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Ewan MacColl: Theatre of Action

"We wanted our audiences to be a working class one, it was as simple as that, we weren't interested in anything else. But when we [went] to London to see - I think it was - Red Radio, our impression was that the audience was middle class ...

We were bitterly disappointed. It struck us as the worst kind of amateur theatre; there was a painted backdrop of a battleship. They'd gone inside with a vengeance. 'Gone inside' was the phrase we used to describe the transition from street theatre to curtain theatre. In the process of moving on towards a better theatre they had, it seemed to us, abandoned completely everything they'd learned in the agit-prop theatre. The acting style of the new thing was amateur acting that was a shoddy imitation of the West End.

We came back from London very disillusioned. I remember very clearly the sense of outrage we felt at the way our attempts to engage in discussion were ignored. We felt we had been sold a pup. We had this northern chip on our shoulder, and we resented being talked down to. We also had this working-class thing. We felt we deserved only the best. We said, 'We've got to be better than the other side, better actors, better producers, better singers. We've got to do everything they can do but do it a hundred times better.' That was the end of our contact with the London WTM. From that time on we were going it alone. Our work in street theatre had taught us a lot and we had no intention of abandoning the things we had learned. The Agit-Prop techniques could be adapted and developed, and could form the base of a much more effective theatrical form.

Our aim, we said, was a theatre which would reflect the ideas and needs of the working class. In order to do this we would have to move on a series of different fronts simultaneously. It wasn't enough to keep the bourgeois forms and change the heroes. To change the costumes was not enough, to change the furniture was not enough, to present a play in the dead setting of the formal stage was not enough. A complete set of stylistic problems had to be solved while at the same time you were developing a new dramaturgy. Simultaneously we should be solving a whole lot of acting problems. We must, we said, create a theatre of synthesis in which the actors will be able to sing, dance and act with equal facility. Now none of these ideas was new.

Wagner had also called for a theatre of synthesis, Georg Kaiser, Toller and the Expressionists had attempted new theatrical forms. The constructivists had broken with old stage conventions in Russia. Meyerhold and Vachtangov had explored uncharted areas of stage and audience relationships. Stanislavsky had found psychological solutions for the actors' problems, while Meyerhold had attempted to solve them in another way - via the circus and the Commedia delI'arte.

Theatre of Action logoBiomechanics was an attempt to escape from naturalistic acting. After the Revolution in Russia there were great revolutionary movements in the arts, particularly in the theatre. They said, 'The theatre has not been a popular theatre in Russia since the time of the peasant theatres. Therefore we must try and create a theatre which makes the maximum use of all the technology at our disposal. Part of this technology is our understanding of the way the human body works. We must train our actors so that they can do all the things with their bodies that a conjurer can do, or an acrobat, or a dancer, that any athlete can do.' And they trained them like athletes. They even sent them to do theoretical work at the Pavlov laboratories. As a result, it was possible for Meyerhold, when he did plays like Ostrovsky's The Forest , to present it in the context of revolutionary society, with great constructivist sets -girders everywhere. At one point where the lover is bending down in a very exaggerated fashion before his lady-love, the husband shoots down a helter-skelter and gives the lover a tremendous kick up the arse as he lands at the bottom, a very difficult thing to do. It has a very obvious symbolical significance in the play, the way Meyerhold conceived it. We said, 'We can take some of these ideas.' In a way we were being very eclectic - testing things out, seeing if they worked. If they worked, fine, we'd keep them, if they don't, throw them away. This was not just true of us - the Workers' Laboratory Theatre were doing the same in New York - because they were also saying that a sophisticated political theory needs a sophisticated expertise.

We wanted a pliable theatre. We were closest - if we were close to anybody in the world of theatre - to Vachtangov. He seemed to us to have really found, created, a Marxist aesthetic of theatre. I can't remember specifically the source of our information about Vachtangov, but by this time some of us, certainly Alf Armitt and myself, were spending a fantastic amount of time in libraries, any spare moment that we had we'd be in the Manchester Reference Library, finding out what they had on theatre and, of course, being a kind of big city, they had a fairly good library of current theatre magazines and books about the theatre, theoretical works and technical works and all the rest of it. I think that it was that, plus the fact that there were write-ups about his productions and about his ideas in magazines like Proletarian Literature and in the Soviet theatre magazines and so on. But it seemed to us that he combined the best elements of, the most positive elements of Meyerhold, of Stanislavsky, and all the rest, you know.

The point is we'd become interested in Stanislavsky. Anybody who works in the theatre must ultimately become fascinated by the Stanislavsky theory of acting, of living the role, and from there to examining other theories of acting like the Cocolan theory of the French Representational Theatre of living the role at rehearsal but not living it on the stage. It wasn't merely that because one worked in the theatre, however crude that theatre was, that one's interest was exclusively about the theatre; it was the fact that the theatre that we saw around us, the theatre of the West End and to some extent the kind of theatre that was reflected in British films, for example, was so unreal, and the acting styles were so false, they typified what Stanislavsky called 'rubber-stamp' acting, a series of codified gestures, and codified grimaces, and to some extent codified dialogue. And we thought correctly that if the theatre is ever to become important, acting has got to get away completely from this concept. From that false diction, those false gestures and those false attitudes.

'An actor', we said, 'should be like an athlete, he should be in complete control of his body, he should be able to make his body do anything that he calls upon it to do. Thus far we agree with Meyerhold. On the other hand we don't want a theatre which is just a troupe of acrobats. Then again, we don't want a theatre like Stanislavsky's where everybody is so busy living the role that they cannot step out of the role and comment on it from time to time.'

Strange territory we were exploring - exploring is the right word. But we weren't like modern explorers who go out with botanists, biologists, radio engineers and all the rest of it - we were exploring from a position of ignorance. None of us could be said to have had any kind of education, we'd all left school when we were fourteen.

We weren't merely exploring the theories, we were having to learn the words that described the theories. When you went into the public library to read about something, you got the dictionary out automatically to help you over the hurdles of those big words. It was very exciting. We'd meet in the evenings and discuss all the things we'd found out that day, and we'd talk for hours and hours and hours after the work was finished, exchanging ideas. We were teaching each other. Alf, myself, Jimmy Rigby, we were all at it. In the end, of course, we divided up the formalized research, 'Right, you do this, and you do that, you read about this and tell us what you found out.' We were getting better at it all the time, and we were learning how to use libraries and books.

Our group were now in communication with the Workers' Laboratory Theatre in New York. We'd got their address through a Manchester guy called Lazar Copeland, who'd been in America as a garment worker. Lazar had gone with a fellow called Benny Segal, who'd led a strike over here, and then gone to America, and taken part in the famous Gastonia strike. They'd made contact, and apparently the Laboratory Theatre had written something about them, and performed it. So through them we got the address, wrote to them, and they sent us scripts, Newsboy for example.

We'd also had contact with the Germans, right up until the coming of Hitler, and then after the coming of Hitler two guys turned up, representatives from the International Revolutionary Theatre Committee, a fellow called Otto, and one called Philip Minner. And Philip Minner had been a member of Kotonne Links - the troupe of the Left Column, one of the most highly praised of all of the German Agit-Prop groups. And he told us that they were having internal problems before Hitler came, a feeling that they should be moving to another area of work; and he put us in touch with a guy called Gustav Wangenheim.

Now the Wangenheim family were a kind of old Prussian nobility family. Gustav had been a theatre director, and his wife, Inge von Wangenheim, was an actress; they'd formed one of the best of all the transitional Agit-Prop groups that had existed. They were still a travelling group, very flexible, and could play in almost any conditions, but they weren't limited to five- or ten-minute sketches, but could put On a play that would last two and a half hours, in a hall, a theatre, a church, a covered market or in the open air. They'd been touring for several months before Hitler came to power with a play called The Mousetrap . It was about a group of travelling players with a repertoire of political sketches. They call at an inn and the innkeeper welcomes them. He allows them to sleep in the barn in exchange for the promise of a performance of their play. He informs them that the people who live in the vilage are weavers, whereupon they begin to act a scene from Gerhard Hauptmann's play The Weavers . The innkeeper objects, says that it will alienate his better-off customers. A spirited argument develops and the actors re-enact the scene in several different ways using song, dance, burlesque, tragic theatre, the whole lot in one single organism, absolutely beautiful, brilliant.

We got an American friend, who was living in Manchester at the time, to translate part of it. He translated the first fourteen or fifteen pages and then left. So we set about, with dictionaries, trying to translate the rest. We managed to get to the end of the second act, but it was very stow and laborious. Alf Armitt had a girlfriend who knew some German and she translated a bit more of it and the rest we made up in our heads. We learnt a tremendous lot about the theatre from that operation... We never staged the Wangenheim play; it was too involved for us at that stage.(TL:241-46)

"Almost four months had elapsed since we had transformed the Red Megaphones into Theatre of Action and so far we had not produced anything at all. 'The Theatre of Inaction' was what some of our critics were beginning to call us, while others accused us of wanting to 'dance our way through the revolution'. In spite of everything, however, we had recruited half-a-dozen new members and had escaped from our dreary cellar into a rehearsal room, above ground, in central Manchester...

The work was speeded up when we recruited a young actress who had recently come up from London to join the Rusholme Repertory Theatre company. She joined us half-way through rehearsing Newsboy and, even though she was only free to work with us on Sundays, her influence on the group, and on me, was enormous.

Her name was Joan Littlewood, and I had met her briefly at the BBC studios in Manchester where we were both taking part in a documentary feature on the building of the Mersey Tunnel. The rehearsal of Tunnel was in progress when I arrived at the studio and Archie Harding, the programme director, called me into the studio where I heard, coming through the loudspeakers, the most beautiful and compelling voice I had ever encountered. 'You must meet her,' said Harding. 'I think you two have a lot in common.' Later, during the tea-break, we exchanged platitudes in the canteen and I walked back to Salford that night with my head full of the echoes of that extraordinary voice.

It was several weeks before we met again and I was finally driven to paying a half-crown to sit through a totally forgettable play in which Joan had a walk-on as a cockney maid servant. Afterwards, I hung around the stage door and met her as she came out. I walked with her back to her digs and there, for the next eight hours, we talked, told each other the story of our lives and discussed what we called real theatre. Our views, we found, coincided at almost every point. We were drunk with ideas, lightheaded with talk and lack of sleep and each of us jubilant at having discovered an ally. The morning was well-advanced when Joan crept with me to the front door and I went off to the labour exchange. We continued our talking marathon right through the next two or three nights.

Joan had few illusions left about the theatre by the time she left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and her search for a job in London and Paris had whittled the number down still further. The few that remained were finally banished by her experiences in 'rep' and with each week that passed she was finding her job more irksome. One or two interesting roles might have helped her to bear the tedium of dull productions of duller plays. At that time, Joan had all the makings of a superb actress. It wasn't merely that she had a voice which could charm birds out of trees; it was the sense of truth which informed everything she did. She invested even the smallest walk-on with the deep, shining passion of real art, so that one felt impelled to watch the maid collecting teacups and loading them on to a tray, when one should have been watching the mistress stabbing her lover.

So why wasn't she given the roles which would have made use of her great talent? Why was she overlooked when the plums were being shared out? There were many reasons. For one thing, she didn't look the way actresses were supposed to look. The theatre of the thirties demanded a dreary uniformity as far as physical appearance was concerned. Perhaps more important, Joan made no attempt to conceal her opinions about the level of production and acting in the company. She could be dangerously and woundingly outspoken. That deep, velvety voice could be wonderfully soothing one moment and the next could be dismissing you as a 'lousy piss-kitchen', one of her favourite epithets.

Then again, who wants to take the risk of being outshone by a person of superior talent, particularly when that person is a newcomer to the scene, a beginner just out of drama school, a chit of a girl with no respect for authority, who doesn't own a decent wardrobe, who has never had a decent hair-do since the day she was born, who doesn't read the 'crits' and who doesn't bother to disguise the fact that she thinks you're all impostors, 'dry chancres on the arse of a great art form'? She treated the producer and the leading man in the company with undisguised contempt and, naturally, they hated her for it right royally. She continued to work at the Rep for several months longer but finally, after a blazing row with the producer, left and joined Theatre of Action as co-producer. A week later we were married." (J:211)

"Joan had had some movement training at the Royal Academy, and so we set about a short training programme. We now had about twenty five people in the group. So we rehearsed a programme that could be done under any circumstances, but which really needed a course of spotlights, if you wanted to be extravagant. Well we had no spotlights so Alf Armitt went out and pinched road-lamps, took the lenses out of them, and made spotlights out of biscuit-tins.

We had now changed our name to Theatre of Action and our first production [Feb/Mar 1934] was a mixed bag consisting of Newsboy , a short political dance-drama, a group declamation of a poem called The Fire Sermon by Sergei Funarov. Oh - and a short piece On the Chartists which I'd written - a mini-documentary linked together with Chartist songs set to music by a young Manchester composer. We also did a short piece which had been written by the group we'd seen in London. It ran for seventy-five minutes when we saw it there. I can't remember its title. We called it John Bullion . And we made it into a piece of pure constructivist theatre, after Meyerhold (running time eighteen minutes). And it got quite a good write-up in the Guardian from a drama critic called Teddy Thompson. It was probably very primitive, really, but at the time it seemed absolutely marvellous, a big leap forward, no question about that. And a bigger audience than we'd ever had except on the big demonstrations. We toured it around some of the textile towns - Bacup, Rochdale, Haslingden. And it played for two nights at the Round House in Ancoats, Manchester. It was a kind of Quaker Social Service Settlement; Mary Stocks was the director there at the time. The first time we'd ever done anything consecutively for two nights. Our first run!

We also took it to the Socialist Sunday School in Hyde, to the Clarion cyclists' place somewhere in Cheshire, I forget where. Kettleshulme was it? Somewhere like that. I remember it was a very wet day, and all the cyclists came in capes. It was good. And a very high level of technical efficiency, thanks to Alf Armitt." (TL:246-7)

"Looking back down the years, I cannot help thinking what an odd picture Joan and I must have presented: two slightly built teenage innocents standing shoulder to shoulder on the small stage of the Hyde Socialist Sunday School, passionately declaiming works by a French surrealist, an American symbolist and a nineteenth century English romantic poet. I can remember how good it felt to be standing there in the raw light of Alf's home-made spotlight uttering the beautiful words. We were twin Lears hurling defiance at the storm, only our storm was capitalism in decay, with its wars and rumours of war, unemployment, fascism and the ruthless exploitation of working people." (J:212)

"We had no permanent premises of our own, but we moved into a slightly better rehearsal room. Our previous rehearsal room had been in the cellar of the Workers' Arts Club which had no lighting, only candles, rats and dirt. We moved to Grosvenor Street, Manchester, into a studio there, a long, narrow room which cost eight bob a week.

In the meantime Alf Armitt was pursuing his studies of stage lighting. If at this time anyone in the British theatre had done any serious thinking about the significance of electric light, then he had escaped our notice. The fact that you could throw light, that you could make parallel beams, or you could make arcs and circles of different sizes, that one could use light for the purpose of controlling space - for expanding and limiting space - that was a revelation to us. God knows there'd been enough written about it, but none of it translated into English.

Adolphe Appia was the great theorist and innovator in this field. He'd written the definitive work on the subject; it had been translated into German, Swedish, Russian and a host of other languages, but in England where they were still using electric light in the theatres as though it were candies, Appia was only a name. Alf determined that he would learn French, so that he could translate Adolphe Appia and he did. By the time he got through with it, he had plans for a portable lighting unit that could be rigged anywhere. He built it from components supplied by workers from a dozen different trades. Cable, switches, transformers, rheostats all came by the underground route. So there we were with lighting equipment which could be used anywhere, providing a power source was at hand.

At Haslingden we performed in a room that had no power source. Alf solved the problem by hanging out of a window and connecting our board to the electric trolley cable which supplied power for the trams! It's true the lights dimmed every time a tram passed, but apart from that it was perfectly effective.

In the Agit-Prop period we had struggled along with half a dozen people, all recruited from the militant left. Now we were recruiting from outside the labour movement. On the strength of that first production, people were flocking in from all over the place.

The Agit-Prop basis of our work was still very obvious, particularly as acting was concerned, but now it had style, nuance. We were no longer deafening the audience with slogans, we were developing arguments in what we considered to be a new, exciting, theatrical language.

Our experience of working in confined spaces, such as on top of a coal-cart, had taught us to be economical with movement and gesture, and our work in the streets had taught us something about the use of the voice. That experience was to stand us in good stead for the next twenty years, including the first six years in the life of Theatre Workshop when we were constantly on the road playing in mission halls, miners' welfares, school halls, public parks and the national theatres of Stockholm and Prague.

We were now attracting lots of people with special skills and talents that they were prepared to share with us. Painters and sculptors were coming to us, engineers from Metro-Vickers who carne along and said, 'Took, we'll build you back-projection equipment.' We were recruiting people like mad, it was very, very, exciting. I remember recruiting West Africans into the group at the time, to act in it. We did a thing on colonialism, a ten-minute sketch of colonialism, part dance, part song, part declamation. And we got two brothers who were very very black indeed, from Nigeria - they were Ibo people.

Joan was now working in the Rusholme Rep., and spending all her spare time with us. Round about this time the exiled German dramatist Ernst Toller came to Manchester, to supervise the production of his play Draw the Fires , a drama dealing with the revolt of the German navy during the Sparticist period in Germany. A good deal of the action took place in the stokehole of a battleship. Stokers, stripped to the waist, shovelled coal into the furnaces throughout several scenes. Well, the guys at the Rep. hadn't a clue; they looked ridiculous. And Toller couldn't stand it. Well, someone must have told him about Joan's connection with Theatre of Action and he asked her to bring us along to the theatre.

Half a dozen of us turned up, all mates, and he told us to strip to the waist and go through the motions of shovelling. Well, of course, we looked like people who'd done hard physical work, all of us had, and we were all in the pink of condition from hiking. 'Now, let's hear you talk, take some of the lines.' The lads, of course, belted 'em out, all the curses and everything. Christ! This was our natural speech. The leading actor there was a real nose- in-the-air bastard and he hated our guts. Nevertheless, we were hired for the run of the play, a fortnight I think it was. We went in because we felt it was a good revolutionary play, we were proud to be in it. That was the first time I'd ever been backstage in a professional theatre.

Theatre of Action lasted from about the end of 1933 to the end of 1934. It was during this period that we did Odets's Waiting for Lefty . We'd heard about the play from the Laboratory Theatre. I was in correspondence with the group that Odets had been in, and we sent across for it, got a copy by return and put it on within the month. For that we recruited a whole lot of people. It was a huge success - we played it for a week. That was the first time we'd ever done a full-length play. We played that at the Ancoats Settlement as well. I remember that it was a real tour de force for one of the actors in it - he was a market fellow, worked on the markets, a grafter; his name was Les Goldman; he was absolutely brilliant, completely authentic. He played the right-wing trade union boss. Oh by God, he was good. He brought a lot of his friends in too, market grafters. They were all on the fringe of the political movement. They lived in that Jewish area of Strangeways, where politics was humming all the time.

We were also in touch with a group in Pennsylvania as well, who sent us a couple of scripts. There was a script that they did on an automobile strike, The Sit-In.

Theatre of Action now numbered about a hundred people in its ranks, people who could be called upon to act, build equipment, organize publicity, silk-screen posters, type scripts and all the rest of it. We really had a big outfit - all unpaid, of course, and many working at other jobs during the day. The bloke in charge of equipment was known as 'Stooge', because he looked like one of the Three Stooges. He was a steel erector named Gerard Davis, and he spent his boyhood in the next street to me. A real tough guy. His parents had spent a good part of their lives touring with fit-up companies. They had a large family, all conceived on the road, and named after the heroes and heroines of the plays currently on tour. Gerard Anthony Davis was born the year they were touring scenes from Anthony and Cleopatra and The Fortunes of Gerard.

Alf Armitt was still in, now spending most of his time building better and better lighting units. He had left engineering and apprenticed himself in an optical lens factory. He said, 'There's no reason why we should have to pinch all our lenses. We can make them.'

The growing success of Theatre of Action was the cause of its sudden collapse. During the Agit-Prop period the Party had shown no interest at all in the way the theatre was run; that it was there on tap was sufficient. But now the party district committee began to question the wisdom of heaving an influential group in the hands of a couple of prima donnas. It wasn't that the Party objected to prima donnas as such but it wanted the prima donnas to be of its choosing. There wasn't enough democracy, it was argued, not enough committees; the casting of plays should be the work of a committee with strong party representation. Another argument was that too many people were spending too much time on the theatre. When we pointed out that most of them weren't party members we were told that they should have been recruited. There were those who were of the opinion that Theatre of Action's only important function was as a recruiting base for the Party. Others were suspicious of the whole idea of theatre work being a valid political function. Relations with the party district committee deteriorated to the point where Joan and I were called before the political leadership of the Party and presented with an ultimatum - we either accepted the recommendations of the DPC or faced expulsion from the Party. The recommendations would virtually have meant abandoning the theatre to the Agit-Prop department of the Party. Naturally we refused to see this happen. A special meeting of an extended DPC was called to thrash out the matter. It was one of those meetings when all the accumulated resentments of years boil to the surface. I must confess, also, that I was very brash and incredibly opinionated. It was my contention that the party line was completely opportunistic when it carne to cultural affairs, and I set out to prove this in a rather unorthodox way. It was really rather stupid. I read out a statement by Trotsky, dealing with cultural work, but didn't name its author. I asked the party organizer to say whether he accepted it as a correct analysis of the problem. When he agreed that it was, I named its author. This juvenile trick produced pandemonium. It was as if I'd accused the pope of having an incestuous relationship. It certainly had the effect of hardening the opposition to us and alienating several people who up till then had been undecided. When the vote on our expulsion was taken, there were 21 votes for and 21 against. The chairman cast his vote in our favour. Though we escaped expulsion, it could hardly be described as a victory. The struggle had weakened the theatre, and the atmosphere was poisoned with mutual recriminations. Armitt and another survivor of the street theatre days left the group declaring that they would never again work with any outfit connected with the Communist Party. Several weeks prior to these events Joan and I had received an offer from the Soviet Academy of Theatre and Cinema offering us scholarships to study there. We had no intention of taking up the offer at the time, but now conditions had changed so we wrote accepting, and left Theatre of Action to those who had called for its 'democratization'. It continued in existence for three or four months and then fizzled out.

In London we hung around waiting for our visas to come through, but after a fortnight the £14 raised by our friends as a parting gift gave out. By an incredible stroke of luck, however, we got a job writing a film scenario based on a Christian Science novel. The lady who had written the novel gave us free lodgings in the basement flat of her Cheyne Walk apartment. And still there was no word of visas. Through friends in Manchester we made contact with a family in Battersea and discussed with them the idea of setting up a training class for young working-class actors. They were enthusiastic and within a month we had set up a communal house on West Side, Clapham Common. There were eight of us, and for the next five months we discussed and analyzed and tried ideas in movement and voice and at the end of that period we had succeeded in formulating a training programme. There were lots of holes in it but it was the base on which our work was to develop over the next few years. Our visas didn't come through, and finally we were forced to give up the communal house as we had no job, no money and no prospect of any." (TL:247-52)

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