Whilst chatting with students at Worcester University, I was presented with a flyer for a production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that night in the university, an opportunity not to miss. However my expectation of a theatrical interpretation of this socialist classic by just two actors was very low but this was blown away as soon as the performance began. By use of hymns and songs from the 19th century, comedy, audience participation, puppetry and a fair degree of acting reinforced by a minor quick change of a costume, there was a real depth to the performance. The only problem was a technical failure of the lighting system, which would have added to the atmosphere had it worked, but even under strip fluorescent lights the production was a powerful portrayal of Robert Tressell’s masterpiece.
Unlike other productions I have seen, this play keeps to the kernel of Tressell’s socialist argument and follows the chronological narrative of the book. Having just two actors allows for a fast pace without diluting the story. The hilarious elements of the show are counterposed to the elements of capitalist exploitation. The best comedy is the ‘Money Trick’ where two members of the audience are roped in to help explain profits as the unpaid labour of the workers until the crisis of overproduction is reached and the workers are left to starve. How far the workers have to struggle for survival is seen by the painter Easten who for a job is forced to undercut the other painters by halfpenny an hour, a secret which only comes out at the end in attempt by the bosses to divide the workers from taking collective action.
Tressell, like this play, dose not beautify the workers into saints but reveals all the vulgarities which are within the working class and this comes out in the works outing, ‘The Beano.’ At the Beano Mayor Sweating, in a drunken rage, attacks socialists and praises the Master for being the brains that provides work for the Hands, this provokes one of the workers to a spirited defence of socialists and shows that the workers are not brainless.
To help explain the nature of the boss class, a comic puppet scene helps to outline the corrupt capitalists’ ideology. The play finishes with a debate on which way forward for the working class, with one arguing that workers need to go through the experience of industrial and political organisations of the masses before workers can take power whilst the opposite ultra-left utopian argument is posed that workers can directly organise society without the need for Trade Unions or Labour Party.
Although the venue was a university the overwhelming majority of the audience were trade unionists and socialists which was reflected in the five Socialist Appeals sold at the end of the night.