clubs and discos, creating a way of making theatre that feels far more accessible and far less burdened by specific class-interests. Moreover, their work, by (generally) refusing the mimetic content of naturalism, removes the exploitation of working class experience as bourgeois thrill-provider, without sacrificing it to repeated and overt representations of middle-class subjects. Instead, like Brecht’s epic theatre, by being set free to explore mythic figures and oddly-fragmented metaphoric figures, they set both audiences and actors that bit more free.

Granted, to be of any actual use in for any kind of new socialism the make-up, organisational structures, internal politics and so on of such companies is going to need some thinking about. Where Shunt are already match-fit, I rather suspect that in the old vocabulary Punchdrunk are as good as class enemies, for example.

One thing is clear however, the politics and the political thinking of British theatre for the last decade have been lazy, lulled into a false sense of security by relatively decent funding, a relatively amicable government, and a general sense of relative social progression.  The savage idiocies of the current government have made the need for an intelligent, organised, progressive opposition obvious.

Some final thoughts:

1. Something that Mike Bradwell once said has always stuck with me – essentially: “if you put on a play about lawyers you’ll get more lawyers going to see it”. But you see it as well in terms of company composition – after all, who’s a Danish prince, right? If you want your audience to reflect society, then the people they’re coming to watch on stage must also reflect society. It is as simple as that. You want young, black people to come and see your show, put some in it. Want mostly posh white blokes? Ditto. It’s not rocket science and it doesn’t need Marxism to explain it. If theatre's regularly observed this simple truism then audiences would become more diverse as a matter of course.

2. Something Simon Stephens said in an interview recently which really struck a chord: “When he wasn’t at gigs, he spent his nights watching TV dramas by Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale and Dennis Potter. At 18 he went to York university where he watched countless university plays. ‘And there, in the theatre, those big loves of mine synthesized: the dramatic narratives of the TV I loved combined with the edgy live-ness of a gig’.” (from here)

– which, given it’s almost word-for-word the reason I ended up loving theatre too, might partially explain why I like the man’s plays so much. Here, crucially, however, I think it also identifies the two key familiar elements of modern working-class entertainment that theatre can already subvert – that it can be a gig *and* drama at the same time. Nothing class-difficult about that.

3. Some less wordy, more passionate articulation of the whole gig/class/Marxism thing from the winter of discontent. Now this, I *really* wish I’d seen live...

[Edit: it has been point out to me that the Bush bar could in fact be cheaper, and I myself have noted that getting a sausage roll is cheaper at Greggs across the road by some 75%. So, yes, Bush. Cheaper cakes and ale, please :-) ]


Vaughan Simons said...

Really interesting post, and I agreed with a lot of it as regards my own occasional thoughts about theatre (purely as a keen theatre-goer) over the last decade or so.

The lines I particularly hooked onto were "One thing is clear however, the politics and the political thinking of British theatre for the last decade have been lazy, lulled into a false sense of security by relatively decent funding, a relatively amicable government, and a general sense of relative social progression".

Yes, a thousand times, yes. For me, however, the sad thing is that the draconian cuts now being forced upon the arts in the name of austerity don't seem to have concentrated the thinking of many theatres. While my knowledge of regional theatre outside London is (shamefully) very limited, certainly what I hear so much from the better known theatrical institutions is about all they're doing to "reach out into the community", but when I look at the evidence it seems pitifully little. Plus, is it even reaching the people they want it to reach? Case in point: when the Royal Court ran its Theatre Local playwriting group in Peckham, an old school friend of mine rushed to sign up for it. He's a Senior Advertising Manager at a certain newspaper group owned by Rupert Murdoch and lives in extremely well-heeled comfort in Westminster. The updates he gave of the group made it clear he didn't think much of having to travel to Peckham to immerse himself in the art of playwriting. Now I can't be sure, but I suspect that wasn't the target audience the Royal Court were aiming to reach.

The problem, I think, is in the fleeting nature of many theatres' engagement with the community. They announce a 'project' or outreach of some sort - such as Theatre Local in Peckham - arrive en masse, cause a bit of a stir for a few weeks while trying to instil a genuine enthusiasm and understanding for the form in people for whom theatre is 'not for the likes of us', whereupon they leave, hoping they've done enough to encourage more diverse, less class-bound audiences into their theatrical bases. However, to me that smacks of "you have to come to us, because we're only going to come to you very briefly", and I genuinely wonder how many people in these working-class areas on whom theatres bestow such a project are encouraged to attend more plays as a result. Sadly, I suspect it's relatively few.

That, then, is one area where I agree with John McGrath (whose thinking on theatre I certainly enjoyed when studying for my degree). Are their buildings necessary? If you truly want to encourage a more diverse audience, wouldn't getting out to where they are - on a more permanent basis - work better than merely parachuting in every couple of years or so?

Cynically, I sometimes can't help thinking that certain sectors of the arts - and in this I don't just include theatre - don't truly believe in their mission to reach out to new (i.e. predominantly working class) audiences. They're doing it to tick boxes, but frankly they feel far more comfortable in their natural home with a familiar audience.

Anonymous said...


It's a shame, I think, that 'form' seems to be the least discussed element here.

Form is actually the key. The whole notion of theatre as we know it, particularly in this country, with our literary and figurative forms, which we can't seem to shake off, is so entrenched in bourgeois tradition that it's irretrievable.

Continental Marxist theatre, as well as other forms of art supposing to be informed by Marx, have readily shook off the old forms and tropes and moved on to introduce new forms which are more appropriate for a radical politic.

Brecht's work in the theatre, at the time, was radical, but now we have Mother Courage performed in fancy West End theatres, performed by Meryl Streep.

If Brecht was around today, he wouldn't write plays.

You mention briefly McGrath's comments about working class culture, and he is right to dismiss most of it as anti-working class. That is because it was either created from or has been co-opted by bourgeois culture. In that sense, 'traditional' working class culture is different from the theatre establishment only in the audience that it attracts. You rightly allude to how problematic working class forms are for a revolutionary aesthetic.

It's imperative that, for a Marxist theatre, we must abandon the old forms, including playwriting and traditional dramaturgy, and move towards forms which are sufficient for a contemporary, radical, dialectical kind of performance. The word theatre itself should also be abandoned.

You also mention that Marxist semantics have acquired some kind of middle class baggage, by which I assume you mean it is a language used solely by academics. This is a lie predicated upon class propaganda. The only way that Marxist language has acquired 'baggage' is by the notion, perpetuated by bourgeois and official culture, that Marxism is difficult and incomprehensible to the working class.


Anonymous said...

"Brecht's work in the theatre, at the time, was radical, but now we have Mother Courage performed in fancy West End theatres, performed by Meryl Streep."

Erm, no we don't. Streep played Mother Courage in New York not the West End and it was produced by the Public, a Not For Profit theatre rather than a commercial producer. And it was part of the Shakespeare in the Park season for which many tickets are given away free. Get your facts right.

Anonymous said...

To the comment above,

I apologise for that discrepancy, but I don't see how it makes the slightest bit of difference. Streep is a bourgeois performer. The theatre, whether it be the 'public theatre' or not, is a bourgeois theatre. The form it takes is bourgeois. Arguing over whether that particular production of Courage was performed in London on NY is neither here nor there, as you have ignored the actual argument; that Brecht has become co-opted by bourgeois culture to the extent that his work can no longer be considered radical, and that plays themselves must be abandoned in favour of a more sufficient radical form.

The notion that by being 'not for profit', or that tickets were given away for free, makes it somehow radical is absolute nonsense.

Inside Film said...

We found this a really interesting post that raises some very valid points -perhaps you would be interested in a project we set up last year that was, in part, inspired by the work of John McGrath -in particular his theatrical production The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil that was also a BBC Play for Today. Based on the book The Condition of the Working Class written by Engels in 1844 we used a theatre project and a film to explore the condition of the working class then and now!

Kathz said...

It's probably silly to comment two years late on this post but I've only just seen it. I was never fortunate enough to see a John McGrath production for 7:84 but I saw some of the other companies he praised and once heard John McGrath talk about theatre at the Traverse in Edinburgh in the early 1980s.

I think that, for me, the important thing is that McGrath takes the demands of performing to a working-class audience seriously, especially in the demands it makes on playwright and practitioner. And his extensive tours of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil in particular must give him expertise and experience which is pretty valuable.

I find it interesting that you talk about companies like Punchdrunk in the context of McGrath's arguments. The only response I can make to this is: Have you seen their prices? As a working-class child growing up in London I found a range of cheap entertainment, much of it theatrical (it cost 10p to stand at the Old Vic in midweek matinées, there were free Shakespeare plays in the parks and there were also special offers for bench seats in the gallery when the London Transport Players did their annual musical). I was lucky in my location but also in a society which believed that working-class people could be desirable members of theatre audiences rather than unsightly, dangerous people to be brushed out of the way.