A change in society and in our art

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In a follow-up to his piece on the radical theatre of the 1930s, David Gilchrist examines how the events of 1968 kick-started a new theatre of the people. The 7:84 company took popular forms of culture - from TV to the ceilidh - and utilised them to reach new, working class audiences.

John McGrath and Elizabeth McLennan set up the socialist 7:84 Theatre Company in 1971. McLennan was a successful actor both in the theatre and on television. McGrath had had a successful career, scriptwriting the early episodes of a ground breaking TV cop show, Z Cars. They were both disillusioned with commercial theatre and excited by the political events of 1968.

“We began serious discussions about starting a theatre company to recreate a form of popular theatre and tour it to working class audiences and their allies during 1968. This was the year of the events in Paris, the big Grosvenor Square demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the gunning down of the students at Kent State University, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, the Civil Rights marches in Derry, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and Che Guevara’s guerrilla struggles in Bolivia.”

The name of the company, 7:84, comes from a 1966 statistic published in The Economist that 7 percent of the population of the UK owned 84 percent of the capital wealth. McGrath had been working long term on a play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, set in Scotland and it was decided that a new company was needed for this venture, 7:84 (Scotland).

Scotland had been affected by the ferment of 1968 and a new left was rising as elsewhere in the world. Scottish workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders had participated in the “work-in” and occupation of the shipyards, saving shipbuilding on the Clyde. Scottish miners had participated in the strikes of 1972 and would do so again in 1974 helping to bring down the Heath government. There was an added factor: the beginnings of the exploitation of the oil fields in the North Sea had led to a widespread debate as to who would benefit from this. This argument was reflected in the production of the show Little Red Hen where different generations of Glaswegian women argue about the traditions and challenges of politics in Scotland.

7:84 (Scotland) started with its tour of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to venues around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It included new research on the Highland Clearances, when people had been evicted from the land by large landowners to make way for sheep farming. It framed that exploration with an examination of the harsh conditions of oil workers in the North Sea. The show linked the two, demonstrating that both these histories were not the doing of a few ill-intentioned men but were systemic.

The format of the show was a ceilidh, a form of Scottish dance party with music and singing. It was followed by a discussion and then a real ceilidh with the audience invited to dance. The intention was to “promote positive social processes”. As John McGrath put it, “We have to oppose bourgeois theatre by creating a truly revolutionary theatre, in order to bring about a change in society and in our own art.” The stage design was innovative using a giant pop-up book that changed pages as the scene changed. The style adopted was of cartoon agit prop (agitation and propaganda) with singing, dancing and speeches straight to the audience.

7:84’s Highland play was followed up with plays for urban audiences, notably The Games a Bogey, a Scots phrase meaning the game is up, about the renowned Scottish Marxist teacher John Maclean, who was imprisoned during the First World War and who Lenin made the first Soviet Consul. McGrath argued that the “traditional values of English literature are the cultural expression of the dominance of…the ruling class”. For him the language of the performance extended beyond the text: the audience, the venue, the cost of tickets, and so on, affected the meaning of the performance.

This meant that to do new socially meaningful work, changing the characters in a play from middle class to working class or the setting from the drawing room to a high rise flat was not enough. He criticised the work of the Royal Court Theatre, then staging productions written by the likes of John Osborne and acclaimed for its social realism. This theatre may have got some working class accents heard on stage but had attracted precious few working class people into the theatre. Moreover McGrath argued this change was simply a re-composition of middle class values in the face of changing circumstances.

McGrath pointed to the work of The Workers’ Theatre Movement of the 1920s and 30s and the Unity Theatre of the 1940s, and to the popular forms of entertainment enjoyed by working people at the time as alternatives. In order to tell a story from a different point of view, from a working class point of view, it was necessary to look to working class forms of entertainment. He talked about the entertainers in working men’s clubs, bingo and panto, and looked to cinema and ceilidhs. Taking the show to the audience was also crucial, not merely as a way of addressing working class audiences: “Where an event is taking place, how it conceptualises its relationships with its audience, how it relates to the rest of the city, are all factors to help construct the politics of a performance.”

However, it was important not to preach to the audience: “If a writer is committed to an over-rigid set of political principles, the end would have been written before the play, and I think that negates the whole purpose of creating the work.”

These works were to be a dialogue between the players and the audience. It was also necessary to challenge the audience, as economic and social pressures on working class people can be expressed in backward ideas of racism or sexism or destructive behaviour. 7:84 shows had to have a “questioning, critical relationship with their audience, built on trust, cultural identification and political solidarity”. The overall concept was, McGrath said, to show how the present situation had been arrived at and to indicate ideas that might be able to change things. Criticism was on the basis of solidarity, about knowing where the audience was coming from and supporting their struggles.

As well as McGrath’s work, 7:84 revived working class plays written in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, that had been performed by their radical ancestors, the Workers’ Theatre Movement, Joe Corrie’s Bowhill Players and Unity Theatre, including works like Corrie’s In Time of Strife and Robert McLeish’s The Gorbals Story. These groups and the later Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre, CAST, provided a radical thread of tradition in Scottish and British left wing theatre.

The Workers’ Theatre Movement, founded by the Communist Party (see May 2015 SR), had laid the roots for the post-war Unity Theatre again associated with the CP. The group, formed in 1941 as amateurs, turned professional in 1945 with an adaptation of Maxim Gorki’s play Lower Depths. Many new techniques developed here — improvising, speaking newspapers, and the performance of work involving radical aesthetics such as the abolition of the fourth wall in which the actors treated the audience as if they were part of the action. Unity Glasgow was a particularly influential group. One of its plays, Robert McLeish’s The Gorbals Story, was seen by over 100,000 people in six months in 1949 and later made into a film.

It had been a time of prolific writing and great audience success for Unity Theatre in Glasgow, focusing on the industrial and domestic experience of the city’s workers and playing largely to those workers.

Claire and Roland Muldoon formed CAST in 1965, after becoming disillusioned with the rigid and Stalinised politics that had come to dominate Unity Theatre. Playing in folk clubs and working men’s clubs they soon learned to be quick and snappy to stop the patrons wandering off to the bar. The actors would talk straight to the audience. Muldoon said, “Our influences are working class entertainers…Chuck Berry and Little Richard for instance…we were the first rock ’n’ roll theatre group.” These groups set the direction for 7:84.

As the workers’ movement gathered strength through the 1970s there was an explosion of alternative theatre groups. In 1978 there were well over 100 alternative theatre companies plus another 50 or so young people’s theatre companies. David Edgar, writing in Socialist Review in 1978, was critical of the concentration on agitprop by left wing groups, arguing that while it was suitable for some situations he thought that agitprop provided too narrow a palette in order to look at complex ideas such as sexism and racism. Some, like Trevor Griffiths, moved from working in theatre to the mass arena of television, arguing that this was necessary to reach the maximum number of people.

7:84 in their commitment to socialism and their dedication to working class forms of entertainment and production have left a valuable legacy to socialists today. They were able to carry an argument for change to the working class. Much theatre today beyond London’s West End is at least socially critical with much work challenging the status quo; however, participation by working class audiences is small. In a way we have returned to the theatre that McGrath criticised — working class voices on the stage but not many working class bums on the seats!

7:84’s work was part of a working class movement that fought to defend and better working class conditions. As that movement revives we will need to examine the innovative ways in which 7:84 created a dialogue with working class audiences.