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Last updated:28 April 2015

Uranium 235

Introduction to the published script by Hugh  MacDiarmid, 1952

"If we may judge by Sir David Lindsay's Satire of the Thrie Estaitis, no nation could have shown a fairer promise (than Scotland) of playing a worthy part in the dramatic recital which is the glory of English literature at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century.

But dis aliter visum; that promise was irretrievably blasted." So wrote J. H. Millar in his " Literary History of Scotland," and went on to show what forces had prevented the development of drama in Scotland. Earlier he had remarked: "There is scarcely a country on the continent of Europe to-day where the systematic publication of such diatribes as he indulged in against the existing order in Church and State would not expose their author to the pains and penalties of the law. Even in England the public performance of a drama in the least degree resembling the Satire in tone or aim would be absolutely out of the question." Mr. Millar also noted that Sir David Lindsay " never made a secret of the fact that he wrote for the commonalty ; and we can picture to ourselves the enthusiasm and delight with which the most telling scenes and speeches in the Satire would be received by an audience drawn from the ranks a people never averse from subjecting their rulers to the wholesome test of ridicule."

A many-sided movement to create a Scottish National Drama and to provide Scotland with an adequate theatrical service has been making headway during the past few years. It is fitting that the Satire - albeit only in abridged, bowdlerised, and modernised form - is to be put on at the second Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama. Unless it is shortened and "purified" out of all resemblance to the original, that will serve in some sort as a test to show whether Scotland stands where it did in open contempt of the Powers-That-Be, whether the commonalty to-day will respond as their predecessors did.upwards of four centuries ago, and whether anything like the same freedom is accorded to the arts in Scotland to-day as was enjoyed then. It will not be anything like a complete test none of these issues will be clearly and challengingly joined in this revival of Lindsay's Satire . That is welcome enough in itself.

U235 Cover : Cover of script of U235, play by Ewan MacColl

Cover of script of Uranium 235l

There can have been precious few, if any, productions of it in Scotland (and none anywhere else, of course!) since its first performances at Cupar, Linlithgow and Edinburgh round about 1540. Though we have dramatists in Scotland today of the calibre of " James Bridie," Paul Vincent Carroll, Gordon Daviot, William Douglas Home, and best of all, Robert MacLellan, none of them are dealing with "dynamite" - the authorities are not likely to fall foul of them, or their audiences to riot in protest against them; in so far as they deal with live issues, these are of a minor order. This applies to all of them, except the author of the present play. In so far as we have one, he is the Sir David Lindsay de nos jours; Lindsay would have been a greater dramatist (and the whole history of Scottish drama very different) if he had been also the Ewan MacColl of the sixteenth century.

MacColl's work is radically different from everything to which modern Scottish theatre-goers have been accustomed - and modern English theatre-goers, too, for the matter of that. It deals fearlessly and dynamically with the crucial problems of our own day and generation. It is forward-looking, and for its effective production demands the utilisation of all the most advanced theatrical means. It is the work of one fully aware of, and working for, the avant garde in the theatre the world over and, therefore, it is also, like Sir David Lindsay's, written for the commonalty and certain to appeal to them tremendously whenever they get a chance to see and hear it. It is not easy for such a dramatist to come by such a chance in this fourth decade of the Twentieth Century. MacColl has suffered from political victimisation. The way has been made hard for him in every connection by the stooges of the status quo, despite the tributes his work has evoked from George Bemard Shaw and Sean O'Casey.

Arthur Rimbaud spat contemptuously on almost the whole succession of preceding French poets. MacColl has expectorated in like fashion against contemporary English (and Scottish) playwrights ; and, worse still, against London West-End standards, and the whole confraternity of authors, managers, producers, and actors of our theatredom of to-day. He did not think it worth-while to appeal to any ready-made public; with his friends of Theatre Workshop he took his plays to places that had never had a theatre before, and played to audiences that had never seen any theatrical Production before - and carried them by storm. The enthusiasm of these working-class audiences, uncontaminated by any previous acquaintance with the commercial theatre, little read in bourgeois literature, and mercifully devoid of all but a minimum of our so-called "popular education," was an eye-opener. It "blew the gaff" with a vengeance on all other play-writing and producing in Great Britain today - and for an incredibly long time back.

To couple MacColl's name with Sir David Lindsay's is not absurd. That coupling is the accurate measure of the distance Ewan MacColl and his colleagues had to travel back to reconnect with the true tradition of the theatre. It was hard going, and plenty of enemies were encountered to see that everything possible was done to aggravate, and nothing to mitigate, the hardships of the enterprise. Nevertheless, Theatre Workshop played almost without a break for nearly two years to audiences in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, and, later, Scotland and in Germany. Most of these engagements were in halls and small theatres which were, in general, unsuited to their purpose. Yet they got their audiences, and laid the foundation of a whole new system of acting and production.

To have an experimental theatre of his own in this way has been an immense advantage to MacColl - just as, per contra, MacColl's work was the staple of the company's activities. Mrs. Winifred Bannister was right when, stressing these mutual advantages, she said: "If an experimental theatre - and this [Theatre Workshop] is the only theatre in this country advancing the theory of drama through a revolutionary technique - can keep its head above water without subsidy for a year, it must be said to have unique qualities, especially when such a theatre has devoted most of its time to playing in industrial centres to dramatically uneducated audiences. The vital methods of Theatre Workshop make the average production look like Victorian charades. This young company has worked hard and made many sacrifices to hew out a new technique of presentation and production which has the stamp of contemporary life. The lively methods of this company reflect the determination of the young to pull up the dead wood; to grow from the seed instead of pruning plants which are better dead."

Ewan MacColl's principal plays to date - and he is still a young man - are Johnny Noble, Rogue's Gallery, Blitz Song, Uranium 235, and Operation Olive Branch - a tale of progressive achievement which establishes him (apart altogether from his great mission as a revivalist of true theatrical values and destroyer of false standards - and apart, too, from the related matter of his literary value, since plays can be effective in production though their purely literary value may be small) as by far the most important and promising young dramatist writing in English, or any dialect of English, at the present time.

Of the production of Johnny Noble the more perceptive critics had no hesitation in saying that it was a perfect example of team work and it was doubtful if groupings had ever been more naturally achieved (or seemingly so). "Some of the mass movement here is really beautiful and effective, and the whole play is extremely moving."  Again, of the present play, Uranium 235, the Glasgow Herald said:

"It is described on a publicity sheet as a vivid portrayal of the history of atomic research and the problems raised by the atom bomb.  That does less than justice to this moving and beautiful modern morality. That there is great drama in the discovery of the atom bomb and all it implies is obvious, but many dramatists would have been equally obvious in their treatment of such a theme, in which, no doubt, secret agents and dictators would have been prominent. Not so, MacColl, to whom the spiritual values are the realities. The result is an absorbing play, although 'play ' is hardly the right description. Rather is it an absorbing experience to watch and listen to his ideas on the stage, expressed by speech, mime, dances, and song. Using this method, peculiarly suitable to the ideas he has to express, the playwright tells the story of mankind through the past 2,500 years, his struggle against stupidity and. ignorance, his misuse of science - 'We searchers after knowledge, we hunted men' says one of the characters and his undying spirit. A noble conception, the work of a man with something to say. Uranium 235 has never a hint of pretentiousness or preciousness, a trap waiting for so many who use mime and dance in a work of this kind. There is, too, real poetry in the dialogues and monologues."

From this documentary play dealing with the problems raised by the recent discovery of methods for utilising atomic energy, and tracingthe history of thought into the fundamental nature of things from Democritus to the present, held together by. dramatisation of contemporary events relevent to the theme, back to the documentary ballad-opera of Johnny Noble, Ewan MacColl has already covered an immense field in pursuit of his unchanging purpose, and amply justified the claim of Ian Mhor writing in Reynolds that " the little Perthshire town of Auchterarder has produced a truly great dramatist."  I entirely agree with him, and, privy as I am to some of MacColl's more recent work and plans for future development, I have no hesitation in believing that, if health and harness hold, Ewan MacColl will substantiate that claim during the next few years by completing a body of work in the field of drama beyond comparison greater alike in quality and quantity dm that of any other playwright Scotland has yet produced. I have no doubt of his first-rate significance for the whole future of drama, or of his great creative potentialities (apart from stage production altogether) as a writer and political and aesthetic thinker. This is the first of his plays to be published. It is an honour to have been asked to write these few words of introduction, inadequate as they are, to the vitally important work of my compatriot and friend, and to express the confident hope that the publication of Uranium 235 will be the forerunner of the appearance of the whole notable sequence and progressive development of a creative enterprise of which Scotland has been singularly destitute for four long centuries and is perhaps too dazed by this sudden unheralded resumption to assess at its true worth, which is unquestionably very great.

Click here to read MacColl's description of the play and its early performances