Socialist Worker

A tribute to the dramatist John McGrath

by Mike Gonzalez
Issue No. 1785

Everyone who ever saw it remembers The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, the 1973 play by John McGrath, who died last week. The play traced a continuing history of exploitation and class struggle in Scotland, from the savage expulsion of the peasantry to the arrival of the multinationals in the 1970s.

It was done with wit and music. McGrath and his company took the play to community centres and village halls, and performances ended with a ceilidh-a knees-up, Gaelic style. The name he gave the company, 7:84, announced that 7 percent of the population owned 84 percent of the wealth. His theatre was an attack on a society that could allow such inequality.

For 20 years McGrath helped to shape a kind of drama that would reach the widest audiences, because it found its inspiration in real and recognisable lives. This was theatre that set out to move and motivate its audiences as well as entertain them.

And it was deeply reassuring that socialist culture could be joyful and funny as well as passionate and full of conviction. McGrath began in television and cinema. He wrote and directed the early series of Z Cars. Z Cars was a marvellous, pioneering series-the first glimpse on British TV into the realities of policing in an inner city (Liverpool). By the late1960s McGrath was writing for mainstream cinema, though still producing his own drama (like The Bofors Gun, a powerful study of a group of conscripts guarding a useless weapon).

Yet in 1971, when 7:84 was formed, McGrath had taken a different road. Moved by his principles, and the cultural debates that grew out of the experience of 1968 and after, he turned his great energies towards building a socialist theatre movement.

Its influence on others is hard to measure, but it was far-reaching. This was the generation of Trevor Griffiths, David Edgar, of companies like Red Ladder, Belt and Braces, the General Will, CAST and many others. For all of them, theatre was a weapon in the struggle to imagine and then build a different world.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was probably the high point of McGrath's work. When the tide began to turn in the late 1970s, McGrath did not give up and return to the easier world of television or Hollywood, despite the increasing conservatism of the arts establishment in Britain.

In 1984 the Arts Council withdrew its grant to 7:84 – hardly surprising, as Thatcher's policy on the arts gave pride of place to Saatchi and Saatchi. McGrath continued his work in Scotland. Border Warfare, his 1989 drama of Scottish history, picked up on the ideas of total theatre. Being in the audience was an extraordinary experience. The action took place all around you.

Two moments remain in my memory – the massive pulpit with the face of an eagle from which Thatcherite John Know delivered a fiery sermon, and the final football match, when two teams of Labour politicians moved from wing to wing, scoring own goals and kicking their own side in pursuit of their own careers. So New Labour wasn't so new after all!

Predictably, the Scottish Arts Council withdrew its support too. But when the doors of theatres closed to him, McGrath never did roll over. He turned back to independent film – and to a passionate belief in art's capacity to unmask and expose the realities of a world governed by the inheritors of McChuckemup, the conman and speculator of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

There's no denying that today lavish musicals and nostalgia shows dominate theatre. It's a poor culture that puts Lloyd Webber centre stage and consigns McGrath to the wings.

But then, that was where a socialist maker of agitational theatre would always be – pointing an accusing finger at a popular culture that offered pre-packaged entertainment but does not move its audience to action and resistance.

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Sat 2 Feb 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1785
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