Jesters to the revolution--a history of Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre (CAST), 1965-85.
The revolutionary movements of 1967-69 marked, in one respect at least, a break with history: in a period of unprecedented material prosperity and cultural tolerance, the sons and daughters of the most privileged sections of the population rebelled. It was a moral revolt generated by "alienation" from dominant values, but it did not on the whole extend to the working class. (vii)
Whatever the risk to the Fourth Republic posed by French students, the British State was never in any danger according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has emphasised the relative affluence of the post war generations:
If ever capitalism looked as if it worked, it was in these decades ... it brought strikingly impressive improvements in the standard of living of most people, due partly to rising wages and high employment, partly to great improvements in social security (131).
While the war in Vietnam focused revolutionary fervour, the threat of nuclear war fuelled the hedonism and narcissism of the drug and rock culture; Andrew Sinclair has pointed to this connection:
The yeast of the sixties was not pop music or sexual liberation, but the conviction of the young after the Cuban affair that they were living on borrowed time. As much as sex and drugs and rock music, mass death defined the decade. (92)
These political and cultural developments would find potent cultural expression across the arts, but especially through theatre. For academic John Bull the decade was momentous:
In the late 1960's a number of quite startling changes occurred in British theatre, changes which for the first time challenged the very basis of theatrical organisation, and heralded the beginning of the most consistently exciting decade of drama of the entire century. (1)
The new theatres would give rise to new structures of performance, and generate new audiences for theatre, creating, in opposition to the dominant formations, alternative circuits which embraced arts labs and community halls, working men's clubs and trades union meetings. Theatre would invade public spaces, redefining the streets as sites for Marxist agitation and Carnivaleque celebration. Gender, race and sexuality were the fault-lines around which radical politics would be redrawn, and the history of the period is in part the history of their eruption into political and cultural space. In the field of political theatre CAST represented, along with the Brighton Combination and North West Spanner, a small but significant group of working-class activists within the predominantly middle-class counterculture. CAST's particular contribution to the development of revolutionary struggle would be to explore through theatre the problematic relationship between the revolutionary intelligentsia and the working class, between theory and practice.
The Group as Gang, 1965-74
The original group, Roland Muldoon, Claire Burnley, Ray Levine, and David Hatton, had left school at fifteen and drifted, in a mixture of instinctive rebelliousness and class politics, towards the libertarian left. They brought to the counter-culture the aggressive cohesion of the Mods and Rockers sub-culture which had shaped them. Muldoon, the group's creative inspiration and spokesperson, was raised as a Roman Catholic in a second-generation Irish family on a council estate in Weybridge, Surrey. After leaving school, he worked for a year at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School as a trainee stage manager. He met Levine and Hatton at Unity Theatre in Camden, London, where he and Burnley spent two years stage managing inhouse productions (Rees 70). In an interview Muldoon told me that he had wanted to bring 'political cabaret' into Unity to replace what he saw as the anodyne Music Hall nights at the theatre:
At Unity they ran an old tyme Music Hall, and Claire and I were the stage managers ... and we actually got to learn and love the old songs, but realised that the nostalgia was crap ... there was no point going on about 'there may be a present at Mornington Crescent' or whatever ... but then people would come and sing 'The Black Leg Miner' and stuff ... it was really quite good... but it was either folk, which was the Communist Party tradition, or it was old tyme Music Hall! And they weren't the things that turned CAST on, who were by nature rock and roll people.
Their vision was of Unity as 'a socialist theatre in the middle of Camden Town, as a centre of dissension'. In April 1965 Muldoon organised a coup against the management committee. When he was expelled for, in the words of the AGM minutes, "conduct injurious to the society in that he secretly conspired with non-members to overthrow the legally elected management committee", he took the rest of the "gang" with him (Chambers 84-5). The rupture was symptomatic. The expulsion marked yet another ideological rift between Old Left and New Left, caused this time by disagreements over the role of theatre in the context of the growing ferment on the streets. Explaining the rationale behind the attempted coup, Muldoon told the author:
We weren't in the Communist Party but we were coming round to Marxism. We were young and we were part of an enormous resistance to established politics - CND, Ban the Bomb, Anti-Apartheid, that sort of thing. We wanted to bring this into Unity.
While Baz Kershaw is correct to note the generational dimension of the expulsion, his contention that it demonstrated that the tradition of the Workers' Theatre Movement and Theatre Workshop "had somehow been lost to this new generation" is contradicted by CAST's roots in Unity, and by its desire to connect with a radical patrimony (76). Indeed, one of their earliest supporters was Ewan MacColl, a militant theatre activist in Salford in the thirties, and co-founder, with Joan Littlewood, of Theatre Workshop in 1945. A few months after the expulsion Red Saunders, a charismatic performer and radical activist, joined the 'gang'. The new group named themselves Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre or CAST. Muldoon glossed the name in an interview with Roland Rees:
It's Archetypical. Archetype is Jungian. "Cartoon" that was the style. "Archetypical" was our philosophy. We were influenced by the archetypicality of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the characters in the movie, Les Enfants du Paradis. "Slogan" because we made the language of the plays out of this sort of imagery. CAST because that made us anonymous. (69)
Fast cutting and extremely physical, the early CAST aesthetic was developed through collective improvisation. Peter Ansorge strikingly describes the group as presenting "a cartoon style evening of thrusting music-hall--a kind of engage Goon show" (57). It was a style developed for the folk clubs, public meetings and working-class social clubs that were the group's theatres. Their first production, rehearsed in the upstairs room of a pub in Camden, was called John D. Muggins is Dead, and dealt with the war in Vietnam. If television had rendered Vietnam a universal war, the draft had rendered it a war on youth. In the jungles of South East Asia, young Americans hunted the Vietcong by day, and by night got stoned and listened to Jimi Hendrix. CAST interrogated this reality in a play that Muldoon immodestly offers as "the most important play of the time", and whose aim was to "offer a dialectical perspective" (Itzin 16). Produced in 1965 John D. Muggins is Dead captured the anger and passion of the anti-war movement, and its audiences and venues would be as eclectic as the counter-culture. It was toured to folk clubs and trades clubs, rallies and conferences, working-men's clubs and student occupations. The twenty-minute sketch explored the linkage between pop culture and imperialism, between the capitalist system and mass murder. It was this system that CAST dissected in their next play, Mr. Oligarchy's Circus, written in 1966. Muldoon:
We said that capitalism was a circus, the ruling class was the circus master and the Labour Party was its bedfellow. It was a very funny play, very popular, playing at colleges to the radical students' movements in 1968. (Itzin 15)
David Caute agrees, describing the group in a striking vignette as
a guerrilla troupe which sought out working-class audiences to offer furious indictments of capitalism and the Labour government in a style which was more Brecht than Brecht and more Artaud than Artaud-chalk white make-up, a brash delivery and crude earthy humour. (251-2)
Despite the success of Mr. Oligarchy's Circus, the group felt its analysis was too generalised, and that a more precise analysis of revolutionary possibilities was required. Specifically, they wanted to address the critical relationship between student intellectuals and the working class. Hobsbawm has pointed out that the key feature of the May 1968 events in France was the failure of this relationship (132). The group explored the issue in The Trials of Horatio Muggins (1967), a play which, Muldoon told Plays and Players magazine, went to the heart of the division in the counter-culture:
The play mirrored the contradictions of the revolutionary struggle. Horatio was charged by the romantic revolutionary left of being apathetic, of being a traitor to the class. In his defence he pointed to unemployment, continuing wages struggles and, although contradictory he could understand the necessity for socialism, but found little inspiration in the then left. (41)
Rare filmed fragments of an early performance of The Trials give an invaluable insight into the group's developing aesthetic. The context was a documentary, The Year 1967, made by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and held in the CAST archive. The group was appearing at a fund-raising event together with poet Adrian Mitchell, and folk singers Frankie Armstrong and Ewan MacColl. On the film we see a group of young people, men and women, applying whiteface make up: they are dressed in black and are vaguely androgynous. The film cuts to Adrian Mitchell reading poetry. It cuts back to the opening images of The Trials of Horatio Muggins. Down stage right a body lies prone across three chairs. A white faced figure hovers. From the darkness upstage four more figures advance. They are dressed in black; their faces are chalkwhite, like mimes. Their movements are balletic. The central figure holds a red flag. They form a tableau, which is briefly held. They move forward again with an admirable precision and unity. They pause three times and then speak chorically. The voices are hard, impersonal, and metronomic: "We /are / the / Cartoon / Archetypical / Slogan / Theatre / and/ we / demand / revolution / now!" They dissolve the image and retreat upstage. One of them notices the sleeping figure. She moves forward until she is leaning over him. Turning, she gestures to the others to approach. They again move forward as a unit. They deliver their slogan now at the prone figure. They call on him to wake. As he stirs, they begin to shout at him: he must arise and organise the class for revolution! As he sits up and yawns, we notice that he is dressed in ordinary clothes and has no make-up. He ignores them, turns to the audience and speaks: "What the fuck do you lot want, eh, waking me up like that!" The film audience laughs and cheers. Horatio Muggins gets up, puts on his trilby, strikes a pose, and welcomes his audience's collusion. The group begins to upbraid him for his failure to act. The proletariat is asleep, they tell him, and must awake and take its preordained role in the coming revolutionary struggle. He shrugs, yawns, smiles at the audience. The film cuts to scenes of demonstrations.
In an interview with Catherine Itzin, Muldoon glossed the surname of CAST's eponymous comic protagonist:
Muggins is the English archetype of the bloke who does everything and gets no reward. Charlie Chaplin if you like. An Everyman. Except that in every show she or he had a different name--Harold Muggins, Hilda Muggins, Horatio Muggins, Maud Muggins. There's a part of everyone in Muggins, and a Muggins in part of everyone. Muggins represents the working class--the people who are mugged by History. (15)
These elements, then, a choreographed and mimetic power allied to a rigorous analysis of conditions, were to become CAST's trademark. At the core of the group's aesthetic lay what Muldoon called 'presentationism':
The most important thing that CAST did in the history of political theatre was to turn to the audience. At the same time we invented actually looking in the audience's face and telling them what we were talking about. We called it 'presentationism' - sort of here we are, entertainers, but theatre as well. It's like a three card trick. Once you get them watching, the magic starts. (Itzin 14)
CAST consistently rejected the idea that they were an Agit Prop theatre. Muldoon:
Community theatre we weren't. Nor were we Agit Prop. We were political theatre. We never told people what to do in our plays. We were part of the culture to whom we played our theatre. In comparison to General Will, Red Ladder and Broadside, CAST were like a psychedelic trip.... it was seriously avant-garde. (Rees 45)
For the earlier generation of political theatre activists, like Ewan MacColl, the group provoked a mixture of admiration and despair, as Muldoon recounted to the author:
We were told off by Ewan MacColl for being too counter-culture. He got us back after The Trials of Horatio Muggins and he said: "You know you're great what you do, but, it's terrible, because you take the piss out of capitalism, and then in the same play you also take the piss out of Ho Chi Min, Fidel Castro, and Mao Zedung. And Karl Marx. In the same way you took the piss out of everyone else. There's no definition for the working class". And we said "Yeah, that's us". So that wasn't Agit prop was it? As far as he was concerned it wasn't.
Yet for all MacColl's concerns, CAST was to provide a consistently useful and satirical critique of the development of revolutionary praxis in the period.
In the summer of 1967 the group was invited to bring their work to the international theatre festival at Nancy in France. Here they were able to make contact with both European and American experimental groups, but it was the links with the USA, built on a commonality of language and opposition to Vietnam, which were to prove the most significant and durable for the group's future. At Nancy they encountered Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theatre, Luiz Valdez's El Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Founded in 1959 by Joan Holden, the Mime Troupe combined social and political content with a street style that draw from popular forms such as the commedia dell'arte, bringing to activist theatre a striking physicality and visual richness. One of the earliest troupe members, Luiz Valdez, went on to form the El Teatro Campesino in 1965. Their work, based on short actos inserted into public meetings and picket lines, had the same rich visual and satirical vocabulary which embodied many of the values of CAST's theatre.
One of their early admirers was the playwright John Arden, who wrote Harold Muggins is a Martyr for the group. Set against the corruption scandals then embroiling the Metropolitan Police in the middle years of an embattled Labour administration, the play's plot is succinctly set out by Malcolm Page:
Muggins and his wife run a small struggling cafe, dealing on the side in pornography, prostitution and stolen goods. Grumblegut a businessman, and Jasper an accountant, take over the cafe which is renamed the Subliminal Experience. Muzak and fruit machines are added, customers fight, loyal employees leave, and 'the Organisation' deducts protection money, so Mrs Muggins organises a local gang to resist: the gang takes over and begins an orgy. A battle follows: terrible mayhem: nobody left apparently alive at the end of it except for Muggins and Grumblegut (Page 34).
Harold Muggins is a Martyr was premiered at Unity Theatre on 14 June 1968, directed by Muldoon, who also performed. The lead roles were played by Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy, while CAST was supplemented by two actors from the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a couple of Unity members. While critical reviews were mixed, the production was a popular success, and, ironically, given its provenance, provided Unity with its best box office receipts for the year.
In summer 1969 the group was again invited to the Nancy Festival in France, followed by dates in Amsterdam and Berlin. It was during this brief tour that tensions within the group began to surface. The Muldoons now had a small child, and issues of childcare and financial stability were uppermost for them (CAST no page). They felt unsupported, but the issue, less acute at home, was set to one side as they began work on what was to be their last production together, Aunt Maud is the Happening Thing. This was a reworking of Mr. Oligarchy's Circus, and portrayed capitalism as a dead force constantly obliged to come back to life for the lack of an alternative. The play was CAST's offering for the Royal Court's Come Together Festival in October and November 1970. Come Together brought under one roof a representative sample of counter-culture theatre companies, including the People Show, Brighton Combination, performance artist Stuart Brisley, the Ken Campbell Roadshow, the Pip Simmons Theatre Group, Keith Johnstone's Theatre Machine and Nancy Meckler's Freehold alongside productions of works by playwrights Heathcote Williams, N.F. Simpson and Peter Terson. Although the group thought Aunt Maud is the Happening Thing was a poor play, reviews were largely enthusiastic. Helen Dawson in The Times saw it as a "genuinely Marxist view of British industrial history, compact, impressively thought out and sustained, a good sharp puncturing of the democratic bubble.... CAST was telling us that it was all up" (Dawson 1971). By 1970 it was indeed "all up", but for the original group, rather than for post-Fordist capitalism.
Splits and Reformations, 1970-1980
Between 1970 and 1975, CAST would produce only one new piece of theatre, Come in Hilda Muggins, which premiered in April 1972, and which robustly critiqued the emergent radical feminist movement for the perceived failings of its class politics. In an interview with Plays and Players, Muldoon called it an "awkward play" which the group "dragged around the country" (41). This was a transitional period during which Muldoon felt the group had lost its way:
By 1968 everywhere one went and looked there was talk of Revolution, with the exception that is of the traditional working class. That was CAST's trouble: it was going everywhere but in the direction it wanted to go in. There was the Rock Revolution, the Alternative Culture Revolution, the Youth Revolution, the Student Revolution ... although I was opposed to most of it the group was dragged into it.... a wasteful pastime if ever there was one! ("Cast Revived" 41)
The group sat on the sidelines while fractions within the working class began mobilising against the new Conservative government, led by Edward Heath, which had been elected in June 1970. The period of this government, 1970-1974, witnessed an intensification of rank-and-file activism within the trade unions, generating an industrial militancy which polarised society and public opinion. The Upper Clyde Shipyard "Work In" during February 1971 and the miners' strikes of 1971 and 1972 raised expectations of radical social and political change. Yet, during a period in which many on both left and right of the political spectrum believed a revolution was imminent, the country's self-proclaimed political guerrilla theatre was silent. This was a silence which embraced not only domestic crises and the proximal neocolonial conflict in the north of Ireland, but critical world events, such as the 1973 CIA sponsored coup in Chile against Salvador Allende's socialist government. It was not until 1974, following the re-election of Harold Wilson and a Labour administration, that the group began work on the play that secured their future, Sam the Man. Sam the Man occupied classic CAST territory: the crisis of organisation of the working class. Subtitled "a Cartoon History of the Labour Party since 1945 to date", it showed the working class trapped between a compromised and reformist Labour Party, and the sectarianism theorising of the far left. As Muldoon describes it:
Sam, a dedicated left wing Labour MP, whilst wishing to rally the audience to his cause, was dragged by a hard-bitten theatre group through the years of compromise and accommodation to the Labour leadership. From 1945 to date Sam suffered the tragedy of our political past. Yet he still believes. The group far to the left of him offered nothing but accurate criticism ... his dilemma is our dilemma. ("Cast Revived" 42).
The success of Sam the Man brought CAST their first Arts Council grant, and in 1976 this award of 5000 [pounds sterling] enabled them to turn professional. The revolutionary "gang" became the revolutionary theatre company, and created, as their first subsidised production, a trio of short dramas under the collective title Three For the Road, focusing on the conflict in the north of Ireland, the Right to Work campaign, and public spending cuts. The following year they turned once again to the relationship between the Labour Party and the unions in Goodbye Union Jack, a polemical satire on Labour's Social Contract with the trade unions. Under the Social Contract unions promised wage restraint in return for direct income redistribution, price controls and more investment in public services. Pointing out that permanent cuts in workers' pay and employment rights was now a minimum condition of investment by international firms, the play predicted a right-wing Labour government in 1979, committed to the erosion of trade union rights. It was a prescient analysis, though it fingered the wrong party.
In October 1977, the company began work on a piece provisionally titled Overdose with the aim, says Muldoon, of analysing "changes in popular ideology since the industrial revolution" (CAST vi). It was an ambitious project, absorbing three months of the group's energy before it was abandoned. Needing to mount a replacement production to satisfy the conditions of their Arts Council grant, the group turned to a fragment that they had been working on before Three for the Road, called Confessions of a Socialist. Confessions is the story of Harold Muggins, a universal gottlieb-junction maker--a deliberately nonsense term--and failed husband and father, who misses the People's Revolution because he is busy blowing his redundancy money on a package holiday in Spain. The play was premiered at a benefit for the film "The Right to Work", at the Architect's Association in Bedford Square, London on 3 February 1978. Muldoon played Harold Muggins, the central character, while Derek Couturier and Dave Humphreys played the subsidiary roles of boss, co-workers, secretaries and waiters. In style, content and form Confessions of a Socialist stood in the same relation to the group's work in the decade as Mr Oligarchy's Circus had in the 1960s, encapsulating more absolutely than any other piece the group's political and aesthetic philosophy. A great success, it remained in the repertory for many years, developing in 1979 into the solo act Full Confessions of a Socialist, which became the vehicle for Muldoon's entry into the American radical theatre market. He was to receive an Off-Broadway Theatre Award, or OBIE, in New York in January 1980 for the script and performance. In 1981, and building on his off-Broadway success, he took Full Confessions to San Francisco, where he was hosted by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In a review in the San Francisco magazine Grassroots, journalist Rueben Halpern praised the play fulsomely:
It is very moving, very arresting, for Muldoon has built a character out of Muggins' experiences of the basics: the job, the home, the family, the children: the food: the media: the politics ... a universal comedy that is funny and terribly sad at the same time. What I think it is essentially is a brilliant evocation of what alienation truly means - not in abstract, not in slogans, not in invective: but in the pulse, in the feelings, in the gut. Yes, there are some slogans too, but they can be bought, because they come from a life lived. (17)
Full Confessions offered a microcosm of CAST's achievement, which lay in a consistent and rigorous performative exploration of Marx's concept of "alienation", and its implications for the possibility of revolutionary change. As Sandy Craig observes, the play also exposed the revolutionary left's "confusion surrounding automation, the working class and the work ethic" (48). Craig also drew attention to Muldoon's Music Hall roots in an evocative description of him in full flow as the eponymous Muggins:
In his wild appearance, his manic energy, in the twisting, stumbling, bubbling rush of his speech patterns, and in the daring leaps of an imagination which is both fantastical and politically rigorously logical he (Muldoon) is in the mainstream of the Music Hall and Northern Variety tradition of anarchic comedians like Frank Randle ... he is the Left's court jester. (48)
Muldoon's consistent refusal to abandon Muggins's perspective caused friction in his sometimes volatile relationship with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For, like all jesters, Muggins took liberties, implicitly mocking the party's vanguardist assumptions about revolution, critiquing their deterministic certainty, and satirising the party's purist concept of the class warrior. Of all CAST's shows, Confessions of a Socialist offered the clearest statement of how Muldoon saw the struggle for socialism, and its success secured the group's grant for the 1978-79 season. In May 1978 they began work on What Happens Next?, a play written in response to the rising influence of the racist National Front party. Set in 1976, the play explored the intersection of class and race through the central figure of Ralph, a shop steward and Labour party stalwart, played by Muldoon. Supported by the Anti Nazi League, and riding on a swell of anti-fascist activism, the play toured widely across Britain throughout 1978 and 1979. Typically, it provided no answers to the question it posed, nor did it duck the racism of fractions of the working class. In the event, the National Front's growth was contained by the undoubted success of the Anti Nazi League on the one hand, and Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher's pragmatic absorption of race fears into a populist programme on the other. The Conservatives had swept to power in March 1979, following what became known as the "Winter of Discontent". An attempt by the Labour Government to impose a 5% wage limit in the 1978-9 fiscal year, together with continuing cuts in public spending, had led to countrywide strikes by over 1.5 million public sector workers. The strikes, marked by inflated media stories of unburied corpses and rat infested streets, offered the Conservatives a potent propaganda weapon, and the new government arrived with a mandate to break trade union power. The post-war consensus, built on an implicit social contract between state and capital, was to be severely tested by a government committed to monetarism, where inflation is controlled (theoretically) by restricting the supply of money in the economy. The consequent squeeze on wages, and a sharp rise in unemployment, led to confrontation with the unions. Thatcher's response was to conflate legitimate economic aspiration with political subversion, famously referring in a 1979 interview on Thames TV to "those people in this country who are great destroyers; they wish to destroy the kind of free society we have ... many of these people are in unions". This ideological assault was to be backed by a series of Employment Acts between 1980 and 1982, which removed trade unions' legal immunities, and severely limited the scope of industrial action. CAST's response was the production From One Strike To Another, a piece of activist theatre aimed at supporting the mobilization of the trade union and Labour movement against compliance. Muldoon's solo version of Confessions had marked a transition point between the group of the mid-seventies and what amounted now to a brand new company, and the production would be the first in the group's history in which neither of the Muldoons took a part. From One Strike told the story of five employees of the Smellnice toilet roll factory who came out on strike when two of their number were made redundant, and found themselves unwittingly in the front line of the class war. The play's actions are sparked when Sheila and Lucy, the only black worker, are made redundant, and they persuade the others to strike in solidarity. Naive, reluctant, inexperienced and ignorant of the new laws, they agree. Almost defeated by the failure of the Labour movement to help them, they are finally saved by a militant shop steward who, as an activist deus ex machina, brings the promise of secondary support and a militant front. Within this simple formula, the play attempted to explore the contradictions that defined both the workers' and the Labour movement's response to Tory attacks. The play's call on workers to "Defend the Unions, Break the Law!" drew large and enthusiastic audiences in the Communist Party heartlands of the West Midlands and Central Scotland, where a review in the Glasgow Herald thought the production "witty, perceptive, highly professional, thoroughly entertaining and distressingly relevant" (Brennan 27). Yet, in the north-west and south of England the audiences were small. The play was a victim of the class crisis it described and would help precipitate a fundamental shift in the company's work.
Back to the Future--the coming of New Variety
In autumn 1979, Belt and Braces Theatre Company's Gavin Richards and Gillian Hanna translated and adapted Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist for what became a critically acclaimed tour of arts labs and small regional theatres. On the 5th March, 1980 the production transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End. It was an immediate success, generating substantial income, and leading Richards to consider returning the company's Arts Council grant. CAST was facing a cash crisis, and Muldoon persuaded Richards to underwrite CAST's next production, Sedition 81, with CAST 'presented' by Belt and Braces. The new production offered eloquent proof that, for all that he inveighed against the counterculture, Muldoon had been uniquely shaped by it. There was a tension within him, expressed through Muggins, between the romantic and anarchistic loner on the one hand, and the Marxist collectivist on the other, between Lennon and Lenin. In Sedition 81 these two elements were conjoined, as Muggins metamorphosed into the Crazed Red Dope Fiend. It was an iconic image, which managed to offend both the ultra left and the Tory right. The character's name focused all that Margaret Thatcher and the new right hated about the generation of '68, while the SWP laughed uneasily at this yoking of libertarianism and revolution. Sedition 81 was a showcase for Muldoon, a variety show mixing songs, sketches, stand-up, pantomime and ventriloquism. It brought the major themes of CAST's work together in one provocative and idiosyncratic mix--Republican irredentism, the monarchy, trade unionism, the relationship of class and party, and the perennial crisis of revolutionary hope were all placed under a satirical microscope. At one point, the Dope Fiend is arrested, and sentenced to death.
He asks, as his last request, to be allowed to sing Be-bop-a-lula, the Gene Vincent classic. He performs standing beneath a noose, silhouetted against a montage of slides depicting a century of global revolutionary struggle. The image is shot through with the paradoxes of Muldoon's oeuvre: the revolutionary iconoclast as terrorist, the working-class hero as pop icon, and a belief in socialism undercut by the reality of a compromised life and a confused praxis. The East End News described a performance at the Old Half Moon Theatre as a "funny, punchy and extremely entertaining alternative cabaret theatre". (Pierce 14) The regional tour of Sedition 81 signalled a further shift away from CAST's traditional audiences. The itinerary took in university campuses and small-scale theatres rather than the pubs and union halls of From One Strike. Though there would be two more conventional touring productions--Hotel Sunshine (1982), the company's contribution to the Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament, and The Return of Sam the Man (1983)--Sedition 81 effectively marked the transition point in the group's evolution from an activist theatre group to a left-wing, metropolitan entertainment agency. For the commercial success of Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Wyndham's had been an epiphany for Muldoon: "This was like being struck down on the road to Damascus! What? A left wing play would be on in the West End and people would flock! Flock to see it!" (Rees 74) Anarchist's achievement catalysed the company's movement away from plays, and towards their goal of creating a left-field popular theatre, unencumbered by state aid: a shift manifested in New Variety, the reinvention of Music Hall for the postmodern generation. New Variety was, says Muldoon, part of a more general re-alignment. CAST had not been the only radical theatre to recognize that the historical tide was ebbing, and with it the group's audiences:
When Thatcher came to power at the end of the seventies, Gavin Richards, John McGrath and I met to discuss the way forward. Gavin said he was going to get out of touring, McGrath said he was retreating north of the border, and we said the answer was Cabaret, working through the circuit we had created with CAST. So the seed for 'New Variety' was formed. (Rees 74)
The period between Hotel Sunshine and the end of CAST as a touring theatre company would be marked by the continued development of New Variety in venues across London. New Variety was in part a response to an ebb in industrial militancy, in part also a pragmatic response to growing criticism from within the Arts Council. In April 1984, shortly after the miners' strike began, grant cuts of 1.2 million [pounds sterling] were announced, to take effect the following year. The decision affected fifteen companies, including CAST, M6, 7:84 England, Mikron Theatre and Temba. For 7:84 England's founder, John McGrath, the cuts evidenced "distaste for class politics", and revealed a "malaise" at the heart of the arts bureaucracy (McGrath 19). That was one way to view the cuts: the other was to recognise them as the reflex of an ideologically ascendant right-of-centre coalition. While Muldoon joined in the campaign to reverse the decision, privately he welcomed it, as he told the author in an interview:
We did everything we possibly could to make sure that, as Trotsky said, you get dragged out of office, kicking--but I was relieved I didn't have to write any more plays.
CAST had ceased to be a theatre group after twenty years of activism. In a typical mix of quixotic risk-taking and political passion, they made a successful bid to take over the Hackney Empire in London's East End as a centre for New Variety. The revolutionaries, who had been expelled from Unity theatre for wanting to remake Music Hall for the Vietnam generation, were back in their spiritual home after a detour enjoined by history and grant aid. And, although Muldoon insists that the Empire was not a CAST theatre project, the two were complementary expressions of a remarkably durable, consistent and fruitful commitment to popular radical theatre. CAST's is a paradigmatic history. In their development from cultural 'gang' to subsidised professional ensemble to cultural entrepreneurs, they have exemplified the contradictions, crises, and transformation of British oppositional theatres in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
A CAST Chronology
In compiling this chronology, it has been necessary to reconcile differences in production dates between the three principal printed sources. Catherine Itzin was the first to attempt to provide a chronology in the appendix to Stages in the Revolution. The CAST archive provides two other sources. The first is a chronology for 1965-1978 from the edition of Confessions of a Socialist (1979). The second, and more comprehensive, chronology is set out in a briefing paper sent to the Arts Council in 1984. It formed part of an appeal for continued funding. There are several discrepancies between the three sources. For example, the group give 1965 as the original date for John D. Muggins is Dead in both sources, whereas Itzin places it in 1966. The production year for Mr Oligarchy's Circus is given as 1966 in both CAST sources, but as 1967 in Itzin. Itzin makes two other misattributions. The first is her confusion of Aunt Maud is the Happening Thing (1970) with Come in Hilda Muggins (1972). The second is her preference for 1977 as the date for Confessions of a Socialist. Both of the CAST sources give 1978, with the preface to the published text specifying the date as 3 February 1978. In all cases, I have accepted CAST's dates. Confusion also surrounds the first performance of Sam the Man. The Confessions' source gives this as 1975, Itzin as 1972, and the CAST Arts Council briefing paper as 1973-74. Itzin's date can be rejected as too early. The date in the Arts Council briefing has been deliberately chosen, I think, to fill an otherwise glaring creative gap between 1972 (Come in Hilda Muggins) and 1975-76 (Three For the Road). The actual date, which accords with the Confessions source, with reviews, and Muldoon's testimony to me, is 1975. The play was a response to the victory of the Labour Party in October 1974, following the second general election that year. Rehearsals for the show took place between November 1974 and February 1975. Some plays were held in the repertoire for several years. In each case I have given the year of the first performance.
1965. John. D. Muggins Is Dead.
1966. Mr Oligarchy's Circus.
1967. The Trials of Horatio Muggins.
1968. Muggins' Awakening.
1968. Harold Muggins Is A Martyr (with John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy).
1970. Aunt Maud Is The Happening Thing.
1972. Come In Hilda Muggins.
1975. Sam the Man.
1976. Three for the Road.
1977. Goodbye Union Jack.
1978. Overdose (abandoned)
Confessions of a Socialist.
What Happens Next?
1979. Waiting For Lefty (with North West Spanner).
1980. Full Confessions of a Socialist.
1980. From One Strike to Another.
1981. Sedition 81
1982. New Variety opens at The White Lion, Brixton, London.
The Return of Sam the Man.
1983. Sedition UK.
The Bottom Line (with the New York Labour Theatre).
1984. Reds under the Bed - A New Variety Pantomime.
32 Live London Borough Touring Show.
What's Funny and Personal Conversation with Mrs T.
Ansorge, Peter. Disrupting the Spectacle. London: Pitman, 1975.
Brennan, Mary. "Relevant and Distressing." Glasgow Herald, October 26 1980.
Bull, John. New British Political Dramatists. London: Macmillan, 1984.
CAST. Confessions of a Socialist. London: Pluto Press, 1979. Unpaginated.
"Cast Revived". Plays and Players (January 1977): 40-41.
Caute, David. 1968--The Year of the Barricades. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Chambers, Colin. The Story of Unity Theatre. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989.
"Come Together at the Royal Court". Official festival programme. November, 1970.
Craig, Sandy. Dreams and Deconstructions: Alternative Theatre in Britain. London: Amberlane, 1980.
Dawson, Helen. "Come Together, a Report." Gambit, Vol 7 (1969): 178-181.
Halpern, Reuben. "Awakening of a Worker." Grassroots Magazine January 1981: 13-15.
Hammond, Jonathan. "A Potted History of the Fringe." Theatre Quarterly, 3.12 (1973): 40-42.
Hobsbawm, Eric. "1968--A Retrospect." Marxism Today (May 1978): 130-136 Itzin, Catherine. Stages in the Revolution. London: Methuen, 1980.
Kershaw, Baz. The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention. London: Routledge, 1992.
McGrath, John. "No Politics Please, We're British." The Guardian Friday October 5, 1984: 19.
Margaret Thatcher. Interview on Thames TV News, 24 April 1979. Television.
Muldoon, Roland. Personal interview. 15 May 2000.
Page, Malcolm. John Arden. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Pierce, Carys. "Sedition 81." East End News, 5 June 1981: 14.
Rees, Roland. Fringe First: Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record. London: Oberon Books, 1992.
Sinclair, Andrew. In Love and Anger, a view of the sixties. London: Stevenson, 1994.
The Year 1967. Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. 1967. CAST archive, UEL. 60 mins. VHS.
Bill McDonnell is a senior lecturer in Theatre at the University of Sheffield. Before joining the university, he spent twenty-five years in political and community-based theatre in Britain and the north of Ireland. He is the author of Social Impact in UK Theatre (2005) and Theatres of the Troubles: theatre, resistance and liberation in Ireland (2008).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2010|
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