On pleasure, working-class men & Husbands and Sons


Phone off, sit down, shut up, look up, interpret, decipher, engage, discuss. Spectating isn’t effortless. To go watch something – and enable the spectacle by watching – is hard. But the more you see, the more you perform effortlessly. You get the social script – and its iterations. You do the routine. You might even be aware – at least in a pecuniary sense – that the whole thing exists only because you’re watching it. And despite the effort of it all, you see this whole thing you’re doing as leisure. It’s soooo nice! You get a drink, a sit down. At last, you can blank your email. But you might be so taken by the pleasure of all this that you forget you’re doing anything. You might be in danger of becoming just this trifling thing, lolloping in the foyer – waiting to be plugged in. And why the hell not? Let’s not deny ourselves these small pleasures.

Yet I do. I find this pleasure taxing. It’s because I’m not quite sure if going to the theatre is my work or my leisure: my job or my hobby. Nor am I quite sure to what extent I’m instrumental as something making meaning. I’m never quite sure what bits I can switch off and what bits to leave on. It’s a minefield accompanied by a gin and tonic. And, yet, this self-appointed task, this low-level anxiety shifting between the work/play binary, is totally pointless. It’s not like I can really leave my thinking-hat somewhere else, is it, as Brecht said – unless I fell asleep. And we’ve all be there…

But I don’t want to talk about the ‘active spectator’ here. I’m totally unconvinced by that, and, actually, I’m a bit concerned about its implications (or accusations). What I want to talk about is the bit before you’re a spectator: the time in the building (or wherever) before you hit the play (or whatever) and what those moments mean and how they take shape.

Normally, for me, things go like this: I’m normally with someone (sometimes students). If it’s friends, I want to catch up; I want to drink. And, there may be, occasionally, depending on whom I’m with, some elements of ‘work-meeting’ going down. If I’m on my own, I’ll work-work. I’ll have already read the criticism before this point. I’ll know all about it. Normally, if it’s script, I’ll have read it (slavish and stupid, yep, I know, and weirdly I never read a programme until after). If it’s canonical and I don’t know the story, I’ll assume it can do the work for me. I anticipate. And, one more thing: I’m always in a good mood. I’m optimistic and open-minded in these moments. But there’s something else too: something much more important to my process of spectating.

I’m obsessed with hypothesising about programming. Why this? Why this at this time? What does it mean to get us to come to see this now? And I can’t help but explore the rhetoric; e.g., when playmakers say things such as: ‘it’s really important for us to tell a range of national stories like this one’ or ‘this play just felt really live now’ or ‘it reflects our world’ or ‘it really interrogates our current interest in’. Most of the time, I just don’t quite get it. What we say never seems to be sufficient justification for that which we do.

I’m interested in the things beyond (not necessarily behind) the reasons playmakers say they’re staging the plays they’re staging. I’m interested in thinking about the structural forces that determine these things and I can’t accept that someone just decided to put on a piece of art for the reasons they say and I’m not cynical enough to think they just did it for the £££ either. Because that would be foolish.

Yesterday I saw Husbands and Sons – an NT/Royal Exchange Theatre co-production. Here are some of the reasons the makers cite for choosing to revive these three plays: they felt the plays resonated with them as people from the north-west, they felt they’re important plays to stage as they help reflect a wider idea of Britain that a national theatre should reflect, and they felt it’s important to continue a legacy of stories about mining communities. Well, it’s hard not to agree with all of those things. It’s all very compelling.

Yet. And yet. The idea of seeing these D.H Lawrence plays in this moment before going into the theatre suddenly seemed like an uncomfortable and difficult proposition for me. But here’s the thing: I love Lawrence. I spent a year studying at the D.H Lawrence institute. It gets worse: I like modernism. And I dig naturalism and seeing how contemporary makers re-dramatize it, riff off its anachronicity. Oh, and also: I’m a woman. From the north west. And women’s experiences (in the NW) and showcasing them were high on the agenda (again – see last blog). And I also like (and teach) the work of Ben Power and, as previously mentioned, I’m a home-girl of The Royal Exchange.

So, in that moment, before I went in, I was feeling pretty confident that I was some kind of ideal spectator (if, indeed, there is an ideal spectator – another question). But, despite all of this potential plaisir I was going to reap from this performance, all this hypothesising around the programming of the play and why it was on got in the way.

D.H Lawrence is an anomaly that some people don’t get. When I told Marxist friends that I was going to see this show, the sub-text was ‘how distasteful’. There’s something so particularly conservative in the way that Lawrence characterises working class experiences, something so individualistic and non-marxist about the way he fetishizes working men’s experiences in this period. He sits uncomfortably inside a history of British working class literature. And, yet, paradoxically, he sits comfortably within a vein of theatre that has explored working class experience from another (privileged) vantage point. That his plays were revived in 1968 by Gill around the time the Angry Young Men were representing the working classes (‘angry young men’ who were often called Marxists, yet held little of Marxism’s radicalism) seems to situate Lawrence within a particular trajectory of exploring working class experience. Worse, although Gill’s recuperating of Lawrence is heralded as an excellent and important event in 20th century British theatre history, it compounded certain problems just beginning in representing male working class experiences that we’re still grappling with (evident, for example, in Violence and Son). In fact, Lawrence could be charged with offering a space in which playmakers could revive a theatrical conservativism around representations of the working class, a kind of neo-naturalism, in line with Lawrence’s own politics and aesthetics. For instance, see the below from Nicholas Wright’s opening lecture at the Peter Gill Festival, 29th May 2002, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield.

I joined the Court as Casting Director in 1967, in time to work on Peter’s [Gill’s] revival of D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law, along with A Collier’s Friday Night and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd making up the Court’s Lawrence Trilogy. I’d not seem [Gill] for a while and never worked with him, and found him very different. Ambitious as he was, he had held off from directing until he felt he was ready to roll. Now, with only a handful of shows behind him, he was obsessed. Reports came in from the rehearsal-room of his maniacal attention to detail, of his springing onto the set to adjust the angle of an actor’s hand, the disposition of a prop, the weight of inflection. What strikes me as odd, after all those years, is that everyone connected with the productions knew exactly what he was doing: he was transforming the dead tradition of kitchen-sink naturalism into a poetic form, one which gave a classic nobility to working class life. [my emphasis]

The gorgeous picture of Anne-Marie Duff on the front of the programme suggests we shouldn’t be that interested in Lawrence’s working class men and their representation here. We should concentrate on the women in the home – the other pit. But just because we’re being corralled into focussing on the women in this particular production shouldn’t imply that we can forget about how problematized the representations of working class male experience are in both Lawrence’s work and Gill’s earlier interpretation. And how easy it is for contemporary theatre to succumb to producing representations in this vein. They are brutish, horrible creatures and, as one of the female characters says: ‘when a woman builds ‘er life on men, either ‘usbands or sons, she builds on summat as sooner or later brings the ‘ouse down crash on ‘er head.’ I think it’s worth taking this line as a metaphor of the whole idea of building our theatre—since Gill—on Lawrence’s representation of working class men’s experience. It’s a bad idea; the house will fall.

Having said this, and having felt it prior to watching the play, I adored lots of things about this – particularly the incredible performances and the insightful use of projection. It was an ambitious, wonderful thing; but let’s be careful of these men. These men.

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