Playwright and screen-writer Trevor Griffiths uses his art to intervene politically in the events of our time. Born in Manchester in 1935 of Irish and Welsh descent, Griffiths is perhaps best-known for writing the original screenplay for Reds, Warren Beattie’s 1981 film about John Reed and the Bolshevik Revolution.
His politically-acute work has stretched over more than four decades. During this time he has been concerned not only to explore moments of history which he sees as especially significant for the working-class, but also to render these “usable”. That is, to remind the class-audience about what happened and why, and to do so in ways which allow it to draw contemporary conclusions that will advance its interest.
Griffiths’ early play The Party asked what form and direction the revolutionary party should take in the aftermath of the events of May 68. It did so by presenting on the main stage of the National Theatre a closely-argued debate between New Leftists and a Trotskyist (based, it is said, on Gerry Healy).
In Occupations, whose immediate context was the workers’ takeover of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Griffiths staged a clash between two versions of Marxist political action and motivation as embodied by Italian CP leader Antonio Gramsci and a representative figure from the pre-Stalinist Comintern. Commissioned to write one episode of the BBC’s 1974 costume-drama series Fall of Eagles about the lead-up to World War One, Griffiths was able to unfold before millions at a time of major union militancy the events and arguments of the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which culminated in the Bolshevik/Menshevik split.
As Labourism ran into the sand in the later 1970s Griffiths wrote a TV series, Bill Brand, scrutinising the fate of a newly-elected left-leaning Labour MP. The series explored the relationship in the struggle for socialism between those inside Parliament and those outside it, and explored the limits imposed by social democracy.
thatcher and after
As Thatcherism consolidated, Griffiths’ 1981 screenplay Country: A Tory Story anatomised the ruthless manoeuvrings within the ruling class to ensure its continued hegemony despite the landslide Labour victory in 1945.
Oi For England, the following year, engaged with the rise of racism in riot-torn contemporary Britain, linking it explicitly to organised neo-fascist attempts to draw in rebellious white youth. In Reaganite America Griffiths wrote Real Dreams, examining the continuing potential of revolutionary hopes. As the Cold War drew towards its culmination, Griffiths’ 1987 screenplay Fatherland used the thriller format to scrutinise capitalism’s hollow claims to moral and political superiority, and the betrayals of Stalinism. In the 1990s Griffiths wrote scripts and screenplays about the first Gulf War, Nye Bevan, and the legacy of Thatcherism, and involved himself with community theatre-projects.
Some ventures, notably an early 1970s play about Tom Mann and the successful Liverpool Dock Strike of 1911, a film about the ANC, and a non-realist play set simultaneously in the aftermath of the General Strike and of the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, have never reached screen or stage.
These Are The Times, Griffiths’ play (originally screenplay) about Thomas Paine, looked set to share a similar fate but a truncated and adapted version was broadcast on radio last summer, and the Globe Theatre in London is currently staging a revised version, now called A New World.
more art than biography
These Are The Times opens with Paine’s arrival in that New World, and uses Paine’s life from that moment to examine how a revolution comes to be made, and how making one effects the lives of some of those involved.
Much more a work of art than a biography, Griffiths explores the complex interaction between individual and social context with an eye for ironies, but also with due weight given to triumph, honesty and integrity. Class-issues are foregrounded rather than veiled.
In the newly-victorious United States of America (a designation Paine coined) Paine is sidelined by the money-grubbing merchant-class for attempting to expose corruption. When he arrives in revolutionary France, tellingly unable to speak the language, Paine’s interpreter explains to him and us the difference in class-composition between the bourgeois Jacobin and the worker-based Cordeliers Clubs. Political discourse is always shown to be rooted in class-positions, and a character’s attitude to property, money and sexuality can be read as a marker of their politics.
Although his works sell by the hundreds of thousands, Paine never makes money from them. He gives his royalties from Common Sense to help clothe Washington’s Army. While Burke receives in secret a vast pension from the Tories for selling-out his progressive principles and attacking the ideas of the French Revolution, Paine has Rights of Man published for sixpence to ensure the widest number may read it.
Griffiths makes Paine a man of courage, dedicated to telling the truth as he sees it despite potential disadvantage to himself. One character observes he has “a talent for saying the right thing at the wrong time”. This combination of moral and political courage is a recurring feature of Griffiths’ central male characters (and Griffiths’ work is male-centred.)
His portrayal of Paine seems to me prevented from being sentimentally heroic partly because Paine is not the only one shown to live this way, partly because the adverse consequences of doing so are not sugared, and partly because it accords with the historical record. Paine did attempt, for example, to persuade the French National Assembly to exile rather than execute the deposed King Louis. In effect, he tries to hold back the approaching Terror. Doing so helped ensure he would fall under suspicion, be imprisoned and risk execution himself.
In America Paine’s contribution to the struggle for independence was effaced and all-but-forgotten for decades. Griffiths has Paine scan a long wall in the White House hung with portraits of the Founding Fathers. His picture is not among them. The screenplay is an act of restoration, and a bulwark against contrived official forgetting.
Griffiths frequently includes Paine’s own words in the screenplay, and those of contemporaries preserved in the historical record. These mesh skilfully with the invented dialogue, closing the gap between Paine’s times and our own even as the on-screen images declare the distance. Paine is and is not like us. The social forces shaping his era, and which Griffiths dramatises, remain recognisably those which shape ours.
The battles for democracy, and for equality of rights, are not yet fully won. Capital remains dominant. Our knowledge of the outcome of the events his characters experience enables Griffiths to set up resonant ironies or comment silently. Victorious, General Washington is shown sitting for his portrait draped in a Roman toga, the embodiment of political spin. Members of the new American ruling-class, accused by Paine of running the country as “a god-damn business”, are visually linked to lavatories and to hogs. The desire to achieve a just and properly-ordered society is symbolised in the precision timepieces, compasses and orreries made by Paine’s pro-independence friend Rittenhouse.
By using such visual symbols, and by returning to verbal motifs throughout the screenplay, Griffiths thickens the texture of the work. We are helped to believe in this world and its people, and to care about them. At the same time we are encouraged to think about what we are shown.
Griffiths uses a range of techniques to offset any tendency to become fully absorbed only in the narrative. Franklin addresses us directly at the outset, tutoring us in the material realities of colonial America and presenting the driving idea: “When the world changes, it’s people do the changing, masses of ‘em… it’s not just a famous handful involved…” By dividing the (original) screenplay into two almost-equal halves and then setting up correspondences and contrasts across the divide, Griffiths prompts us make connections and so begin critically to assess what we are seeing and hearing.
The clash of ideas, values and political interests which the screenplay develops and explores is made available for our own intellectual as well as emotional engagement.
Griffiths also shapes our view of Paine by what he leaves out. For example, he ignores Paine’s backing in the 1780s for the Bank of Pennsylvania, which would become the Bank of America. Griffiths chooses to focus on Paine’s involvement in the revolutionary years in America and France, and on his commitment to republican, egalitarian and democratic principles.
His Paine is a character in a shaped work of art, whose truth overbears biographical fidelity, as was the case in Griffiths’ earlier portrayal of Gramsci in Occupations. Griffiths justifies his approach in a foreword to that play, arguing he is trying in his dramatisation of historical characters to present the most characteristic and central features of a social crisis. His Gramsci or Paine, his Tom Mann or Nye Bevan, may not be faithful to all the known facts, but they are true to the essential meaning of these people in history.
Griffiths’ formal skill and subtlety are always at the service of the dialectic in each piece of work, its developing argument. They help make this live in the memory, and resonate. They also add a vital extra dimension, that of tying the historical argument to our own time.
Griffiths’ Thomas Paine might be dismissed because his politics are pre-socialist, or because the language of human rights he helped develop has been co-opted by liberals, or because President Obama reinforced his rhetoric on Inauguration Day with a little of Paine’s own. I think Paine should be read as an exemplar of the kind of activity and attitude required of revolutionaries now. We need something of the same inventiveness, commitment, endurance and willingness to speak plainly from principled conviction in order to connect with the class whose interests we would further.
• These Are The Times: A Life of Thomas Paine by Trevor Griffiths; Spokesman Books £15
Life and times
Becky Crocker went to see an adaptation of Trevor Griffith’s play about Thomas Paine. A New World is at the Globe Theatre until 9 October
Here is the life of a man who was actively involved in the American and French revolutions and wrote works that transformed political ideas and struggles. This production puts flesh on the subject by creating a likeable, cocksure and impatient Thomas Paine, who thrashes and strides around the theatre.
This production could well have been subtitled, “The Life and Times of...” as the physical space of the theatre is used effectively to recreate the buzz and bustle of a society bristling with political ideas. Actors move through the standing audience, making them part of busy street scenes, or an audience at political meetings. The huge cast forms a “chorus” who sing specially-composed “folk” songs, voicing the mood of the times: the Americans suffering under the British, baying for blood at Louis XVI’s execution.
The Globe theatre, a non-elitist setting in Shakespeare’s time, where audiences used to heckle and throw apple cores at performers, is fitting for a play about popular struggle.
Paine’s own words are the star of the show. Voiced by Paine himself, or Benjamin Franklin the narrator, or nameless members of the cast, the words that created the mood for America’s revolution still stir us today. From Common Sense we hear:
“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age, O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
We leave with some of the play’s final words ringing in our ears:
“The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.”
Hauntingly resonant with us because over 200 intervening years have not realised Paine’s basic radical democratic egalitarian vision.
The first half set in America works better than the second, almost like a complete play in itself. Paine is part of the action: invited by the Founding Fathers to help draft the constitution, fighting in the war of independence. It has political coherence too. Paine’s radicalism starts off inspiring the revolution but in the end outstrips how far the revolution is prepared to go. Paine exposes a corrupt member of the government, asking, “what is the use of the revolution if America becomes a company for the profit of the already-wealthy?” He warns that America will regret excluding slave emancipation from the constitution. He is a lone, principled and prescient voice when he leaves the US for France.
In France Paine is an outsider. He relies on Carnet for his introduction to the political scene and is separated by language. He is politically isolated. He insists on making a pacifist speech before Louis XVI’s execution, and despairs about the “Terror” even before it has begun. Events in the second half are more of a whirlwind, mirroring Paine’s confused political trajectory.
Just a word about the play’s love interest and depiction of the women characters. In America, Paine falls in love with his landlady, a woman of traditional values but who has written an article on women’s rights. It is a plausible and touching love story.
In the second half, a flirtation starts up with Carnet almost on their first encounter. And we sigh, “here we go again”. It is regrettable that the play’s only two female characters, although political in their own right, function primarily as love interest for Thomas Paine. At the end of the play Carnet gives up her political life to tend to an aging Paine on their ranch in America. Maybe this is just biographical fact, but it does not sit well with a play about Paine’s radical vision. The women appeared to be presented as “political” only to make them more feisty and tempting.