Posts Tagged ‘Trevor Griffiths’

Revisiting “The Comedians”

November 22, 2009

(c) Helen Maybanks

I had feared that Trevor Griffiths’ play The Comedians, premiered in 1975 and revived by the Hammersmith Lyric – the run has just closed – might seem as dated as Galsworthy or Priestley, with its exploration of racist and sexist humour and an argot of venues that seems as remote as the Romans. I needn’t have worried.
The underlying tension in the play, between the old pro, Eddie Waters, who’s teaching the aspirant comedians of the play’s title, and the agent Bert Challenor, come to look for new talent, is as live as ever.
Eddie Waters sets out his stall as he warms up his protégés ahead of their performances at a local club in front of Challenor:

WATERS: A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.

Some of the writing, and the performance, as the play explores this in its first act, amid the pre-set tension, is right at the edge, particularly the apparent improv around the tongue twister, “The traitor distrusts truth”.

Challenor, of course, is having none of it, as he arrives towards the end of the act, to give the comedians a few tips before they go on stage.

CHALLENOR: I’m not looking for philosophers, I’m looking for comics. I’m looking for someone who sees what the people want and knows how to give it to them … Any good comedian can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they’re going. And that direction is, quite simply … escape.

Of course, (mild spoiler alert) the students who pander to Challenor get the contracts. Price has changed his act at the last minute, and is tough, challenging, and perhaps not funny, mystifying agent and the other students alike (but not Eddie Waters). The third act, effectively, plays out between Waters and Price. They’re on the same side of the argument that comedy should ‘change the situation’, but about what comedy is for, but disagree about whether this needs to be done with love and compassion or not.

This makes it sound like a play of ideas, and it is, of course. But it’s also a technical tour de force, an ensemble piece in which all the ensemble are deftly drawn (as my friend Rick pointed out), some clever stagecraft, outstanding writing, and perhaps most satisfying of all, it plays out in real time – the director of the Lyric production, Sean Holmes, emphasised this with a clock in full view of the audience, which could have been risky for a less accomplished play or production.

‘What will you do?’, asks Waters of Price, as he leaves. ‘I’ll wait’, he says.

And with hindsight, he’d probably have done alright, along with the other comedians dismissed by Challenor. 1975 was probably – pre-punk, pre-Jubilee, pre-Thatcher – the highwater mark of the ‘joke telling’ comedian in the Northern clubs. As alternative comedy took off in the early 80s, the political, the angry, and the character comedians all prospered. Perhaps Griffiths had an instinct that the moment was about to turn.

The production photo above is by Helen Maybanks.You can see more of her photographs – many of them utterly charming – at her blog.

Thomas Paine as Che Guevara

September 29, 2009

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There’s still time to catch the last few performances of A New World at the Globe Theatre in London, Trevor Griffiths’ adaptation for stage of his unmade screenplay about the life of one of Britain’s greatest radicals and campaigners, Thomas Paine. Commissioning the stage version to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Paine’s death in 1809 (in obscurity) was a smart piece of scheduling by the Globe.

Griffiths is a fine radical playwright, and this is a ‘big’ play, covering a sweep of history – in three hours – which takes in the American and French revolutions and the turmoil in Britain at the time. But it doesn’t forget the personal as well as the political. And the Globe is a good setting for such a play, with the groundlings’ space acting as an extension of the stage when necessary. This post isn’t a review – I’ll leave that to Michael Billington and Stuart Weir – but for me the play conjured brilliantly the fragility of the events of the revolutions as they unfolded, and the uncertainties of the participants who lived through them from day to day.

It also succeeded in a way that I imagine that Griffiths would wish for; there’s enough of Paine’s own writing – from Common Sense and the Rights of Man – in it to make me realise that I should have read more of it than I have. And enough, too, to make his present relative obscurity puzzling; as if his long-standing career as a member of the awkward squad had carried over into his historical legacy.

‘My country is the world’

As it happens, Verso has just published a new edition of Paine’s writings in their Revolutions series, with a fine introduction by the historian Peter Linebaugh (review via Verso’s blog). I’m just going to share a few notes from that introduction here.

Paine is a puzzle. He left school at 13, and was 37 when he went to the United States, and there was apparently little in his background – save, perhaps, the petition he wrote to Parliament on behalf of fellow exciseman in support of higher wages – to suggest that he would, over the next twenty years, become the most influential political writer of his time. The clues are there, though, in his engagement with local learned societies, his spell as a teacher, his study of science and engineering.

By the time the two parts of the Rights of Man had been published, he was both widely read and widely feared, partly because it had been priced cheaply (Part I cost only 3/-) and sold widely. The language was sharp and also uplifting: “All the monarchical governments are military. War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects”, contrasted with “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good”. As Peter Linebaugh writes, Part II was dangerous to the British government because of “its forthright translation of equality in economic terms, and its overall tone of democratic confidence”.

‘Where liberty is not’

Linebaugh has a deep knowledge of the 18th century, and he situates Paine’s work at a moment before the commons had been closed off by landowners, when the American revolution had created new ideas of the possible. He makes the analogy to Guevara, and it seems a fair one; a revolutionary who fought (and wrote) in one revolution, was centrally involved in the politics of a second one (he was a deputy to the French National Convention), and was pursued by a government deeply fearful of a third (the full powers of the British state – spies, hired mobs, and lawsuits – were turned on him).

His work was also influential in the United Irishmen movement in the decade in Ireland before Wolfe Tone‘s failed rebellion; 10,000 copies of the Rights of Man sold in the country. A British military commander wrote that “The north is certainly inoculated by Paine, who persuades every man to think himself a legislator”.

Paine seems, now, impossibly modern, with his opposition to the death penalty and slavery, and his scepticism about organised religion. He spoke for the rights of the native American nations. His judgment on contemporary events appears astute; he refused to vote for the execution of Louis XVI, because of the harm it would do to the revolutionary cause; he thought Washington, after the revolution, unprincipled (and Washington, in turn, left Paine to languish in a French cell); and called Napoleon a charlatan. He influenced independence struggles in India and Indonesia.

His books – and a biography – were banned from American public libraries in 1949, as part of HUAC’s mission (oh, irony!) to defend “the form of government defended by the Constitution”. His history is entwined with that of American Presidents; Monroe freed him from jail in Paris, Jefferson invited Paine back to the United States. Paine was, it was said, Lincoln’s favourite writer, and also seems to be a favourite of Obama’s, who quoted him without crediting him in his inauguration speech. In short, the exchange which is quoted by Linebaugh at the start of his introduction, between Paine and his sponsor Benjamin Franklin seems apposite:

‘”Where liberty is, there is my country”, declared Benjamin Franklin, to which Thomas Paine replied, “Where is not liberty, there is mine”‘.

The picture at the top of this post shows John Light as Thomas Paine, and Daniel Anthony as Will, in the Globe’s production of A New World.

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