Present: John Chancer, Marie Collett, Amelie Eberle, Colin Ellwood, Sophie Juge, Jamie Newall, Janine Ulfane, David Whitworth
It’s been a while. The Presence actors’ play reading group has kept going, pretty much monthly, occasionally in-person and regularly on zoom, over an otherwise fairly quiet Presence period. But nothing has reached the blog in almost exactly two years. Hopefully, soon there will be an account of sessions and the plays since the last blog entry on 26th November 2021. In the meantime, to the present: Friday 6th October, 1:30 pm, via zoom. A new season, and a choice turn out of regulars and a new member, to read Steve Gooch’s 1989 play MASSA.
Chosen partly as a foil to the Old Vic’s PYGMALION revival: Richard Jones’ production of that being a makeover of this play-about-a-makeover: Shaw near-transformed into early ‘proto-constructivist’ Brecht - a version of the latter’s motoric MAN EQUALS MAN, with overtones of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, staged at the Old Vic with an ending that doesn’t quite play Brechtian ball, with Higgins finally stubbing his toe on Eliza’s stubborn humanity. Her equivalent of Nora’s exit (Ibsen being very much a model Shaw often aimed at and missed) leads to her playing Higgins at his own game, setting up as a commercial class-shifting phonetician, an ending Shaw/Higgins (a Jekyll/Hyde coupling if ever there was one) specifically ruled out. Lots of implications there to pick at, and overall a really supple production (Pickering and also Higgins's mum being kind of realist 'upright' 'sounding boards' and 'baffles' for the driven, contorted, hunched, scurrying and in many ways matchingly feral Higgins and Eliza). Performance mode is here then (constructivist/realist etc) carefully keyed to character and situation rather than being a wholesale and rigid imposition. But anyway....
MASSA draws on a hugely resonant proto-Pygmalion story, a 'real' one, from a slightly earlier period than Shaw’s, and embedded in the contradictions, constrictions and conundrums of mid-Victorian class anxiety and workers’ rights; a clear-sighted, unsentimental savouring and part-celebrating (maybe 'valuing' is a better term) of working women’s labour, latterly in the context of early activities of the suffragette movement and the Labour movement. It is adapted from the diaries and experiences of Victorian gent and poet Arthur Munby and those of his secret wife, Hanna Culwick, a domestic servant. It addresses issues around gender, desire, class, ageing, self-realisation, cultural and personal authenticity, the nature of and means to artistic success, what true originality – and self-fashioning - in life amounts to, and the impact of power and class in intimate relationships. If all that sounds like very contemporary territory, MASSA does all this through detailed observation and the tacit posing - rather than the explicit answering - of questions, and does this in a way that feels beyond or prior to the hard-edged codifications of current critical formulas. The play's central relationship between Munby and Hannah (as the characters are listed in the published text) in the end also quietly transcends neat formulations by means, ultimately, of a humble, nude, tin-bath baptismal consummation by a rural hearth at aged eighty or so. This progress of this relationship, chronicled over fifty years, is deftly and subtly shaped into the spine of the play. Much is suggested by little, and the complex central psychology, sensitively nurtured and incubated, remains beautifully inexplicit, surely deliciously so for actors and prospective audiences. Gooch is clearly a craftsman of the shaping of silence, for example in catching the earnest awkwardness of strange meetings (of which there are many in this play). No one has quite fathomed the full nature of the historical Arthur/Hannah relationship but it clearly didn’t fit into any of the then-available models. In the play the couple are seen holding steady against the prevailing turbulence in pursuit of a series of hard-won moments of being rawly and unconditionally present to each other, a bond of being rather than knowing, albeit hedged with many lapses into denial, frustration, thoughtlessness, mutual misunderstanding and prejudice; like two small boats trying to hold mutual station in a buffeting sea. Was the marriage even consummated? One of the many quiet strengths of the play is that it seems to imply an expansion of that term beyond the sexual, while still remaining firmly within the orbit of the physical (discuss....). Was an issue simply Arthur’s diffidence? Low libido? Or a conflict over which gender he found attractive? Hanna is keener on sex than Arthur seems to be, but she is also gently understanding of broader possibilities and affordances. Whatever, the couple slowly and sensitively find a way towards their own bespoke method and mode of conjoining. The most direct act of physical intimacy here is in the final scene of the play, when in their 80s and living largely separate lives, Arthur visits Hannah’s rural cottage. She bathes him, and also quietly reveals to him that she has told the local vicar the truth about their married status, so tacitly sealing both their societal and spiritual acceptance Throughout their relationship Hannah occasionally dresses and ‘passes’ as a ‘lady’, but her heart is in her domestic work, and it - it is implied - is mainly through that that her love for Munby is expressed. The complexity of this, and the - sometimes awkward - questions it raises, surely add to the impact and value of the play
Making the play even richer is the embedding of this core action in a 5-actor ensemble portrayal (situationally connected through Arthur’s ‘research’ and campaigning) of women working in a Lancashire coal mine. Like Hannah, the women here are shown as largely loving their work as a form of physical and emotional expression (for all its economically exploitative dimension - which is also acknowledged in the play), which allows them more freedom – and higher wages - than any available alternative employment would. Underground with Gooch's beautifully delineated and individualised characters in their quietly supportive but robustly playful underground team we get a sense of Munby slowly gaining their trust and then to some extent becoming their advocate on the political stage as both he and they grow in confidence and sense of political purpose. Although the exact nature of Munby’s interest in them is (as with Hannah) left unarticulated, there is a sense of his being drawn to a life force in them that he lacks, while also valuing them as individuals and admiring them as workers. Through the changes and developments in this small group, Gooch deftly and sparingly implies the changing political landscape of the women’s suffrage movement and the Labour Party, giving a real sense of a Victorian world slowly transforming into something recognisably Twentieth Century. In achieving this clearsighted and lucid delineation Gooch surely draws on his experience translating and adapting Brecht’s early ‘chronicle’ plays such as THE MOTHER. Tellingly, the final scene with the women mineworkers is without Munby and becomes an emblem of their taking control of their own endeavours and representation as they campaign to avoid their work being banned for its supposed un-feminine ‘indecency’ (their wearing trousers for it is seen as a gender-blurring indecency too far), as they link up with suffragists in London and meet the Home Secretary (tellingly, in terms of the portrayal of how Victorian power operates, he's an old university friend of Munby’s)
In summary, this is a beautifully rich, sensitive, and well-crafted play with huge resonance for now, shaping rather than shouting down complexity, and one that invests trust in both actors and potential audiences. It is also a celebration of physical labour and community, and stageable in almost any space, with physically vibrant and equally prominent and individualised roles as part of a well-balanced small ensemble collective. It was commissioned for CSSD in 1989 (do drama schools ever commission full-length plays now?) and surely harks back to a hugely valuable repertoire of vibrant, politically -radical 'fringe' and small-company/ensemble plays of the '70s and '80s that would really warrant re-exploring beyond the (still hugely vibrant and impressive) work of Caryl Churchill etc
To pick out one final 'complex resonance' to mention: the title MASSA reflects what Hannah chooses in the play (and in the reality) to call Munby as lover's endearment - his having rejected her suggestion that she call him 'master'. Of course 'massa' would be the Victorian pop-cultural understanding of what enslaved Africans would call their European captors....so it's a term - for Hannah and Munby - drawn from the realms of popular fantasy/fiction but echoing a very troubling and (for them) part-occluded, part-'historical' reality. What might be going on here, in psychological and cultural terms (the implications of the rejecting of the term 'master; the 'fantasy/role-play' element and also the 'relation-to-the-real' dimensions and - perhaps even more controversially - in, legitimately or not [again, discuss], the apparent converting, repurposing or expanding of a term of racial injustice to apply to class oppressions too) is surely worth a very rich and potentially fruitful discussion in itself. Such a zeitgeist-ey play as David Harris's TAMBO AND BONES at Stratford East earlier this year surely did the same thing with its reference to the audience as 'White N--s' and its apparent thesis positing racial injustice as ultimately a function of economic and class injustice as ultimately the more intractable and underlying concerns. It is surely entirely to the play's and Gooch's credit that the term's ('Massa')'s 'unglossed' treatment here doesn't pre-empt through any risk of imposing dated attitudes the possibilities of full contemporary scrutiny and analysis.
A delight listening to the group of seven (almost the perfect cast size for the play) mining (and sometimes wrestling with) the play’s rich Lancashire dialect transcriptions, often voiced initially (and phonetically) 'on trust’, but with the sense becoming clear to the actor themselves and the group in the actual process of speaking. Lots of eureka moments as a result and most impressive perhaps the collective refusal to be daunted, with everyone reading with great focus and enquiry. As everyone ‘tuned in’, there emerged a sense of the quickness and directness of thought and wit, and of the playfulness of the mine characters. Impressive ability of all to shift into Munby and his genteel friends, whose language conceals and obliquely alludes rather than asserts. As roles were shared and shifted, a magnificently retro-cockney Hannah suddenly brings the part into vivid focus (shades of Shaw’s Eliza), while both male and female Munbys offered a fascinating and accomplished mix of nuanced deflections and shy, rueful declarations. A very treasurable and impressive German-Lancastrian sounding, (Lancaster via the Ruhr perhaps - emphasising the transnational nature of the experiences the play addresses - see also Zola's GERMINAL for example). Elsewhere, a genteel and gently-jilted would-be romantic partner of Munby was realised with a winning quicksilver impulsiveness. To be slightly fanciful, the overall sense was of a group determinedly and with great faith and focus mining a rich but difficult seam, with some beautiful and insightful sparks flying. A true collective endeavour, rather like those women down the mine, and Hannah's endless burnishing.