Representing the Working Class: Two Plays by John McGrath

By Ronald Paul

I

In his collection of essays entitled The Bone Won’t Break: On theatre and hope in hard times, the Liverpool-born playwright John McGrath (1935-2002) points to the systematic social, political and economic marginalisation and cultural misrepresentation of working-class people everywhere, a strategy that seeks to keep them from realising their own collective interests, organisation and power. At the same time, as part of a much needed counter-cultural movement of resistance, McGrath also reasserts the role of radical theatre in helping to combat this constant process of denigration of the working class:

The war between the dispossessed, the voiceless, the powerless, the victims of the scramble to the top, and the institutions set up to exploit them, police them, culturally diminish them, keep them in their place, is world-wide – and increasingly theatre is playing a crucial part in what Augusto Boal calls ‘empowering’ people: giving them a voice, solidarity with one another, an identity and a hope for the future.1

This claim about the emancipatory function of theatre is based very much upon McGrath’s own career, stretching back to the 1950s and forward to the ‘90s, as one of Britain’s most prominent radical dramatists and television screenwriters. In particular, McGrath was the driving force behind the alternative theatre group 7:84, which was hugely successful in bringing socialist drama to working-class audiences throughout Britain from 1971 to 1986.2 One of the key cultural questions that McGrath was engaged in was how to challenge the image of working people in the popular media as completely lacking any collective social identity or history of struggle. It was this suppressed narrative that McGrath sought to recover, dramatize and make once again available to working-class people through the efforts of alternative group theatre. The task was a daunting but necessary one, given the ideological grip the ruling class has on information technologies, the media and public institutions. In his celebration of the new forms of popular theatre that emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, McGrath set out the premises for this radical reorientation:

A story, a mediation of reality, is sold to the atomized alienated individuals of our society, as they retreat from engagement with that reality. The gentlemen at the head of the powerful opinion-forming corporations do not wish to have their articulate mediation of reality disturbed by a group of people going around with a different story, seeing events from a different perspective, even selecting different information. Still less do they wish to have the population at large emerging from their mental retreat – the inner exile of the powerless and alienated – and demanding a share of power, of control, of freedom. But these are precisely the areas that popular theatre can, and must, work in.

Any serious piece of theatre that questions all assumptions, that scrutinizes contemporary reality with a sense of history and without fear of engaging in politics, must inevitably tell a different story, with different values and a different perspective, from that received on the TV screen and from the pages of the Sun.3

It is this more combative view of the working class I want to explore in the plays of John McGrath, not least because the question of class representation has become such a pressing one in recent years. It is relevant therefore to look back at McGrath’s work both for inspiration and for renewed strategies of cultural resistance. Of the more than 60 plays that McGrath wrote I have chosen to focus on two key ones, Fish in the Sea (1972) and Yobbo Nowt (1975), since both contain depictions of working-class life in which the characters are viewed seriously, at once emotionally and intellectually. They are also plays that question received perceptions about the role of the family, the nature of work, and the experience of class struggle. These plays represent moreover two of the finest examples of McGrath’s attempt to bring to working-class audiences radical drama in which characters and situations are taken from everyday life, and in which decisive personal and political choices are made. This ideological project of countering the stigmatization the working class was, as McGrath himself stated, one that also needed to be historically informed, comprehensive in political scope, and popular in performance style, conveying

the actual history of the working class, its formation, centuries of suffering and pride, the victories as the people moved towards a greater degree of emancipation, the distortions of purpose as they approached complete power, the lessons of the political struggles, the divisions within the people today and the mystification that prevails as the ruling class pretends it no longer rules. All this history has been suppressed, and needs to be shown to the people: it is a rich history, full of vivid episodes, songs, strong characters and plenty of action.4

Sadly, this complex and compelling representation of the working class is almost totally absent both in popular culture and in the arts today. On the contrary, there seems to be a concerted attempt to show working people once again in a profoundly negative light, devoid of any redeeming individual or social qualities. The British Channel Four’s documentary series on so-called welfare ‘scroungers’, Benefits Street (2014), and the comedy sketch series Little Britain (2003–07), are just two of many examples that reflect this process of social vilification. McGrath’s plays were certainly a conscious attempt to combat this reductive stereotyping of working people in the 70s and 80s, as well as the reactionary political agenda that it disguised. Before discussing McGrath’s work in more detail, however, I want to connect it to the debate about the demonization of the working class that has emerged in recent years in Britain.

II

In his recent study of the “demonization of the working-class”, Owen Jones links the omnipresent “Chav” image of lower-class people as lazy, feckless, ignorant, drunken, violent, criminal, incoherent, promiscuous and almost subhuman to a broader political and cultural attempt to disqualify and disempower working people in general. This vicious ideological onslaught also comes at a time when the ruling class is implementing even more aggressive economic attacks on the working class than the Thatcher government attempted in the 1980s:

At the root of the demonization of working-class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain. Its institutions, like trade unions and council housing, were dismantled; its industries, from manufacturing to mining, were trashed; its communities were, in some cases, shattered, never to recover; and its values, like solidarity and collective aspiration, were swept away in favour of rugged individualism. Stripped of their power and no longer seen as a proud identity, the working class was increasingly sneered at, belittled and scapegoated. These ideas have caught on, in part, because of the eviction of working-class people from the world of the media and politics.5

The recycling of the derogatory word “Chav”, which has its equivalent in the American term “white trash”, has, according to Jones, provided the focus of scorn in this latest round of class hostilities directed against workers. Jones sees this primarily as a media-driven phenomenon: “This form of class hatred has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites and everyday conversations”.6 Its function is to justify the deepening levels of inequality: “[I]f you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it is actually a fair reflection of people’s worth”.7 The ultimate intention, however, is to disable working people as a social and political force.

Jones’s controversial findings are corroborated in a new study by working-class sociologist Lisa McKenzie. Her book, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, contains a close-up investigation of the life of working-class residents in one of the poorest housing areas in Britain, St Ann’s in Nottingham. McKenzie documents the disastrous impact that austerity cuts have had on ordinary people. At the same time, she identifies the stigmatization of the working class that has become such a narrative trope in the media.:

In recent years there has been a clear and definite return to the imagery of the ‘underclass’, … the dangerous and violent gang member and the welfare-absorbing single mother…. It is their self-destructive behaviour, through their own practices, tastes, what they wear, how they speak and who they decide to share their beds with, that begins to represent a real threat to British values and national life, with seemingly the only rational answer [being] punitive measures – benefits cuts – reawakening the whole ‘deserving versus undeserving’ debate.8

Even though in every investigation that has been made into the abuse of the benefits system in Britain the results have been negligible, such myths are regularly recycled by the press in order to undermine the whole practice of welfare assistance. This is further corroborated by social historian Selina Todd in a study of what she calls “the rise and fall of the working class” in Britain:

Despite the fact that the recession that began in 2008 was precipitated by bankers’ over-speculation, politicians have blamed the resulting unemployment on workers themselves. They are castigated for failing to work hard enough, or adapt to the ‘global’ market by accepting wage reductions. In 2010 George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, condemned ‘skivers’ and ‘shirkers’ who spent their days ‘sleeping off a life of benefits’. In the following year, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to mend a ‘broken Britain’ characterized by crime, teenage pregnancy and worklessness – the results of ‘reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities’. The media has reflected this tone…. Yet in fact, the government estimates that less than 1 per cent of the welfare budget is currently fraudulently claimed.9

At the same time, there is little or no attempt to penalise the biggest scroungers on the system – corporations such as Vodafone, Tate & Lyle, Rolls-Royce Group, G 45, British American Tobacco, Amazon, Starbucks, Google and others – whose systematic tax avoidance runs into billions. Understandably, according to McKenzie, the poor perceive this media treatment as callous, unfair and totally demeaning, as they struggle every day to keep themselves and their families afloat:

They often said that they felt ‘that everything was always against them’, and there was a general hostility always aimed at them, particularly whenever they read the newspaper articles about council estates, single mothers or television programmes that were about ‘benefit scroungers’, and whenever politicians talked about a new policy that involved ‘getting people off’ benefits. The men and women I met took this personally – they said that it felt like they were under attack, and they were extremely angry about how they felt both misrepresented and misunderstood.10

While the people on housing estates with high levels of unemployment like St Ann’s are easy media targets, their stigmatization in the press is also a way to foment both a local and nationwide climate of segregation, fear and prejudice. As Imogen Tyler notes, “[T]he level of disgust directed at the chav is suggestive of a heightened class antagonism that marks a new episode in the dirty ontology of class struggle in Britain.”11

A revealing parallel can be drawn to another decisive period of conflict in Britain during the last decades of the 19th century, when dockers, miners, transport workers, match girls and gas workers were on the march for better wages and conditions, under the banners of their newly formed trade unions. In response, employers decided to offer economic concessions to certain categories of workers in an attempt to drive a wedge between more privileged sectors of labour and the so-called ‘residuum’ of poor, who were to be left to their own ‘brutish’ devices. A more explicitly eugenic discourse also emerged at this time in which these groups of ‘anti-social’ paupers were to be kept within the (walled-in) confines of areas like London’s East End or shipped off to the colonies. Thus, one of the most influential social reformers of the time, Charles Booth, saw the need to divide the poor into different social strata, depending on their potential threat to the system. Gareth Stedman Jones characterizes Booth’s social hierarchy of insubordination in the following terms:

This new attitude towards the ‘residuum’ was strongly fortified by the findings of the Booth enquiry. Booth divided the residuum into two classes. Class ‘A’, ‘the vicious and semi-criminal’, Booth estimated to be less than 2 per cent of the population of East London…. Far the greater part of the ‘residuum’ however belonged to class ‘B’. This class was not so much vicious as feckless. These were the ‘failures’ in the industrial race, the lowest types of casuals, incapable of regular labour or self-improvement. But although they composed over eleven per cent of the population of East London, they were too disorganized in themselves to constitute an immediate menace to the security of London…. The real danger of classes ‘A’ and ‘B’, in Booth’s eyes, lay not so much in themselves as in their capacity to contaminate the classes above them.12

The function of this demarcation of the lower classes was not only to create a separation between different groups on the basis of both real and false rivalries; it was also a way of intimidating the working class as a whole with the threat of social denigration and further relegation.

Of course, this divide-and-rule strategy has also been applied in other contexts where groups of disenfranchised people have begun to protest against injustice and oppression. The first campaign for women’s rights for example, had to fight against a similarly pernicious climate of public condemnation This “undeclared war on women” has been documented in detail by Susan Faludi, Women activists are stereotyped in order to scare away potential recruits to the struggle. Thus, according to Faludi, this backlash against women works as a powerful ideological prop to the whole structure of capitalist patriarchy: “The backlash line accuses the women’s movement of creating a generation of unhappy single and childless women – but its purveyors in the media are the ones guilty of making single and childless women feel like circus freaks.”13

Nowadays the ability of the media to recycle such scurrilous images has increased enormously, as can be seen from the prevailing climate of islamophobic scare-mongering. Political manipulation intensifies when the status quo of power and privilege starts to become seriously threatened. It is in the context of heightened protest by the Occupy, Anti-austerity, Anti-war and Green movements, as well as third-wave Feminism, that these ideological battles are now being fought. This brings us back to a discussion of the radical re-appropriation of working-class life in the plays of John McGrath.

III

In his prefaces to the two plays Fish in the Sea and Yobbo Nowt14 McGrath makes a conscious link between the dramatic portrayal of working-class life and broader issues of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. It can thus be argued that each play complements the other, in that they depict working-class characters, not least women, at different stages of development towards a deeper understanding of the way patriarchy and capitalism function as mutually supportive systems of privilege and power. The range of political themes that McGrath seeks to cover, for example, in Fish in the Sea is both comprehensive and compelling:

The main elements I wanted to set in some form of dialectical motion were – the need for militant organisation by the working class; the anarchistic, anti-organisational violence of the frustrated working-class individual in search of self-fulfilment here and now; the backwardness of some elements of working-class living: attitudes to women, to socialist theory, to sexual oppression, poetry, myth, etc.; the connections between this backwardness and Christianity; the shallow optimism of the demagogic left, self-appointed leaders of the working class; and the intimate realities of growing up and living in a working-class home on Merseyside.15

It is clear from the above that McGrath is not afraid of exploring both the potential radicalism and the limitations of working-class people, showing how such political and cultural contradictions need to be addressed. There is a strong urge in his work to engage with everyone watching, even those who might react with a certain scepticism. This latter point is one that McGrath returned to repeatedly in his comments about the role of radical theatre in helping to change the parameters of debate and about the need to have confidence in a working-class audience:

Given a critical attitude to these features of working-class entertainment, they contain within them the seeds of a revitalised, new kind of theatre, capable of expressing the richness and complexity of working-class life today, and not only working-class life. In terms of theatre they are some of the first sounds in a new language of theatre that can never be fully articulate until socialism is created in this country. But before then we can work to extend those first sounds into something like speech by making more and more demands of them, by attempting bolder projects with them, and above all, by learning from our audiences whether we are doing it right or not.16

Yobbo Nowt traces the turbulent trajectory of Marie, a young working-class woman, as she moves from being a traditional housewife and parent to becoming a worker and activist in a factory. McGrath responds to the media stereotype of the ‘feckless’ single mother by counterposing a more dynamic image of a working woman moving forward both personally and politically in her life, without exaggerating how far this transformation could be taken in the context of the play:

Brecht’s adaptation of Gorki’s novel The Mother tells the story of a working-class woman’s growth to political consciousness and militancy in Russia at the beginning of this century. I had for some time been interested in telling a similar story set in England in the 1970s. We had all met on our travels many women who were going through a similar process. The story, of course, turned out to be almost completely different from Gorki’s…. On looking at the show again, one feature of comparison with both Gorki’s novel and Brecht’s play is striking. In telling this story today, we could not show Marie’s learning experiences as including the vital strength of a coherent mass marxist movement. It would have been unrealistic to pretend that they would. We know from our own experience, and that of the many people like Marie whom we meet throughout Britain, that such a movement is our greatest need.17

Both then and later, the two plays received a generally positive response from reviewers. Frank Marcus wrote in the Sunday Telegraph:

Fish in the Sea confirms my long-held view that McGrath is one of our major dramatists. His epic vision is allied to an ear for speech rhythms which can establish a character in seconds: his humour and all-embracing sympathy are heartwarming. His failure to be doctrinaire and inability to hate are precisely the reasons why Fish in the Sea carried conviction.18

Jonathan Hammond, reviewing Fish in the Sea, thought that on “the level of creating a modern-day working-class family saga, McGrath has been completely successful”, but said of the factory occupation in the play that it was “displayed in perfunctory, almost comic-strip terms. Surprisingly little feeling of the occupation’s social realities and their effect on the characters is communicated”.19 More recently, Nadine Holdsworth praised the experimental qualities of McGrath’s plays in shifting effectively between different dramatic genres: “Fish in the Sea successfully combines emotive drama, romance, comedy and direct address with varied musical styles to drive the narrative, illuminate character and offer political commentary”.20

Yobbo Nowt caused more debate, however, in particular among feminists, since it was a conscious attempt by McGrath to respond to the concerns that his previous plays were dominated by male characters. Despite the gender shift in the new play, dramatizing as it does the issue of women’s rights, it still did not satisfy critics like Michelene Wandor, who accused McGrath of subordinating the sexual politics to issues of class: “McGrath acknowledges the ‘personal’ insofar as Marie decides to live independently without her husband – but in the didactic scenes, where Marie is ‘learning’ about politics, sexual oppression is subsumed under a pre-existing definition of class exploitation, rather than bringing its own analysis with it to add to the traditional class analysis”.21 Writing back at Wandor’s criticism some twenty years later, Nadine Holdsworth comments that “accepting Wandor’s claim that Yobbo Nowt is counter-productive because it deals with the political and public realm suggests a dangerous adherence to gender stereotyping that restricts women’s experience to the private domain”.22 The question is begged, however, if McGrath’s work still has the power to provoke, not least in terms of his depiction of the struggle for female emancipation. The plays I have chosen to discuss were both written in the 1970s and reflect the debates within the women’s movement of the time. However, the victories of that period, such as abortion rights and equal pay, now appear much less secure. McGrath’s plays have acquired a new urgency in light of this growing backlash.

In her latest book, The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi once again reports on the post-9/11 media campaign to get women back into the home:

The media’s lifestyle scribes were eager to guide women … toward a new veneration of the virtues of nesting. The terrorist attack had shocked us into ‘a new faith in our oldest values’, Time pronounced in its October 1, 2001, feature ‘Life on the Homefront’, which presented those values as ‘a time of homecoming and house cleaning’ and ‘couple renewing their vows’. ‘And when each of us gets the chance to decide all over what matters most to us’, Time concluded, ‘there is no telling what we may learn’. Or rather, the lifestyle writers were going to tell us, ‘what we may learn’ – an instructional service that, more often than not, involved feminine correction.… What mattered was restoring the illusion of a mythic America where women needed men’s protection and men succeeded in providing it.23

A similarly retrograde process can also be found in Britain. In her recent survey, The Equality Illusion, Kat Banyard not only states that, for example, “45 per cent of female employees face discrimination or unfavourable treatment in the workplace due to pregnancy”; she also refers to a much publicised report by the Children’s Society in which working women are blamed for the ongoing decline of the modern family:

[O]ne of the factors identified as contributing to the damage done to children was working mothers: ‘Most women now work and their new economic independence contributes to levels of family break-up which are higher in the UK than any other Western European country’. The press then ran headlines like: ‘Kids “Damaged” by Mums Who Work’ (Sun); ‘Mum’s Cash “Leading to Split Home’” (Mirror); ‘Working Women Fuel Family Splits’” (Daily Telegraph). The decision taken by the report’s authors to frame the issue in such a way, and the subsequent enthusiasm some papers showed in highlighting this ‘finding’, reveal that, for large sections of the population, if there’s a problem to do with caring then the buck stops with Mum, not Dad.24

What remains still very relevant today is not only the intersectional aspects of class and gender in the plays, but also McGrath’s representation of ordinary people, particularly in relation to the question of working-class agency, which is anathema to mainstream media. There is more at stake here than merely reacting to a routine of historical falsification or political amnesia. The dominant discourse about the poor from the Victorian period onwards varies between either condemning them as perennial losers or warning against their oppositional truculence. In both cases, the poor seem to represent a problem to be solved by people other than themselves. To show anything more complex is to pose a real political threat. This is what Ken Loach, the radical British filmmaker, experienced when making television programmes in which working-class people were asked to say what they thought of the present set-up of society. Once made, Loach points to the almost insurmountable difficulties in getting such films broadcast on public television:

Working people are allowed on television so long as they fit the stereotype that producers have of them. Workers can appear pathetic in their ignorance and poverty, apathetic to parliamentary politics, or aggressive on the picket line. But let them make a serious political analysis based on their own experiences and in their own language, then keep them off the air.25

It is the fate of this silenced majority that McGrath’s plays spotlights on stage by dramatizing their lives, loves, hopes, fears, struggles, triumphs and defeats – not just as a gesture of inclusion into the elite world of art, but as a way of opening up the theatre to real conflicts that have a resonance beyond its walls, and as a strategy to reach out to new working-class audiences who normally view what goes on in institutionalised theatres as irrelevant to their daily concerns. That is also the reason why McGrath, together with the 7.84 company, brought their more popular form of political theatre, using music, singing and dancing, to local community centres, village halls, working-men’s clubs, trade union gatherings, working-class schools and street corners, in order to engage in a dialogue with different audiences about how we live now and how we might live in the future.26

IV

McGrath’s plays contest the hegemony of the system by thinking the unthinkable: that the working classes can in fact change the worl. He does this in three ways. First is the exchange of feelings, ideas and opinions between the characters. Second is the way his characters try to understand the structures of class and patriarchal privilege that they are up against. Finally, he shows how they begin to fight back, not just for individual reasons, but for the benefit of society as a whole.

In Fish in the Sea McGrath portrays a single working-class family, the Maconochies – mother, father, three daughters and a son. The father is a factory worker and the mother is a traditional housewife, while their children are beginning to make their own way in the world, not least in terms of finding a job and a partner. The family thus displays a whole range of differing levels of awareness in terms of gender and class, preferences and prejudices, political and personal. Much of the action takes place in the family living room, where McGrath mixes naturalistic banter with domestic argument, emotional conflict and political comment. What strikes the audience throughout the play is the sustained dynamic of language and ideas, one that is alternately serious, comic, poetic, reflective, frustrated and angry. There is also a strong sense of class experience and wisdom, but also vacillation, within the family. This is particularly the case with the characters of Mary, the daughter, and the son Dereck, who are not willing to be socially constrained in the same way as their parents. This mixture of both radical and conservative consciousness is expressed dramatically in an early scene where the tensions within the family begin to surface – questions relating to the status of being a factory worker, the domestic oppression of women, and the progressive values yet patriarchal habits of the father:

Mr Maconochie Now look, lad, if you want to knock me, you can do it easy enough in a hundred ways, but don’t knock me for being a working man, or for the way I’m being exploited.

Dereck Why not?

Mr Moconochie Because I’ll knock your teeth down the back of your throat for it, that’s why not.

Dereck Yeh, but all the same, look, Dad, I know you never had the opportunities we’re getting: you mustn’t blame us for taking one or two of them. You probably would have yourself.

Mr Maconochie Would I? I wonder if I would.

Dereck I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ve made up my mind up, and there’s no more to be said.

He gets up and heads for the door, with the ‘Echo’.

Mr Maconochie Eh, Dereck.

Dereck (Flaring up.) Now don’t start having a go at me, giving me bloody rotten advice I don’t need, trying to drag me down to what you’re stuck with – I know what I’m doing, though it may surprise you to hear it, so keep your nose out of my business.

Mr Maconochie I wasn’t going to say any of that, son.

Dereck Oh. What were you going to say?

Mr Maconochie Can I have the Echo?

Dereck gives it to him and goes. Mr Maconochie stands looking after him.

Any chance of something to eat, love?

Mrs Maconochie If that’s all you’re interested in, you can wait till I’ve finished this lot. (Pause) Haven’t you got any more to say than ‘Food, woman’?

Mr Maconochie No.

Mrs Maconochie Amazing.

Mr Maconochie I’ll just settle down to a nice quiet unbiased bit of read. Straightforward, the Echo, that’s what I like about it. No messing. Every worker’s a hooligan until he’s done fifty years of loyal service, and every striker’s out to wreck the country’s economy.

Mrs Maconochie You’re very bilious tonight. Care for some Andrew’s Liver Salts?

Mr Maconochie Of course, they’re bloody landowners and capitalists, so who the hell do you expect them to support? Honour among thieves.27

In this scene, which is both politically instructive and psychologically convincing, McGrath shows a working-class family discussing and arguing with one another about issues of class and gender. At the same time that the father’s authority is being put into question, it is clear that his understanding of society, not least the reactionary function of the press, is based on his own experience as a worker. However, his class instinct does not stop him from reproducing male chauvinist attitudes about the division of labour within the household, where he expects to be served by his wife. This key scene not only interweaves expressions of working-class solidarity and sexism, it also sets the tone for the rest of the play in taking working-class people seriously, allowing them to think, speak and act in ways that reveal their intelligence and reasoning, but also difficulties in dealing with the pressures of everyday life. It is a dramatic representation of the working class that is full of respect, while still not ignoring the conflicts and contradictions of their lives.

Criticism of traditional gender roles is a recurring theme in both plays, as we see the domestic sphere mainly through the eyes of the women, in particular Mary in Fish in the Sea and Marie in Yobbo Nowt. The contrast is made clear between the world of factory labour, where the class struggle is sharp and significant, and that of the home, where women’s work seems to have novalue at all. The different stages in a woman’s life are defined by marriage and the family, a process that begins to break down in the course of the plays. The first moment of sexual entrapment is summed up with brutal clarity by the daughter, Mary, in a speech that exposes the reality behind the romantic myths of courtship and matrimony:

Mary. Men. Think all they’ve got to do is put their arm round you, breathe their stinking breath up your nose, whisper a few corny phrases, fumble for your tits, and bingo, you’ll satisfy their every whim. Once that’s all over, and you’re lumbered with them for life, all you’ve got is cooking and washing and ironing – you’re supposed to be a lovely, warm, kind person that everybody loves – mum. Mum’s the word.28

At the beginning of Yobbo Nowt Marie, the main focus the play, actually lives the same round of domestic duties that Mary describes in Fish. It is as though they both represent contrastive points along a continuum of fixed roles and gender expectations. In Marie’s case, her diagnosis of what is wrong with her life also marks the start of a radical shift. Once again, McGrath shows a working-class character in process of reflecting and drawing conclusions on a personal level about the way society works against women:

Marie I want to get a job, but he won’t have it. He says it wouldn’t be a home without a mother in it. But Stephen’s at big school now, and Valerie’s busting out all over her gymslip and they can look after theirselves a bit. Next autumn, I’ll get a job. I’m only thirty-three; I must be able to do something…. Do you want to know what I’m going to do? It’s really exciting. I’m going to make the beds, tidy the bathroom, hoover the landing, dust and hoover the stairs, hoover the hall, flick around the front room with a duster for five minutes, polish the door-knocker, sweep the doorstep, sweep the backyard. Some days I get really carried away and change the sheets. Then I can go shopping. That’s all right. There’s nice people in this part of town – they’re friendly. Friendly in the butcher’s, friendly in the grocer’s, friendly in the bread-shop – not to forget the launderette. You’d think there was a friendliness competition. Chuck ’em in the river, they’d come up similin’ ‘ee, love, you are a one – did you hear about Mrs Jenkins’ daughter – glug, glug, glug – gasp – do you mind not throwin’ them rocks at me, chuck, they’re makin’ a splash and I can’t swim – glug, glug, glug – oh hello again – I think this is my last time, if I throw you my ticket, would you pick our Bill’s shoes up from the cobblers? Thanks, love. Ta ta, nice seein’ you – glug, glug, glug. Die.

Still it’s better than misery.29

In this almost surrealistic cri-de-coeur, Marie rails not only at the soul-destroying cycle of never-ending household chores, but also at the patina of politeness that envelops and chokes her daily life. It is this reproduction of conventional thinking about the role of women that is like a living death. However, the crisis of meaning that this triggers in Marie’s conscience forms the springboard for her subsequent revolt against both her husband and class society as a whole. In both plays, the next step in this journey of self-discovery is to find out what keeps these oppressive power structures in place.

V

It is one of the dialogic strengths of McGrath’s Fish in the Sea that he always lets several different viewpoints co-exist within the debate about the nature of class society and its impact on the individual. It is, however, never simply a piece of theatrical agitprop where workers somehow inevitably emerge as proletarian heroes or committed revolutionaries. There is much ideological confusion in the plays and a constant clash of personal opinions. Moreover, McGrath often lets reactionary and progressive ideas come together within the same character. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the figure of Andy, a violent, drunken, working-class anarchist who appears throughout as a political provocateur, someone who also gets involved in the terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland. Despite his destructive and ultimately discredited behaviour, Mary is fascinated as well as horrified by him. She is drawn to him not least because of the sense of personal freedom and powerful individualism that he personifies as a young man whose chaotic pursuit of happiness has a transcendence that others seem to lack:

Mary You’re talking mad, Andy.

Andy Aye, they call that mad. It’s what everybody needs, and it’s what everybody’s afraid of. Why do they lock mad people away? Because it’s their own madness they are locking away. You too. You’ve got more madness in you than a hundred nut-houses have inside them but you treat it so badly, girl. The best part of your own self, you kick it to death. […]

Mary They’ll just put you in prison – then where’s your life?

Andy I’m not afraid of prison – that’s nothing, nothing at all – like going out – nothing to worry about. Until you stop worrying about things like that, you can’t begin to live. The most difficult thing we’ve got to do, is to get in contact with what we really desire: that’s difficult. You can find yourself wanting to piss in the street – away you go, piss in the street – but that’s nothing more than wanting to break the rules: you can get used to pissing in the street, pissing in the parlour – there’s no more to it than doing it. You can get to want to take a few risks – getting yourself killed, put into prison. So you take a few risks – shoot a few soldiers, blow up a few pubs – but you get used to taking those risks. Your whole life’s a bloody risk. But at least you’re out of the risk of dying alive through sheer bloody slavery. It’s only when you don’t mind dying, don’t mind getting put away for a lunatic or a criminal, you get to feel what maybe you really want. And do you know what it is I really want? Just one other person on the earth to feel the same. Freedom. That’s what it is. I can walk, I can fly, I can play snowballs with fire, I can spit in the eye of the sun and the moon, I can dig with my hands through to Australia: but without one other person, I can’t love. Without you, how can I love? I want to know what loving means.30

Even though there are moments in the play that point to a more class-conscious understanding of the roots of exploitation and oppression, Andy’s presence provides the opportunity to explore society’s contradictory influence on ordinary people’s lives. There is therefore the irresistible pull of the here-and-now in Andy’s philosophy of life that is so appealing to Mary. She sees her father and mother struggle against the pressures that factory and home put on them. Andy’s individualist credo of immediate fulfillment appears in contrast more alluring since it seems to depend solely on personal choice. Although in the end Mary rejects Andy, it remains mainly on a rational rather than emotional level, since she knows that the only real hope of her class is in sticking together. As individuals, they are too exposed to the ravages of the system. She thinks in this context of the child that she will have in the future: “He’ll have his chance, the same as you’re having yours: to me, that’s what matters. And he won’t be alone. We’ll all be taking our chances together, one of these days. I’ll not join your madness, Andy. I’ll suppress it and suffer and pass on suppression and suffering, but not if I can help it”.31

In a similar way, Marie in Yobbo Nowt searches for a place in the world outside the home, but her perceptions begin to change already when her husband decides to leave her. There is certainly a sense that the answers to her questions about how the system really functions lie elsewhere, but it is her status and role as a woman that are also at stake, not least in relation to how her two children, Valerie and Stephen, view what she is trying to do. She is, therefore, not merely the “tabula rasa on which can be inscribed lessons about politics, as defined by men” that Wandor suggests.32 Marie’s quest compels her to respond to the forces that confound and confine both herself and her family. This can be seen in a moving exchange with her children, who still at this stage blame her for their father abandoning them:

Valerie The rent man came round, wanting twenty pounds. Said something about a court order. We’re finished. Bankrupt. Begging for charity.

Marie No we’re not.

Stephen Stop making it worse. It’s bad enough as it is, without making it worse.

Valerie She should never have sent him away.

Marie Shouldn’t I?

Valerie She drove him out. She drove him out. Now we’re all helpless – all because of you.

Marie No we are not. You don’t seem to realise: it might be a bit hard, but it’s very exciting: we’re all three of us starting out on life, together. For the first time, we’ve all got to make our own way, and think for ourselves. If your dad come back through the door right now – I wouldn’t want him. I wouldn’t want to go back to four walls and a dishcloth. There’s a big world out there, love, I want to be a part of it. I want to see what’s wrong with it, and what’s right with it, and I’m finding out already. Listen: the dole-money and Social Security you think is charity. Well it’s not. They’ve got a system going in this country that works great for some, and doesn’t work so great for others; they’re frightened in case anybody notices. So if the system’s mucking you about, they give you just enough to shut your mouth about it. And then, they pretend it’s charity. That much I’ve found out. And I want to find out a whole lot more.33

Apart from the radical learning curve reflected in this speech, the scene represents another telling example of working-class characters not only expressing their own thoughts and desires, but also relating them to the way society tries to manipulate and thwart them. Marie wants to pass on to her children the sense that they are not helpless victims, that questioning why things are the way they are is in itself a step towards taking control, towards deciding for oneself. This critical connection between thought and action lies at the ideological core of these two plays. It is not only the motor that drives the dramatic narrative, it is also the fundamental political dialectic around which the whole question of working-class representation revolves.

VI

In the General Rules of the first International Working Men’s Association (1864), Marx writes that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.34 This insistence on the decisive role of the working class in its own liberation is not an abstract question of political self-reliance. It is linked to the interdependence of class action and consciousness: through participating in the struggle, workers transform themselves. Existence determines consciousness, but consciousness also reshapes existence. As Yorry, one of the factory workers in Fish in the Sea declares: “As we change the world, so that will change us. When we’re ready, we’ll do both, together”.35 At the same time, it must be said that in political terms the most fundamental issue of class power remains, perhaps not surprisingly, unresolved in the plays. There is no successful revolutionary outcome.

The dramatic turning-point in Fish in the Sea is nevertheless the occupation of the factory, Robertson’s, where Mr Maconochie works. It has recently been taken over by a multinational, Consolidated Metals of America, which threatens to close down the plant and remove the machinery. What is at first a defensive response to keep the factory intact has a more profound impact on the workers who remain in the plant. In contrast to a strike, an occupation always poses the question of workers’ control: who runs the means of production and in whose interests? In the play, the workers start therefore to publish their own factory newsletter, which Mary helps to produce, not only to inform about what is happening, but also to raise awareness of the wider issues at stake. In a Brechtian moment of the play, McGrath has the workers start singing together of the lessons they’ve learned about the role of the bosses:

Willy (Sings) They own this rotten workshop but we earn them their dough,
And when we want some for ourselves, they say we’ll have to go.
There’s labour cheap and well-controlled, they say, in Franco’s Spain;
Why don’t they go and have a look, and not come back again.

All A boss, a boss, who’d ever trust a boss, etc.

Willy Your multi-national dealers, can swing from state to state,
If profit’s bad in England, then they won’t hesitate
To chuck us on the dole-queue, and bugger off to France;
Will Mr Wilson stop them? There’s not a bloody chance.

All A boss, a boss, who’d ever trust a boss, etc.

Willy There’s just one way to stop them, take over what they’ve got
Not just bits and pieces, but grab the whole damn lot,
We don’t need Wall Street fixers, or jet-set buccaneers –
We’ll manage fine all by ourselves, so goodbye profiteers.

All A boss, a boss, who’d ever trust a boss
A boss, a boss, he’s heading for a loss,
Financiers and managers, don’t tell us what to do.
We are the people, and we are telling you.36

Despite their militancy, however, the occupation ends in defeat after the workers are sold out by the trade union bureaucracy, while several of the so-called ‘agitators’ are sacked, including Mr. Maconochie. What is clearly indicated is that any isolated occupation that does not get broader support is doomed. At the same time, it is a school of class struggle that allows the workers to flex their collective muscles and draw conclusions for the future. The play ends therefore symbolically with a dialogue between the older reformist workers and the younger more radical ones – the Maconochies, Yorry and Willy – about the nature of global capitalism and the need for an internationally co-ordinated workers’ response. It signals therefore a changing of the guard:

Mr Maconochie Not making any maps, for those who come after us: scattering bits and pieces of our skin and bone down the back-alleys of our minds. Leaving them to rot, for the dogs to wrangle over.

Yorry comes on.

Yorry After the settlement, I read in the Wall Street Journal that Consolidated Metals of America were planning to rationalise their European production. The work that Robertson’s had been producing was going to be done in Germany, and transported in great big containers all over the Common Market [today’s European Union – RP]. Capitalism was changing: the question was: were we going to change with it – fast enough, big enough and well enough organised to catch up with it?

Willy They’d worked a flanker on us again. They weren’t going to win, in the end. But how were we going to learn from it? What were we going to remember ourselves from all that lot?37

In Yobbo Nowt, McGrath takes this process in a different political direction through Marie’s initially rather naive desire to find a job “where they make things – any sort of things – bars of soap, chewing-gum, warships, boots – something you can see. I don’t mind what I do, as long as I know something’s coming out the other end: then I can take my wages with a bit of pride”.38 The reality is that instead of completing the finished product, Marie and the other girls at the factory only manufacture a small ‘piece’ of the process, for which they are paid by the item. Like the spare parts they make, the girls are merely cogs in a production line that turns themselves into ‘piece workers’, thus representing the classic condition of alienated labour, according to Marx.39 This is the reason why Marie pushes on further to find out how her new objectified function as just another factory hand among other replaceable ones can be understood and contested. Her anger and frustration are directed at first at the organisation that is supposed to represent the workers at the point of production, the trade unions, seemingly yet another bastion of male power:

George (to Marie) Are you a union member?

Marie Yes.

George Then shut up.

Marie No, I won’t. I think we should get all the girls together – in the union or not, at dinner-time today, and we should tell them we’re being pushed around, and laughed at; then get them all out on strike, and not come back till we’ve got what we want. […]

George Are you a Trot?

Marie  A what? No, whatever it is, I’m not. I’m just fed up being pushed around by the capitalist system. I want it scrapped, it’s wrong, and I think we can do better, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the best place to start is here, right here. […]

George You’re an anarchist.

Marie Stop sticking labels on me and start doing your job. You can’t help us by keeping capitalism going – surely that’s not what the unions are all about. You should be showing a bit of initiative, not sitting on every sign of trouble, and licking the boss’s backside. So shove off, and we’ll organise a mass meeting, and we’ll tell you what to say if we think you’re capable of saying it. If not, we’ll say it ourselves. Won’t we girls?40

In the final scene the play comes full circle and we are once again in Marie’s kitchen where her husband has returned, asking for a reconciliation. What he does not understand, however, is that there has been a revolution in Marie’s life, in the way she views both herself and her surroundings. It is a dramatic dénouement signifying the point at which Marie’s political development has come home to the most intimate level. Marie is no longer a nobody, a yobbo nowt; her identity is now part of a collective. In a dialectical development, she has returned to her beginnings but at a higher level of awareness.

As in Fish in the Sea, there is also no final resolution of the more fundamental class conflicts in the play. The struggle will go on. At the same time, for Marie, it is clear that she cannot go back to where and what she was before. It is therefore revealing at this critical point that Jack tries typically to attack her newly liberated self by caricaturing her as a monstrous female whose opinions and actions are abnormal. It is another dramatic illustration of the demonization of women who dare to rebe:

Jack Right. I see how it is now. Don’t worry, I’m not stopping. You’ve turned into a hard, bitter, unnatural – I almost said woman…. Whatever’s happened to you, love? You’re certainly not the girl I married.

Marie I’m not. Come back when you’re prepared to find out who I am. Not before.41

Thus, characteristically, both plays have open endings that offer no simple solutions to the predicament of people who bear the daily brunt of capitalism and patriarchy. At the same time, in the course of retelling their collective stories, a chorus of voices emerges that belongs to a class that tries to resolve its problems together by relying on traditions of solidarity and co-operation. In this way McGrath provides a positive oppositional image that cuts through all the lies and distortions directed at the working class as some sort of degenerate scum. Instead, we see working-class people acting independently, taking responsibility for their lives, and ultimately pushing for a radical reshaping of society in ways that are more rational and equitable.

VII

In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, entitled “Speaking truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre”, the liberal critic Michael Billington surveys the range of new radical stage plays being performed all round Britain today. The ongoing attacks by the government on the livelihoods of millions of ordinary people have produced not only a resurgence in the class struggle, but also a more overtly politicized response from actors and playwrights who have started to put their dramatic talents at the service of the people:

Political theatre ebbs and flows, but if it is resurgent right now, that is for a variety of reasons. One, clearly, is the prevailing discontent with the current political discourse and a sense that the media often fail to grapple with existing realities. The intensity of the Scottish referendum campaign [for independence] showed there is a palpable hunger for constitutional argument that makes the routine ding-dong of most Westminster debates look vapid. Film and television also rarely address the big issues in their fiction…. But if political theatre is alive and kicking, this is not only because of the blandness of so much film and television. It is also because today’s dramatists have a rich tradition on which to draw.42

At the heart of this alternative tradition of artistic commitment in Britain is the work of John McGrath, whose writing continues not only to challenge the ideological misrepresentations of working people, but also to question the whole foundation of a system based on exploitation and oppression. It is not surprising therefore that there has been a revival of interest in his plays and films. In 2014 for example, the Edinburgh Film Festival featured a season of ten films by McGrath (some of them based on his plays), which he wrote, directed and produced for television and the cinema. They reflect McGrath’s radical vision of another world, both on stage and in society. This is the continuing political and artistic legacy of his work, eloquently summed up in his own call for a living theatre of the oppressed, one that plays its own unique and integral part in the struggle for democratic socialism:

I believe theatre can best achieve its independent artistic objectives by becoming part of this hugely complex movement towards a developed, sophisticated but liberating form of socialism…. This does not mean that I insist that all plays should be recruiting meetings for a party that does not exist. It is simply that to be good as theatre, plays now must ruthlessly question their ideological bases, the set of assumptions about life on which they are built, and should have a questioning, critical relationship with their audience, based on trust, cultural identification and political solidarity.43

Notes

1. John McGrath, The Bone Won’t Break, London: Methuen Drama, 1990, 136.

2. The group’s name was “taken from a statistic that appeared in The Economist, which revealed 7% of the population of Britain owned 84% of the nation’s wealth”. Quoted in Nadine Holdsworth, ed., John McGrath: Plays for England, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005, 18.

3. John McGrath, A Good Night Out: Popular theatre, audience, class and form, London: Eyre Methuen, 1981, 89–90. The Sun newspaper is one of Britain’s biggest tabloid dailies. Owned by Rupert Murdoch, it is also one of the most reactionary, most infamous for its page 3 nude models and scandal-mongering journalism.

4. McGrath, A Good Night Out, 90.

5. Owen Jones, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, London: Verso, 2011, 10. This phenomenon is not limited to Britain. In an article entitled “The Silenced Majority”, Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed to a similar process of demonization in the US: “In the absence of real contact or communication, stereotypes march on unchallenged…. The most intractable stereotype is of the working class (which is, in imagination, only white) as a collection of reactionaries and bigots…. Even deeper than the stereotype of the hard-hat bigot lies the middle class suspicion that the working class is dumb, inarticulate, and mindlessly loyal to archaic values”. Z Magazine, Zcomm.org, October 1, 2007.

6. Jones, Chavs, 6.

7. Ibid., 137.

8. Lisa McKenzie, Getting By: Estates, class and culture in austerity Britain, Bristol: Polity Press, 2015, 198.

9. Selina Todd, The People: the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010, London: John Murray, 2014, 350-51.

10. McKenzie, Getting By, 171.

11. Imogen Tyler, “‘Chav Mum Chav Scum’: Class disgust in contemporary Britain”, Feminist Media Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008, 18.

12. Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A study in the relationship between classes in Victorian society, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, 320–21.

13. Susan Faludi, Backlash: The undeclared war against women, London: Vintage, 1992, 17.

14. The title of Fish in the Sea is taken, according to McGrath, from “Mao’s analogy of the Party or Front as the head and body of the fish, and the population as the water through which it moves”. Preface to Fish in the Sea, London: Pluto Plays, 1977. Yobbo Nowt is a slang phrase meaning a nobody.

15. John McGrath, Preface to Fish in the Sea.

16. John McGrath, “Making Art Popular – Or Making Popular Art?”, in Naked Thoughts That Roam About: Reflections on Theatre 1958–2001 ed. Nadine Holdsworth, London: Nick Hern Books, 2002, 127.

17. McGrath, Preface to Yobbo Nowt, London: Pluto Plays, 1978.

18. Quoted in Elizabeth MacLennan, The Moon Belongs to Everyone: making theatre with 7.84, London: Methuen, 1990, 70.

19. Jonathan Hammond, in Plays and Players (1975), quoted in Nadine Holdsworth ed., John McGrath: Plays for England. Exeter: Exeter Press, 2005, 31.

20. Nadine Holdsworth, “Finding the Right Places, Finding the Right Audiences”, in Freedom’s Pioneer: John McGrath’s work in theatre, film and television, ed. David Bradby and Susanna Capon, Exeter: Exeter Press 2005, 58.

21. Michelen Wandor, Carry On, Understudies: Theatre and sexual politics, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, 152.

22. Holdsworth, “Finding the Right Places, Finding the Right Audiences”, in Freedom’s Pioneer: John McGrath’s work in theatre, film and television, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005, 68.

23. Susan Faludi, The Terror Myth: myth and misogyny in an insecure America, New York: Picador, 2008, 150–51.

24. Kat Banyard, The Equality Illusion: the truth about women and men today, London: Faber & Faber, 2011, 78–80.

25. Quoted in Julian Petley, “Ken Loach and Questions of Censorship” in George McKnight ed., Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The films of Ken Loach, Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997, 107–08.

26. For example, one of McGrath’s and 7.84’s most successful plays about the history of popular resistance in Scotland, The Cheviot, the stag and the black black oil (1973), was seen by over 100,000 people throughout Scotland.

27. John McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 12–13.

28. McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 40.

29. McGrath, Yobbo Nowt, 7–8.

30. McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 73–74.

31. McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 75.

32. Wandor, Carry On, Understudies, 152.

33. McGrath, Yobbo Nowt, 20–21.

34. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973, 19.

35. McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 80.

36. McGrath, Fish in the Sea, 62.

37. Ibid., 82.

38. McGrath, Yobbo Nowt, 14.

39. See Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), in Karl Marx, Early Writings, London: Penguin Books, 1992, 324.

40. McGrath, Yobbo Nowt, 56–57.

41. McGrath, Yobbo Nowt, 62.

42. Michael Billington, “Speaking the truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre”, The Guardian, 10 November 2014.

43. McGrath, A Good Night Out, 98–99.

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