Men Should Weep: glorious realism, but reality was worse
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.