Pitmen Painters

Alan Morrison on

The Pitmen Painters

by Lee Hall

Inspired from a book
by William Feaver

Lyttleton Theatre
National Theatre

Stage Left: 
The Painters’ Theory of Value
/ The Intrinsic Art of Labour

photos © 2009 National Theatre brochure for The Pitmen Painters

This is certainly a play worthy of the critical accolades surrounding it so far and comes like a breath of very pertinent fresh air in this summer of discontent, where the gratuitous streets of the capital are still reverberating to the beat of further marches against the legion injustices throughout the world. In the year of two vexed anniversaries – the 25th for the 1984 Miners’ Strike and the thirtieth for the catastrophic ascendance of Margaret Thatcher back in 1979 – the atmosphere is riper than ever for a no-holds-barred tub-thumping socialist play. And, without spelling this out implicitly – because in many ways the spirit of the piece is as much a meditation on our relationship with art, as a political piece – The Pitmen Painters is, essentially, a work of socialist theatre, but, sensitively scripted with deftly nuanced characters, it is carried by its intrinsic integrity of subject and tone, making its socialism so implicit in its narrative as to need no spelling out or overt-labouring. It is, to my mind, a fair few notches up in terms of narrative, character development and script from Hall’s much-celebrated Billy Elliot, a play whose real point has been arguably dumbed down by the smothering gloss of overly commercial adaptation. There’s an historical and scriptural authenticity to his latest play’s socialism that lacked from Billy Elliot (the latter, in a way, half-beaten by its own breadth of ambition, in a similar way to Peter Flannery’s epic Our Friends In The North, which in spite of a convincing start, lapsed into a sort of politically-tempered melodrama in its later stages). The Pitmen Painters doesn’t dumb down, but manages to be accessible through the 'canniness' (excuse the Geordieism, which is ubiquitous throughout the play as much as it was in the Seventies' epic When The Boat Comes In) of its scriptural involvement of the audience through its debating style; this also emphasizes much of the message of the play itself, that true art can be accessible to all, that it is for all, to be shared, both in its appreciation and practise; that, crucially, as Hall comments in his own forward to the play:

Quite clearly the Working Classes of the early part of last century were aspirational about High Art. They not only felt entitled to it, but felt a duty to take part in the best that life has to offer in terms of art and culture... Despite the advances in education and the blossoming of the welfare state, somehow we have failed to “democratize” the riches of culture. That the Group managed to achieve so much unaided and unabetted should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetrated by those who want to sell us shit. Culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.

Anyone can dumb down in order to appeal to the broadest cross-section of society at an immediate, basic level – but this is not about making anything more accessible, it's about being too lazy to do so, instead opting to drag standards down to their most base components. This is what Blair did with the Labour Party, and so secured his three terms – but it would have been quite something far beyond that 'canny' opportunism had he managed to secure those three terms without having abandoned everything his party once stood for, but by having convinced the people of the fairness and justice of a true socialist mandate. Making something accessible is more about aiding people to access it without changing fundamentally what it is. And art, and socialism, are about raising people up, not pushing them down. Hall understands this, as did William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and even Oscar Wilde (The Soul Under Socialism).

The Pitmen Painters’ main strength is in its focus on microcosms, small details, passing moments of insight, which one character observes is what art tries to capture. The play’s dissection of the meaning of art and our relationship with it, its many-levelled metaphorical bent, sets it apart from mere agitprop theatre. But at the same time, and in this sense getting the balance just about right, Lee Hall doesn’t shun from voicing sporadic left-wing adages and even impassioned monologues through various characters throughout the script, showing the courage of his convictions in doing so in spite of potential criticisms of occasional lapses into naiveté – but then critics against any leftist sentiments will always cite any higher ideals outside the very limited Social Darwinism of our post-Thatcherite times as ‘naive’. Based very much in the gritty chiaroscuro of the Northumberland coal-pits, inspired by the true story of the Ashington painters and their implicitly ‘naive’ – in the artistically best sense of the word – take on painting, any accusations of naiveté would have to be put down to the true recording of aspects of historical reality, at least, as it was in the far more culturally optimistic 1930s (in spite of, perhaps partly down to, the moral shakedown of the Wall Street Crash, another parallel to our present economic crisis). That we have lost that naiveté, or rather, that more innocent capacity for flights of wonder above the low-browed horizons of materialism, is something that is continually brought to light by Hall; his sense of opportunities missed in our shared past, opportunities to transform ourselves and society, both through social solidarity and through the language of art and self-expression, daubs the tone of the play with an undercoat of muted defeat, which contrasts strikingly with the more immediate comedy of the play’s class-based farce aspects.

Hall indeed exploits the vast gulfs of class dialects between the gruff Geordie lingo of the miner-painters and the energetic, almost peripatetic middle-class abstractedness of the breathless Robert Lyon (the academic artist who has come from Armstrong College to wax lyrical on Da Vinci and the ‘Rennisince’ as he inflects it), for all it’s worth, creating some infectiously funny moments of miscommunication through pronunciation. Even the ostensibly sitcom-esque retort from one of the miner’s of ‘Bless you’ after the slide-projecting Lyon exclaims ‘a Titian’, tickled me in this particular context where such miscommunications are likely. Constantly Hall milks strong comedy out of these clashes in vernacular, but without it being cloying. But it’s also in the gross disparities between working class and middle class ranges of knowledge that some of the wittiest verbal engagements take place, such as the more belligerent of the painters, in riposte to Lyon mentioning his university acquaintanceship with the sculptor Henry Moore (also, interestingly, of a mining background), beating this detail down as an irrelevant anecdote about the tutor’s student gallivants, having not heard of the famous sculptor’s name before. (One of my few criticisms of Hall’s writings – as I also noticed in a line from Billy Elliot’s miner brother calling his dance tutor a ‘condescending cow’ – is that, debatably, he sometimes dabs the otherwise solidly working-class vocabularies of his characters with randomly refined verbs and adjectives, though that’s not to say of course that this isn’t sometimes the case depending on the individual, and in this case, the word ‘gallivanting’ might or might not be an unlikely contender for a 1930s’ miner’s vocabulary). These class-farce aspects are given an extra hilarious twist, when the shop-steward-like Harry displays a sort of convoluted inverted snobbery towards Lyon when he realises he is not in fact a Professor from the University, but a mere art teacher.

Any reservations I initially had that the comedic tone to much of the dialogue of the early scenes of the play may have been detracting slightly from the underlying social messages of the scenario, however, were soon to abate gradually as the play and narrative began take on other shapes and forms of a more dramatic vein later on. Mainly the ethical dilemma of Oliver Kilbourn, one of the more talented of the artists, after he is offered a way out of the drudgery of his mining life by becoming a waged artist under the patronage of bourgeois but empathic art collector Helen Sutherland: here the play reaches its pressure point with Oliver feeling torn between artistic liberation and his sense of solidarity with his own class. Resonantly, from a socialist point of view, he ultimately declines the offer, poignantly explaining that he can’t be transformed from the person he is just by money, that a miner is who and what he is, and most crucially of all, that he needs to maintain his direct, physical connection with the mining toil and the working-class lifestyle which, after all, provides him with his painting subjects. Indeed, the very earthy, sinewy, almost anthropomorphic authenticity that makes the miners’ paintings so striking, absorbing and transformative to the viewer, is due to the very fact that these painters are a part of their artistic subject and not simply detached observers. Hence the paradox which also provides Hall with the beautifully unavoidable point to the whole narrative: that the true value of art, as in the value of a product of labour (cue Karl Marx’s ‘intrinsic value of labour’ adage), is in itself, irrespective of any financial price put on it.

This differentiation between ‘price’ and ‘value’ is also pointed out, ironically, by the wealthy art collector Helen, to whom money is meaningless in comparison to the value of works of art, partly of course because she has never been in any wont of it. And yet it is precisely she who offers Oliver this apparent financial lifeline into the very ‘economy’ of art she also sneers at for devaluing art’s point by tagging prices on it. In his own instinctive way though, thankfully, Oliver becomes aware of the danger of his and the others’ paintings becoming cheapened if absorbed into the art marketing world. Thereby Oliver escapes a similar fate to the arguable ‘selling-out’ of the supremely gifted John Everett Millais from the socially idealistic Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who went on only to churn out more generic paintings via prestigious commissions.

But, indeed, the brilliant resolution to this play is that even those who have toiled and laboured all their lives in wont of money, in this case the Ashington painters, finally realise its intrinsic worthlessness – not to mention tackiness – when awoken to the priceless value of artistic expression. Again, some critics might sniff that naiveté trickles back in to the picture at this point. But no, this isn’t naiveté at all, but the small leap of insight over the parapets of material subsistence and physical nourishment, that apart from providing one with the basic necessities for life – food, clothes and shelter – there is very little else of any real value that money can provide; the only other things worth hankering after in life are these very types of insights and illuminations, that art, compassion, solidarity and sharing, all represent; collective liberation from the pettiness of individual ego.

Sharing is a key motif throughout the play: the dramatic tension of The Pitmen Painters revolves around the concept of ‘sharing’, which is punctuated continually by the writer cleverly highlighting those socially imposed barriers which stand in the way of peoples’ ability to share, and to reap from such sharing the brilliant fruits of a collective sense of artistic achievement. Here the play is permeated by the spirit not only of Marx – whom the spectacled dialecticist of the group, George, frequently quotes – but of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which sought to bring high culture to the masses through household decorative design and practical workshops. Hall's play is also strongly reminiscent of aspects to Robert Tressell’s masterpiece, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which an auto-didactic socialist painter and decorator is pitted against the self-defeating conservativeism of his colleagues as he attempts to convert them to a cause he believes will provide their emancipation from the binds of capitalist labour. Hall’s take on the working-class however differs crucially to Tressell’s – albeit the latter writing earlier, in the 1900s: while Tressell's Owen ends up lapsing into an ironic misanthropic disillusion with the capacity of the working-class to obtain class consciousness, Hall does just the opposite, and portrays the miner-painters as gradually more and more aware of capitalism’s big con at their expense. This illumination – helped along of course by the fact that one of their most vocal members, George, is a very ‘canny’ Marxist – eventually infiltrates all of the Ashington set, and eventually gives Oliver the moral courage to reject Helen Sutherland’s offer of an ostentatious salvation. It’s almost as if Oliver, by being awoken to the gross social and material disparities between his class and Helen’s, and the poverty of his own place in society, comes in turn to see its very distinct richness: its utter truth, free of pretention and tainting intellectualisation.

It’s this intrinsic spiritually unpolluted quality to the pitmens’ paintings that Lyon is so envious of, as he betrays near the end in his almost self-immolating tirade in reaction to Oliver’s testosterone-charged tantrum against the flat formalism of his mentor’s sketch (a breathtaking piece of on-the-spot draughtsmanship by the artist-actor Ian Kelly while acting his socks off in the process). And it’s some details to this tirade which perhaps also betray a tiny bit of resentment against the class Oliver and the others represent, yet one which Lyon has devotedly martyred himself to in his championing of the work of the Ashington painters: he frustratedly ejects that in order for things to truly change in society it’s up to the working-classes to get off their ‘fat backsides’ and ‘high horses’ and actually have the bravery to stand up and face their oppressors (again, turning the dynamics of class on its head with a barbed comment on inverted snobbery). This is a brave piece of monologue and slightly unexpected from the hitherto self-restrained, mannered Lyon, and thus all the more resonant in its passionate contradictions of emotions. Here Hall makes an important dramatic point that the miners’ learning about themselves and their innate artistic abilities is paralleled by the unlearning of their very mentor, as he finally despairs at a self-perceived ‘failure’ on his part to develop into a true artist; as if his education in technique and draughtsmanship has stifled any natural gift he might have once possessed. This is seemingly another kind of poverty, one arrived at through education and privilege. Lyon is of course unfair on himself, but the point still lingers, metaphorically speaking. Metaphors are also a common motif throughout, used to both excellent comic – when the deceptively crass Jimmy dumbs down the perceived symbolism in the tiny head of a toiling miner in his linocut as expediency due to his having put in the ceiling of the pit too low beforehand, though this joke is milked probably a little too much in less amusing variations later on – and dramatic effect: as the word metaphor comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning ‘to transfer’ something into something else, so too are the painters themselves a breathing metaphor for the transformative power of art.

But in the end, The Pitmen Painters bravely – and to many, rightly – asserts that art transcends class barriers, or at least it has the capacity to, if liberated from the exclusive fetters of academic interpretive and linguistic barriers, from the abstractedness of an encoded appreciation of it articulated in an academic patina of language only accessible through a certain education. Hall’s assertion is that art is the untapped lingua franca of civilization, accessible to all in itself, but mystified by elites who don’t wish to share its value with the rest of society.

Sharing, however, for Hall, and for many of us sympathetically watching his play, is really the crux of the whole issue, of art, of society, of our collective transformation into the more sensitive, creative species we have always had the potential to become. With capitalism now on trial in the hearts and minds of the masses of today, with new shoots of radicalism emerging in outrage at its growingly transparent moral anarchism, there also seems appropriately a new wave of theatre plays amassing that are pitching their standards up front stage-left – as if by way of a backlash against the junk culture that has most risibly pervaded British television over the past decade, that phillistinic diet of reality shows and chocolate-box costume soap. While David Hare has attacked the fallacies of new Labour in his contemporary Gethsemane, Hall comes up on the flank with an historically inspiring play that shows there is still much we can learn from the past of missed opportunities, how it still isn’t too late to reverse the most damaging excesses of capitalism, and also manages a barbed critique of modern day politics; and a final swipe at Blair’s betrayal of the Labour movement with a projected caption reminding us that in 1995 he unceremoniously disposed of his party’s crucial Clause 4, the commitment to ultimately realising a society in which the means of production would be held in common ownership. This, coupled with the moving rendition of Robert Saint’s The Gresford Hymn, under the curlicued banner of the Ashington Branch of the true full-blooded Labour movement of old, at the end of the play, stamps that long-maligned but fundamental rose-red colour of the political spectrum into our consciousnesses once again. The Pitmen Painters concludes movingly at the dawn of the Clement Attlee Labour Government of 1945, when the new emergent Welfare State, NHS and path to nationalisation brought a surge of optimism to the impoverished classes. How far we came back then, and how far away from the values that truly matter we’ve drifted since. But as Hall and many of us still like to think: history has a way of catching us up.

Production Comment

The cast of this play are outstanding in their energy and nuance of portrayals, and earned a well-deserved ovation at the end, returning on stage three times to the deluge of applause from a riveted and inspirited audience (those who have seen the play will no doubt twitter to themselves at the word ‘deluge’ within this context). A nicely unpretentious production – as is Hall’s consummate script driven effortlessly along by the characters’ punchy banter – with an appropriately stripped-down approach, easels dappled in the background against black-bricked walls, and a central projector used to imposing effect as a way for the audience to view each startling painting as one by one the painters’ put up their canvases for their colleagues to comment on. The paintings themselves are truly remarkable, especially given the context of their creation, a certain Lowry-esque naiveté (sorry, that word again) abundant, particularly in the street scenes and pictures of whippet races, but the variety of styles and forms is very much something of its own distinction and, dare I say it, one or two paintings to my mind are arguably a few steps up from Lowry himself. That these painters, as individuals, are not better known, is mystifying – but then that they are remembered as a collective is more in the spirit of their artistic ethic and that of the play’s: art as a shared experience. The cast, as mentioned, are all exceptional, but for me perhaps the standout performance is Ian Kelly as the nuanced, nervously didactic, almost self-apologetic Robert Lyon, whose energetic verbal delivery and awkwardly punctuating smile throughout are a delight. Overall, a refreshingly unpretentious and heart-lifting play.

Alan Morrison © 2008
photos © National Theatre brochure for The Pitmen Painters