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Home > Conferences > ESSE 2012 > S77: Abstracts > John McGrath: an Anti-Class-based System Playwright


John McGrath: an Anti-Class-based System Playwright

Ali Altun

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

should not lament their history, but should organise themselves into taking a militant action so that the exploitation that the play and the history reveals would not be repeated once again to the detriment of the working-class in the future
(Yerebakan, 1997: 205).
The political play is not only confined to economic exploitation of Scotland but also raises issues about cultural assimilation of a society. McGrath makes use of Gaelic songs to stress that new Scottish generation cannot speak their mother tongue because of the fact that they have been denied to learn it. He uses some striking historical facts about Scotland in the play and aims both to enlighten and have a great impact on the audience:
  • M.C.1. In the 18th century speaking the Gaelic language was forbidden by law.
  • M.C.2. In the 19th century children caught speaking Gaelic in the playground were flogged.
  • M.C.1. In the 20th century the children were taught to deride their own language.
  • M.C.1. The people had to learn the language of their new masters.
  • M.C.1. A whole culture was systematically destroyed – by economic power (McGrath, 1981: 52).
As a result of cultural assimilation of this society, the Gaelic songs were not understood where Gaelic was less widely known. But elsewhere, where it was widely known, the songs were both joined in and appreciated. According to Winkler the reason why the Gaelic lyrics are not translated in the Methuen edition is “to evoke curiosity and the desire to retrieve what has been lost” (Winkler, 1990: 296).

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.

M.C.2. By economic power. Until economic power is in the hands of the people, then their culture, Gaelic or English, will be destroyed. The educational system, the newspapers, the radio and television and the decision-makers, local and national, whether they know it or not, are the servants of the men who own and control the land
(McGrath, 1981: 55).
The views of socialist playwright are not only national but also international. While depicting Scottish working-class who have been suffering from the multinational corporations that seek their interests in the Highlands, he also touches on the problems of other workers in the world who have suffered as a result of political and economic imperialism.
  • M.C. One thing’s for certain, these men are not just figures of fun. They are determined, powerful and have the rest of the ruling class on their side. Their network is international.
  • M.C.4. Question: What does a meat-packer in the Argentine, a merchant seaman on the high seas, a docker in London, a container-lorry driver on the motorways, have in common with a crofter in Lochinver?
    (McGrath, 1981:57).
McGrath gives the message that working-class of the whole world share the same destiny as the Highlanders. Yet still their destiny is not pre-determined. According to McGrath the rise of working-class depends on the “social, political and cultural development of the working- class towards maturity and hegemony” (McGrath, 1989:21). So if all the working-class unify and take action against the exploiters, they can overthrow the hegemony of capitalism and create a classless society and thus live under equal terms.

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.

M.C. The song says:
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

(McGrath, 1981:73–74).
Consequently, the socialist playwright McGrath vividly depicts the class struggle between the bourgeois and working-class, who have been abused and exploited by both Scottish and English landlords, and multinational corporations. The working-class not only have been made use of but also have been culturally assimilated. They were forbidden to speak their mother language – Gaelic – and even were denied to wear their traditional clothes. Despite all the hardships both Highlanders on national scale and all the working-class on international scale have suffered, there is still hope to change the status quo. If they unify and react against the hegemony of capitalism, they can manage to create a classless society both in Britain and in the world.



  • DiCenzo, Maria (1996), The Politics of Alternative Theatre in Britain, 1968–1990: the Case of 7:84 (Scotland) , Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
  • Holdsworth, Nadine (2002) Naked Thoughts That Roam About, London: Nick Hern Books Ltd.
  • Innes, Christopher (2002) Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kershaw, Baz (1992) The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, London: Routledge.
  • McGrath, John (1981) The Cheviot, The Stag and Black, Black Oil, London: Eyre Methuen Ltd.
  • —(1989) A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form, London: Eyre Methuen Ltd.
  • Patterson, Michael (2003), Strategies of Political Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Winkler, Elizabeth Hale (1990), The Function of Song in Contemporary British Drama, Newark: University of Delaware Press
  • Yerebakan, İbrahim (1997), “Stages as a Political Platform: An Assessment of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and Black, Black Oil”, Edebiyat Bilimleri Araştőrma Dergisi, No: 24, 189–208, Erzurum: Atatürk Üniversitesi


Copyright © Ali Altun 2012


Last updated 30 July 2012.