Module Four. Workshop One.
The Subterranean Theatre 1918-1955.
The Writer as a Jaunty Radical Seaman. 1918-1920
This module will act as both a recap on aspects of the earlier modules, revisiting some of our previous discussions as a reminder of the context of the times George lived through, and will also allow us to take a longer, deeper look at various aspects of George’s writings – his plays, short stories and reportage, and discuss the themes he explores throughout his work.
Artists were hugely engaged in the civil war, as were leading working class activists. Industrial areas and ports played a major role in sending volunteers to join the International Brigades – The South Wales Coalfields, Glasgow and Liverpool in particular.
Less than ten per cent of the volunteers are married men. George, now 42 and with a family of five boys, stays at home and fights the battle for Spain from Liverpool. He helps found The Left Theatre, which later joins a national theatre movement and becomes Merseyside Unity Theatre. There has been an opening for George’s writing; between 1934 and 1937 thirteen of his short stories are published in new Writing and The Adelphi Magazine.
But now he moves away from the short story into drama. Did he perceive his audience to be different? Alan O’Toole speculates that George, like many working-class writers, became disillusioned with this work when he realised that the majority of his audience were middle class. Writing his plays in the 1920’s he found little outlet for them in New York or in Liverpool. Now there is a theatre of action, a theatre of the oppressed, and for George The Unity symbolises everything he is about. Already a veteran writer and activist he can bring all his experience to bear as a writer, actor, organiser and mentor, and when the International brigades return home after the defeat of the battle for the river Ebro, George is being arrested in Chester for the offence of playing Agate in Clifford Odett’s Waiting for Lefty, a play about striking taxi drivers that exhorts the audience to join in at the end chanting ‘Strike, strike, strike!’
The struggle in Spain is the motor for an outpouring of culture with justice at its core. This chimes well with George’s work, where justice, both collective and individual, plays a major role. In one of his earliest pieces of writing, an article called ‘Sons of the Sea’ in the journal of the Red International of labour Unions, he focuses heavily on the working conditions of the seaman, and the Stoker in particular. Here, for the first time, he uses the phrase ‘The Subterranean Theatre’ to describe the scenes below decks in the stokehold. This article, and this phrase, resurface again in fictional form in one of his later works, only published after his death, ‘The Maurie’.
After 1938, with the defeat of the Spanish working class and the rise of Fascism, when the prophesy ‘Bombs on Madrid today, Bombs on Liverpool tomorrow’ is becoming a reality, it is now the state that takes charge of the anti-fascist war. Many of the left-wing organisations initially got it wrong, simplistically calling it an Imperialist war. When Hitler invaded it became a ‘People’s War’, and although many workers, the dockers, the seamen, etc., never signed up to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, already too long in the tooth to expect any improvement for them after the war, they instinctively understood the need to fight fascism (as they had already on the streets against Moseley’s Blackshirts), and stepped up to ‘do their bit’.
In the workshop we read from two of George’s short stories, ‘The Maurie’ and ‘The Redcap’. We were concerned primarily with exploring issues of justice, and how this theme is represented in his work. In ‘The Maurie’, where all the action takes place below deck in the ‘subterranean theatre’ of the stokehold, and in the ‘cracks’ where the men’s bunks are laid out, a thief is discovered. Thieving is anathema to the seamen – whatever their differences, a thief takes their peace of mind, and brings suspicion and conflict. A trap is laid, the thief caught, and a collective punishment is delivered – the thief is tripped and strapped with belts as he is forced down a tunnel of the men either side of him. There are rules – no buckles, leave the face alone, strap his back and legs, but it is harsh and unrelenting; when one man steps aside another jumps into his place, eager to deliver a blow. Punishment over, the man is then dressed and taken back to his bunk to recover, and no word of his crime is mentioned even to the men who he shares his rooms with. In this, although punished, he is protected from the men he works with, and also from the ships authority, as no mention is made to the officers either. This punishment confirms the collective.
Joseph Pridmore, writing in his thesis, ‘The Man Who Could Not Be Bought’, argues that ‘Garrett does not attempt to resolve the matters he found irresolvable in life’. This is a good point, and is played out further in the end of ‘The Maurie’ in which the narrator relates a humorous story about some of the seamen who once stole a lamb and, as they had no use for it had to dress it up as a sleeping seamen. Overdoing it brings unwanted attention – pilfering from the ship’s stores was considered acceptable, but the carcass was a ‘stupid pinch’ and led to more hassle than they needed in getting rid of it.
Garrett moves easily from the violence to humour, mirroring the way in which workers themselves, in cramped conditions and in back-breaking jobs, have little choice but to find a way to survive and live amongst each other.
The Redcap tells of a different type of justice. McMahon, the old soldier, now seaman, who fought in The Boer war, and is irked by The redcap (Military Policeman) on the quayside of the French port they are docked at. An eight o’clock curfew means the men have just an hour after working, washing and eating, to get ashore for a ‘wet’ at a bar and back to the ship. One unfortunate caught coming back late is fined more than a month’s wages. Mcmahon persuades young ‘Gummy’ to accompany him, but doesn’t tell him he is also looking for his son who is also billeted nearby in the army. McMahon also needs some new boots, which he barters from a soldier, and Gummy smears with mud to hide their gleam from the Redcap. Eight minutes late and the Redcap has also spotted the new boots. As he leans down to make Mcmahon remove them, the Redcap falls loses balance and falls in the dock. Gummy immediately jumps in to save him. McMahon steps back into his boots and watches the scene. Gummy is struggling and seems to want McMahon to help. The captain calls for McMahon to jump in. And jump in he does. But to Mcmahon the upturned face and the tooth-brush moustache ‘epitomized all the insults, cells, stoppages of pay, and untimely deaths that many soldiers suffered’, and so he aims his boots to land on the head of the redcap, killing him in the process.
But instead of being up on a charge, McMahon is congratulated by the Captain, who regards it as ‘Hard luck losing the poor soldier chap’. Now the younger men, who had previously regarded him as an old fogey, looked on him in admiration. The second officer sees a smile flit across McMahon’s face, and puts it down to a ‘swelled head’ with the praise. Unusually for George, it appears, in the phrase at the end ‘Maybe it was’, that his own voice appears in the narrative. A wry comment that lest the reader in on the joke, the knowing that McMahon, in his struggle for justice, hasn’t changed the world, but has won one more of life’s small battles to survive amidst petty authority and its ways.
George gives the workers some agency, a chance to win small victories against the authority of the ship, or to assert themselves within their own collective, but he never strays into utopian dreams of an alternative world outside their means to achieve it. As Pridmore points out, George never claims to know all the answers, he writes of life as it is, but with a sharp understanding and keen empathy for the lives and struggles of the seamen and the workers he lives amongst.
Blog created and written by Mike Morris & Tony Wailey, based upon a series of introductions by Tony Wailey to the George Garrett Archive course.
The George Garrett Archive project workshops are free and open to all. We meet every Monday, 6-8pm in Liverpool John Moores University’s Aldham Robarts Library, Maryland Street, L1 9DE (off Hope Street). The next meeting will be on Monday 13th January 2014. All welcome.