Contemporary Scottish Theatre
Men Should Weep
Ena Lamont Stewart
MEN SHOULD WEEP
MAIN THEMES AND ISSUES
MEN SHOULD WEEP will be examined from the following perspectives:
Use of History and Nostalgia
Issues Of Gender
The following main themes and issues will be explored as we examine the text:
Tenement family life in the 1930’s ‘slums’ of Glasgow
The importance of community
Role of the mother within the family
Balance of power within the family and in marital relationships
Role of women in 1930’s urban Scotland
Social conditions and their effect upon the individual and the family.
ENA LAMONT STEWART AND MEN SHOULD WEEP
MEN SHOULD WEEP is a play about the depression of the 1930’s and the subsequent squalor experienced in the slums of Glasgow, seen from a female perspective. It was first produced by Glasgow Unity in 1947. Today, that particular staging remains one of the greatest of Unity’s many productions. The play is still produced regularly by contemporary companies such as 7:84, TAG and the Citizens theatre.
Its author, Ena Lamont Stewart, was born in Glasgow in 1912 and lived there for most of her life. Her father was a minister and Ena had a happy childhood. She recalls the jumble sales and bazaars her father’s church organised and the ‘shawlies’ and others, less fortunate than herself, who came to them.
At the time that Glasgow Unity was at the height of its popularity, Ena was a young woman. She had married actor Jack Stewart, of Rutherglen Repertory Theatre, and had given birth to a baby son. Encouraged by her family, her actor husband in particular, Ena wrote her first play for the Rutherglen Repertory Theatre. This was a one act piece called DISTINGUISHED COMPANY and was first performed in September 1942.
During this period, Ena also worked as a receptionist in a sick children’s hospital in Glasgow - an experience which led her to write her first full-length play STARCHED APRONS, a study of hospital life and the nursing profession. This play was picked up by Glasgow Unity Theatre Company and became Unity’s biggest ever box office success. As a result of this Robert Mitchell, the Director of Glasgow Unity, commissioned Ena to write a second play, this time about Scottish working-class life and conditions in the 1930’s, from a female perspective. The play that she produced, the greater part of which was written in two days, was MEN SHOULD WEEP.
Ena’s work at the sick children’s hospital influenced MEN SHOULD WEEP as much as it had STARCHED APRONS. She was deeply affected by the experience and distressed by the number of people who came to the hospital suffering from malnutrition and the many other diseases caused by poverty and poor living conditions. On one occasion a woman came to Ena carrying a child’s clothes and shoes. She was obviously in a state of shock and, asking for a piece of brown paper to put the bundle of clothes in, she said in a bewildered fashion, “They’ve kep him in”. This moment is replayed in MEN SHOULD WEEP when Maggie returns home from the hospital without her little boy, Bertie.
MEN SHOULD WEEP was first performed at the Atheneum Theatre, Glasgow on the 30th January 1947. Over the next few years, it enjoyed tremendous success and was restaged in several theatres across Scotland before transferring to the Embassy Theatre in London. MEN SHOULD WEEP continues to be a firm favourite with audiences and has come to be regarded as a classic.
In 1998, the National Theatre conducted a poll of actors, directors, playwrights and journalists, asking them to nominate ten English language, twentieth century plays that they felt to be ‘significant’ in terms of their quality, popularity and the way in which they affected change in the theatre world. MEN SHOULD WEEP featured strongly in the top 100 responses, over fifty years after it was first performed.
USE OF HISTORY AND NOSTALGIA
MEN SHOULD WEEP by Ena Lamont Stewart was written in the 1940’s however the action of the play is set in the depression of the 1930’s. As a reflection on working class Glasgow at this time, the use of the historical setting in the play works both as a record of a specific time and place (a social commentary) and a contemporary critique of social deprivation. The play still has a clear resonance today – outbreaks of Dysentery on Glasgow housing schemes are still being recorded and in the past ten years it has been reported that the incidence of Tuberculosis is rising for the first time in many years. A recent report also stated that one in three Scottish children are currently living significantly below the poverty line.
In the 1930’s, Scotland, in common with the rest of the world, was in the throes of a depression. Unemployment was high and disease and poverty were rife. Tenement life was hard. Several families lived ‘up the same close’ in one-roomed (the infamous ‘single-end’) or two-roomed houses – the main room serving as a living area, kitchen and bedroom. The second room (if there was one) was another bedroom. A toilet was shared with the other families on the same landing. Bathrooms were a luxury to be found in the homes of the ‘better off’. Poorer families made do with a zinc bath in front of the cooking range or visits to the local washhouse.
There was little work for the men and so they hung around on street corners waiting to hear if any firm was ‘taking on’ – often on a daily or weekly basis.
John: I’m on casual labour; ye never ken whit’s comin up. There might be work and there might no…Hundreds o us, Maggie, beggin for the chance tae earn enough for food and a roof ower our heids. P.14 – 15.
Families existed on a meagre dole allowance and whatever the ‘parish’ could provide. To qualify for extra money families had to undergo the cruel and humiliating Means Test whereby all possessions and income were assessed and any ‘luxuries’ (e.g. clocks, small items of jewellery etc.) had to be sold (or pawned) and the money used, before help was given. As a result of this test families and homes were often stripped to the bare essentials.
Despite this there was great community spirit in areas like Govan, the Gorbals and the east end of Glasgow that is sadly lacking today. Electronic entertainment, in the form of television, videos and computer games, was yet to be invented but there were the cinema and dance halls and, of course, the local public house. Occasionally, when money allowed, the monotony could be broken by taking a trip to one of these venues, however, for families like the Morrisons’, this would have been a very rare occurrence. If you had no choice than to stay at home, there was always the wireless (radio) – if you could afford one.
Children played street games like peever (hopscotch), skipping ropes, and football, either with or without a ball – an old tin can often had to serve the purpose. Singing games were also enjoyed, which the mothers often joined in with.
There was little privacy in tenement living and neighbours were well aware of all that went on within their closes – beneficial when you needed help and support but not when you wanted to keep events to yourself. There were few secrets kept in tenement living.
Mrs. Wilson: Problems! She hasnae hauf got them. Puir Maggie. And she’s no the only yin on this stair. The Bones Wis at it again last night. P.17
Gossip spread like wildfire through the practise of the ‘windae-hing’ – no coffee mornings or light lunches here. Instead, women would lean out their front or back windows and chat to their neighbours, who were either out in the street or leaning out of their own windows. Sometimes, on sunnier days, chairs would be taken into the backcourts and the women could share their worries and joys with others in the same position as themselves.
Children were the property of all. If any child misbehaved it was the responsibility of whoever witnessed the misdemeanour to chastise – be it the parent or another nearby adult.
Although this sense of community spirit and enjoyment is apparent in the play - which at times takes on an almost nostalgic tone, especially at the beginning of Act three - things quickly take a turn for the worst and we are left only with hardship and suffering. The nostalgic moments of the play are in clear juxtaposition to the real toil and hardship experienced by the family, and thus the social injustice of the piece is further underlined.
Life was rarely harmonious in the East End of Glasgow in the 1930’s. Living in such close proximity often led to arguments (‘stair-heid rows’) as nerves frayed and tempers rose. A simple act like forgetting your turn of washing the close stairs could mean incurring the wrath of more fastidious (exacting) neighbours.
Maggie: Are you insinuating that I don’t take ma turn o the close?
Mrs. Harris: No, I’m no insinyatin. I’m telling ye. P.18.
Health suffered due to the poor living conditions and inadequate diets. Doctors required payment for their services – the National Health Service was not yet in force – and so ailments, major or minor, were neglected until the few shillings needed for medical attention was found. Dysentry and tuberculosis were common (as was scarlet fever and all the childhood diseases) and because families lived in such close proximity, infection spread quickly. One child with dysentery could infect a whole close. Because of the unhygienic living conditions head lice, nits, scabies and the like were commonplace despite frantic efforts to keep them at bay.
Maggie: I’ll tell ye whit an odd louse is: it’s the mither o a hale battalion that’s no content tae bide on hame grun. So jist you get something frae the chemist’s, or I’ll get the Sanitary tae ye. P.18
Women worked hard both within and outwith the home, often combining a cleaning job or work in the local bakery with looking after their often large families. Husbands offered little practical help in the day-to-day running of the home – it was not their job to cook, clean or look after children. That was women’s work.
Maggie: It’s no fair! Naebody lifts a haun tae help me! I’ve tae go oot charrin a day and then come hame tae this! Whaurs’s yer feyther? P.42
Men spent their time in the company of other men – in the streets or public houses. Their inability (through no fault of their own in most cases) to provide for their families led many men to find solace in drink. This caused many a family dispute – money that was spent in the pub, that should have been spent on food or rent, was the basis for many family rows. It was not the age of enlightenment, no ‘nineties’ men here, and a man was still considered to be head of the family no matter what his shortcomings. It was a rare woman indeed who tried to usurp a man’s position within the household. His word was law and all major decisions were left to him. Most women of the working classes accepted this without question (if not without comment), hence the reason why Maggie’s journey to self-assertion is so significant.
HOMEWORK EXERCISE 1: AFTER READING THE ABOVE, WHAT ARE THE SIMILARITIES AND/OR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A WORKING CLASS PERSON’S LIFE IN THE THIRTIES AND TODAY? (REMEMBER AGE AND GENDER ARE ALSO IMPORTANT FACTORS IN TERMS OF DIFFERING LIFE EXPERIENCES)
WRITE DOWN YOUR CONCLUSIONS.
ISSUES OF GENDER
Above all, the play explores the growth of female emancipation (liberation) through Maggie’s journey to self-assertion. Maggie’s relationships with her husband, John, and sister, Lily, are central to the play and offer scope for examining Issues of Gender in some depth.
The role of women within the play is that of daughter, wife, mother, granny, stoic, prostitute and redeemed Magdalen. The main character in the play is clearly Maggie Morrison. She works both within and out with the home. At the start of the play she is very supportive of her husband. She gives him his place and ensures that others do likewise. When Lily suggests that John should be ashamed of himself for giving Maggie so many children, Maggie defends her husband:
Maggie: He’s a man and I’m a wumman. We’re flesh and blood. P.6.
Lily often criticises John and his role within the family, Maggie always defends him:
Lily: If John wid gie hissel a shake…
Maggie: You leave John alane! He does his best for us. P.8.
Lily has an unusual role for a woman of her day – a spinster. Maggie feels sorry that Lily has no man in her life and no children of her own. Lily, however, cannot see that being a slave to a husband and family would be a life that held any kind of satisfaction:
Lily: Livin in a slum an slavin efter a useless man an his greetin weans. P.8.
Maggie, however, is just as disparaging about Lily’s chosen lifestyle:
Maggie: Servin dirty hulkin brutes of men in a Coocaddens pub. P.8.
The relationship between the sisters is an integral part of the play and Lily’s presence in the final scene underlines her role within her sister’s family. They see each other’s faults and are at times exasperated with one another, but are ultimately joined together in their wish for a better life for Maggie and her children. Lily is on Maggie’s side:
Lily: Maggie’s ma sister! An I’ve had tae fight hauf your battles for ye John Morrison, or the hale lot o ye would hae been oot on the street mair than once! P.72.
Maggie’s neighbours also have a role to play in the gender battle that ensues in the drama, in that they are a device used to reinforce the women’s view of marriage and the gender divide within it:
Lily (Of Mrs. Bone): I jist canna understand a woman that lets her man bash her aboot. Catch me bidin wae him!
Maggie: If ye’ve got weans, ye’ve got to put up wi the fella that gied ye them…I bet she’ll hae a black eye the morn, but she’ll never let dab how she got it. P. 11.
In terms of her duty to her husband and family, Maggie clearly has a lot to deal with, not least John’s apparent inability to find work. However, John is painfully aware of his inability to provide:
John: If I could hae jist…jist done better by ye a…every time I’ve had tae say “no” tae you an the weans its doubled me up like a kick in the stomach. Christ Almighty! A we’ve din wrong is tae be born intae poverty! Whit dae they think this kind of life does tae a man? Whiles it turns ye intae a wild animal. Whiles yer a human question mark, aye askin why? Why? Why? There’s nae answer. Ye end up a bent back and a heid hangin in shame fir what ye canna help. P.40.
John feels a great deal of guilt and clearly cares about Maggie but still won’t allow his feelings to become a threat to his masculinity. He will not help her to ease her workload, even though he is not working:
John: Tae hell wae this Jessie business every time I’m oot o a job! I’m no turning masel intae a bloomin skivvy! I’m a man! P.44.
John’s role, as head of the family, is ultimately challenged, and we see a change in his role as the play progresses:
John: I’d an idea I wis head o this hoose. P. 71
Maggie’s final speech is extremely revealing in that it demonstrates that she is the one who now has the power within their marriage:
Maggie: I can manage him…I can aye manage him. P.74.
Maggie has become the familial matriarch, taking over from John in his role as patriarch.
The central characters of the play are all classic potential stereotypes. One of the play’s strengths, perhaps, is that it does not descend to stereotyping in the manner of other classic contemporary Scottish plays – such as THE STEAMIE. Stewart handles their characterisation incredibly carefully and with great flair. She explores the relationships between the characters in an objective, realistic and, ultimately, positive fashion.
The three main characters:
Downtrodden, oppressed, poor, overburdened, working class housewife with several children.
However her journey to self – assertion is untypical and destroys any accusation of stereotyping.
What would certainly have been controversial for the 1930’s is perhaps much less so today, however this ‘journey’ still holds contemporary relevance.
Her journey to self-assertion is the central theme of the play and reaches fruition at the end of the piece when she humiliates John into accepting her wishes for once – that they will take Jenny’s money so that they can rent a cleaner, healthier home.
Her relationship with John may never be the same again, “I can manage him, I can aye manage him” (P.74). She has taken control of her own life and the future of her family.
Although he is an unemployed, idle, chauvinistic male, he is portrayed with a very cleverly crafted sympathy throughout the play. We like him as a character and feel that he genuinely loves his wife.
The play contains criticisms of male power, female oppression, misplaced pride and vanity and it is the development of these issues that works towards John’s final humiliation at the hands of his wife.
Lily’s values seem to be condemned by the community far more than John’s.
John’s assertion in Act 3 that, “I’d an idea that I wis heid o this hoose” (P.71), is closely followed by a series of crucial moments, all of which, although happening within his house, are actually out of his control.
Lily’s truth about how she has helped the family financially is a severe public blow to his pride – however, as mentioned earlier, he is already more than aware that he is unable to provide for his family, “ John: A man’s got nae right tae bring weans intae the world if he canna provide for them” p.20
Jenny’s direct attack that she couldn’t get a “decent fella” because of the “midden” of a house is another dent to John’s injured pride.
Maggie’s public reproach concerning John’s unrestrained, irresponsible and potentially forceful sexual appetite undermines him completely and would have been extremely shocking to see on the 1940’s stage. However, this rebuke is not countered by anger on John’s part, as we may expect. He is shamed into silence. However, remember that we do not know how this scene unfolded, or whether it even existed, in the original version of the play.
At the end of the piece we see John as an almost broken man, passively accepting his wife’s wishes regardless of the effect that he believes this will have on his standing within the family and the community.
Probably the most controversial character in the 1947 production of the play due to her unrestrained diatribes against men.
Curiously, this made her less of a potential stereotype in 1947 than it does today.
Single and independent with a publicly voiced hostility towards men, Lily could be said to be a caricature of the politically active feminist of today.
The final humiliation of John is a triumph for her. She revels in this humiliation as a condemnation of the male species, whereas Maggie’s triumph is the discovery of her own individuality and independence.
Maggie undergoes self-recognition, a positive experience, whereas Lily’s glee might be interpreted as bitter and rather negative because it is at the expense of John’s feelings and not, principally, in celebration of Maggie’s new freedom.
Other characters in the play:
Alec and Isa-
These characters act as a kind of sub-plot to the main action.
They are an almost grotesque version of John and Lily (although Lily is not interested in flirting).
Alec is ineffectual, weak and, finally, violent. However, even his final act of violence is rendered impotent by his wife.
Alec is a spoiled young man who, it might be argued, is perpetuating the role of men like his father.
Alec cannot find a way in which to please his wife and, thus, can only tackle the problems in his marriage through an attempt at violence. He exits the play vowing revenge on Isa and her new man, however, we suspect that he will be unsuccessful in this task also.
Isa has a fiercely independent nature and enjoys flirting. Her blatant sexual appetite, not to mention her advances towards her father-in-law, would have been controversial on the 1940’s stage.
Isa is unlike Alec’s mother and will not bend to his demands, in fact, she throws them back in his face.
Isa’s ‘independence’ does not extend to living her life according to her own sense of identity. Her means of escape from an unsatisfying marriage is to take up with another man, who is financially more secure.
Her independence, therefore, is less economic than Lily’s and less revolutionary than Maggie’s.
Young woman who, like most young people, wants to experience a better, more exciting life.
Both the apple of her father’s eye and the recipient of his aggression.
Her role in the drama is more plot driven than many others in the play, nonetheless, she is a convincing character.
She acts as an agent of John’s guilt by revealing how wide the disparity is between the family’s ambitions and their social and economic reality.
She becomes disenchanted with the restrictions poverty imposes so she leaves home, leaving John and Maggie heartbroken.
Jenny highlights John’s inability to find work and provide the kind of life she wants (and he would like to provide) and thus deepens his feelings of guilt and his subsequent aggression.
Jenny’s second role in the drama is to act as a deus ex machina, a method of providing a neat, resolved ending to the play.
Whether we accept the likelihood of her reappearance at the end (with enough money to save the family from their slum dwellings and thus return Bertie to the bosom of his family), the fact remains that her reappearance provides the resolutions of the thematic drive of the play.
All may end happily, but it is not through a restoration of the order as it existed at the beginning of the play; it is through an imposition of a new order, an order created by the women of the play.
The central thematic issue of Maggie’s journey to self-assertion is the main theme of the play and is carefully plotted. Jenny’s role in setting this up is very important.
Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Bone –
In Havergal’s 1982 production for 7:84, the three neighbours were observed to act like a Greek chorus.
As such, they behave as both insiders (characters within the drama) and outsiders (commentators on the action).
These characters emphasise the social control exerted by men (their husbands), the strength of the female community and their social experience (gathering for tea without their men, making jokes about them out of earshot and, therefore, safely), whilst also passing judgement on the implications of the existing state of affairs in Maggie’s domestic life.
HOMEWORK EXERCISE 2: PICK AND COMPLETE EITHER EXERCISE A OR B. YOU MAY WISH TO COMPLETE THE OTHER DURING YOUR OWN PERSONAL STUDY TIME.
HAVING READ THE PLAY YOU WILL HAVE COME TO YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS ABOUT CHARACTERS AND EVENTS. SELECT EITHER MAGGIE OR JOHN AND MAKE NOTES ON THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS USING QUOTATIONS AND EXAMPLES FROM THE PLAY TO JUSTIFY ANY POINTS THAT YOU MAKE. YOU MAY WISH TO DO THE SAME FOR THE OTHER CHARACTER AS PART OF YOUR REVISION.
Maggie – the mother
Maggie / Alec / Isa
Do you think that Maggie is a good mother to Alec? Is Alec a good son?
How good a mother-in-law is she? Is Isa a good daughter-in-law?
How well does Maggie handle her relationship with Alec and Isa?
Why do you think Maggie slaps Isa and never hits Alec?
Does Maggie always make the best decisions where Alec and Isa are concerned?
Maggie / Jenny
Do you think Maggie is a good mother to Jenny? Is Jenny a good daughter?
Is Jenny right to leave home when she does? How does Maggie react to this?
Do you think that Maggie should accept Jenny’s offer of money in the last act?
Does Maggie always make the best decisions where Jenny is concerned?
Maggie / younger children
Is Maggie a good mother to her younger children? What do you think about her behaviour toward Edie and Ernest in particular?
Does she always make the best decisions where her younger children are concerned?
How does she feel about Bertie’s illness and his subsequent hospital stay?
Do you admire Maggie the mother?
Maggie – the wife
Is Maggie a good wife to John?
Is Maggie a stronger character than John?
Why do you think that they have stayed together for so long?
What do you think about her behaviour towards John in the final scene?
Do you think that she has ever behaved this way before?
Do you think that she still loves John at the end of the play?
Do you admire Maggie the wife?
Maggie – the sister
Do you think that Maggie relies too much on Lily?
Do you think that she is a stronger or weaker character than Lily?
Do you think Maggie likes Lily and vice-versa?
Do you think that Maggie stands up for herself when facing Lily?
Do you admire Maggie the sister?
Maggie – the daughter-in-law
Is Maggie a good daughter-in-law?
Does her mother-in-law think that Maggie is a good daughter-in-law?
Could Maggie do more for her mother-in-law?
Maggie – the neighbour
How well does Maggie get on with her neighbours?
Do you think that there is a true solidarity between them?
Do you think they that truly like one another?
John – the father/father-in-law
John / Alec / Isa
Do you think that John is a good father to Alec? Is Alec a good son?
How does John truly feel about Alec?
Do you think that John is a good father-in-law to Isa? Is Isa a good daughter-in-law to John?
How well does John handle his interactions with Isa? Is he really attracted to Isa as Maggie suggests in the last act?
Does John always make the best decisions where Alec and Isa are concerned?
John / Jenny
Do you think that John is a good father to Jenny? Is Jenny a good daughter?
How does John react to Jenny leaving home? Why does he react in this way?
Why does John refuse Jenny’s money in the last act? Do you think that he is right to do so?
Does John always make the right decisions where Jenny is concerned?
John / younger children
Is John a good father to his younger children?
Does he behave toward them in the way that you would expect from a 1930’s working class father?
How do you think that he feels about Bertie’s illness and subsequent hospital stay?
Do you admire John the father?
John – the husband
Is John a good husband to Maggie?
Do you think that he treats her well?
Do you think that he gives her the help and support that she needs?
Do you think that he will still love and respect Maggie after the last scene in the play?
Do you admire John the husband?
John - the brother-in-law
How does John act towards Lily? Why does he act this way?
In your opinion, how does John really feel about Lily? Why does he feel this way?
Do you think John is always fair to Lily?
ANSWER THE FOLLOWING BASED ON ‘MEN SHOULD WEEP’. MAKE REFERENCE TO THE TEXT IN ALL OF YOUR RESPONSES.
Describe the traditional role of women at the time in which the play was set.
Are there any particular ‘male’ or ‘female’ interests mentioned in the play?
Identify the various roles played by women in the play – wives, mothers, daughters, etc and briefly describe one character that conforms to each of these roles.
What are the women's attitudes to men in the play?
What are the women’s attitudes to the ‘unseen’ men mentioned in the play? (Mr. Bone, etc)
Do you think that the women are happy/content with their lives? Justify your answer.
Do you think that the playwright’s portrayal of women of the time is accurate? Give reasons for your answer.
SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND POLITICAL DIMENSIONS
MEN SHOULD WEEP is clearly concerned with both the social conditions and the political dimensions of the time in which it is set.
The play’s political dimensions include:
The effects of poverty, unemployment and poor housing on the traditional family unit – and by extension, society at large; and, more importantly
The play’s feminist perspective as seen through Maggie’s liberation.
The 1930’s backdrop against which the events of the family saga are played out cannot be ignored. This political dimension does not, however, operate independently from its social dimension and the development of the play’s ideas; its political implications are a subtle reinforcement of the oppressive, destructive conditions, which adversely affect social and domestic relationships. This aspect if further reinforced by the central concern of the play: Maggie’s journey to self-assertion and independence is mirrored by the family’s future move to better housing at the end of the play.
The social conditions suffered by families, like the Morrison’s, are detailed earlier under Use of History and Nostalgia. However, it is important that we look once again at how these social conditions affect the family in the play itself. The play is set in a tenement home in the East End of Glasgow. The set itself makes a statement about the social effects of poverty, with stage directions such as:
Nappies hang on a string across the fireplace and the table, dresser, etc are in a clutter. P.1
A space has been cleared, centre, for a mattress on the floor with pillows, blankets and old coats. P.18
Ernest appears at the door…and stands there in his bare feet and wearing an old coat over tattered pyjamas. P.25
The action and dialogue of the play also further reveal the family’s lack of what we, today, would consider to be necessities:
Lily: Pull up yer stockins. Have ye nae suspenders?
Edie: Suspenders? No.
Lily: Well, have ye no garters?
Edie: No, Auntie Lily.
Lily: Well, have ye nae elastic in yer breeks?
Edie: I’ve nae breeks. P.5.
Although this small scene is humorous and almost nostalgic in tone, the family are clearly suffering because of their situation. The plight of the family shows the effect of Governmental policy on the individual. The lives of the characters are affected by the lack of work available for the breadwinner. The characters are victims of the establishment – born into poverty. The hardship that the characters endure exemplifies the effect that Government policy and action (or lack thereof) has on the lives of the people. In this sense, the play could be described as a socialist drama:
John: Hundreds o us, Maggie, beggin for the chance tae earn enough for food and a roof ower our heids. P.15.
Maggie: …I dinnae ken whit they dirty rotten buggers in Parliament are daein wi ma money, but they’re daein something. John says…
Lily: Ach I’m no wantin tae hear whit John says aboot they bliddy capitalists. I’ve heard it a’. P. 6.
John: Things’ll no aye be like this, Jenny. I ken it’s no the hame for you yer mammy an me would like, but it’s no oor fault. It’s…the way things are.
Jenny: Ach! It’s aye bad luck wi you. Every time you loss yer job it’s bad luck.
John: Well, so it is bad luck! There’s a depression on! D’ye no understaun? P.26
The desperation felt by John, the ‘breadwinner’, as a result of his inability to provide for his family, is clearly demonstrated in his speech on page 40 of the play, referred to earlier in the Issues of Gender section. It states very clearly the effect that poverty has, not just on the family, but also on a person’s self-respect and emotional state. Thus, the political has become the personal.
It might be remembered, too, that 7:84 chose to produce a revised version of the text and play in the 1980’s, and that this choice, by a declared socialist theatre company, must have some political relevance.
As mentioned earlier, it might be argued that MEN SHOULD WEEP is about female emancipation and merely passes comment on social deprivation. If there is anything political about this subject matter it must rest within the issue of power. Politics embraces many issues, and one of its most important is the nature of power and control.
In Act three, the dominance, control and power exerted by the men in the society is aptly illustrated by the three female neighbours’ hasty exits. Mrs Bone’s husband bangs on his floor, demanding that his wife return to her domestic duties; Mrs Wilson leaves in case Mr Wilson is waiting for his food; Mr Harris bangs on Maggie’s door for his wife, and while Mrs Harris says she doesn’t need him and implies that she has a modicum of control over her husband, she pointedly adds that what she does need is his wage.
Power is maintained and justified through various means:
1. Physical violence (or the threat of it) -
In Act one Mrs Bone is heard above being beaten by her drunken husband
John, however uncharacteristically, threatens Maggie with violence when coming to Isa’s aid after Isa criticises both Alec and Maggie
Alec nearly kills Isa in Act three. Although he is unsuccessful, he exits the play threatening to achieve his goal.
2. Economic dependency -
Mrs Harris needs her husband’s wages
Although both Isa and Jenny claim to be independent, they both leave for men who can provide for them financially
Lily and Lizzie are the only characters who refuse to conform to this norm by becoming women of independent means and both are criticised for the way in which they achieve their self-sufficiency (Lizzie’s husband is deceased but she has not re-married or taken another partner, however, was this a conscious decision on her part or merely circumstance?)
When Mrs Bone is beaten in Act one, Maggie actually offers an allowance for this kind of behaviour, ‘If ye’ve got weans, ye’ve got tae pit up wi the fella that gied ye them’ P. 11
Maggie works as a cleaner to help support the family, but is still expected to do all of her domestic duties, even though neither John nor Alec are working. Although she puts up a brief resistance to this, she quickly retakes her role as ‘skivvy’ and apologises for her earlier refusal.
Maggie’s journey is one of self-assertion and empowerment. However, by the end of the play, would she still offer such a justification for the way in which Mr Bone exerts power and control over his wife? Even though she has managed to usurp the balance of power and control in her own marriage, would she still make allowances for such behaviour in the relationships experienced by other women because it is a socially accepted norm?
At this point, we must ask ourselves ‘What is power?’ –
Is it the capacity to do?
Who has it?
How is it measured / awarded / allocated / recognised?
Power is associated with position and status; with control over a situation (or people or organisation); with the ability to makes decisions and effect change as a result.
Power rests with those in authority; it is, therefore, viewed as legitimate.
But power does have its constraints – laws, rules and regulations, either written or commonly understood. Abuse of power occurs when these constraints are broken, ignored or manipulated.
If the above is true, who is guilty of abuse of power within the play? The men who exert undue control over their women (however this seems to be commonly understood and accepted, even by the women themselves), or Maggie, who, by asserting her own power, breaks the social mores of the time?
It is easy to see, therefore, how Maggie’s journey is a political one as well as a personal one. There is a clear inversion of the commonly held ideas about how the typical family unit is both perceived and operated. By charting Maggie’s progress from oppressed wife and mother - a woman who provides justification for spousal abuse and the oppression of women- through her growing disenchantment with the state of her relationships, to her eventual seizing of control over her own and her family’s future, the play challenges the existing social and political state of affairs and questions the role of women in society, both in the time in which it was set, written and read. If the feminist cause is political, as it surely is, it must also be said that MEN SHOULD WEEP promotes this political point of view.
A deeper examination of both the original and more contemporary productions of MEN SHOULD WEEP may offer an insight into the political dimensions of the play and how these issues are still relevant today in contemporary society.
The original production of the play by Glasgow Unity Theatre was controversial, being both heavily applauded and criticised. Glasgow Unity Theatre was part of a movement of left wing workers’ societies that sprang up in Britain in the 1930’s and 40’s. In Scotland, Miners’ Welfare Institutes, local branches of Communist, Labour and Independent Labour Parties and Co-operative Societies, to name a few, all formed working class, popular theatre companies.
Unity theatre productions often employed audience participation, its common themes were generally about workers’ lives and the productions encouraged worker solidarity. The productions adopted a broad array of performance styles such as agit-prop (agitation propaganda), songs, comedy and pantomimic elements to satirise establishment values (the first of Brecht’s plays to be performed in London was produced by a Unity theatre company). This style owed something to the ‘Red Revues’ of continental Europe in the 1920’s which drew upon the ‘Variety’ nature of traditional revue programmes (sketches, song, dance, topical and satirical comedy, sentiment, nostalgia, slapstick) but used them is such a way as to illustrate establishment corruption and exploitation and to promote left wing politics. Through the eighties and early nineties, 7:84’s political approach and theatrical style, certainly in the CHEVIOT, were direct descendants of this theatrical movement (it might be argued that the CHEVIOT is a Red Revue).
The principal intent behind this theatrical movement was to fight fascism
(the 1930s were clearly a time of great conflict) and then to militate for a new, revolutionary society; one which the movement thought that it had helped set into motion with the election of the Labour government immediately after the end of the second World War.
After the 1939 – 45 war, the Unity theatres, and the movement in general, set out to portray working class life in as a realistic a light as possible and to celebrate its experience whilst the more ‘conventional’ theatrical approach was concerned with the lives of ‘Great Men’; the rich and the famous, escapist romances and comedies and the world as an unchanging, and unchangeable, entity.
The 1982 production by 7:84 shared its political outlook with that of the 1947 production in that both companies held left wing sympathies. Both companies also had similar production styles.
However, there was a marked difference in the two productions. The difference lies with the theatrical conventions of the two distinct periods of time in which they were produced. The 1947 production was a piece of social realism. It attempted to depict the minutiae (tiny details) of social life as authentically as possible and place within the classic box set an array of fully drawn, psychologically developed characters. It was deliberately dour with no attempt to relieve the squalor or to detract from the realism of the piece for the sake of mere entertainment.
In doing so, it courted criticisms levelled on the basis that it did not represent the world accurately. These criticisms were particularly vehement (strong) in Glasgow, where the dominant ideological and social values were very male orientated. Male audiences did not appreciate the exploration of the female experience, or the critical investigation of male power: this audience felt under attack for its indolence (laziness), brutality and chauvinism. Also, remember that the slums of the East End of Glasgow were not completely without happiness; there were moments of contentment or even joy, and the play does provide opportunities for this to be portrayed. However, the Unity production chose to play this down in favour of a more gritty approach. Perhaps Glasgow audiences felt patronised and misrepresented and that there lives were more worthy than those depicted on stage.
The play did have good reviews as well, however, and played particularly successfully in Edinburgh and London.
The 7:84 production broke the naturalist mode of the ‘box-set’ and the realism of its performance style for the same reasons that the 1947 production kept them intact: to encourage the audience to view the events critically. It adopted an epic, ‘revolutionary’ production.
MEN SHOULD WEEP was written rather traditionally, with three acts, one set and a fourth wall, and was an attempt to represent the world realistically by holding a mirror up to nature. Whilst the Unity production honoured Lamont’s stylistic approach and sought to produce gritty social realism, the 1982 7:84 production went in a different direction in terms of how the piece was staged and the performance concepts employed.
To capture the element of social and political sharpness inherent in the play, and because Giles Havergal (the director) saw within the text certain ‘epic’ concerns, the 1982 production adopted a stylised, non-naturalistic mode of performance. ‘Epic’ concerns might be identified as being the recognisably naturalistic yet stylised quality of the dialogue, or the potential to deal with progressive social issues as objectively as possible, thereby forcing the audience to think critically about the action rather than being mere passive recipients of light entertainment.
The following example gives an idea of the ways in which this particular performance concept ‘opened up’ the play for contemporary audiences: Havergal decided to dispense with the box set and this design encouraged the audience to see the Morrison home, not as an isolated and separate microcosm, but as part of the social world in which it existed. The Morrison home was seen to be part of the wider community and, therefore, the audience was encouraged to view its problems within society at large - problems which could not ignored and which should be confronted and resolved, not least by themselves.
The critic for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, Michael Billington, described the set thus in his review of the production, ‘a grey pile of dilapidated junk from which the characters emerge like so many ghosts; people watch scenes that they are not in; neighbours circle round like swooping birds; make-up is deliberately exaggerated with eyes shadowed by gashes of fatigue; jazz plays off stage’.
Havergal also staged the play in 1998 at the Citizen’s theatre with the
In-house company and this revival shared many of the characteristics of the 1982 production. When characters were not involved in a scene for instance, they took their place on an A-shaped seating area at the back of the stage and watched the action. There was no box set and the actors were gaunt and pitiful in appearance, wearing blacks and greys and with white faces and heavy black bags under their eyes.
Further to the differences in productions styles between the 1947 and 1982 productions, the 7:84 production had critically different plot developments also:
John – starts drinking again, gets John – hypocritically refuses Jenny’s
Maggie pregnant against doctor’s whores winnins and is then shamed
advice and leaves home. into accepting them.
Maggie – dies in childbirth. Maggie– shames John into accepting
Granny – sent to poorhouse. Granny – shunted from son to
Alec – murders Isa. Alec – fails to kill Isa but vows to
get both her and her new man.
Jenny – comes home destitute. Jenny – comes to visit having found
a ‘sugar daddy’ and with the money
to rescue the family from their
Bertie – dies of TB. Bertie – seems to be recovering and
will return home.
The changes to the play reveal the modernity of the play’s theme. Maggie does not merely ‘live’ and then die, indirectly, because of her husband’s rampant sexuality – her character develops from oppressed wife to enlightened woman. John remains to be shamed and to provide Maggie with a renewed relationship, one that undergoes change and is seen to be possible. The melodrama of the original production (destitution, death and murder) is substituted for an investigation of social conditions and a radical, political lesson in personal development. The socialist approach of the 1947 production has been maintained but also extended to include a more definite feminist agenda.
Two female critic’s comments from 1947 show how the play was received in differing ways. Winifred Bannister wrote that ‘the bitter vitriolic tirade against the male of the species is its greatest weakness’, while Nancy Brysson Morrison was, ‘grateful for the antiseptic acidity of ‘Aunt Lily’.
Interestingly, both these comments centre on the role of Lily rather than Maggie. Mackenney makes the point that the revised ending of the play resolves Lily’s role in the drama by not elevating her views on men to a position of victory but instead places them in contrast with Maggie’s views, both at the beginning (when Maggie is submissive) and at the end (when she is in control but not, like Lily, triumphant).
Maggie emerges from the 1982 production as a fully liberated woman (not so in the 1947 production) and as the character for whom the audience is most concerned. The two critics’ comments from 1947 do, however, provide the stimulus for a valuable discussion for today –
Just how realistic is Maggie’s journey to self-empowerment (in the 1982 version)?
Whilst Maggie is clearly a feminist icon for more contemporary audiences, was she simply a martyr in the original version written in 1947?
From what you know of the first version of the play, was her journey to self-assertion and empowerment as clear then as it is today, if present at all?
Is the piece a moral tale? a piece of political propaganda? a distortion of history?
Does it promote its cause in an unrealistic or unlikely manner?
Are its intentions just and justified?
Is its representation of working class life believable and, if not, does this matter?
HOMEWORK EXERCISE 3: EXPLAIN HOW STUDYING ‘MEN SHOULD WEEP’ HAS HELPED YOU TO UNDERSTAND THE SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE TIME IN WHICH THE PLAY IS SET. WRITE DOWN YOUR CONCLUSIONS.