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Ewan MacColl: Theatre Union

" Joan and I were now at the end of our tether. Moscow had fallen through. Our training school had collapsed. We felt defeated, demoralised... Our salvation came in the form of a letter from the Manchester branch of the Peace Pledge Union, inviting us to produce Hans Schlumberg's Miracle at Verdun and offering us a small fee. This was to be the first money I had ever earned in the theatre.

The following day we were headed north again. Our stay in London had been miserable. We had gone there determined never to return to the north except as conquerors. We had looked forward to spending two or three years in close discussion ( in fluent Russian, of course) with our friends Myerhold and Vakhtangov and then retuming accompanied by Eisenstein or Pudovkin, with whom we were to produce a film dealing with Engels' life in Manchester ... maybe if we hadn't been so cold and hungry most of the time it might have worked out better. Or if we had liked London... but both of us hated it. I felt lost in it, depersonalised. And yet, at the time, anything was better than having to return north with our tails between our legs... the scorn with which we would be greeted by those whom we had come to regard as our enemies. . . no, we said. Never!

Theatre Union logoYet once we were seated in the Manchester-bound train, we were in a buoyant mood and supremely confident about our future. For one thing, we were no longer cold. My father's eldest brother, Jock, had died of a heart attack in his butcher's shop in Glasgow and left £100 to my father, who sent half of it to Joan and me with the injunction that we get ourselves some clothes. So here we were, decked out in our finery: new shoes for both of us; skirt, blouse and a handsome new coat for Joan; and for me, a new suit, the first one I'd ever had that hadn't been bought from a clothing club.

The sun was shining when we walked out of London Road Station and made our way across Piccadilly. Did we imagine the feehing of celebration in the air? We welcomed ourselves back over a cup of coffee at the Mosley Street Kardomah and then, conscious of being much travelled sophisticates, we made our way to the Friends Meeting House where the office of the Peace Pledge Union was located.

When we left the building a half-hour later, we were in a high state of jubilation. The young woman who had greeted us there had informed us that we could draw upon a more or less unlimited supply of helpers. The entire place was a hive of cheerful activity and we had been introduced to young people who were duplicating scripts, designing posters and drafting leaflets. We were shown our rehearsal facllities: three large rooms redolent of wood and furniture polish, centrally heated rooms with parquet floors and conveniently adjacent tollet facllities. A far cry from the cellar of the Workers' Arts Club and the tumbledown studio in Grosvenor Street. As if all this wasn't enough, the efficient young woman who had organised it presented us with a long list of names of those eager to take part in the production as actors, technicians or simply as dogsbodies.

'When would you like to start auditioning?' she asked. Auditioning? It was a completely novel idea. In the Red Megaphones a group of politically-minded teenagers had drifted together in order to present dramatic political sketches. In Theatre of Action we had absorbed into the company almost anyone who happened to be at hand. And now we were to have a choice of actors and actresses!

Miracle at Verdun was not one of our most inspired productions, but it did provide us with a platform from which to proclaim our ideas about theatre. It put us in contact with audiences who had probably never even heard of our previous theatre work, and it provided us with a nucleus of people who were wllhing to work with us. Some of these new recruits left after a few weeks. Others, including a small group of artists, stayed with us for the next five years. Two of them were employed as teachers at Manchester's art school, some were students and one or two earned a precarious living by painting or sculpting. Through them we had access to the services of layout and silk-screen artists and workers in most aspects of graphics. The results were not only apparent in our improved stage sets, but in the impressive handbills and posters which advertised our productions.

By the time 1936 was a few weeks old, Theatre Union was flourishing. Most of our old Theatre of Action people were with us again and what with the new recruits, the artists' group and the very professional technicians group, we really felt capable of tackling the most ambitious shows. For years I had lived with failure. I had struggled, almost blindly, to create a theatre. Now I lived in a state of almost permanent euphoria. Joan and I passed our days in a fury of activity. We made plans, read everything we could lay our hands on, talked incessantly about theatre to anyone who would listen. Furthermore, we had found a way to earn a living - not a particularly satisfactory living as far as money was concerned, but an absorbing and creative one." (J:227-8)

"From an organisational point of view Miracle at Verdun was a very important stage in the development of our theatre. Not only did it win us a far bigger audience than we'd ever had before but it left us with a skeleton organisation which we could build on. It had, in addition, made it possible for us to reach the student population, it had put us in contact with amateur drama groups throughout the Manchester district and had won us support from a number of painters, sculptors, printers and journalists. A few days after the play's final performance, we called a meeting of all those who had taken part in it and there it was decided to forma new group. The aims of Theatre Union, as this new group was called, are summed up in this manifesto:


We live in times of great social upheaval; faced with an ever-increasing danger of war and fascism, the democratic people of thc world have been forced into action. Their struggle for peace and progress manifests itself in many forms and not the least important of these is the drama.

Theatre Union is Manchester's contribution to the forces of democracy. It has set itself the task of establishing a complete theatre unit consisting of producers, actors, writers, artists and technicians, which will present to the widest possible public, and particularly to that section of the public which has been starved theatrically, plays of social significance. Where the censorship of the period makes it impossible for such productions to be open to the general public they will be given for private audiences of Theatre Union members. Alt that is most vital in the repertoire of the world's theatre will find expression on the stage of Theatre Union.

It has been said that every society has the theatre it deserves; if that is so, then Manchester, one of the greatest industrial and commercial centres in the world deserves only the best. It is for the people of Manchester to see that Theatre Union's goal is attained. Theatre Union intends that its productions will be made accessible to the broadest possible mass of people in the Manchester district, and consequently it appeals to all Trade Unions and to alt parties engaged in the struggle for peace and progress to become affiliated immediately.

This manifesto was still hot from the press when Spain was plunged into civil war. Like many people we were horrified at the turn events were taking and at a meeting of the newly formed Theatre Union, it was decided that we should mount a production which would have the dual function of drawing public attention to the struggle of the Spanish people against Fascism and raising funds for medical aid. Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna (The Sheep-well) was the play we chose to produce. It was our first excursion in the field of classical drama, the beginning of a road that was to lead to Marlowe's Edward the Second , Marston's Dutch Courtesan , Arden of Faversharn , Volpone and Macbeth .

In every respect Fuente Ovejuna was the ideal play for the time. Its theme, the revolt of a village community against a ruthless and bloody dictator, was a reflection in microcosm of what was actually taking place in Spain. A colourful play with lots of action and a superb climax, it has a fairly big cast and like Miracle at Verdun , there are a number of crowd scenes. Rut whereas Miracle had been a rather static play, relying on a series of tableaus, Fuente had a tremendous amount of real action. In Miracle most of the roles were lay-figures who delivered speeches; there was no real conversation, instead there was oration. In Fuente , on the otber hand, the characters were men and women who laughed and wept and cried out in pain and made jokes. Even the crowd was made up of characters who fought and danced and rioted like a crowd of football enthusiasts expressing their devotion to Manchester United. In our agit-prop days we had made great use of songs but had abandoned the practice when we left the streets. In Fuente we set Lope's lyrics to the tunes of stirring republican battle songs and used them as a continuous thread throughout the production.

The static nature of Miracle at Verdun had called for décor which underlined the play's lack of real physical conflict. The production of Fuente Ovejuna on the other hand, demanded the maximum area of uncluttered stage where the crowds could move and give vent to their violent feelings. The single setting which our newly formed artists' group created for us consisted of a circular drinking-well situated upstage of centre with a large sculpted figure of a rampant sheep towering above it. This and a backcloth of ruffled hessian painted and dyed in autumnal colours of russet, brown and gold provided a wonderfully effective background for Lope's masterpiece.

Fuente Ovejuna : Ticket for Theatre Union production from 1939In addition to extending our stylistic vocabulary, the production of Fuente Ovejuna gave us an enormous amount of confidence and won us wither support than we had ever enjoyed before. It occupies a very important place in our calendar of events for not only was it the first time that a play by Spain's most important dramatist had been performed in Britain, it was also the first time that we had dared to step outside the territory of agit-prop-cum-expressionistic theatre.

As the Spanish Civil War dragged on we found ourselves becoming more and more involved with it and soon we were staging pageants and specially written dramatic episodes for public meetings and demonstrations. Indeed, some of the dramatic interludes staged at Medical-Aid for Spain rallies rank among our most successful experiments. In them we carried the agit-prop form to new heights. The group declamations, occasional songs, the tableau-like groupings of the actors had, in our street-theatre days, suffered from sloppy presentation, a lack of nuance; we were either too casual in our approach or too rigidly regimented. We were still dealing with the same basic elements of group declamation, songs and group action but these had become refined, polished and imbued with that special luminescence which a large audience generates. Furthermore we were now using whole batteries of spotlights and they were adding their own kind of excitement. The four or five overworked voices of the Red Megaphones attempting to make themselves heard above traffic and the noise of the streets had now become a choir of fifteen or twenty mixed voices backed by a small band of instrumentalists. The text of the group declamation, which in the past had generally consisted of rather turgid prose, was now the work of Hugh Macdiarmid who could handle words like a Chinese juggler keeping twelve plates in the air with his feet.

There was a new ingredient too, the personal statement or statements made by members of the audience. These were planned and rehearsed interpolations made by two or three individuals seated in different parts of the auditorium and interviewed by us before the actual event. They would be asked several questions about themselves and their answers would then be whittled down to a few short sentences lasting anything from thirty to forty-five seconds. This is the kind of thing:

My narne is Arthur D. I'm a face worker at Agecroft Colliery, Pendleton. I'm on short time, a three-day week. I support the Spanish people's struggle because their fight and my fight is the same.
My name is Mary Parkinson. I'm thirty-four years old and I'm a back-tenter in Worral's Mill, Salford. I'm married with two children, Norah aged fourteen and Eddie aged twelve. My husband's a brassmoulder but he's out of work. Been idle for two years. I think it's terrible what's happening in Spain, the way our Government's helping the fascists:

At pre-arranged points in the script, these speakers would stand up, spotlights would pick them out and they would say their piece. Their statements would be sandwiched between republican songs sung by the choir or, on some occasions, by Paul Robeson and the whole thing would be given shape by a framework composed of passages from Hugh Macdiarmid's magnificent poem on the Spanish Civil War, The Flaming Poetaster . The effect produced by juxtaposing the flat Lancashire accents of housewives and unemployed workers against the soaring voices of the choir, the rich velvety bass-baritone of Paul Robeson, or the stinging hail of Macdiarmid's poetry, was riveting. The use of such contrasts was to become an integral feature of many of our productions in the years ahead, particularly in plays like Johnny Noble and Uranium 235 . It was also destined to become a notable feature of the post-war radio-ballads, those B.B.C. documentaries in which the form and spirit of folk-music and recorded actuality strive to become a single entity.

Following the production of Fuente Ovejuna we staged, in fairly quick succession, two plays dealing with war and peace, very different from each other in style and content. The first of these was The Good Soldier Schweik . Both Joan and I had read Hasek's novel some years before and had fallen in love with it, and when we heard that Piscator had produced a stage version of it in Germany we were determined that we would give it its first British production. We acquired a copy of the script without too much trouble but, unfortunately, it was in German and neither of us could read it. However by using the English translation of the novel and a German dictionary we succeeded in making a reasonable English adaptation.

In his production Piscator had made use of back-projection and life-sized marionettes. We rejected the marionettes but embraced the idea of back-projection with enthusiasm. Our unending discussions and planning for the ultimate theatre had made us receptive to new technical developments and innovations which might lend extra dimensions to the theatre. So we set about investigating the possibility of borrowing or acquiring in someway the special equipment required. The results of our investigations were not encouraging. German refugee actors spoke disparagingly of equipment which kept breaking down and which, when it did work, made so much noise that the actors couldn't be heard. Replies to enquiries were even more discouraging, the cost of hiring was prohibitive -more than we spent on an entire production; furthermore one needed a stage with great depth in order to give the projector an 'adequate throw'. To clinch matters, there was only one such projector in the country and the owners were not prepared to hire it without a team of operating technicians. We decided that we would dispense with back-projection. The following day there appeared in one of the evening papers an item dealing, in some detail, with our unsuccessful quest. That same evening four young men turned up at our rehearsal, engineering research scientists from Metropolitan-Vickers. They wanted details concerning our specific needs. We told them and they went away. Three days before the dress rehearsal they turned up again, this time in a Ford truck with our back-projector which they had built! It worked beautifully, much better than Piscator's, said our German friends.

Schweik fell naturally into our style of production. It contained so many of the basic elements of agit-prop technique. It possessed characters, true! But those characters leaned heavily towards caricature. Its episodic structure was firmly in the agit-prop tradition as was its anabasis. Even the expressionistic side of agit-prop was present, in the form of comic dance-interludes. In the second of our anti-war plays there were few such influences.

Lysistrata programme

I had discovered Aristophanes a few years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Leeds. It was my first contact with the classical theatre of Greece and what better introduction could there be for an adolescent youth? The pub-crawling episode in Schweik had taught us to respect the knockabout-comedy routines of the

variety stage; our presentation of the drunken perambulations of Schweik and Woditchka owed a great deal to the various comic turns we had seen at the Salford Hippodrome. Now Lysistrata 's chorus of old men were being given the same treatment, and it worked splendidly! And wasn't the Magistrate a figure straight out of burlesque? Then there was the singing and dancing which occupied a fair slice of Aristophanes' text: surely that wasn't too far removed from the style of the musicals which were coming out of Hollywood! Unfortunately we lacked the resources which would have allowed us to present Lysistrata as a musical. We did the next best thing and produced it as a spirited romp with lots of bawdy jokes and amusing horseplay. It laid the foundations for a more radical reworking of the text in which soldiers' scenes were interpolated between scenes of striking women and where recondite references to obsolete religious practices were cut out in favour of lines and short sequences borrowed from The Acharnians , The Thesmophoriazusae and The Peace .

Lysistrata opened at the Lesser Free Trade Hall at the time Chamberlain and Daladier were preparing to hand Czechoslovakia over to Hitler and the excitement of our play was lost In the rising tide of fear and confusion which accompanied that episode. We were consumed with a terrible sense of urgency and felt we could no longer afford the luxury of producing plays which didn't make an immediate and specific political statement about the danger confronting us all. The oblique parallels of Schweik and Fuente were all very well but the world was racing headlong towards disaster and we had passed the point where events could be influenced by a reference to the Peloponnesian War or even to that other war which had given birth to Schweik. It's not enough, we said, to have plays which make a generalised exposure of the nature of Capitalism, they must have specific objectives and they must be about events which are taking place now. It wasn't a matter of having less art and more politics but of having more clearly stated politics and more powerful art. The better the politics, we reasoned, the better the art and the nearer we would be to achieving our goal of a truly popular theatre." (A-P:xxxix-xliv)

The Last Edition

"Our next pre-war production was to make use of all our newly developed talents. We had often toyed with the idea of producing a living newspaper. The Russians had pioneered the form during the building of the Turkish railway when travelling-theatre groups, faced with audiences of illiterates, had presented shows dealing with the day-to-day politics of the project. The American Federal Theatre had adopted the idea and in 1936 produced Triple A Ploughed Under and its most successful living newspaper One Third of a Nation had just closed after playing for 237 performances, something of a record for a lLast Edition flyereft theatre at the time. We felt that the time had arrived for us to see what we could do with the form.

The task of collecting newspaper items dealing with the events leading up to the Munich pact and its appalling aftermath was undertaken by the entire company. Everything we had learned about theatre and politics in the years of work was now to be put to use - the mass-declamatory form, the satirical comedy style of agit-prop, the dance-drama of Newsboy, the simulated public meetings of Still Talking and Waiting for Lefty , the constructivism of John Bullion , the expressionism of Miracle at Verdun , the burlesque comedy of Lysistrata , the juxtaposition of song and actuality from the Spanish Civil War pageants and the fast-moving episodic style of The Good Soldier Schweik .

From the agit-prop period onwards, we had adopted a somewhat eclectic approach to stage-design. Newsboy and the sketches accompanying it had been presented on a bare stage with simple spotlighting marking off the acting areas. Waiting for Lefty had also used a bare stage with some action in the auditorium and with two kitchen chairs and a small table for the inset scenes. Miracle at Verdun had used a formalised set for the graveyard scenes and some rather nondescript furniture for the League of Nations sequence. John Bullion had been unashamedly constructivist. Fuente Ovejuna had been architectonic-cum-impressionist and Schweik had been played in portable reversible screens.

Last Edition represented a complete break with formal theatre staging. When it opened at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, it was on a stage which, in addition to the central platform or stage proper, had two further platforms running the full length of each side of the auditorium so that that the audience was enclosed on three sides. There were scenes during which all three stages were in use at the same time; other scenes used only one or two of the stages. Following spots were used for each of the two side-platforms and the overall effect was not unlike a fast-moving variety show, the kind of theatre, that is, with which most of us were familiar. The similarity was reinforced by an added use of song and dance. One or two of the episodes were reworked versions of ideas which had been used in the early days of Theatre of Action when we had neither enough actors nor sufficient resources to carry them out properly. In some instances we combined ideas from Newsboy with scenes which had been inspired by early Hollywood musicals like 42nd Street and Fox Movietone Follies of 1932 ." (A-P:xliv-v)

"The theme of unemployment ran like a thread through Last Edition . It was a subject about which we were well informed. Some of us, indeed, were experts on the subject and there was scarcely an actor in the group who hadn't been on the dole at sometime or another. For many of us the most potent symbols of the thirties were the unemployed hunger-marches. In the confines of a formal stage structure the presentation of a hunger-march would have involved all kinds of problems; with our three connected stages it became a very simple matter. The hunger-march episodes in Last Edition were an amalgam of ideas drawn from agit-prop sketches, Schweik and Waiting for Lefty .

Among the most effective scenes in the production were those dealing with the Gresford pit disaster. Gresford was one of those mass killings which were a periodic feature of the privately owned coal industry. The annual toll of deaths due to rock-falls, explosions and pneumoconiosis was, apparently, acceptable to the public, provided that only one or two corpses at a time were added to the list. But 265 dead in one fell swoop! Even the Tories couldn't talk that away. We presented the episode in two parts, first as an 'open' scene with simultaneous action on all three stages with writing and acting strongly influenced by the crowd scenes from Fuente Ovejuna , and secondly, in marked contrast, as a trial scene with dialogue taken from verbatim accounts which appeared in newspapers at the time of the disaster. The people depicted on the stage are real people.

Specific political events and tbe individuals associated with them were dealt with in a variety of ways. One of the most interesting was what we called 'acting-out' episodes. These were scenes within scenes in which actors were called upon to step out of a role they were playing in order to assume a completely different role. This parenthetical device had been used frequently in agit-prop sketches such as Rent, Interest and Profit and Their Theatre and Ours and was used effectively in several Theatre Workshop post-war productions.

The staged recitation of poems like The Fire Sermon , Shelley's Mask of Anarchy and Aragon's The Red Front had been a regular feature of the early Theatre of Action shows. In Aid for Spain pageants we had made use of Macdiarmid's exhortatory poem on the Spanish Civil War and now we were using it again in Last Edition as a link between the several small scenes which made up the civil-war sequence.

The second part of that sequence, the departure of the four International Brigaders, made use of a device which had been a favourite with radio producers ever since Archie Harding had first used it in his brilliant B.B.C. documentary ' Crisis in Spain '. The device was a simple one: an uncharacterised voice would repeat a phrase at intervals or would read out a list of names or a group of statistics or a catalogue of dates. Inset between the names, or places or dates there would be a naturalistic scene. The juxtaposition of flat statement against dramatic interludes produced a special kind of excitement. It was not unlike the effect of incremental repetition in a traditional ballad. We tended to over-use the device for we were still as poor as church mice and it was a cheap alternative to a change of décor. On tbe whole it worked well, though there was the odd occasion when it gave the wrong emphasis to a scene by making it unnecessarily portentous.

The Launcelot-Sigismund scene which carne prancing at the heels of the Spanish Civil War episode was rooted in the idiom of Christmas pantomime. Indeed, the parodying of popular types of show-biz was an important ingredient of almost all our early shows. The burlesque of the Hollywood gangster film was one we were particularly attached to. It had featured in one of our earliest agit-prop sketches, Their Theatre and Ours and we used it in Last Edition and again in Uranium 235 .

Last Edition programme

It will be obvious from the above that we tended to use the term 'Living Newspaper' rather loosely. Part documentary and part revue, Last Edition was, stylistically, an anthology of everything we had ever done in the theatre. While some of it was very exciting, much of it was either ridiculously overwritten or hopelessly pedestrian and tedious. There were episodes when it must have seemed to the audience that the narrator's voice would never stop churning out statistics, items of news and the threadbare clichés which pass for wisdom in the mouths of politicians.

After five performances Last Edition was stopped by the police. Joan and I were arrested and fined for behaviour likely to lead to a breach of the peace, and though the company managed to survive for several months longer, the war finally put an end to its activities." (A-P:xlv-vii)

"Our last task in Theatre Union was to draw up an advanced study syllabus before actors and technicians were called up for the services. Comprehensive reading lists were assembled covering every aspect of the theatre - history, theory and dramaturgy. Each member of the theatre nucleus undertook to study a different period or aspect of the theatre: one would study classical Greek theatre, another the Commedia dell'arte, another the Chinese theatre, another the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and so on. At the same time, it was decided that each person would communicate his or her findings to the other members of the group. It didn't always work, but it gave us a sense of continuity..." (TL:253-4)

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