The screenwriter, director and playwright Trevor Griffiths is 75 this year. His latest play, A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine, was produced at the Globe Theatre in 2009, while The Wages of Thin, his first stage-play, was revived in London this spring. He spoke to Pat Yarker about his background, his enduring political concerns and his current work.
Trevor Griffiths worked as a teacher, a liberal studies lecturer and a further education officer for the BBC before becoming a full time writer in 1970.
His best-known stage play was Comedians (1975). For his film Reds, co-written with Warren Beatty, he received the WGA Best Screenplay Award and an Oscar nomination. Other films have included Country directed by Richard Eyre and Fatherland directed by Ken Loach.
From the 80s onwards he has also directed his own work both in theatre and on film. His most recent production is the television film Food for Ravens about Aneurin Bevan, which he both wrote and directed. He is also known for his adaptations of works by writers such as D H Lawrence and Chekhov.
Trevor Griffiths’s plays are currently being published in new editions by Spokesman Books.
PY: Given the variety in your work, from the very large-scale to the very small-scale, and the mix of characters from the historically-crucial to the ordinary Joe, I’m interested in where the plays come from?
TG: I don’t honestly know where plays come from. I had plays in me before I knew what plays were, and that’s an interesting puzzle.
When I see small and large I try to make one thing of the two. That’s the dialectic. I don’t know how the dialectic came into me but I know that it must have had something to do with my background and upbringing.
I was part of what they called a mixed marriage. They may still call it that. That’s to say a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, and that incredible buzz-sawing tension was part of my normalcy: what it was to be growing up a white male in working-class Manchester in the 30s and 40s. I guess I grew to like the tension in all that and the thought that maybe at some point in my life or somebody else’s this tension can be resolved.
So I guess I was always working on something like the relationship between Louise Bryant and John Reed, or between Tom Paine and Edmund Burke, or Bill Brand and any number of opponents, or Scott and Amundsen. They’re binaries but they’re more than that. They’re not collapsible into each other but out of them can come one thing, one resolved notion, instead of two separate ones.
And the resolved notion will be bigger and better and deeper and longer-lasting than the two you’ve just replaced. Then it becomes in its turn the first proposition of another binary or another dialectic.
A play’s as big as you let it be really. I remember I wrote a play called The Daft ‘Un. I don’t think it’s published actually… in fact I don’t even think I’ve got a copy of it! It was about my brother and me going out one Friday night to try and find this dog that we’d lost and getting involved with all kinds of weird people who were out on a Friday night trying to spend their wages. That felt like a big play to me! It was probably the first one I wrote.
I have something in me, and I think we all do, of the epic. I lived through an epic called the Second World War. I lived through part of an epic called the Slump and Depression. And they can make you feel very small compared with the size and scale of the thing that you’re swimming in, or they can make you feel huge because you somehow feel at the centre of the action of the Earth.
One of the plays, Who Shall Be Happy?, is interesting because it’s easy to see the long speeches that are given to the Danton figure and imagine that’sthe heart of the play. When you see the play, and particularly when you see it in the theatre, it’s clear that these are co-equals. There’s no question that the scale and the pomp and the bigness of Danton’s life and his accounts of it are not bigger, not grander, not more important than those of the young guard, Henry. So big and small, large-scale/small-scale, I think they’re much of a muchness.
Plays come from wherever they come from. They don’t write themselves (I think that’s a romantic notion) but even if you don’t write the play it’s doing something inside you that says “Why aren’t you writing this play?” Plays are like dreams. You don’t really control them, and yet when you seek to analyse them you sense you know where they’re coming from. They’re coming from every inch of the organism that’s you.
PY: I’d like to talk about the production of A New World. What drew you to the figure of Thomas Paine?
TG: I was drawn to Paine early. Between 17 and 20 when I was at the University of Manchester doing English I came across Rights of Man, but I didn’t come across it on a syllabus. And I was kind of staggered.
I had, by the way, between 17 and 20 hardly any politics at all. I wasn’t raised in a “red” family, I wasn’t aware of the political views of the working-class people who were my uncles and aunts and cousins and brothers and sisters and so on. We didn’t take a newspaper so I couldn’t see any particular political bias there.
But Paine seemed to me (and there are many people who are like Paine) to exist in some kind of sub-world of literary achievement. They’re awkward, they’re contentious, they’re fractious. They don’t have the right shape to fit into a jigsaw of literary history. And also their themes are not to do with love and so on but to do with struggle and argument and demands.
I guess Paine spoke to that contentious, awkward and fractious person who was developing inside me as a reaction to the Church that had held me in check for all those years and the popes and the bishops and the local dignitaries in my part of Manchester. And brilliantly and beautifully and insidiously the notion of revolution was also at work inside me through Paine and writers like him.
There’s a kind of sectarianism of literary belief that I don’t very much enjoy or think valuable. I like the broadness of Paine. And of Shelley and Byron and you can go on.
What got me going though was when much later a man I knew of but didn’t know personally, Richard Attenborough, called me when I was working on a miners’ strike play for the BBC (which never got made) in the late eighties. That play was really about the miners’ strike in Wales and the extraordinary women-led solidarity-groupings that bolstered that extraordinary event in all our lives in that part of the world.
I was living in a miner’s cottage at the head of the Swansea valley, meeting with people who’d been involved in the strike, and making tapes and thinking about things and scribbling notes and all the rest of it. I got this call from Richard Attenborough, who said “I just wondered if you’d be interested to write a play, a screenplay, about Thomas Paine?”
PY: What else sustained your interest. You said this goes right back to your university time...
TG: Well he reminded me of my Dad, that’s for sure. He was a working-class figure in exactly the way my Dad was, someone who didn’t have margins, who didn’t have extras.
If you wanted your shoes to last you had to learn how to use a last. You had to learn how to pick up odd scraps of leather from the local cobbler and then re-figure them so that they would become heels or soles. And then you had to know how to use the last to nail these things in but not leave nails in the base of the inner sole so that they damage the feet. All of those things which my
Dad did, and a hundred other things as well.
And what was my Dad? When he had a job at all he was a chemical process worker: nothing to do with leather, nothing to do with shoes, nothing to do with lead, nothing to do with gas, nothing to do with electric cable. And yet all of those ultimately domestic things became part of his patch.
And Paine was like that because the eighteenth century was like that for working people. They were all of them scientists in a way. They had to be; for them science had to be invented.
PY: My next question has to do with your view of contemporary revolutionary Marxism. Some people might see your focus on Paine as a shift away from earlier explicit involvement with the Marxist left in plays like The Party and Occupations. What’s your current interest in revolutionary Marxism?
TG: I don’t think I’ve got any less interest in revolutionary Marxism than I’ve always had. My interest has been considerable throughout, steady, not necessarily always demonstrated in plays, (why should it be?), but I think it’s a mistake to imagine that if you look at the eighteenth century you’re somehow turning away from an engagement with Marxism and the Marxist left. That would be a major way of critiquing Marx himself, and Engels and all the rest of them because it’s very tempting to concentrate on events from about 1800 onwards and why not?
Marx had a history and Engels had a history that went back to the beginnings of civilisation, certainly to the development of agriculture, twelve thousand years or whatever. It wasn’t that they lacked history and pre-history. But the passion of their theory coalesced around the period between 1820 and 1880/1890 it seems to me. And through that period, out of that period, they distilled enormous numbers of important procedural and conceptual points. But the eighteenth century is absolutely vital to any understanding of Marxism and to pre-Marxism.
What was the struggle before Marx? That’s what you’re asking. It’s not that there weren’t classes. It’s not that there weren’t oligarchies of one sort or another. It’s just that they didn’t have the conceptual terminology that was later bequeathed by several generations of revolutionary Marxists. So no, I don’t think in any way it’s evidence of that turning-away.
PY: There has been an issue about female characters in your plays — criticism has sometimes been made of your work as sexist or unreconstructed. What would you say to those kind of charges?
TG: Well actually it’s something you have said to me: “Your early stage plays tended to give the lion’s share of the discourse and attention to male characters…” (Almost certainly the case.) “Plays such as Comedians, Oi for England and The Gulf Between Us have no female roles.” Well there we go.
But Oi for England has a really important female role in Gloria. She opens and closes that play and she’s a very important part of the resolution of that play along with Finn. The other three disappear into the night: not Gloria and not Finn. So that’s not true. And then
The Gulf Between Us has Dr Aziz, one of the most important women I’ve ever written. And incidentally a character that drew from Palestine the best Palestinian actress around. She was remarkable and became an important comrade during the time that she was working with me in Leeds on The Gulf Between Us and she had no doubt that this was a major role.
PY: So this is me seeing it through my own preconceptions...
TG: And Through the Night has, I don’t know I haven’t done a head-count, maybe twenty women’s parts...
But let me talk a bit about writing female characters and sexism and unreconstructed attitudes and all that. I think there can be no doubt that there are sexist and unreconstructed notions in the ignoring of women or the making of characters that are men with skirts or whatever you want to call them. But I would say that that’s the history I have swum through. I was raised a white working-class male surrounded by strong women but taught almost to pay particular and specific attention to the ideas and practices and indeed the histories of men rather than women. Whenever I read a book about the English revolution I read about men.
Whenever I saw a movie I saw a movie where women sought to support the men in their lives but didn’t have a social and political and economic role in those lives beyond the minimal. So it would be surprising if you didn’t get nailed with that particular limitation.
What’s interesting, not just in an evaluation of my work but in an evaluation of male work in the twentieth century, is the extent to which people grappled with those problems either because they wanted to or because they had their nose held to the iron by an implacable women’s movement that said “How dare you write that shit!” And everybody has changes in their own lives, and changes seriously rather than tactically. I’ve always tried to make that part of my writing as honest and truthful as every other part of my writing. It’s not something separate, the writing of women. I don’t set myself homework on it. And little by little I think I’ve got closer to what I’m trying to do.
PY: I’m very interested in the way children seem to have become more significant in your more recent work. Could you talk about that?
TG: I’ve always had a singular interest in children since I was one myself. If you look at The Party for example, 1972, 1973 that was written. Almost the first sound you hear is the kid crying in the bedroom upstairs, and at the end that child is still crying. Children are very much part of the traffic of my plays, and I don’t think there’s anything more in the more recent plays… except I’d have to say that when I watched A New World at the Globe Theatre (rather than when I wrote it) I became fixated by the two kids in that.
I’ve just been reviewing the production-photographs because my wife and I are trying to make a few postcards for private use (it’s nice to memorialise a production as good as that one) and I kept getting drawn to Lotte, that part-German child, Marthe’s kid, (one of my grandsons is part German) and to Will. They are singular figures. But they earn their corn. At least I think so.
PY: There’s perhaps been a shift in your trajectory from live theatre through to an important involvement with television and the reach that television had in the seventies and eighties back to involvement in live theatre in the nineties. I’m interested in your choice to write for live theatre and the possibilities that you continue to see in that form.
TG: I had to come back to theatre after ten years of doing no theatre at all because the world in which I lived and you lived and my audience lived changed utterly through a new development of capitalism first in America through Reagan and then here in Europe through Thatcher. That may just have run its course, the last wave has possibly hit the beach, but I’m not so sure…
However in the course of that development both in America and in Britain there was kulturkampf, a cultural struggle waged by the governing power. There were purges going on inside television, of television management, of the direction in which television would go including television drama. In the theatre there were changes to funding and the Arts Council, and the work of people like me and John McGrath and so on began to come under more and more serious threat. Money was not any longer available for big-scale thinking or radical thinkers in the theatre. And eventually you worked where you could because not working is not an option.
The only thing I am is a playwright, and I demand to be allowed to practice. Insofar as I can without being seen as a loony! So opportunism is not an unprincipled and immoral activity: it’s insisting on space to say, space to speak, space to converse with audience. And if it’s in TV that’s brilliant because even a small audience is a couple of million. Or was! But not like the ten million or twelve million that you’d get for Through The Night twenty years earlier.
But why come back to the theatre? I’ve said this many times in four or five decades of work, and it’s something Bertrand Russell used to say about philosophy: “Why do you do philosophy? Nobody’s really interested in philosophy, so why do it?” And he said “That’s true, but…it’s just so much fun!” I expect it was a bit more philosophical than that.
But I’ve always thought theatre’s an extraordinary event. The relationship between the play, the production, the people watching it, it’s liquid. It’s an endless passage between receivers and givers, and the receivers become givers back and the givers become receivers.
I’ve done a tiny bit of acting, never trained or anything, and it is an extraordinary thing to feel an audience giving back something, sometimes that you hadn’t even intended in the act of acting. And you can’t get that in the disturbed form, the dislocated form, of television and film. You’re talking in both cases actually to an empty space which has to be filled later by people who aggregate themselves as audience. Though the word “audience” doesn’t work for what they’re doing.
That’s why Comedians is such a difficult problem on television, because the audience watching the first act isn’t really an audience at all: it’s a set of individuals.
PY: And then they become an audience for the stand-up acts in the middle?
TG: Well it would be nice but in fact the director [of the television-production] had to put an audience (of extras) in. Whereas in the theatre the audience for the play is also the “audience” for the working men’s club act.
PY: I suppose that whole issue of the audience as givers and receivers gives you a sense of duty to give an audience your best. I’m interested in your sustained commitment to intellectually-demanding work on the stage.
TG: Well however you or anybody else characterises my work that’s what it is, it’s not another thing. I write everything for real. I mean, everything that I do is the best instantiation of me that I can give on a page. There’s never any sense that this doesn’t matter. And it’s all part of the project, whatever the project is. I don’t want you to understand the project as some kind of gigantic lifelong propaganda exercise, ‘cos I’m making it up like anybody else! Every play is made up from somewhere in me, because I’m a piece of the clay of everything around me.
An example. I did write a play called The Love Maniac in about 1967 or 1968 for Tony [Garnett] who was a new producer in “Play For Today” [new one-off plays shown regularly on the BBC]. He moved from the BBC before he got to my play and all I got out of that script was a radio-production some years later, and an agent (which was actually very, very important for my becoming a writer).
I was working there on notions of what do we do with young people, how do we distort their lives, what education is and what it’s for… I’d be as partisan about the issues as the most committed teacher if I were considering writing [a play about contemporary education] but the fact is when you get to writing it you have to take account of all your experiences, including the contradictory experience of meeting deeply reactionary teachers who make you laugh until you fall down!
The likeability quotient of rogues is something you have to deal with. It’s no use throwing them out and rubbishing them. An audience will find something not right about that, not truthful about that.
Comedians was the hardest play I ever wrote I think, the hardest for me to write, because there’s so much in it that is potentially disgusting. Potentially obscene. Potentially worthless. And yet… when it lives in the presence of an audience, and through the ministrations of an audience you might say, it’s an extraordinary event, an extraordinary piece.
PY: You’ve written The Party, and Absolute Beginners [about the Bolshevik/Menshevik split] in the Fall of Eagles television-series. I’m interested in what makes small Marxist revolutionary groups interesting to you as a dramatist? If they still are!
TG: Yes they are. But not just Marxist groups: small groups in themselves. I suppose there’s something Catholic about this… It’s the struggle for purity I think. And how corrupting that can be, you know? There’s a contradiction. What I’m not, what I hope I’ve cleansed myself of in forty or fifty years of struggle of one sort or another, is the desire to be right. No, sorry, I’d like to be right; I don’t want to be correct. It’s correctness that worries me. It’s that questions always begin with answers. They shouldn’t! It’s not replacing the answer for a moment tactically, as a device, then giving the answer you’ve already got to the question you’ve just posited.
PY: Is there anything you can say about your current work?
TG: Yes, and this would be in part an answer to a question I was asked earlier about Marxism and so on. Am I still interested in revolutionary Marxism? The answer’s yes, and some evidence of that might be the two projects that I’m working on.
I’ve been researching for about two or three years what I call a new Chekhov play. Piano was based on a Russian movie called “An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano” [directed in 1976 by Nikita Mikhalkov] and that movie in turn was based on Chekhov’s first play Platonov, which was not played in his lifetime, as you probably know. But not only on Platonov, but also on some elements of short stories which Chekhov wrote. And seeing this film not only made me want to make a play out of it, restore it to the stage as it were, but it also made me want to read everything I could get hold of by Chekhov by way of short stories. He wrote several hundred short stories. They are an absolute miracle; they are magnificent. So I’m now writing another play based on or drawn from five or six important short stories and it’s called Caucasia. I’m not sure of anything yet but it’s probably going to be set in 1892, which is the time when all five of these short stories were written and published.
And a comrade in America who I met only recently has asked me if I have any interest in looking at the Dewey Commission of 1936-37 [a Commission set up by US Liberals and others to look into charges made against Leon Trotsky by the Stalinists in the USSR]. Nothing was further from my mind than looking at the Dewey Commission when he wrote! But in fact my editor, Ken Coates at Spokesman Press [who died after this interview was conducted], came with a huge amount of information and I’ve become quite interested in it. So while I’m not writing that, I am thinking about it.
I am also going to return to my piece on Frank Randle [English comedian], which I’ve been writing for 10 years. I saw him twice on stage when I was a kid and it was like a force of nature. Not unlike watching Victor Henry in the early days. You could not predict what this person was going to do, going to say, going to be at any given moment. It was a bit like a photon, you know, in a lot of places all at the same time.