Workers' Theatre Movement
WORKERS' THEATRE MOVEMENT.USSR
The Workers' Theatre Movement (WTM) is the collective term for revolutionary left-wing theater groups in the interwar period in the USSR, Germany, Britain, and the United States. The WTM of the 1920s and 1930s built upon existing traditions of radical theater, particularly in Germany and Britain. But the Workers' Theatre groups of the interwar period represented a movement distinct from their radical antecedents. The dramatic groups of which the WTM consisted were all politically orientated to the Communist Party. Earlier radical theater in these countries had been loosely allied to socialist or quasi-socialist movements and organizations in their respective countries. The association of interwar Workers' Theatre with the Communist Party, however, gave the movement international connection, organization, political outlook, and impetus.
Workers' Theatre began in the USSR after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and was closely allied to the aims of the state and the party, becoming an integral part of the revolutionary process in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. The Russian Workers' Theatre directly influenced an equivalent organized movement in Germany after 1927, formed out of disparate agitprop groups that had existed since 1920. German agitprop, in turn, inspired the formation of a British equivalent, the Workers' Theatre Movement, after the General Strike of 1926, which in turn influenced the formation of a concomitant WTM in the United States after 1928. The WTM in the United States was radical and strongly pro-communist, and many of its interwar participants suffered during the height of government anticommunist hysteria in the early to mid-1950s.
In the Soviet Union, radical revolutionary theater groups were brought together in 1919 under the umbrella organization Terevsat (Theater of Revolutionary Satire). Terevsat made use of genres such as operetta, revue, vaudeville, and chastushki (traditional folk verse), to propagate revolutionary principles. Historians of this movement emphasize the importance of Terevsat in the early Soviet Union. Although the USSR was the first revolutionary socialist state, the peoples of the new Soviet Union were predominantly agricultural peasants, and levels of illiteracy were high. Through the medium of theater, socialist principles were conveyed to rural as well as urban workers.
Terevsat was the direct antecedent of the Blue Blouse (Sinyaya Bluza) movement, founded in 1923. Blue Blouse started as a biweekly newspaper, inspired by the Institute of Journalism in the USSR, and provided organized ideological influences for Workers' Theatre. Blue Blouse soon became the umbrella organization for Workers' Theatre in the USSR, displacing Terevsat as the organ of party and state. By 1927, Blue Blouse companies consisted of more than seven thousand workers' circles, as well as five professional theater groups. Blue Blouse coexisted with other Workers' Theatre groups in the Soviet Union, but was the most influential group during the turbulent 1920s.
Historians credit Blue Blouse with being a significant and popular tool in the transformation of Russian society during the early Soviet era. Blue Blouse contributed to the rise of literacy and agitated for measures relevant to its audiences. Blue Blouse's use of popular humor and styles made their performances accessible to the masses without formal education. By the late 1920s, however, the formula that gave them their initial success had led to stagnation of style and creativity. Presentations were didactic, simplistic portrayals of correct and incorrect ideas and social actions. The journal ceased publication in 1928, superseded by other, more Stalinist publications. The Blue Blouse companies finally met their demise in the early 1930s, with the rise of the Stalinist faction in the Bolshevik Party. The theory of socialist realism, propagated by the Stalinists, demanded large and culturally affirmative theatrical productions. The simplistic agit-revue techniques of Blue Blouse were ill suited to the new propaganda requirements.
Although Blue Blouse stagnated and, within a relatively short time, declined in the USSR, the companies left a legacy that was enormously influential in Workers' Theatre organizations in other countries. In 1927 Blue Blouse companies toured workers' clubs in Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, and China. Their work was reviewed in the United States, Denmark, and Germany. In Germany, their work was fundamental to the organization of Workers' Theatre. Communist agitprop theater had flourished in Germany with the foundation of the International Bureau of Proletkult in 1920. This movement spawned a variety of Communist theater groups, but these groups were factional, poorly organized, and short lived. Some, such as the Proletkult Kassel and the Proletarian Theater of Piscator, survived long enough in the early to mid-1920s to be of influence in the later WTM.
Nonetheless, the development of organizations such as the German Workers Theater League and the Communist Youth League of Germany, formed the nub of a Workers' Theatre Movement after 1926. The visit of the Moscow company of Blue Blouse in 1927 galvanized German agitprop groups into collective action. Agitational theater groups formed in most German cities during 1928, directly inspired by Blue Blouse's style. German groups took the simplistic approach of Blue Blouse and developed it for a more sophisticated and educated urban proletarian audience. A new, all-encompassing organization, the Workers' Theater League of Germany (Internationaler Arbeiter-Theater-Bund Deutschlands, or ATBD) was formed in 1928 to replace older, petit bourgeois workers' theater associations. The ATBD rapidly became the organized agitprop branch of the revolutionary movement in Germany, and the outlook of the league was distinctly international. The ATBD played a pivotal role in the foundation of the International Workers' Theater League in 1929.
The WTM flourished in Germany in the late 1920s. This was partly due to the enthusiastic attitudes of the German Communist leadership, whereas the hostility of the Stalinists to Blue Blouse had, in part, led to the decline of WTM in the USSR. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its devastating effects on the economy of Weimar Germany gave the Communist Party and WTM a huge impetus for agitation and an entirely different set of political imperatives than its Soviet counterparts. German WTM eventually collapsed in the crisis of the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, with some of the companies going underground. Many WTM members were arrested, tortured, or killed during 1933 and 1934.
The British WTM developed after the defeat of the General Strike of 1926. In Britain, the WTM consisted of more than thirty dramatic groups in cities throughout the country, all allied to the Communist Party. Predominantly influenced by agitprop theater groups in Germany, the WTM was much smaller in Britain and commanded far less support than in either Germany or the USSR. In spite of mass unemployment among British industrial workers, the Communist Party was unable to persuade workers away from the parliamentary system and the Labour Party. Though WTM in Britain was based upon a long tradition of radical theater, the urban working classes in Britain had a different and much less communitarian social structure than their proletarian equivalents in Germany. Unlike Germany, Britain had neither prominent revolutionary leadership in the interwar period nor a strong tradition of revolutionary politics. This had certain creative consequences. German WTM, particularly after 1927, developed sophisticated versions of the Blue Blouse presentations, evolving as increasing numbers of professional writers and directors became attracted to the movement and as the political crises in Germany intensified. In Britain, WTM productions never got beyond the simple juxtaposition of the plight of the workers in the capitalist system. In addition, WTM in Britain ignored the rich tradition of British workers' folk songs and music, which had formed the basis of the approach created by Blue Blouse in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, inspired by the organization of the ATBD, the dramatic companies of British WTM determined to internationalize, and representatives from the London group attended the first congress of the International Workers' Theatre League in 1930. The British WTM's activities were at their height at the time of the National Hunger March of 1932. From 1931 until 1935, British WTM produced a journal called the Red Stage.
WTM in Britain dissolved in 1936. This was predominantly due to the development of policies by the Communist International of revolution by Popular Front, whereas WTM was firmly rooted in the sectarian approach of class against class. British WTM found itself at odds with the Communist International, and its counterparts in Germany and the USSR had long disappeared. Also, creative and political divisions and splits in WTM between 1933 and 1936 undermined the organization's cohesiveness. The agitprop style of WTM, with its emphasis upon theater on any open platform and using the simplest of performance techniques, was at odds with many professional directors and actors in the movement. The professionals in Britain started a trend toward performance on the curtained stage. The British WTM's legacy was the Unity Theatre Club, formed in 1936. Although Unity Theatre was to produce giants of left-wing theater in the postwar era, such as the director Joan Littlewood, the move to professionalism that led to its formation also meant near-abandonment of its agitprop roots. Agitprop as a genre persisted in Unity Theatre, but as an element, rather than the single method of consciousness-raising by the WTM.
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Loveman, Jack. "Workers' Theatre." Red Letters: Communist Party Literature Journal, no. 13 (1982): 40–46.
McKibben, Ross. The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950. Oxford, U.K., 1990.
Samuel, Raphael. "Editorial Introduction: Documents and Texts from the Workers' Theatre Movement (1928–1936)." History Workshop, no. 4 (1977): 102–110.
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Stourac, Richard, and Kathleen McCreery. Theatre as a Weapon: Workers' Theatre in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Britain, 1917–1934. London, 1986.