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Men Should Weep: glorious realism, but reality was worse

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Paul Mason | 12:31 UK time, Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ena Lamont Stewart's 1947 play, Men Should Weep is wowing reviewers who've acclaimed some stunning performances and pointed to the play's sudden relevance, in the week the Coalition's housing benefit cuts have led the headlines.

But Men Should Weep is not about social housing: it's about the working class family faced with poverty. It is the realism of a specific time and place (east Glasgow in the 1930s) portrayed so truthfully that its insights reach out across dialect, period and economic climate.

It's poverty that traps the Morrison family's adult children into lives that, despite the glamour of their going-out clothes (they had "ghetto fabulous" in the Gorbals, even then), they cannot bear. It's poverty that limits the confidence and imagination of the mum and dad so that they never quite get around to asking for a council flat, nor to getting their kid treated for TB. It's poverty too that breeds the domestic violence - which Lamont Stewart's script describes and which Josie Rourke's production makes more overt.

Though all these themes are the stock-in-trade of soaps now, above all EastEnders with its perpetual "scream-ups", the play captures as soaps do not how family life adapts to survive poverty. The dad slaps one of the kids around; they retreat to a shared bedroom with the other young adults; the neighbours turn up to gossip but are shoo-ed away when the tension rises.

But in some ways, Lamont Stewart softened the reality. There are two things missing from this family's life that were pervasive in poor communities in the 1930s: drink and debt.

The central character, John Morrison, is only casually employed but is on the wagon, permanently - and while the family has debts to other family members and neighbours, it does not live in terror of the doorstep lender and the means-test man. Its income is boosted by the pension of the live-in grandma. And the Lyttleton's inevitably expansive set makes the two room flat look bigger than it would have been in real life: the characters can get further away from each other than real life tenement architecture would have allowed.

Obviously, the shape of the working class family has changed massively since the time depicted in Men Should Weep: in the post-war boom, gigantic social housing programmes gradually removed the need for young, married adults to live with their parents; slum clearance placed greater physical distance between extended families and, you are reminded, greater physical distance between people inside the family home. The prosperity of the 60s and early 70s, then, created a short lived stable "nuclear family" in the working class household, where both partners worked, hugely changing the economics of family life. And then...

And then it gets torn apart. The boom and bust cycles that began in the mid-1970s, together with the "permissive society", allowed ordinary families to fly apart in a way that neither economics nor social morality in the 1930s allowed.

So now, once again, we're faced with a turn in the cycle that is placing new economic and social pressures on the poor.

What Men Should Weep reminds us is that the ultimate social safety net that took my grandparents' generation through the 1930s - the heavily interdependent and authoritarian family with its shared spaces, shared meals, strict hierarchies - will not be there if we ever have to face another Depression like the 1930s.

Society - "Big" or otherwise - and the state are the only safety nets for the bedraggled kids and their harassed parents who will struggle through the economic hardships of the 2010s.

And the family was not a very effective safety net in the first place. For all the tight-knit social solidarity on display in these rugged performances, real life in the 30s was a kill-or-die competition for jobs, credit, housing - which I think Orwell, Greenwood and McArthur captured better at the time,

The play itself has, if not a happy end, a hopeful one, in which the family ties prove stronger than the economic penury that is pulling them apart. The audience in 1947 could accept this because they knew how the real story ended: it was the war that finally lifted large parts of the British workforce out of poverty, and the post-Beveridge welfare state would keep them out.

The play was part of a wider movement to put the working class voice and lifestyle onto the stage. Lamont Stewart wrote:

"One evening in the winter of 1942 I went to the theatre. I came home in a mood of red-hot revolt against cocktail time, glamorous gowns and underworked, about-to-be deceived husbands. I asked myself what I wanted to see on stage and the answer was Life. Real Life. Real People."

The movement would peak, in the mid-1950s, with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and the whole Look Back In Anger phenomenon of "kitchen sink" drama. But in its specific Scottish form the movement ran into three problems: how real should realism be, how authentic the language, and how tied to specific left-wing politics?

Copies of the original scripts of Lamont Stewart's and other Glasgow Unity Theatre plays show that the actors helped "Glasgaeicise" some of the dialogue, pulling it closer to the rhythms of real life - so there were no pulled punches there.

But though MSW shows a tough life, especially for women and the young, it veers away from the harsher themes that pervade both Robert McLeish's Gorbals Story (1946, also produced by Unity) and that uber-story of Gorbals life, Alexander McArthur's novel No Mean City (1936) - a tale of razor gangs, sectarianism and back-alley prostitution that was so unpleasant that Glasgow booksellers refused to sell it.

Though the politics of Men Should Weep were mild for its time, it was her association with Unity Theatre put Lamont Stewart on the wrong side of a political divide in Scottish theatre, and buried the play for a generation. When Men Should Weep was first rediscovered, in the 1980s by John McGrath's 7:84 it was its absence of agit-prop preaching, melodrama and despair that saw it acclaimed as a lost Scottish masterpiece.

But it is only one solution to the problem of how to put the authentic voice of the poor onto the mainstream stage.

In her determination to portray hope, love and solidarity Lamont Stewart avoided the worst. Though what we see is realism, reality for many was worse.

And while it was thrilling to see this talented cast in full flow, what would be even more thrilling would be to see the National commission something just as raw and real about the present day.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The continuing story of how just undeserving all the poor are can be found daily in the right wing, red-neck press. The difference between now and then is accounted for in the welfare state and the modification of the extreme inequality of wealth and income by benefits and public services. However millions of people with or without jobs are consigned to a life of subsistence or just above and the economy has not been able to deliver the true benefits of high employment since the early seventies and shows no sign of doing so for the foreseeable future. The multiple whammies that the coalition wish to hand out to the poor may well give rise to the revival of another but more recent seminar work - "Cathy Come Home"

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Paul, thanks and I defer to your well-read familiarity with 30s Glasgow urban poverty. My heritage is in Welsh mining valleys and the Marches agricultural communities. Talking with my family, there was a cohesive force within these communities beyond family, although I accept a much weaker non-statutory one than that provided by today's social welfare state.Much wrong-doing could have been hidden behind the family veil.In the transistion to today, we have created a secular social contract where we franchise the state to intervene,support and police. But havent we created the insurance policy of education and help to create mobility from abject poverty to something better. I dont think we should be complacent, but on the other hand I dont think we need to be dramatically pessimistic either...

  • Comment number 3.

    Hoodies from the Burger-flipping Stuff?

    You write a lovely review, Paul, although I think William may be turning in his grave at being called a beverage.

  • Comment number 4.

    Drat! Spell checker! I will do a correction. For for the record I wrote Beverage - of course a lot of people in that time, as I point out, also liked a beverage or two

  • Comment number 5.

    There is no known link between being dyslexia and dipsomania. Trust me ,I've got practical experience of both !

  • Comment number 6.

    You must be one of the most diverse and prolific journalists out there at the moment, Paul. Hats off to you and the Beeb for allowing you to show your depth and breadth of knowledge.

  • Comment number 7.

    "It's poverty that traps the Morrison family's adult children into lives that, despite the glamour of their going-out clothes (they had "ghetto fabulous" in the Gorbals, even then), they cannot bear. It's poverty that limits the confidence and imagination of the mum and dad so that they never quite get around to asking for a council flat, nor to getting their kid treated for TB. It's poverty too that breeds the domestic violence - which Lamont Stewart's script describes and which Josie Rourke's production makes more overt."

    What if the major cause of poverty and the other social ills is genetic?
    What if it is dwindling skills (ability) in the population which is the problem? What if Scotland is dying demographically?

    See birth figures in last post.

    Sadly, whilst many people studying Behavioural Economics believe this to be so, and that many of the core assumptions of classical economics are now believed to be empirically false, there are many more who, because they were trained in the humanities, know little or no science because they have never studied it post GCSE, and so can't grasp just how wrong their reasoning is because it is based on false assumptions about human behaviour.

    What are we to do with them? They now make policy which does not work.
    Which can not work. Day after day they tell us what they are doing, and yet they just make matters worse. Perhaps they should listen?

  • Comment number 8.

    The National commission something relevant? Chance would be a fine thing - I'd pop over to the Royal Court if I were you Paul.

  • Comment number 9.

    What will be 2011's equivalent of Boys from the Black Stuff?

    Yes we've seen your last post Tabblenabble02 - get out and have beer etc.

  • Comment number 10.


    I tend to agree with Shireblogger at #2 on this one. There is much that has been done that is good since the 1930s, the 1930s comparison plays out much better in the finacial sector than the social one I think.

    If you want to see the modern social situation trasformed into art that does the situation a degree of justice and takes congnisance of the humour and cheeky 'joi de vive' the 'underclass' (if I can call them that) often has then you are better off looking no further than 'Rita Sue and Bob too'

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita,_Sue_and_Bob_Too

    I lived with some respectable 'travelling folk' for a short period in the early 90's (we always paid rent to the farmer and tidied up after ourselves). I sometimes reflect now that there was far more warmth, humour sense of community and dare I say it, genuine happiness there when compared to the middle class ideal where I live now with the contrived uncomfortable happiness which goes with it.

    Dont get me wrong, there is nothing romantic or humorous about poverty of the worst grinding kind, but there is no need for that either in the modern world.

    Humanity is missing a trick which is in everyones interests (regardless of IQ) and within our collective grasps if we have the forsight to take stock and realise the distance we have travelled as a species and why the old rules no longer apply.



  • Comment number 11.

    "5. At 3:57pm on 31 Oct 2010, supersnapshot wrote:
    There is no known link between being dyslexia and dipsomania. Trust me ,I've got practical experience of both !"

    That may or may not be so, but there is plenty of scientific evidence for a behavioural genetic link between Personality Disorders, substance abuse, low verbal IQ, relationship problems, and crime. It's just that some people aren't educable/educated enough to be able to grasp the evidence.

    Many people will deny what is true about their behaviour in the mistaken belief that they are experts in their own behaviour. They aren't, any more than they are experts in their own health or many other matters.
    Such people tend to be under-socialised. See first paragraph.

  • Comment number 12.

    "There is a ripple of rage spreading across Britain. It is clearer every day that the people of this country have been colossally scammed.
    The bankers who crashed the economy are richer and fatter than ever, on our cash. The Prime Minister who promised us before the election “we’re not talking about swingeing cuts” just imposed the worst cuts since the 1920s, condemning another million people to the dole queue. Yet the rage is matched by a flailing sense of impotence. We are furious, but we feel there is nothing we can do. There’s a mood that we have been stitched up by forces more powerful and devious than us, and all we can do is sit back and be shafted."


    Independent, Friday 29 Oct 2010

    Don't get too furious though, as you find yourselves censored for upsetting imaginary people (or those in the Private Sector with vested interest who are very easily enraged when they don't get what they want at your expense (See The Apprentice for a window on this bizarrely tolerated, if not reinforced, human phenomenon). That's essentially how this has come about you know. People too scared to tell it as it was because of highly emotional feminized people.

  • Comment number 13.

    mmm. Today not having a TV or mobile phone would be seen as 'poverty'? Even the official measure is a ratio of the average wage rather than the lack of the conditions to sustain life. If someone is reading this then how can they be 'poor' given it implies internet access, computer skills, computer ownership, literacy etc.

    The realism is that due to mass migration we have phd migrants doing cleaning jobs. So Labour locked in poverty of the 'poor' who cannot compete with skilled migrants taking their traditional jobs. If there is increasing economic poverty who is creating it but China preventing the flow of jobs back to us through their communist nationalism as expressed through currency manipulation?

    One report i read said people in the uk were poorer than those in africa because in africa they didn't need massive personal debt to live whereas most here are forced into it and have been groomed to think its 'normal'.

    The norman monarchy system institutionalises poverty. 95% of the people live on 10% of the land forcing up rents and house prices that forces people into debt at the same time as the State is paying 4 billion a year to an inner empire of millionaire landowners to hoard land and thus deprive it of its most economic use. There is no law preventing land monopoly where someone can set rents for entire valleys. There is no land tax.

    None of these are 'the bankers' fault. These are structural problems in British society that no political party cares to deal with. We have no low cost social housing plan, no migration quota plan, no international tariff plan against currency manipulators, no society building plan at all except 'market forces' which means letting china continue to enrich itself.

    the 'do you think i would leave you crying' society died in the 80s along with leaving your car and house unlocked. Like a smashed mirror immigration has given the UK a thousand faces leading parallel unmixed lives all watching their own satellite channel.

    The public wealth is being squandered on climate change taxes that go to china who build a coal powered station a week, on subsidies to millionaires to hoard land and so keep rents and housing costs high, on vexatious ideological wars that benefit other states not us and perpetuating a fractured Tower of Babylon society that increasing is facing a militant insurgency of those who want to overthrow the State. A trend unlikely to end in the next 50 years?

    people say the banks have been nationalised. So why the problem of high wages for those taking the 'massive risk' of taking uk govt low interest money and sticking it in an austrialian high interest account? In nationalised industry the profits go to the State? Why the lockdown of lending to small business being thrown to the wall for petty sums. So one must concluded nothing has been nationalised?

    I don't know any 'poor' unless its the migrants living off the land in the nature reserve or the ex soldiers drinking themselves to sleep everyday by the canal.

    Even the wave of strikes is being done by people who have featherbedded pensions and conditions many would say was not poverty.

    The realism is we have a guardian class that institutionalises incompetence that allows the greedy to milk the poorest and divert their funds into other projects be it foreign wars or higher rents or ponzi pensions schemes.

    the realism of poverty is found in the thoughts and attitudes of high place and position. that is where to look for its source. If you have mosquitoes look for the swamp.

  • Comment number 14.

    Such plays may make some of the middle classes question the fairness of life, but they can't provide any answers.

    A scientific analysis of how society reproduces itself is required.

    Otherwise these guilt-ridden middle classes who feel they must do something, end up supporting New Labour &/or doing charity work.

  • Comment number 15.

    LORD YOUNG TO TELL DAVE WHAT AILS SMALL BUSINESS - WHY?

    Lord Young seems to have trained in Law (where winning is the whole of it) then been involved in 'big' businesses (where late payment is smart).

    PAUL - any chance of checking the payment record of his companies, to small businesses?

    When the existence of my company - day to day - depended on GETTING PAID FOR GOODS SUPPLIED, I realised that late payment is simply fraud, and credit terms should be controlled by CRIMINAL law to constrain them. But that would massively reduce bank revenue - it won't happen. Over to the Noble Lord . . .

  • Comment number 16.

    #13

    Great post that.. made a lot of sense and v well put.

  • Comment number 17.

    10. At 9:54pm on 31 Oct 2010, Jericoa wrote:

    "Humanity is missing a trick which is in everyones interests (regardless of IQ) and within our collective grasps if we have the forsight to take stock and realise the distance we have travelled as a species and why the old rules no longer apply."

    Are you now any closer at all to grasping who the people were (i.e what their agenda really was) who issued death-threats against those people (in the 70s for instance) who highlighted, through research, the likely genetic basis of individual and group differences and how some would be educationally incorrigible? Unless you are, all you'll be able to do is write prose, and it may as well be poetry.

    To be clear, I'm asking whether you can see whose economic interests such behaviour ultimately served, and why whilst many the activists were oblivious to that, this didn't matter.

  • Comment number 18.

    #17 tabblenabble02

    So, how much in the way of IQ do you actually think the UK needs to support its social structure?! Everything fails if everyone isn't a rocket scientist?!

    #13 jauntycyclist

    "mmm. Today not having a TV or mobile phone would be seen as 'poverty'? Even the official measure is a ratio of the average wage rather than the lack of the conditions to sustain life. If someone is reading this then how can they be 'poor' given it implies internet access, computer skills, computer ownership, literacy etc"

    Well, yes. But if you don't have a society to which the poor have access, don't you institutionalise poverty? It has to be relative, surely? You can't close down libraries with free internet access and then tell the poor internet access isn't a subsistence requirement. Or they'll always be poor. No?

  • Comment number 19.

    18

    poverty is a symptom of a structural problem. Be it subsidies to millionaire landowners to hoard land so keep housing expensive or climate 'justice' taxes on energy to buy carbon credits on exchanges run by those who fund political parties.

    if the guardian class really were bothered about 'the poor' they would do more than just subsidise those creating the poverty with things like 'winter fuel allowance', housing benefit etc?

    if we say people should have some kind of housing with access to water and electricity and a reasonable prospect of some kind of paid work to give people a sense of dignity then those would be better aim than the public giving money to oligarchs and so play their game?

  • Comment number 20.

    19

    I don't disagree with that! I'm just a-sayin' that poverty has to be a relative measure.

  • Comment number 21.

    #19

    What about a classless society?

  • Comment number 22.

    "18. At 09:04am on 01 Nov 2010, GorlagonUK wrote:
    #17 tabblenabble02

    So, how much in the way of IQ do you actually think the UK needs to support its social structure?! Everything fails if everyone isn't a rocket scientist?!"

    Wrong question. One group of behavioural geneticists reduces behaviour down to two main statistical constructs or factors (this is a data reduction tool), a) intelligence and b)personality (think of mass and force in physics). The innovation in recent times (although it was done by Cattell for the UK in the 1930s) has been to look at these measures, especially intelligence and its proxies geographically in relation to productivity and thus economics. It's the statistical distribution of these measures at the individual level which matters for what I am referring to.

    As a heuristics device, just think lowish IQ as being more child-like.
    One has to be able to think in terms of Means and other Measures of Central Tendency and variance. If one has too many children and not enough capable adults one gets little built, and little responsibly done. There's still lots of demand for services, but the problem is that the family can't cope (in fact, people who have very large families tend to not be very bright, they don't plan). Scale this up regionally, nationally and internationally, and you'll begin to get the picture. There's a lot to this, and here I'm just talking about one factor (g)..

  • Comment number 23.

    19. At 09:56am on 01 Nov 2010, jauntycyclist wrote:

    "poverty is a symptom of a structural problem. Be it subsidies to millionaire landowners to hoard land so keep housing expensive or climate 'justice' taxes on energy to buy carbon credits on exchanges run by those who fund political parties."

    Look to Africa and the South Asian continent to see just how silly that assertion is. Poverty is usually a euphemism for lack of ability.

  • Comment number 24.

    it is 1982 and I got a small part in Boys from the Blackstuff in Ep 5 'georges last ride' we were at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool watching squaddies`in full uniform setting off to fight the 'Argies, the director, Philip Saville said 'I cannot believe this is happening, it is 1982 and we are going to war' all these years later after all the other 'wars' have we really progressed? Is today's Britain any better than Thatcher's Britain? That drama documentary epitomised what was happening at the time and has been shown all over the world many, many times. Where is the new 'Blackstuff' for today's society?

 

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