Rough Theatre 1974-1978
Rough Theatre History - John Miles
The Bad Man? Bruce Birchall, West London Theatre Workshop (WLTW) and Rough Theatre by John Miles 6/05/2014
Meeting and reflecting on Bruce Birchall
Elsewhere on this site Tony writes that, when he and I met at WLTW in the summer of 1973, I had been ‘brought in to help devise our new show’. I’m reflecting here on how this came about, on how some of Tony’s appraisals differ from mine, and on some of what happened later. It’s a discomforting story, with personal, ethical and political complications I’ve never resolved.
I went to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge in the autumn of 1969, having attended a north Cheshire grammar school on the south side of the Mersey. I don’t recognise in myself the ‘tough Northener’ of Tony’s account: I think he mistakes bravado for reality, but then, so did others I met in the south, and I may have been playing to a stereotype. The truth is I was an uncertain, and even rather timid, creature. My parents’ middle-class identities may have been shallow, and underfinanced, but the associated cultural capital was all-pervasive in my upbringing. When I met Tony I was sufficiently on the up to carry conviction and authority. But it was meeting him, and the strong pleasure we took in working together, that catalysed my creativity for our few fractious years.
We only met because of Bruce Birchall, who seems to have been a kind of anti-mentor to us both. That Tony shrugged this relationship off, and I didn’t, is partly to do with class, and partly to do with the odd affinity Bruce and I had in the first place. I first met him in the autumn of 1969 at a meeting of the Cambridge English Society. The playwright Edward Bond was the speaker - I remember at one point challenging his ‘Rousseauesque primitivism’. Bruce, whose presence caused a stir, questioned the purportedly revolutionary Bond’s allegiance to the bourgeois proscenium theatre, so that afterwards, I and my new college acquaintance Fred, hung around with him and his posse. Within a few days I was rehearsing with the Cambridge Guerilla Theatre group at Fisher House in Guildhall Street. For the most part what we did was pretty feeble, consisting of provocative encounters with skinheads in the market square and disruptive participation on demos and at the Union occupation that prevented Enoch Powell from speaking in late 1969. Later that year after a street theatre convention in Durham, which I didn’t attend, the group largely fell apart, with the new age and more spiritually inclined elements withdrawing, to leave me, Bruce and, temporarily, a couple of the more robust iconoclasts.
Looking back I’m not sure why Bruce was even in Cambridge. After his production of the Bacchae at Peterhouse in 1968, he had been at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and later out on the West Coast. Then, earlier in 1969, following his Marat/Sade staged in the college squash courts, he had been at 144 Piccadilly. He was thus already an international figure, who (following Grotowski) had written a handbook about guerrilla theatre, which I never saw, but which Paul Hutton, who once met him at his parents’ house in Nottingham, had read. Bruce would go on, as Dave Walton graphically describes, to develop a form of confrontational intervention designed to expose the underlying power relations of oppressive social practices, particularly in school-yards and classrooms, with a stubborn certainty about his entitlement to do this, and a persistent attraction to its radical necessity. But few of the people he worked with shared this orientation and these associations rarely lasted very long - some didn’t like the rather underhand ways he sometimes found to get into such situations in the first place.
Then there was the uncertain relationship with theatre and performance itself, and a lack of the real artistic logic which prevailed in the groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe that he might have emulated. Thus, the Cambridge Guerilla Theatre Group was never to become even the Brighton Combination. Bruce was at a loose end in Cambridge in late 1969 partly because he was at an artistic impasse. He didn’t know what to do next after those revelatory student productions of the Bacchae and Marat/Sade, and nor did he know how to match the emerging moment as first the hippie, and then the student revolutionary, projects fell away. And he needed to get by. When he did find a route out, having mastered the pursuit of grant-aid, the results were occasionally of interest, but ultimately limited and disappointingly second-hand. I never saw those two legendary reworkings of the classics at Peterhouse through which he made his name. We did talk a lot about Fuente Ovejuna, Lope de Vega’s account of village solidarity against the landowners’ oppression, but I never got a sense that he had a real feel for the workings of play. Intriguingly, though, there is an unexpected contribution not long before he died to a web-chat where he extolls The Bacchae as his choice for best play, and applauds a Peter Hall production at the National Theatre!
Looking back, my appeal as a collaborator was surely rather limited. Early on I had injured myself doing warm-up exercises and needed the cartilage taken from my knee just before Christmas 1969. When, a few weeks later, a few of us went down to work with Carolee Schneeman at the Roberts Street Arts Lab in preparation for a Chicago 8 benefit at the Roundhouse, Bruce kept out of the way. This notorious event, held on a Sunday evening, was a disaster: the punch was spiked with acid, and our brand of chaos was nicely transcended by the ensuing melee of bad trips, violence, and trendy exploitation. Then, in February, Bruce left Cambridge after the Garden House riot because he was wanted by the police. At Easter 1970 five of us, including Stubby Kaye from Keele, worked together in London for a week. I stayed with Bruce in a flat in Tottenham Street: one night we saw the Spontaneous Music Ensemble at a pub in Lancaster Road, although Bruce had dropped out by the interval. As performers we graced the annual CND event in Victoria Park with a trivial satire about its organisers, advocating class war rather than nuclear disarmament. For the first time I played a deluded superhero – Johnny Good. Rehearsing in the park we had a run-in with a gang of skinheads near the bandstand before the police arrived and lined us all up. It was a nerve-wracking encounter with a pretty violent bunch during which Bruce wheeled out his standard ‘all facing the same oppression’ routine, without it offering a great deal of traction: he came across as a nerd, and a tad pompous.
During the festival we fell in with Noel Greig and Jenny Harris and agreed to help with their under-cast ‘Lord Goodcock’s Prick Opera’. They planned to disrupt the opening night of Wozzek at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, to publicise the Arts Council’s contentious failure to fund community arts. This was too good an opportunity to miss and our group decided to follow the Combination’s satirical parade with a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, ridiculing the pretensions of opera itself. We pulled in a crowd from the North London Union of Revolutionary School Students to make up the numbers, but lost control of the schedule. On the day, the Combination’s pageant, with their virulent cartoon handout, and Noel’s ten-foot cardboard penis ejaculating money, was terrific. But it overran. We rattled through our punk folk-tale as the last of the evening dress vanished indoors and I was left to crawl down the gutter in my underpants in thick drizzle. There was a curious and revealing footnote: Noel and Bruce had given interviews to Nick de Jongh from ‘The Guardian’. Asked how he made a living Bruce had airily explained that he got by on his savings and by freeloading but that others ‘couldn’t be expected to share my ascetic standards’. When this appeared in the paper, de Jongh had, to Bruce’s outrage, mischievously substituted the word ‘aesthetic’. He got short shrift from the rest of us as he insisted on composing a letter to the editor.
I’m not sure anyone understood Bruce very well then. Tony and Dave Walton both refer to him as controlling and uptight, and Tony found that his politics didn’t come ‘from the heart’. Since his death several people have commented online about his terrible personal hygiene. He also had a tendency seriously to tantrum. I use this term advisedly because I think it captures something more accurately than to think of him ‘losing his temper’. It was linked to a deep fear of losing control: he never used drugs, and I can scarcely remember him to drink alcohol. I never knew him to have a partner (although others recall that he sometimes did), and indeed he could be rapidly discomforted by touch and physical closeness. He had formidable brain-power and a three steps ahead ability to make calculations and structure an argument. Looking back, it makes more sense to me now to think of him as somewhere on the autistic spectrum. That helps explain how uncomfortable and evasive he often seemed, and conversely how discomforting and lacking in empathy he could be. But it may also account for his frequent willingness to be technically helpful, and in particular, to engage with the teenage children of his friends and acquaintances, where his rather adolescent sense of fun, and love of puns was less a barrier and more of an asset.
In a way, Bruce sensed immaturity, which I think was for a while part of my attraction. I still have some of his letters, including one which begins incongruously ‘Hello, squire!’ They were enthusiastic, puppyish even at times, but not exactly warm. I do still puzzle over the memory of him shaking me from sleep at the 1970 Bath Festival – ‘John, John, wake up, it’s the Floyd!’ In his lack of interest in music Bruce was utterly out of step with the counter-culture of the time, but it was as if he wanted someone he knew to share the experience of watching the band which had defined the Cambridge identity of his own student years.
The indifference to music extended to literature. Bruce had gone to Cambridge originally to read maths, and his shift to English (in which he did complete a degree) is hard to fathom. One of his last supervisors, Laurel Brodsley, told me how he would sometimes refuse to speak when he met her, while he rarely produced any written work. He read voraciously, but his response as a writer to what he read was formulaic: he could not create characters, for example, and, while his use of rhyming couplets could be close to virtuosic it served only to create a kind of rollicking surface. His gifts were for paradox, and the logic of inversion - in the West London Theatre Workshop version of Cinderella, written at the time of the protests against Miss World in 1970, the ugly sisters were the heroines. Later feminist criticism of Bruce (a version of Tony’s lack of heart trope) was misplaced: we used it inappropriately as a part of the rationale for a palace revolt when a group of us displaced him to take control of West London Theatre Workshop in early 1976.
Joining West London Theatre Workshop
Although we kept distantly in touch I hadn’t seen Bruce for nearly three years when I knocked on the door of 151 Westbourne Park Road in May 1973. Moreover, after resigning from Cambridge in 1971, I had done very little, either sheltering on the dole in Cheshire, or half-heartedly trying to play music on Tyneside. It remains a mystery what Bruce thought I would contribute. He had never been much of an actor, and had perhaps misread my willingness to grandstand on the street as acting. But he seemed inclined to keep out of trouble, which suited me, as I’d never been keen on it in the first place. The promise of Greater London arts funding, and a few weeks paid work loomed large for me.
I was fortunate that, in encountering Tony, I was able to help forge something distinctive for a while, and Bruce now recedes in this story. I was to go back to WLTW (as a straight, if untrained and inadequate, actor) for two productions in 1975, and then take part in Bruce’s overthrow, with the setting up of Pirate Jenny. But in 1973 my artistic romance with Tony was uppermost. The first themes we addressed were the housing struggle and, obliquely, the cultural oppression of children. Between May and December 1973 WLTW came up with four performances, all of less than an hour. Within a fortnight of my joining, Tony, Bruce, Tom Costello and I knocked out a skit about Kensington and Chelsea Council’s demolition-obsessed housing policy to accompany a local demo. A toilet roll was spilled at the climax as Tom sat on Tony’s shoulders to replicate ‘a 22 storey tower-block’ (a feeble reference to Goldfinger’s newly opened Trellick Tower in Golbourne). The toilet roll motif was probably my idea: phallicity and ejaculation (uncontrolled, inappropriate or thwarted) was a recurrent theme during my time working with Tony. Fittingly, this little mayfly of an exercise was enacted only twice, on a single Saturday afternoon on Portobello Road.
In the same vein, but far more substantial, even at fifteen minutes, was ‘The Tale of a Poor Landlord’, in which a ’little old lady’ resists the council’s plans to demolish her house until she is removed to an old people’s home by the magistrate. This piece, reinvented many times, became, as ‘Squat Now While Stock’s Last’, Rough Theatre’s calling card until 1977: it was recently given a public reading in Oval House.
This introduces the vexed question of authorship. The original Powis Square performance, on bonfire night 1973, involved me, Tony, Bruce, and, Lyn Spurrier or Dilys Hillman as the heroine. Based on Tony’s idea it’s a kind of music hall agit-prop with a cruel edge to the bureaucrats, and a characteristic turn as a class-warrior judge from Bruce (who had, after all, once narrowly avoided an encounter with Melford Stevenson, and was also greatly influenced by WS Gilbert). The script was largely put together by improvising and the performances exuded a collective confidence. This mode was to be taken further, with Dwelling Unit, Sweet Dwelling Unit, in which a loyal council worker sets out to demolish his own house – not, as Wozzek might have done, from intimidation, but because he has so much absorbed the language of his oppressors as to lose touch with reality. In this case, after a week of collective frustration, Tony and I came up with the scenario over breakfast after a night down the pub. In workshop, with Bruce and Tony ‘directing’, the five of us (adding me, Steve Bould and Dilys) recorded a long morning’s improvised take, and Tony had the working script finished the following day. Some of Bould’s declamatory stuff (including Yates, his council bureaucrat) went straight from his mouth on to the page. He had a gift for talking rhetorically off the top of his head that was both funny and literate.
Regrettably though, the central character’s wife, created by Dilys Hillman, was so trapped stylistically as his victim, that even her decision to leave him, conveyed with withering clarity, could not redeem her status as a cipher. Where, after all, was she going to live in her ‘freedom’? This lack of attention to the confluence of gender and class partly accounts for the difficult time women had in trying to work with us, and to our subsequent failure with Rough Theatre to get beyond the dominatrix Red Grace who exerts such a controlling influence in Free Milk and Orange Juice. Later attempts, in 1975, to engage women, whether as colleagues or lovers, in developing material around our own bildung narratives were embarrassing. In the end, our working relationship was to founder on the gulf between Tony’s preference for the association between feminism, anarchy and bohemian adventure and my attempts to accommodate to its demands around childcare and domestic space.
Playsites, youthwork and subsidised political theatre
By then we had already written and toured Badman Rides Again, the only one of the productions, besides Squat Now, to draw a significant audience. We rehearsed this for about three weeks, and performed it for six, on London playsites from Barnet to East Ham. My recollection is that Bruce wrote it from notes, and possibly recordings, made while we improvised and brainstormed our way through a format based around a comic book. Again, much of the script was improvised, while, despite its jerky narrative (with the comic book pages serving as frames), it unfolded reasonably well around a single dramatic device. Scene one was a battle between Captain Truth and Dr Frankenstein. Scene two involved the jailing of Dennis the Menace. When Truth, summoned by the pleas of Dennis returns, he burst through the walls of the jail, listened to Dennis’ tale of woe – having refused to eat his grisly bits at dinner, his mother had called the police – but then decided to leave him where he was, as deserving further correction. The more middle-class audiences were stunned at this point; the working-class ones sided directly with Dennis. The Editor (played by Bruce) then demoted Truth to the back page, where, reduced to black and white, his ‘school for superheroes’ would go on to deal incompetently with a bomb-scare.
A contemporary version might have encouraged the audience to vote on Truth’s fate. The central scenes, involving the girl characters were quite interactive, but on the whole the play and its style was unsympathetic to the world-view of children. The scary characters – Tony’s monster and his steel-helmeted dentist with pliars, and Tom’s hunchbacked Frogwort, doubling as assistant to both Frankenstein and the dentist - were quite disturbing. A wheelchair was used to sinister effect in the dentist scene and it seems never to have occurred to any of us that there might have been disabled children in the audience. Leaving aside the celebration of rebellion, the moral dilemmas we introduced were used more to deconstruct morality, and expose adult hypocrisy, than to explore decision-making (and what would now be called empowerment). Badman was enormous fun to perform, with Tom Costello’s channelling of Tommy Cooper and Harpo Marx the particular highlight. But in our reliance on cleverness and caricature rather than developed argument we ignored too many necessary Theatre in Education conventions.
Badman was more like an end-of-term sixth form revue than a kid’s show. It reflected the grammar school background of most of the cast. Thus, even though the writing was pretty generally shared, the underlying dynamic probably lay at that stage between Bruce and myself. Tony (although he played at least four parts with great zest) was particularly unhappy with it. We all might have shared a degree of indifference to the material consequences of a controlling education system – the predicament of working-class parents was casually dismissed in Badman, as it was soon to be at William Tyndale – but the symbolic issues meant something very different. For Bruce, all questions of personal authenticity had been secondary to his belief that the value of performance lay in its inflammatory potential and the spark of immediate insurrection. For Tony, the question about authenticity was pivotal and central to his life-story. The way that in theatre dramatic characterisation and performance interrupted direct dialogue and shared investigation was always his frustration, and his own mission would eventually lead him to alternative comedy, and to street-speaking.
Things were about to get worse. Partly displaced by the energy building up between Tony and myself, Bruce, ever the technophile, had got interested in video. He had acquired some equipment through a link with Middlesex University, and a small amount of funding to work with a youth project. Tony, Dilys and I struggled for a week or two to make any sense of this. We spent a couple of afternoons filming mock kung-fu battles in Greenwich and then got tangled up with a notorious bunch of kids in Golbourne smashing glass and running up and down the rusting gangways of the decommissioned gasworks on Ladbroke Grove. I injured my back, triggering a minor impairment that would last for years, humping the equipment. Dilys withdrew from the project. The little money ran out and Tony, disgusted with the mindless pranks and dead-end rebelliousness, ended his working association with Bruce.
Tony probably saw before anyone else that, shorn of his distinctive feel for conflict with authority, Bruce would find little in terms of artistic direction with which to replace it. Hence his lumbering turn to that mixture of agit-prop and historical chronicle which, although developed by Joan Littlewood, and revised by John McGrath and John Arden, would so often descend into pastiche. My own shift was to be outwards and away, into community development. In 1974, Bruce had built a relationship with the staff at Kensington and Chelsea Task Force to write and produce the topical and highly popular show Homes fit for Heroes about pensions policy and the plight of the old. I shared a house with one of their case-workers for a while and the issues stayed with me. I would start work for the Task Force Hackney branch four years later.
Tony writes of his irritation with Bruce, something that was palpable at the time, although he does a disservice to his commitment to their work together, and their ongoing occasional contact as neighbours after Bruce returned to London. I’ve questioned the fairness of his observation that Bruce’s heart was not in his politics, but their most profound difference was in their anger about class – there were echoes of Emmet Grogan’s rage against Abbie Hoffman in Tony’s ranker moments. Bruce’s understanding of working-class experience was neither insightful nor empathic, rendering his identification with its teenage rebels largely futile. By contrast, in the course of his study Learning to Labour (1977), Bruce’s working-class Cambridge contemporary, the ethnographer Paul Willis, spent many months shadowing ‘the lads’, a bunch of disaffected and troublesome kids at a Midlands secondary school. His eventual focus was less on how they were failed by the system, or on their thwarted creativity, than on their already having a comprehensive worldview, a kind of pre-adult vision of the kind of men - labourers or semi-skilled workers, dominant heads of household - they expected to become. This was scarcely a political form of solidarity, despite its rejection of teachers, and of much public authority: Willis dealt openly with the racism and sexism through which ‘the lads’ inflected much of their wit and style. He encapsulated their assertive but self-limiting ethos in the term entrapment. This was an account of a world that Tony, as a former pool-shark and floor-layer, knew at first hand, and from which, ever the deviant, he believed he had belatedly escaped. It was a world Bruce and I only knew from a distance. We had found it alluring, threatening and alienating, but we had never discussed our awkward experiences of it in any depth, despite that needling relationship we cultivated with the skinhead culture that was such a feature of the time.
Four years ago, I had the good fortune to be taught by Willis for a few days. In the class I was part of was a student nearly forty years his junior who revered the book. For her, despite the intervening social changes, it still resonated with her recent teenage years in Stoke-on-Trent. I never got round to asking Paul whether he knew Bruce, but as they overlapped in reading English at Peterhouse, I think it likely he will at least have known of him. A Theatre in Education approach to the ideas developed in Learning to Labour would have had extraordinary potential. Just to imagine it exposes the limitations of the various forms of revolutionary and rebellious wishful-thinking we all brought to WLTW in those years - a pretty devastating form of entrapment in their own right.
The slow lane: Rough Theatre’s struggles with gender
What I find hard to face now is the unproductivity of Rough Theatre relative to the West London Theatre Workshop of 1970 to 1973. Tony was always busy with all sorts of stuff, but it was my lack of application that gave us a sustained problem. Work started on Heart of a Patriot in the new year of 1974, and its handful of performances, vaguely topical with the right-wing vogue for private armies, but virtually unattended, took place a full twelve months later. With Free Milk and Orange Juice a year on things went somewhat better. There was a plot, albeit no more than an expanded sitcom episode, but a plot nevertheless. Whether we wrote separately or together, shouting away in the Bravington Road kitchen over tea and hobnobs, we wrote fast, and we wrote funny. Some things did have to be changed in rehearsal with Maggie Ford and Stuart Golland, but not much. Hepatitis was then a problem within the cast, breaking up the run. Our ramshackle production standards didn’t quite stand up in the ICA. Tony’s and my non-acting limited the standards of performance and Stuart became disaffected over the caricature of himself we had written for him to play. On the whole though it worked, got reviewed, was popular. I adopted the sobriquet of ‘writer’.
But the harmony was intangible and short-lived. Tony was now a full-time housing activist, sometimes writing on his own, but mostly brooding on how to perform in public, and on what publics to perform to, or engage with. I had a young child, and had moved out of west London to be unhappily married in Islington. Erratically, Tony and I would meet to write. There were a few scenes from a play he’d started about homeless people living in cars, and even fewer from my attempt to relaunch Ormskirk Arthur and Cyril Sleazby as heroin addicts. Neither scenario had any relevance to how either of us were now living. Nor did they have much relevance to the everyday political practices (like the licensing of empty properties awaiting redevelopment) emerging on the London left. We squabbled, and then we fell out. Tony got going a new version of Rough Theatre, closer to the Ken Campbell tradition, more compatible perhaps with punk, and closer to the street. Sadly, I never went to see it, and we were to meet only twice over the next fifteen years.
Looking back, there was another play waiting, and it’s sad we couldn’t see it. The great issue in the emotional world we occupied had become childcare – I’d like to say children, but on the whole they came second to the partly competitive, partly collaborative, games being played out by their parents. Tony, although he was estranged from his wife and daughter, could see that omission, and he didn’t have much time for the paraphernalia of collectivity, creches, and gender neutrality that I was caught up in. His heart was still with Dennis the Menace. But that would have been a substantive starting point: what he and I could not get past was our debate about male identity – hence the metaphors of adolescent despair, equally unreal and for which there was no need, into which I tried to steer the last ashes of Arthur and Sleazby.
Free Milk, although we didn’t understand it that way, had been a kind of reworked inversion of Pinter’s The Homecoming. Its three male characters (all, apparently, single and childless) prove so trapped by their delusions and self-absorption that they lose control of their squatted house, and have to surrender it to their tough-minded (ie. ‘ruth’less) female opponent. They are only in this position because two of them (Arthur and Cyril) have reneged on their agreement with her to evict the third (Bunny) from the house she owns – a variation on an incident in south London in 1975 where squatters had been evicted at gunpoint. But a year or two earlier an incident had occurred within our own community, when a pregnant comrade had been excluded from an obscure revolutionary cell in Shepherds Bush on the grounds she could no longer serve the cause. Here, surely, with The Homecoming still in mind, was the plot twist we needed. Grace (who we had thought of as in her late forties), having recovered her house, could have found herself forced to accommodate an estranged pregnant daughter. And then, not just Arthur and Sleazby, but Bunny from Free Milk, Colonel Spiggott from Patriot, and that newfound authoritarian commandante from Shepherds Bush, could have been enlisted in a suitably twisted drama about politics and childcare. Laurel and Hardy would have been invoked, not to mention Damon Runyon’s Butch Minds the Baby. We two writers could have wrangled over the differences and dilemmas about identity and purpose to our heart’s content, falling out only over the TV rights.
Expulsion and hard times
I last saw Bruce on Tyneside in 1977, while on tour with Pirate Jenny in a production of an Alex Glasgow play about the Jarrow March. He was working in Sunderland, and still trying to recover the assets, including the Mercedes van gifted to West London Theatre Workshop by the heiress Stephanie Lee, and which had been retained by Pirate Jenny. It was an awkward meeting, of which I remember nothing. The situation he was in by then is painful to reflect on. Homes Fit for Heroes in 1974 had been a success, undertaking four tours. There was nothing to the script, and it had no depth, but its omission from the canonical history of the UK pensioners’ movement is a minor scandal, given the role it played in boosting membership, when thousands of people went to see it - Stuart Golland told me that the fourth tour was undertaken by popular demand.
The kid’s show from the summer of 1974, which drew on the chart rivalry between Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust and Suzy Quarto, was fast and funny. But neither International Who’s Year? (in support of the National Abortion Campaign) and Work Kills (based on Patrick Kinnersley’s book) both written by Bruce, which I performed in, and which was toured in 1975, were memorable in any way. Mila Caley and Eileen Fairweather, who played the cleaners in Who’s Year, were in open revolt about their parts, and Bruce had to get Steve Gooch in to direct the rehearsals for Work Kills. I don’t recall my contribution to the negotiations through which Bruce was ousted in 1976 – an episode Tony had no time for and about which he had harsh words with me at the time. Looking back now, I wince at the way Bruce was demonised in the course of this process and I wish I had played some part in ensuring he was fairly compensated. Nor was history to vindicate the choices we made. I went on to become a director of Pirate Jenny and to be more involved with the short-lived company’s second split a year later, and in its recruitment of writers like David Edgar, Peter Sheridan, and Shane Connaughton. It’s an open question now whether the subsidised territory which was opening up to accommodate a demand for greater theatrical literacy in community and protest-based theatre was a progressive development. The attempt to engage within the education rows of the mid-seventies, for example, proved so controversial that two unsatisfactory plays were written and performed about it. The change was led, I think, primarily by writers, and it went down well with the growing arts bureaucracy. I doubt the shift mattered much to the angry groups of workers and community activists for whom Bruce continued to devise, and write, in the north until the eighties. Steve Gooch’s warm and eloquent piece on the Unfinished Histories website, even though it focuses on Bruce’s private generosity with his time and knowledge, is a tribute to his persistence in the field and commitment to his particular understanding of political struggle.
The world of the left in the seventies was often marred by our petty ambition, and Bruce found himself very poorly prepared for the kinds of conflict that arose. He had few skills as a manager and little grasp of office politics. Perhaps, as I have argued earlier, he was congenitally unable to make adjustments. Evidently, from the pieces that surfaced on the web from time to time, mostly about disability rights and the rules of chess, he had a substantial ability to put things behind him. Frugal, and ‘ascetic’ to the last, he left an estate of £100,000. But it’s odd to reflect that a man who had won notoriety by working classical drama into site-specific frameworks which ensured their performance was marked by spontaneity, threat and danger would find himself programmatically rewriting fairy tales in rhyming couplets to a standard that few could bear to act. His real metier might have been more as a kind of alternative impresario, or dramaturge. But to get there he would have needed to find much, much, more patient, collaborators than me and Tony Allen, to locate a missing urge for give and take, and to show a greater willingness to deal straight with some of his occasional employers.
It’s nevertheless very sad that Franny Rifkin, who remembers his brilliance, and his committed organising skills, was unable to record an interview with him in the months before he died. Perhaps an event now that brought together both his supporters and his detractors, from across the years, and in the many fields where he was active, would bring some comfort to those like me, who have to recognise we served him ill at times, and, more importantly, generate the insight and understanding to construct a better memorial than currently obtains.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rbncx (Heir hunters - no longer available on BBC Iplayer)
http://strike1984.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/e28098a-biased-history-of-political-theatre_-frances-rifkin-with-introduction-margareta-kern.pdf ‘Playwriting for the Seventies: Old Theatres, new Audiences, and the Politics of Revolution” Theatre Quarterly 6 No 24 Winter 1976-77 pp 35-78 Note: An advert in International Times from May 1968 (‘Beautiful people wanted for outdoors [May] hippie production “THE BACCHAE”. Help turn on drag University Scene’) shows what Bruce was recruiting for that year. But Cheryl Gilchrist’s blog piece about Marat/Sade states that too was produced in 1968. As someone who was in it she ought to know, but I was pretty sure it had been May 1969, the term before I arrived.