What did you say?
Valery Bryusov

“Why do you still look longing at the past / as if it were the dreamland thick with wonders?”

- Valery Bryusov

theatreworkshopgangIt was Jimmie Miller (1915-1989)—an unemployed motor mechanic turned communist theatre-maker from Salford—who in 1936 discovered a copy of Aristophanes’ comedies in a second hand bookshop in Leeds.[1] Just two years before he had first met his long-term creative collaborator, Joan Littlewood (1914-2002)–the most influential female British theatre director to date. Within a decade of meeting Littlewood, Miller would not only prove himself to be a gifted playwright, but also tour the UK and Europe with variously named left wing theatre troupes, give lectures on theatre history, workshops on Stanislavsky’s system, receive an invitation to study at the Soviet Academy for Theatre and Cinema in Moscow,[2] get drafted into the British Army, desert from the Army after just six months, grow a beard, become Scottish (born and bred), and change his name to Ewan MacColl. A decade or so later, he would even become the celebrated folk-singer and activist of the same name, who sang with and married Peggy Seeger, the half sister of the even more widely celebrated US folk musician, Pete Seeger.

Both Littlewood and MacColl considered Athenian drama (and especially that of Aeschylus and Aristophanes) as the first ever manifestation of ‘great popular theatre’. Unlike many “30s communists”, they remained relatively militant revolutionaries, deeply committed to the spirit of international communism, even if their relationship with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) over the years was intermittently distant and volatile. Both cultivated substantial MI5 folders, in which can be found files, photos and press cuttings that record the activities of these two ‘known’ and ‘active’ communists.

Littlewood and MacColl’s group worked with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in two distinct ways – at two distinct times. The first was performed under the banner of Theatre Union in a cluster of plays responding directly to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. The second production opened in 1947 under the name of Operation Olive Branch. It boldly challenged the motives behind WW2, and presented it as an extension of the class war by other means. It also hinted towards the vested interests of those in power, suggesting that the Government was colluding with arms traders (or the Shield and Spear Manufacturers’ Federation at Pylos).

[1] Goorney & MacColl (1986), Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop (Manchester) xliii. See also Harker (2007) in Research.

[2] His and Littlewood’s visas required for travelling to Moscow never materialized.

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