LOOKING at the plays of Unity Theatre, Theatre Workshop and Ewan MacColl from the 1930s through to the nuclear age, Alan Riach asks what has become of the Labour Movement that inspired them?

LAST week we were talking about “working-class” and “middle-class” plays by Joe Corrie and James Bridie respectively and refusing to set them in opposition. In Scotland’s theatre history the complex totality is more important. But the story of specifically working-class experience being turned into plays needs further exposition. Two companies and an extraordinary writer are central.

Unity Theatre Company was established in 1940, drawing on various left-wing theatre groups in the 1930s, in America and internationally. Throughout the UK, Unity was a radical initiative generated at first by amateur companies, two of which became fully professional after the Second World War, in London and Glasgow.

Glasgow Unity helped found the Edinburgh Fringe with productions such as their Scots version of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1947). They produced plays by Joe Corrie, Robert McLeish with The Gorbals Story (1946) and Ena Lamont Stewart (1912-2006) in Men Should Weep (1947).

James Bridie’s criticism of them perhaps prompted some of the later antipathy to his own work. From our perspective, it’s more valuable to see these different aspects of Scottish theatre as complementary. An alternative to the international, commercial, subsidised, official Edinburgh Festival, which frequently neglected Scottish work, was the People’s Festival (originally 1951-54, and revived in 2002).

Theatre Workshop, founded in Manchester (England), by Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) and Ewan MacColl (1915-89) was similarly committed. After the war, Littlewood moved to London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East, and developed the company’s most famous production, Oh! What a Lovely War (1963).

The Scottish branch of Theatre Workshop produced MacColl’s Johnny Noble (1945), a documentary ballad-opera. In his introduction to the anthology Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts 1930-50 (1986), MacColl recollected his early playwriting in the 1930s: at first he and his comrades had no sense that they were involved in art, but were rather “guerillas using the theatre as a weapon against the capitalist system”. Only when working on a script containing a passage by Gorky did he become aware that there was “art” in this.

Later, in Last Edition, written with Littlewood, MacColl presented “Extracts from a Living Newspaper”: news stories enacted on stage.

Imagine it: instead of rolling soundbites delivered in cliches by overpaid idiot-board eyelash-flapping newsreaders on a TV screen, you have living actors on a proximate stage presenting the human facts of the news stories, people made unemployed, caught up in a pit disaster, or the Spanish Civil War, or the results of the Munich Pact.

Immediately after the Second World War, MacColl wrote Uranium 235 (1946), asking what atomic energy threatened for the future. It set a precedent for the television serial Edge of Darkness (1985) by the Scottish screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009), in which the conflict between moral justice, commercial priorities, political authority and the nuclear industry is laid bare in a devastating dramatic narrative. Both works raise further unresolved questions.

Uranium 235 was published in 1948 with an introduction by Hugh MacDiarmid in which he identified its affinity with David Lyndsay’s 16th-century Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. There too, people were “subjecting their rulers to the wholesome test of ridicule”. The Satyre was produced at the Edinburgh Festival in the same year, so MacDiarmid was timely. Inevitably, he said, Lyndsay’s play would be “abridged, bowdlerised, and modified” and it remains doubtful “whether anything like the same freedom is accorded to the arts in Scotland today as was enjoyed” in Lyndsay’s era.

Nevertheless, he assures us, Uranium 235 takes its place in “a many-sided movement to create a Scottish National Drama”.

Uranium 235 begins with the Scientist: “We have, if I may say so, in the course of the last few years, brought about considerable changes in what may be called the map of human knowledge …We can change the face of the Earth in two generations.”

Meanwhile the Crooner sings: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink.”

And a voice comes over a microphone telling of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War, the British in Malaya and Greece, the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Americans in Korea, and on. The play was updated over the years following its first publication. Its argument is undiminished: “Men, women and children dying in countless millions because we couldn’t be bothered to think.” If we don’t eat, we starve and if we don’t think, we die.

The play takes us from Athens, 470 BC, where, as now, businessmen and bankers define what life requires: “War is necessary to the economy, it’s inevitable.” But since Democritus has disclosed that atoms are what everything is made of, parity becomes defensible: a slave is as good as a senator. That’s not philosophy, the Businessman tells us, that’s treason. What next? A wife might challenge her husband, a soldier the general’s right to give orders.

And so to 1300 AD, then 1450, then 1550, and then the 19th century, with the scientific discoveries leading to the play’s present day, the mid-20th century. After the interval, a new character, the Puppet Master, appears, noting: “All the world’s a stage”. The Scientist replies: “Yes, but we haven’t booked the world for our production.” And laughingly the Puppet Master replies: “No, but I have.”

And the final fugue of descent comes to its shuddering end: “Act One, 1914. Rehearsal for Act Two, 1936. Act Two, 1939. Act Three …” Winsdscale, 1957; Kyshtym, USSR, 1958; Detroit, USA, 1966; West Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan, and Three Mile Island, 1979. And in Britain, as the play concludes, we note the Magnox reactors at Windscale and Hunterston, Chapel Cross and Dungeness, Hinkley Point, Dounreay, time-bombs in the nursery. They’ll deal with all our problems. After them, there are no problems. They make more than electricity. They generate a poison that breeds cancers in the bones and flesh, we kill ourselves, our children, families and friends.

A woman speaks: “You don’t seem to understand what is at stake … Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and it takes about 10 half lives for radioactive material to become harmless. That means plutonium has to be kept out of the environment for a quarter-of-a-million to half-a-million years. If at any time during that period it is released into the environment, land and water are poisoned forever.”

The Puppet Master comments, “We can stop them, you know!” It will not be easy, but “Do you think we might give it some thought? It’s worth thinking about.”

And the Woman adds: “But don’t take too long.”

MacColl’s work is essential to the story of working-class theatre in Scotland, to the folk-song revival, Hamish Henderson recording traditional singers literally out in the field, the scholarly re-appraisal of folk culture at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, and the literary significance of both oral and text-based culture, the anti-nuclear popular songs of the 1950s and 1960s.

All are related to this nexus of politicised literary and scholarly activity, plays, songs, poems and demonstrations. And to what once was the Labour Movement.

Where is it now?