Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Pitmen Painters

A synopsis of The Pitmen Painters, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, has a familiar sound: based on a true story, it’s about coal miners who take up painting and astound the art world. But this is not The Full Monty (unemployed British steel workers triumph with a male striptease), Calendar Girls (Yorkshire housewives raise money with a nude calendar) or even Billy Elliot (though that film about a coal miner’s son seeking fame as a ballet dancer is by the writer of this play, Lee Hall.)

 For one thing, it’s no rags-to-riches tale with a big triumphant ending. More impressively, it isn’t a movie, and in its present form wouldn’t work as one. The Pitmen Painters is a peculiarly engaging piece of live theatre.

 It’s 1934 in Ashington, a coal mining town in the north of England. Five men gather after work for a class sponsored by the Workers Educational Association, an organization backed by labor unions and universities that still exists in a thousand UK communities.

 Three are lifelong coal miners: George (played by Lincoln Mitchell,) Oliver (Craig Benson,) and Jimmy (Jerry Nusbaum.) Harry (Gary Sommers) is the Marxist dentist, and a character identified only as “Young Lad” (Joseph Hunt) is unemployed. That he says he’s never had a job is just about the only suggestion of the ongoing Great Depression.

 These men have requisitioned a course in art appreciation, but when their teacher, Robert Lyon (JM Wilkerson) shows up from King’s College, they aren’t interested in his slides and references to the Renaissance. They want to be taught how to look at a painting and know what it means. They want to know the secrets “of what’s going on.”

 Lyon decides that looking at paintings is not the best way for them to focus on such questions. He suggests they paint their own pictures, and they do. The dynamic first act centers around the paintings they produce (images of these works projected above the stage are of the real Ashington Group’s paintings.)

Through their sometimes heated, sometimes funny discussions, we learn about each of them, their lives as miners and their community, while they explore perennial questions about art and life. They talk about everything from where meaning resides (the painting, or the viewer?), intention and effect, and inevitably art, identity and class.

 Even if their vocabulary doesn’t always ring true, they deal with weighty questions through the experience of painting as real and practical work. (Jimmy paints something yellow because he had a lot of yellow paint, which according to Gertrude Stein was the secret of Picasso’s Blue Period.)

 All of this is surprisingly mesmerizing, thanks to the writing and the live interaction physically in front of you. It turns out that entertaining ideas can be entertaining. There is some emotional and plot development, particularly when a wealthy art collector (Cassandra Hesseltine) offers Oliver a stipend equal to his miner’s pay just to paint.

 But partly because these are true events, the second act is more diffuse, and aspects of British history are probably obscure for a U.S. audience. Still, the conflicts of individual and community, specifically in a working class context, may well resonate in Humboldt County.

 The cast is uniformly engaging. Craig Benson is especially effective in the most individualized role. Joseph Hunt is impressive in switching from a working class to upper class character (and accent) for a key scene. Lillian Damron steals her scene as a model who scandalizes the puritanical miners by insisting on posing in the nude. The Pitmen Painters is ably directed by Peggy Metzger and James Hitchcock, with scenic design by Jack Shay, lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Catherine L. Brown, sound by Jon Turney and properties by Laura Rhinehart. It continues at Redwood Curtain weekends through March 9.

The Real Pitmen Painters: the Play and the Reality

The play begins in 1934 in Ashington, a coal mining town in the north of England.  The Great Depression, which began with the New York stock market crash in 1929, had spread worldwide.  England had not fully recovered economically from World War I so it was not as hard a fall, but the consequences were still severe, especially in places like Ashington.  Unemployment in the coal mining north reached 70%.

Though the worst of the Depression may have been over by 1934, it's still odd that it doesn't factor more in this play. It was a horrific time.  In his book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell details the conditions: lack of food and fuel, terrible sanitation and housing, and the general drab deadening drag of life.

 The Depression is not even mentioned by name.  (One character refers to "the recession," an odd choice of word, especially since it wasn't a familiar term for some years yet. It was more likely to have been called a "slump" or the Great Slump.) One suggestion of the impact is that the youngest character ("Young Lad") says that he's never had a job in his life, even though he looks for work every day. Yet the conditions of mining plus the Depression were factors that helped make socialism popular among the working class, which is embedded in this play.  The Marx-quoting dentist in the play is something of a joke, but it's not unrealistic.

There are references to the cramped, damp, dark and dangerous mining conditions, and the fact that the older characters started in the mines at the age of 11 or 12.  Boys would not start quite that young by 1934--a law passed in 1917 required children to stay in school until 15.

Beginning in the mid to late 19th century, the British government began consciously expanding educational opportunities. There were new colleges to educate the lower middle class, partly because growing industrialization required more technicians and "scientists" (a word that was born in this period.) Eventually the working class was included.

Also in the mid 19th century, the Cooperative Movement became established in the UK, and particularly in the industrial north of England, where local co-ops formed an association.  Cooperatives functioned in different ways in different places and times, but education for workers was an early priority.

By the turn of the century, universities were offering extension courses.  So it happened in 1907 that university extensions, the Cooperative movement and particularly trade unions combined to form the Workers Education Association.This is the group that sponsors the art appreciation course that is at the center of The Pitmen Painters.  

  The WEA grew quickly to 70 local branches, and by 1945 there were 800 branches. The Workers Education Association continues to this day, with nearly a thousand centers in the UK.  Throughout its history, the WEA campaigned for worker education, and it was instrumental in getting that 1917 law passed extending the compulsory school age, as well as other laws, such as the 1944 Education Act which promoted equal educational opportunities for the working class.

George--one of the characters in the play--is comically officious, and concerned about the WEA regulations.  But the WEA did have careful regulations.  It centered on a system of tutuorials for classes of no more than 40 members who committed themselves to participating for three years.

There was a WEA art appreciation course that began in the Ashington YMCA in 1934, involving at least  the people named in the play (5 of the original 13.) Ashington had a concert hall, a theatre (home to the Ashington Labour Players) but no library and certainly no art gallery or museum.

 They'd just completed a course on evolution, and--as in the play--a college art instructor, Robert Lyon, came to teach them art appreciation.  He started with slides and lecturing.  In the play he gives that up almost immediately, but in reality it took a few classes for him to come up with the idea of the class members doing their own paintings and talking about them.

Though the play uses images of actual Ashington Group paintings, it probably takes some liberties.  In the play, Jimmy paints a picture of whippets, which he may well have.  But the best known painting of that subject produced by this group was by George Blessed ( a later member not in the play. His nephew is the famous British actor Brian Blessed.)  This might partly be because much of the early work didn't survive.  Having paintings around was often wasted space in a working class culture.

They did formally call themselves the Ashington Group in 1936, and they became somewhat famous in the art world through the 1940s, though they were mostly known as "the pitmen painters."  Though their fame slipped, they continued painting.  By the time they were rediscovered in the 1970s, they had accumulated a large collection of work.  It was writer William Feaver whose book led to their resurgence, and it was his book (which Lee Hall found in a secondhand book shop) that eventually led to this play.  A Guardian article recounts Feaver's eureka moment:

  Their rediscovery began in the 1970s when Mr Feaver, then teaching in Newcastle, noticed some Geordie pensioners at an exhibition in the city's Laing art gallery. "They invited me up to their hut in Ashington and I was amazed," he said. "There were all these paintings, cobwebby and in stacks against the wall, which they called their permanent collection. They spat on their fingers - there was a lot of spit involved with the Ashington Group - and rubbed the paint so that I could see what they looked like when they were clean.

"When you're a critic, you often get invited to discoveries which people describe as wonderful. This is the one occasion in my life when that was absolutely the case. The best of the group would certainly have gone to art school today. Their dedication was humbling."

Oliver Kilbourn and original member Jack Harrison in 1982

The play spends most time with Oliver Kilbourn, generally considered the most talented painter among them.  He never left Ashington, and continued to participate in the painting group.  The play makes much of his opportunity to take a stipend to paint, and his decision to remain in the mines instead.  This may raise all sorts of issues for Americans in or from working class cultures.  The relationship of the individual to the community, and the community's attitudes towards individuals with different ambitions, can be very complicated.

 The play refers to this, and is suggestive, though it goes past it pretty quickly.  But it can be a major issue.  It certainly was where I grew up.  At the time this play is set, my father was growing up in a coal company town in western Pennsylvania.  His father and grandfather were coal miners.  Though the coal mines are long gone, and even the steel mills and much of the other industry, the area retains a working class cultural cast, and certainly did when I was growing up there (though not in that town.)  I suspect there are resonances of this for some of those who grew up in Humboldt County as well.

But Kilbourn himself apparently did not stress this issue.  He claimed to like mining, and he believed that the mines gave him his subject.  Others had painting skills and education, but no subject, he insisted.  It was better to have the subject and acquire the skills.

Kilbourn was the last surviving original member when he managed to preserve the collection before his death in 1993. In 2007 their permanent collection was exhibited and housed in the Woodhorn Colliery complex, with a ceremony officiated by Princess Anne.

The play ends with a scene that is probably puzzling to most Americans, especially in the context of what "socialism" has come to represent these days.  But in England, the period just after World War II was a time of promise and hope, especially for the working class.  The postwar Labour government nationalized coal, steel, rail and utilities, in an attempt to consolidate and modernize these industries, and revive the economy. It was not a controversial move. For workers, especially miners, it meant immediate improvement in working conditions and safety.  Miners were given paid vacations and sick leave for the first time.  The National Health Service was about to begin, bringing free medical care to people who could never afford it.

An historically-minded British audience would know this, and also know that this hope--and the ethic of we're all in this together-- didn't last.   In fact, Lee Hall's film Billy Elliot takes place during the 1980s of union-busting and Maggie Thatcher's budget-cutting and aggressive capitalism that was its antithesis.

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