The theatre, the working class and the need for revolution
Monday, 08 August 2022 01:27

The theatre, the working class and the need for revolution

Published in Theatre

Ed Edwards is interviewed by Mike Quille about his career, his play The Political History of Smack and Crack, about the theatre generally these days, and about the need 'for a deep, uncompromising revolutionary movement based on the interests of the poorest and most marginalised people'.

MQ: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to be a writer?

EE: I went to see a play at random at the Arts Lab in Birmingham when I was getting into bands as a youth, and was blown away by this piece in the studio which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. These three actors in a bath being funny and telling a story and not at all like the sort of theatre you’d see in a normal theatre – not that I ever went to a normal theatre. But because the Arts Lab was opening its door to local bands I must have seen a poster or such. When I saw it, I thought: “I could do that”. I went straight to a second-hand shop, bought an old typewriter and a book on how to type. and started writing sketches.

Then I saw David Bowie talking on The Tube and he said there was a massive leap from making a 3 minute pop video to a film, and I thought I’d better try writing a play, so I did. About the same time – I must have been 24 by then – I went to “night school” as they called it back then, scraped an A level in sociology and got into Manchester Uni as a mature student where I fell in love with drama. The department there encouraged students to do their own thing and we all did.

I didn’t realise at the time I was surrounded by public school kids who would go on to run the theatre and TV industries. It was only years later I began to realise the effect that sort of education has on you long-term. As they were all forging careers, I was falling apart, getting into drugs big time and ended up in jail, where I was able to start writing again, courtesy of their education department.

Ironically, after jail, my first few jobs as a writer came from the contacts I’d made among the well-educated people I met at Manchester Uni.

MQ: Your play 'The Political History of Smack and Crack' was very successful in Edinburgh. Can you tell us something about that play, and the story it tells of state sponsorship of the drugs trade?

EE: The play locates the origins of the UK domestic heroin epidemic to the period immediately following the inner-city uprisings that erupted shortly after the 1979 Thatcher election victory. It tells the story of two addicts caught up in the epidemic at the same time as analysing the wider political forces of the day. When you put it all together it’s easy to see how the uprisings and the smack epidemic went perfectly together like a toot of heroin and a hit on the crack pipe. I’d always thought of the two things as more than coincidental, but when I looked at the international history of the narcotics trade I soon discovered that the tie between counter-revolutionary politics and drug dealing has always been there.

MQ: The play surely has a tremendous relevance today, given that drug addiction has become a public health crisis in the U.S. Clearly such drug addiction problems have a significant effect on the U.S. and British working class, in terms of defusing and demoralising potential protests, dividing us, and diverting attention away from the massive problems of flatlining wages and growing poverty in both countries. Your play and its accompanying essay clearly show the role of state agencies in causing widespread drugs problems in the West. To what extent are governments also responsible for allowing those problems to continue and grow?

EE: In this country the worst of the heroin epidemic has now passed and the prevalent trend over here is polydrug use – including heroin and crack, but other drugs as well. Crack seems to be more popular than smack these days. One of the factors in the recent reduction over here has undoubtedly been the involvement of recovering addicts in the drugs services themselves, bringing real change and intelligence to the profession, although many of the services have now been privatised or cut.

But in the US clearly there is a massive and growing problem with heroin right now. You have to look to the US involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and their protection of what has become the most corrupt narco-state in modern history.

The great chronicler of the politics of the international heroin trade, William McCoy, recently made a useful comparison between Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar and present-day Afghanistan. During the worse narco-violence in 1980s and early 90s Columbia cocaine production was approx. 3% of the country’s GDP. In Afghanistan now, according to McCoy, the figure is 53% of GDP. McCoy describes the country as the world’s first fully fledged narco-state.

Although apparently there are significant flows of this heroin to Russia, it is inevitable that huge amounts of smack will head from the servant to the master state, USA. Put this together with the recent political upheavals of the last few years – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Southern uprisings in places like Ferguson in the USA – and all the historic elements converge for a domestic narcotic supernova.

You can see my article on the international drug trade, and the way it has been fostered by state agencies, here.

MQ: The play itself is a refreshingly direct piece of political drama, which seems increasingly uncommon. Why are we offered so little of it on most broadcasting platforms, including the BBC?

EE: It’s easy to feel that there is a conspiracy against serious political discussion in the broadcasting media. And I have to say that a BBC radio producer who would definitely not want to be named told me that the commissioner of drama on Radio 3 and 4 until recently, Jeremy Howe, “doesn’t do politics” – and that this was so strikingly obvious that this producer thought someone might have “had a word with him” to discourage it.

Also the vast majority of politically oriented radio drama (or documentary) that does get made typically tends to decry human rights abuses in countries that just so happen to be enemies of the British state – Iran, Russia, North Korea, etc. – or depict Islamic fundamentalist excesses, without mentioning the origin of this in British and US state sponsorship of covert operations by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey – and indeed Britain and USA directly.

It’s possible, even likely some of the money for these dramas comes from indirect government sources. But it’s just as likely to be spawned by the prejudices of the well paid, well placed, aspiring middle-class army of hacks desperate for their next commission, as they churn out another cliché of “universal truth” as they like to style their ignorant and empty faux-democratic outpourings.

The dull and petty world of industrial/office politics and commissioning is in my view probably the biggest factor in the poor output of modern political drama. Cuts to arts funding in a competitive environment, boxes to tick and the fat carrot of a development budget for a commercial project can do the work of ten Stalins. It works in Health and Education just the same.

MQ: For working-class people, the theatre sometimes comes across as one of the more exclusive and expensive arts, both to appreciate as part of the audience, and to make a career in. Can you tell us something about your own knowledge and experience of class bias in the industry, and your thoughts on the issue?

EE: Undoubtedly there are gatekeepers with petty prejudices galore in the theatre world and it is definitely hard for lesser mortals to storm the ramparts. And true too that if a working-class voice is to break onto the scene it mostly has to speak to a middle-class audience in their own language. But the theatre is also full of possibilities and full of some of the most class-conscious people in Britain, many of whom are not upper middle-class, and many of whom operate in the prisons and community centres. They sing a purer song, almost inaudible to the outside world, but one that inspires hope and political debate.

Some practitioners have been able to take advantage of the bureaucratic box-ticking that theatres are obliged to do in order to carve out a space for political debate. The work of Synergy and Cardboard Citizens in London, Twenty Stories High in Liverpool, Grassmarket Projects in Edinburgh are a few examples that spring immediately to mind. Almost underground there is already a theatre there than can turn lives around and inspire hope even in the midst of this terrible darkness. We don’t live in revolutionary times, so this voice is small, but it is there.

MQ: 'Cultural democracy' is an approach to arts and culture which engages everyone in deciding what counts as culture. It's about equality of the freedom to be creative, so that people from all classes in society can create and enjoy art and other cultural activities. It's also about shared, social ownership of cultural institutions, and democratic management of key decisions in their work. To what extent is cultural democracy being practiced in the British theatre industry?

EE: It is actually happening, to a limited extent, but it needs to be a thousand times more.

At the same time we do need to preserve the freedom of artists to create art for its own sake – this is often the genesis of something great. When Lunacharsky was deposing Meyerhold from his leadership of the Russian revolutionary theatre around 1919, it was said: “We can trust comrade Meyerhold to keep what is new and good and to get rid of what is old and bad, but we can’t trust him to keep what is old and good.”

I love these words. It can be easy as socialists to forget that much of the culture of the past is precious and good, even though it was made by posh nobs. The trick is to make it available for all and that everyone gets an education that enables them to understand and love sophisticated art. And to destroy stupid West End musicals!

I’d like to sound a note of caution here too. Scarcity breeds inequality, as any Marxist understands. In the 1970s and early 80s there was a thriving political theatre. Companies like 7/84 could tour working-class areas and develop an aesthetic suitable to the milieu that both entertained and politicised. Other companies proliferated in the same period and atmosphere – so much so that books could be written about the movement with titles such as Stages in the Revolution. Public arts funding cuts were in big part introduced precisely to combat this trend, and sadly to a large extent they have succeeded.

Now to start fighting amongst ourselves in the theatre over ever-scarcer resources, accusing one another of taking the bigger share of the pie can have the effect of helping the arts-cutters sharpen their knives and spot their targets. Divisions leave us vulnerable and we should be wary of falling into the trap set for us. We should unite and demand significant and generous funding for the arts without government interference in how this money is spent.

It is for artists under these conditions to debate the future of art based on their experiences and on research and on whatever principles win the day. It is for socialists – and most artists actually fall at least vaguely into this category – to then argue how to be the most inclusive.

MQ: As someone who has made theatre which empowers working-class voices and narratives, what kinds of obstacles have you faced, either personally or because of the material you've presented? Some people have suggested using 'diversity quotas' when assessing the content of plays, employing actors, directors and technicians etc. to encourage equality and diversity of ethnic background, gender, and culture. Would such quotas work if they were based on class background?

EE: I think for something like this you’d need to do it and make a scientific study of how it goes, or else it’s just guesswork. How likely it is to happen is the question. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t work though. The question is a level playing field for all, fundamentally and the theatre can’t be expected to solve the world’s problems when the world can’t solve its own problems. The fundamental issue is the need for a political movement capable of pushing an agenda like this forward rather than trying to create a substitute for such a movement.

MQ. Ok, so what would your suggestions be in terms of promoting class equality in today's theatre industry, and in broadcasting institutions? What could government do, what could the institutions do, and what could we all do?

Seriously, a deep, uncompromising revolutionary movement based on the interests of the poorest and most marginalised people. I really mean that – I don’t think in the absence of a real movement for change there will be meaningful change in isolated sectors. Sorry if that sounds reductive, but I really believe it with all my heart.

MQ: How do you think a more socially representative audience, including more working-class people, can be encouraged to attend theatres?

EE: Go back to a fully-funded arts movement with a genuine mandate to go out and do this. It’s not rocket science in the end, if there’s a real political movement there will be a real political change, until then we’re stuck with more or less what we’ve got and getting worse and more bent out of shape by the ticking of boxes in a void.