Socialist Worker

Playwright David Edgar—can the left turn the tide against the right?

David Edgar asks if a rightward shift was inevitable for the generation that rose up against the Vietnam War

Issue No. 2623

Playwright David Edgar watches the cast rehearse for Maydays

Playwright David Edgar watches the cast rehearse for Maydays (Pic: Richard Lakos)

Playright David Edgar has enjoyed a career spanning five decades and has had more than sixty of his plays published and performed on stage—many with political themes. 

His latest, Trying It On, is his first performance role

In the early 80s, I wrote an epic play called Maydays, about a young man who was inspired by the world youth uprising against the Vietnam War.

He joined a revolutionary party, became disillusioned, and ended up on the Thatcherite right.

In moving from youthful idealism to reactionary middle age, he followed generations of former socialists and communists who’d undertaken the same journey.

I was 20 in 1968, the height of the youth revolt—and I used to joke that I’d written a play asking why people flip rightwards to stop it happening to me.

In the 1960s, we were told never to trust anyone over 30 years old.

Was turning right an inevitable consequence of the onset of middle age, and its accompanying responsibilities, from marriages to mortgages?

Or was there something about the experience of being on the revolutionary left which drove people rightwards?

In a classic 1950 work of defection literature, The God That Failed, former Communist Stephen Spender complained of being required to spurn the very pity, compassion and idealism which brought him to the revolutionary left.

What he didn’t say was that those who defect on those grounds tend to hang on to the very cynicism and ruthlessness they left the left to get away from.

How could the Sergeant Pepper generation have turned its back on the social and cultural gains of its youth, in favour of a rose-tinted version of its 1950s childhood?

Some 35 years on, on the 50th anniversary of 1968, it seemed a good time to revisit Maydays and its theme.

Two further questions had emerged in the interim. One was personal—what had happened to my politics in the intervening years?

The other was political—why had my generation, in such large numbers, moved to the populist right, in Britain and across the West?

And how could the Sergeant Pepper generation have turned its back on the social and cultural gains of its youth, in favour of a rose-tinted version of its 1950s childhood?

1968—when the world caught fire
1968—when the world caught fire
  Read More

Luckily, I had the chance to explore all three questions.

I convinced the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which had premiered Maydays in 1983, that 2018 would be a great time to revive the play.

The new version draws the parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarian populism and the right today.

Warwick Arts Centre also commissioned me to write and perform a touring solo show. In this my 70 year old self debates with my 20 year old self about whether I still retained the politics of my youth. They also argue about what has happened to my generation in the interim.

In the intervening decades a significant cohort of that generation had shifted significantly. Many moved from the revolutionary left to cheerleading the invasion of Iraq.

Commentators Christopher and Peter Hitchens were both International Socialists in the 1970s. However, they returned to the militarism and social-conservatism of their childhoods, though Peter Hitchens opposed the Iraq War.

During the same period, the left has made significant gains in its social agenda. Women gained the right to take out mortgages and to sit on juries, as well as moves toward equal pay, easier divorce and easier access to abortions.

Race relations, equality and hate crime legislation protected ethnic minorities from some of the overt racism of the 1950s and 1960s.

But while the left was winning important battles in the culture wars, the Labour Party was abandoning its traditional constituency.

The right has taken advantage of neoliberalism’s collapse

The rich grew richer and the majority suffered declining real wages, masked by fiscal mechanisms like tax credits and the mushrooming of personal debt.

Confident that the working class had nowhere else to go, Labour failed to predict the rise of the populist right.

A decade on from a financial crash which should have persuaded its victims to move left, the right has taken advantage of neoliberalism’s collapse. Populist parties have ditched free market economics in favour of interventionism.

Maydays tries to show how people abandon the left for tradition, authority and hierarchy. Conversely, my solo show Trying it On attempts to remind people why the left is so important.

One of the best movements I’ve ever been involved in was the Anti Nazi League, which saw off the neofascist National Front in the late 1970s.

We should be encouraged that Labour’s left wing manifesto added three and half million votes to the party’s tally at the last general election. But we must also be aware of the pressing dangers of racism and reaction across Europe and beyond.

As when it challenged imperialism and social conservatism in the 1960s, the left has a vital job to do.

Maydays opens at the RSC’s Other Place theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon between 27 September and 20 October.

Trying It On will be performed by David Edgar at the Midlands Art Centre on 12 October, alongside Maydays at the Other Place 18-20 October and at the Royal Court Theatre, London 24-27 October

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