‘People’s theatre’

by David Bradby and John McCormick. London: Croom Helm; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978, 179 pp. illustrations. £6.95


Alan Munton


This is an irritating book, because it lacks an argument. It is, as the authors say, an attempt to ‘survey a difficult area of theatre history,’ but that ought not to prevent them from making some kind of assessment of what they survey. They do define this area with lacklustre success; but to point to something and cry ‘Look!’ is not enough. The reader is left to infer that some of these occasions of people’s theatre must have been toe-curlingly embarrassing; others, significant moments in theatrical history. The book is little more than a list of names and events, occasionally elaborated and placed in the simplest of contexts.


People’s theatre, we are told, is not a unified movement, but falls into four categories: theatre as a substitute for religion; political theatre; decentralized theatre; community theatre. There is interaction and cross-fertilisation between these ‘rather artificial categories.’ The first of these has gone ‘hand in hand with a patriotic theatre of national union,’ as in the case of the Soviet Government’s Mystery of liberated labour (1920), which really did use the medieval mystery play as its basis (but that is all we are told about it). To fulfil itself, religious theatre attempted to merge audience and performers into a unity by breaking down the barriers between stage and auditorium. In the hands of Max Reinhardt the theatre’s intention was to stupefy the audience, following the example of the Roman Catholic Church, a concept which seems to the credit of neither. Nikolai Okhlopkov intended to make the spectator enter into the action this was in the 1930s—and he virtually eliminated the spatial distinctions between audience and actors (which is not quite the same thing). If we are thinking of the complete breaking-down of this barrier, with the audience invading the stage, a discussion could usefully refer to Wyndham Lewis’s essay The dithyrambic spectator (1925 and 1931) which opposes the idea by developing ideas from Jane Harrison’s Ancient art and ritual.


Apart from this kind of nationalist theatre, people’s theatre has primarily been developed by the political left. The authors nervously define agitprop as a theatre of ‘social religion,’ by which they mean almost everything of importance done in Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the USA between the wars. The dominant forms were the Mass Chant and the Living Newspaper. The former is a spoken chorus from which the individual speaker can step forward; the latter a means of at once presenting the news and commenting upon it. The Unity Theatre in London presented a Living Newspaper on the Munich Crisis in September 1938, changing the script from day to day, closely pursued by the Lord Chamberlain and his censor’s scissors.


Both this form and the Mass Chant originated in Russia after the Revolution. The Mass Chant can be seen making its way across Europe: after it went out of fashion in Germany in the late 1920s, it was revived in France in the early 1930s, and arrived in England in the middle of that decade. At least, this is the inference to be drawn from the performance of Jack Lindsay’s On guard for Spain in Trafalgar Square in 1936. However, when I mentioned this progress across Europe to Lindsay during an interview, he said that there had been no such influence: the mass choruses had been devised by himself and the producer, and both were unaware of any precedents. This is both interesting in itself, and a warning that one should not draw conclusions from books without arguments. As far as leftwing political theatre is concerned, the dominant figures were Meyerhold and Mayakovsky in the USSR, and Erwin Piscator and Brecht in Germany. There were no comparable presences in France, Britain or the USA, though important post-war contributions have been made by Joan Littiewood in Britain and Jean Vilar and Roger Planchon in France. The authors draw attention to the various debates about people’s theatre that took place (‘theatre for the people, or by the people?’) and particularly emphasise Vilar’s definition of the term, which I believe is amongst the most valuable and helps to clarify what is always in danger of becoming an imprecise term. ‘His aim,’ write Bradby and McCormick, ‘was not revolution but reunion. He consistently held out against the suggestion that popular theatre must dispense with the classics, regarding this as a position of cultural terrorism. He described the director’s job as that of throwing away the bourgeois wrappings around the great cultural monuments. He felt it was quite false to claim that the works of Molière and Shakespeare were part of the bourgeois heritage: they were plays which could speak directly to a popular audience if stripped of their middle-class cultural accretions. This he attempted to prove, not by perversely updated versions of the classics, forcing contemporary meanings on to an unwilling text, but by the choice of plays whose subject had a particular aptness in relation to the political events of the day.’ This is the right attitude for a radical theatre to take to the classics; and it does not preclude the demystifying work of Brecht, or the making of a radical modern theatre from other materials.


Vilar was also prominent in the movement to decentralize French theatre, which is another theme in this survey. That process was aided by circumstances both during and immediately after the last war, and later by the brilliant administrative opportunism of Jeanne Laurent in appointing Jean Vilar to the Théâtre Nationale Populaire. Unlike Planchon and Brecht, Vilar did not attempt to create a Marxist theatre, but he did succeed in bringing a working-class audience into the theatre, achieving ‘block bookings by unions on a scale unknown, for example, in London.’ That, of course, is a wholly justified criticism of the philistinism of the British Trade Union movement.


Nevertheless, it is difficult to discern any political point of view held by the authors of this book, though they appear interested in plays which change events, like the Bread and Puppet Theatre’s support of a successful rent strike in a New York slum. They favour the humorous and pleasurable 1960s approach to politics in the theatre, against what they imply was the too-serious approach of the 1930s. The radical theatre, they conclude, is no longer itself a source of information, but must demystify the news and information that we are given. They see the main post-war development to be the end of fruitless art-versus-action arguments, and the absorption of the lessons of Brecht. As this suggests, there is a consistent anti-1930s bias in the book (if only their problems had been those of the 1960s!), and the mass shows that were revived under the Popular Front are vulgarly and unhistorically compared with Hitler’s mass rallies. But this is theatrical history written from above, a history of influential figures, organisations, theatres. Of the people themselves there is nothing to be heard. They are the ghosts in the stalls.