The 1930s - Workers and Unemployment

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WAC regulars Edward Janshewsky, Harry Haddy, Cliff Mossop and Tim O’Sullivan appeared in the Workers Art Theatre Group’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which opened to a packed house in the Rationalist Society’s Ingersoll Hall at Easter 1933. Most of the cast were unemployed with no theatrical experience but they did well enough to start promoting themselves as the RTP Players restaging this play plus Roar China (under the auspices of the WAC), Harry L Broderick’s The Sundowner and Upton Sinclair’s The Spy. In 1935 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had a successful run at 36 Pitt Street.

An examination of the life and conditions of building workers in the fictional English town of Mugsborough, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a dramatisation of the popular novel by Robert Tressall who had worked as a house painter. Promising “Love, Pathos, Humour, and a Message” and written “in lurid, blood-red language of men on the job” with an abundance of “bloodys”, its ironic title refers to labourers who work as slaves for their capitalist masters but vote for them at election time. The gulf between the classes is highlighted when after a worker falls from a ladder his headgear is picked up by the house’s new mistress who comments “What a filthy cap”.

The aim of the piece was to exasperate the audience into action and convert them to Socialism. Its first production was reviewed as intelligently done but essentially propaganda for the converted, the puppet-like characters addressing the audience in long speeches.

The workmen give their views on the causes of poverty. The artisan Owen is the spokesman for the Socialist message.

Crass: The country is being ruined by foreigners.

Owen: Hundreds out of employment. Are you going to tell me the waiters down at the Grand Hotel are the cause of that?

Sawkins: Cor blimey, now you’ve started him off.

Harlow: The cause of poverty is over population.

Philpot: That’s right. If a boss wants two men, 20 goes after the job. There’s too many people and not enough work.

Slyme: Drink is the cause of poverty.

Philpot: ‘Ear, ‘ear. I couldn’t arf do with a pint of poverty right now.

Crass: Don’t forget there’s them that’s too lazy to work, when they can get it. Then there’s all this newfangled machinery.

Slyme: Early marriage is another thing. No man ought to be allowed to get married unless he’s in a position to keep a family.

Owen: Landlordism is one of the causes of poverty. Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery, or over-production, or drink, or over-population. I say poverty is caused by private monopoly.

Another adaptation of Tressall’s book was staged by the New in 1987. Very different from the original Manchester Unity script, it contained music and omitted the domestic scenes between Owen and his wife.

Socialism was also seen as the answer to society’s problems in The Bruiser’s Election staged in October 1933. Stephen Schofield’s one-act farce shows how three parliamentary candidates who call on Bruiser and his wife to get their votes are outwitted by the couple who trick them into funding a Socialist candidate.

Nellie Rickie’s Beyond the Road ~ its cast herself, Harry Haddy and Sid Birchal ~ about a couple tramping to northern Australia looking for work was staged at 36 Pitt Street in April 1933 as part of a program of her one-act plays. Between the pieces the audience was asked for feedback.

In Love on the Dole, Ronald Gow’s grim play on the effects of unemployment, the central character becomes a kept woman as her only chance to make money. Before she leaves town in a taxi, to the jeers of the locals, her parents comment:

Hardcastle: Haven’t Ah worked all me life, body an’ soul, t’ keep a home for her? Haven’t Ah kept meself respectable for her, when God knows Ah’ve been near driven to drink wi’ things. And now me own daughter tells me she’s a whore – aye, and proud of it too.

Mrs Hardcastle: Lad, she’s only young – she’s only young. Where should we ha’ been all these months if it hadn’t been for our Sally? It’s her money we’ve lived on since they knocked you off dole, an’ well you know it.

In Carrion Crow, staged several times 1935-6, unemployed Cockney slum dwellers ~ a can man, a cardboard box man and a rag woman ~ rummage through garbage bins at night. Like the scavenging bird they are clever and fearless. In real life, cast member Jerry Wells was then poverty-stricken and near derelict.

Rag woman: Yer ain’t got to do nuffink fer a copper ter git yer. They hoccupies their spare time wiv the likes of us. E’n nailed me twice, this ‘un ‘as.

In Transit adapted from a novelette by Albert Maltz unemployed workers of different ages and backgrounds spend a wintry New Year’s Eve in a New York doss house:

Luke: Is the beds clean? Ah means bugs. Ah sure can’t sleep if they’s bugs.

Baldy: Yeah? You’re like me, I guess – partic’lar about the critters you sleep with. No. You find a bug in here, I’ll cat it.

Luke: What’s that smell? Coal oil?

Baldy: Kerosene. That’s what we use to ride out the bugs. No bugs here without you brung ‘em with you.

In Maltz’s Rehearsal, 1939 City of Sydney eisteddfod winner restaged in 1942, a proletarian theatre troupe is rehearsing a mass chant. An actress recalls her brother’s back being broken by company police during a strike, reminding audiences of “the Ford Massacre” when unemployed marchers in Detroit were shot down in 1932.

In Betty Roland’s Are You Ready. Comrade? a dismissed accountant confronts his cigar-smoking boss:

Henderson: This firm may go broke. I know that, I’ve been keeping the books. But even that won’t leave you with nothing to face but the dole. You’ve got a house, a motor car, your wife’s got jewellery, you’ve got some money in the bank.

(The 5 o’clock whistle blows.)

There she goes. I’ve answered that whistle for 30 years. All the best years of my life. Eight hours every day and in return I got enough to feed and clothe my family and a little left over if I saved and did without. And now I’m not as useful as I used to be, the firm can’t get its money’s worth, so it’s not going to feed and clothe me any more nor keep my family.

NTL actors (with an hour’s rehearsal) in 1939 performed Betty Roland’s radio play It Isn’t Possible! on 2KY (supported by New people since 1926 when Nellie Rickie delivered humorous monologues during a fundraiser for the trades union station. During the Second World War the NTL had a regular weekly spot).

Roland’s script was based on a series of real-life strikes at the Dunlop Perdriau rubber factory at Birkenhead Point, Drummoyne, beginning in 1937 with shoemakers’ complaints that bonus rates had been reduced. After a new method of sewing uppers is introduced and their pay reduced, the female shoemakers react to the news that a time and motion man has been brought in to speed up production:

Seamer: I can’t work any faster. 760 pairs a day I do. They’re asking 924 small pairs or 859 of large.

Braider: Three thousand one hundred and ten they want – for lower pay.

All girls: It isn’t possible. We’ve given everything we’ve got.

In 1939 (when Dunlop Perdriau made a record profit) a three-month strike ended after the Rubber Workers’ Union was threatened with deregistration, Arbitration Court Judge Drake-Brockman stating that the women were a handful of rebels who should realise they owed something to the community.

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Forward One, staged in 1937, dealt with the plight of shopgirls afraid of losing their jobs despite difficult customers, unsympathetic management, being on their feet all day, and constantly going up and down ladders to fetch stock:

The shop is hot and the new shop assistant faints.

Miss Drew (manageress): Take her into the packing room… Supposing a customer should come in.

Vera: Let them come. Let them all come and see what you’ve done to this girl and Elsie and me. I’ll tell them that there are scores of girls in the city in other show rooms who are suffering torture with their backs and feet, just because you and your sort won’t let them sit down during business hours, even when there’s no business doing. It’s sheer brutality.

Dismissal for union activity prompts strike action by adolescent workers in a New York candy factory in Ben Bengal’s Plant in the Sun:

Peewee: Today I get notice tuh skiddo. It ain’t gonna be slack for two months yet, so why the epidemic? We know why. Some rat in the joint squealed tuh Horseface that Danny and me was talkin’ Union. Right?

Mike: Right.

Peewee: Now tell me, don’t we need a union on this job like a cripple needs a crutch? (Silence.) Well, Skinny, Tubbo and me says we do loud enough to sit down.

Factory girls in So It Didn’t Work face their first test as unionists.

Waiting for Lefty was written by Clifford Odets to raise money for a New York taxi drivers' strike fund. An exposé of capitalist exploitation and corruption outside and within the trade union movement, after a successful opening at the Workers Art Club in January 1936 some mid-week performances were added before it settled into a monthly event in 1937. Its crew and cast were a roll call of people who had a long association with the New: Vic Arnold, Jerry Wells, Jean Blue, Hughla Hurley, Des Rowan, Edgar Yardley, Jack Fegan, Frank Callanan, Kenyon McCarron, Eddie Allison, Frank Swonnell, Harry Howlett, Hugh Carlsson, Jack Maclean, Peter Harding, Tim McGill, Sylvia Arnold. In England Waiting for Lefty had been passed by the Lord Chamberlain on the condition that there be no belching on stage, and after "lousy tart" was deleted from the script and "Jeez" changed to "Gee".

A 1938 sesquicentenary event, Miles Malleson’s Six Men of Dorset, was propaganda for the trade union movement. The “Vivid, authentic Drama of the Tolpuddle Martyrs” told the story of the six farm labourers sentenced to transportation in 1834 for establishing a trade union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Its cast of 40 included six-year-old Moira, daughter of NTL actor and pioneer nudist Kleber Claux.

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