This year has seen three stage productions based on important events in the East End of London and peopled with pioneers of the labour movement, suffragettes, Jews, and fascists. CLARE DOYLE reviews them.
Vodka with Stalin
The first was the heart-rending, if initially amusing, tale of a young Jewish woman drawn to the class struggle in the early days of the twentieth century. Rose Cohen grew up in East London’s Whitechapel in a family of Jewish refugees from Tsarist pogroms in Poland. She was active in Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes and was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The play shows her courted by Communist Party leader, Harry Pollitt, and, with him, meeting various Labour pioneers, including Keir Hardie.
Spurning Pollitt, Rose falls for Lenin’s agent in London – a young Bolshevik called Max Petrovsky. She moved to Russia and worked diligently for the Communists’ Third International, travelling widely carrying messages and financial aid. The failure of revolution to succeed in other countries and Stalin’s usurpation of power after Lenin’s death in 1924 were followed by a clampdown on all elements of workers’ democracy in the USSR. Rose and Max, accused of being supporters of Trotsky, become victims of Stalin’s ghastly purges. Their son, Alexei, is orphaned. Later he is cared for by his father’s cousin, herself exiled to Siberia for many years.
Harry Pollitt, knowing nothing of this, and supporting Stalin’s treacherous pact with Hitler, is a loyal admirer of the dictator and, it seems, even a drinking pal when he visits Moscow. Pollitt finally learns the truth about Rose and is personally mortified. But this does nothing to change his adherence to the party line and, apparently, his propensity to drink vodka with Stalin.
Francis Beckett, the author of this play, which is still doing the rounds at fringe theatres, is described as a “journalist-author and historian”. His last play was about post-war Labour prime minister, Clement Atlee, entitled A Modest Little Man. The comic scenes he includes in this latest of his plays, and cracks about Trotskyists, seemed to please the audience ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’ in Hampstead but could have appeared to trivialise the very serious message of the play. But, as the author acknowledged in the pub after the performance, it all went down very well with what were probably largely Starmer-supporting Labour Party members.
Another show set in the East End of London in the early years of the last century has been playing at London’s Old Vic. Ecstatic audiences have been roaring approval for the sentiments expressed in the hip-hop musical Sylvia.
An almost all-black cast of singing and dancing suffragettes and political figures from left and right never seemed to run out of energy and genuine enthusiasm for the story they were telling. Imagine a young (Liberal) Winston Churchill, Labour leader George Lansbury, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s mother, Emmeline, all played by black actors.
The pace of the show slowed on only one or two occasions – as Sylvia held her dying brother in her arms or when she was hovering on the edge of consciousness after bouts of brutal force-feeding inflicted on her during several periods of imprisonment.
There are scenes in Sylvia of noisy opposition to the imperialist war of 1914. The words of a song blare out: “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die!”. In the same year, an Italian syndicalist/socialist and Sylvia’s husband-to-be, Silvio Corio, appears on the scene and is celebrated with a song ‘Sylvia, Sylvio’. A little later a pram is pushed around the stage to represent the birth of their son, Richard.
The victory of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia is celebrated with a great outburst of singing and dancing and the ‘leaders’ of the British general strike are noisily condemned for calling it off when workers had the possibility of taking power.
This ‘opera’ is not only an impressive spectacle. It tells the truth about Sylvia’s aristocratic mother and her lack of commitment to getting votes for all women. It shows her adopting tactics of individual terror and bombings and settling for a compromise.
On the other hand, it brings out powerfully Sylvia’s tireless efforts to get jobs and welfare for women in the East End of London, as well as fighting for all working women to have the vote. It shows her convinced of the need for a party that would fight against both Tories and Liberals with alternative socialist policies, and working on the ‘Dreadnought’ newspaper expressing these views.
Sylvia came into conflict with Lenin on what kind of party to build. Although a tenacious fighter against racism and imperialism, she later earned the disapproval of many former admirers when she uncritically supported a feudal leader, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, in his struggle against Italian domination.
Victory for total women’s suffrage was finally achieved in 1928.
Shylock in Cable Street
By the 1930s, the anti-Semitism that Rose Cohen’s parents had left behind in Tsarist Poland was rearing its ugly head in Britain. Hitler was gaining mass support in Germany and had admirers among a layer of Britain’s best-known aristocrats. London’s East End was still a stronghold of the labour and trade union movement.
Theatrical producer, Brigid Larmour, and actor, Tracy-Ann Oberman, have taken one of Shakespeare’s best known stories, The Merchant of Venice, and set it in Whitechapel in 1936. Shylock is a Jewish matriarch, partially based on Tracy’s own great grandmother Annie, another of the East End’s refugees from Tsarist persecution. She has traced female Jewish money-lenders in England to at least as far back as the eleventh century.
The play – which is touring now and will be performed at Stratford-on-Avon – opens with the fascist Blackshirts gathering. One of their aristocratic supporters, Antonio, is forced to seek a loan to cover his business risks. His friends are members of the Bullingdon Club, notorious for their money-making schemes at the expense of ordinary working people.
The upper-class Portia and her entourage are clearly modelled on the horribly rich and infamous fascist-supporting Mitford family. Only one daughter, Christel, was at all ‘socialist’. The rest were totally fascist, Diana being married to Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.
The gang of aristocrats are happy to taunt the Jewish money-lender and her daughter and to join in with the Blackshirts’ preparations for the 4October 1936 assault on the Jewish community. But the dramatic scenes on the stage of the Watford Palace Theatre of their historic defeat in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ evoked as much hearty applause as the victories of the workers and suffragettes in Sylvia at the Old Vic.
Socialists take a keen interest in the history of the working class and how it has organised against outright reaction. The rise of Stalin or of Hitler and the deaths of women and men fighting for their rights are, in themselves, no laughing matter. But new dramatisations of historical events, with their elements of humour and of pathos, can encourage new generations to look into the past to learn lessons.
As anyone brought up in the East End of London will proudly tell you, organised dockers, garment workers, suffragettes, and more from their area have played key roles in the history of the working class. Art reflecting their lives of struggle can be enjoyable as well as educational.