John McGrath: an Anti-Class-based System Playwright
One of the most prolific and outstanding figures in British drama, John McGrath was committed to socialism and used the stage as a political arena (Kershaw, 1992: 149) to promote his opinions and provoke the labour class audience to react against the established capitalist system in Britain (Holdsworth, 2002: xvii). With socialist insights into the nature of social struggle and the provoking tone concerned with the issues of oppression, McGrath’s plays can be classified as examples of agit-prop (Agitation-Propaganda) drama (Innes, 2002: 181). Using the stage as an instrument to give political messages, the playwright performed his plays at non-theatre buildings such as working-men’s clubs, pubs, village halls and community centres.
Having been influenced by some political thinkers of the left such as Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg and Mao Tse Tung, McGrath grew interest in the social and political atmosphere of the late 1960s (Holdsworth, 2002: xv) and went to Paris during the revolts of May 1968. These revolts made important marks on him and the playwright started to grow opposition to the class-based society in Britain.
In 1971, McGrath, his wife Elizabeth MacLennan and her brother David MacLennan established the 7:84 Theatre Company, which took its name from a statistic that was published in The Economist that 7 per cent of the population of Britain owned 84 per cent of the country’s wealth. McGrath comments that “although this proportion may have fluctuated marginally over years, we continue to use it because it points to the basic economic structure of the society we live in, from which all the political, social and cultural structures grow” (McGrath, 1981:76). According to Patterson the reason why the company was founded lies in the fact that McGrath wanted to show the necessity of a struggle, a political organisation, and a hard, bitter, disciplined fight against powerful forces of capitalism (2003:109). Holdsworth indicates that the main aim of the company was to attract the audience to popular theatre so that they could be shown and provided with day-to-day realities of working class life. Yet it was not that easy to attract the audience to the theatre (2002: xvi).
In order to manage to attract crowds to his non-theatre performances, McGrath made use of such popular forms as ceilidh, song, live music and caricature, performing his works at the working-men’s clubs and trade union buildings where the working class men spend their time. But when using these forms, he also aimed to show that “working-class forms of entertainment and popular forms are not inferior and that such audiences are not philistine” (DiCenzo, 1996:140).
In 1973 the company were divided into two branches; English and Scottish. The first production of 7:84 Scotland was The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, considered the masterpiece of John McGrath. The play provides information about different classes and historical background of the Highlands, how its people and natural resources were exploited by the ruling class and their capitalist aims after the discovery of the North Sea oil from a socialist perspective. One of the aims of the play was to make the audience aware of what had happened in Highlands and to tell of tales of local resistance, while also entertaining them. McGrath, when explaining the aims of the play, says that it “tries to present in its work a socialist perspective on our society, and to indicate socialist alternatives to the capitalist system that dominates all our lives today” (quoted in DiCenzo, 1996:137). Yet the main aim of the playwright was to create a counter-culture that would react against bourgeois culture and consequently overthrow them. Moreover it is mainly concerned “to encourage the Highlanders to alter the present system and the status quo in favour of the whole community” (Yerebakan, 1997: 194). To this end, McGrath used ceilidh form, unofficial histories, the Gaelic language and music of the region to arouse interest among the locals, which brought success to him and made him more popular. Thanks to tours to remote places, now the distant areas were introduced with theatre and this led to an increase in the number of audience, who also took more social responsibility. As a result, thousands of Highlanders saw the play and they both enjoyed it and were enlightened with their past, present and possible future events.
As far as The Cheviot ... is concerned, at the very beginning the playwright talks of the history of Scotland as “that has a beginning, a middle, but, as yet, no end” (McGrath, 1981: 2), which comes to imply that Scotland and Highlanders have been used and abused by the British capitalists and the process of exploitation has not finished yet. On the other hand these remarks may also come to mean that the Highlanders
(Yerebakan, 1997: 205).
Anti-capitalist playwright draws audience’s attention to the fact that they should not let others control their land and warns them against potential threat of capitalist powers. He advocates that Scottish people must own and control their land and that they should decide on their future; otherwise they will gradually lose their culture and identity.
(McGrath, 1981: 55).
At the end of the play, the playwright gives direct messages to the audience, saying that they should organise and take militant action to be victorious. Yet they should not fight “with stones, but politically, with the help of the working class in the towns” (McGrath, 1981:73). And in order to be more influential on the audience the play ends with a Gaelic song that calls for the unification of the oppressed, and a fight against the oppressors.
Remember that you are a people and fight for your rights –
Remember your hardships and keep up your struggle
The wheel will turn for you
By the strength of your hands and hardness of your fists.
Your cattle will be on the plains
Everyone in the land will have a place
And the exploiter will be driven out
Copyright © Ali Altun 2012
Last updated 30 July 2012.