In Time o' Strife: Joe Corrie and the British Workers' Theatre Movement



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In 1926, thousands of British workers went on strike to show solidarity with miners threatened with lower wages and longer hours. The General Strike, which lasted for nine days and was one of the largest work stoppages in British history, was a massive failure. Joe Corrie, a miner from the Scottish region of Fife, channeled his disappointment at the outcome of the strike into his first full-length play, In Time O’ Strife. The play dramatized the hardship of the strike through the lens of a working-class Scottish family. His work was one of the first naturalist plays to dramatize workers’ lives, and it was a remarkable success. The Workers’ Theatre Movement, a loose confederacy of amateur, communist theatre troupes, was officially formed in 1928. But while the success of Corrie’s play lay in depicting an existence that the working class audiences recognized in their own world, the Workers’ Theatre Movement rejected such naturalistic theatre, and instead went about cultivating a theatrical style that could convey how the world should look. This style was agitation-propaganda, or agit-prop, a dynamic and useful tool for a set of theatre troupes whose goal—communist revolution—was lofty, but whose resources—as members of the working class—were few. This project explores the ways in which the Workers’ Theatre Movement developed its drama and tried to shape its consortium of individual theatre troupes into a unified artistic movement. The Workers’ Theatre Movement viewed drama first and foremost as a weapon in the ongoing class struggle. As their mission was to spread communist politics and inspire action in working-class audiences, the various theatre troupes needed to create drama that was effective as propaganda, but also practical in terms of production. This project examines the practices and innovations of the Workers’ Theatre Movement, in part also to explain its relatively short life span. While partially a victim of changing political climates, the Workers’ Theatre Movement also hastened its own disintegration by enforcing dogmas of workers’ theatre that stifled creativity and in some cases prevented the development of quality work, and failing to recognize internal contradictions and flaws until they had destroyed the effectiveness of the movement. With this work, I hope to use the Workers’ Theatre Movement as an example of didactic theatre, and to explore the goals and practices of political theatre then and now. While the Workers’ Theatre Movement reacted to specific historical and political contexts, it anticipated a growing interplay between theatre and activism.



Workers' Theatre Movement, Joe Corrie, political theatre, Communism