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British political theatre, 1930s-1950s

The documents in this small digital collection look at the explicitly political or agit-prop style of theatre which grew out of the British political left during the 1930s, influenced in particular by developments in the Soviet Union. In most cases, you can open a copy of the full document by clicking on the thumbnail image. More documents on this subject are available at the Modern Records Centre, including the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club.

Several documents relating to Soviet theatre are included in the resources for the module Stalinism in Europe.


"Art is a weapon of the revolution", November 1931The Red Stage, vol.1, no.1

The first issue of 'The Red Stage', a bulletin published by the Workers' Theatre Movement. This edition includes an editorial on 'The growth of the workers' theatre', a diary of a tour in Scotland by the Red Pioneers Troop, a song in praise of the Communist International (Comintern), and comradely greetings from the International Workers' Dramatic Union (a Communist organisation based in Moscow).

[Included in a file of Workers' Theatre Movement bulletins, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/X/3/4]

"Our theatre awakens the masses", January 1932212-x-3-4-5-1.jpg

Issue no.2 of 'Red Stage'. It includes an editorial on the role of theatre during the economic depression of the 1930s, information about Soviet Russia's Theatre of Young Workers, news from local "Red" theatre groups, and a letter complaining about jazz music. The issue closes with a song celebrating Stalin's Five Year Plan of Socialist Construction.

[Included in a file of Workers' Theatre Movement bulletins, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/X/3/4]

"The theatre on the streets", February 1932Red Stage, no.3

Issue no.3 of 'Red Stage'. It includes an editorial on "the fighting theatre of the working class" on the street, rather than on the stage. The magazine also includes a Communist spoof of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If', news from local theatre groups, and more letters on the use of jazz. It concludes with the 'Song of the Young Workers'.

[Included in a file of Workers' Theatre Movement bulletins, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/X/3/4]

Workers Theatre Movement monthly bulletin, February 1933212-x-3-4-14-01.jpg

'Red Stage' stopped publication in late 1932 and was replaced by a cheaper-to-produce monthly bulletin. This edition includes an outline of the movement's "chief organisational tasks", critical reports on the all-London show held in December 1932 (the audience was criticised for "noisy behaviour" and "irresponsibility", rather than the "quiet discipline" it should have shown), comments on the desirability (or otherwise) of performances in Yiddish to appeal to Jewish workers, news from local groups, and advice on performing particular pieces.

[Included in a file of Workers' Theatre Movement bulletins, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/X/3/4]

'The Community Theatre', 1932 The Community Theatre

Leaflet appealing for funds to create a citizen's theatre in England, as "it must come as a shock to every thinking person in this country that the workers, manual and mental, have no direct means of expression in the theatre" - "the most powerful instrument for the dissemination of ideas". The members of the Community Theatre Offices take inspiration from the political "workers'" theatres in Germany, Russia and Poland, and identify the "mass psychology" of the theatre as "an instrument for experiment and for progress".

[Included in a file on 'Entertainment industry: Theatres, plays, dramatics', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/674.2/1]

Left Theatre scheme for a repertory theatre, [1936]Left Theatre

This pamphlet outlines the scheme of Left Theatre Ltd for a permanent repertory theatre "in some working-class district" in London, and includes a cast list for the play 'Stay down miner' by Montagu Slater (with music by Benjamin Britten). Leaflets which promote the planned theatre are also available (leaflet 1; leaflet 2; leaflet 3).

[Included in a file on Unity Theatre, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/674.2/5]

Unity Theatre handbook, 1939 Unity Theatre

The Unity Theatre was formed in 1936 as a "revolt against the “escapism” and false ideology of the conventional theatre", and put on plays with a political or social message. This handbook provides an overview of the first three years of the Unity Theatre Movement and contains information about key productions, including 'Plant in the Sun', starring the American actor Paul Robeson.

[Included in the archives of the Union of Communication Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/13/42/9]

Programme for 'Babes in the Wood', [1938 or 1939] Babes in the Wood

The satirical "pantomime with political point" was performed shortly after the Munich Agreement and featured Neville Chamberlain as the 'Wicked Uncle' and the Cliveden Set (known for their support of appeasement). Lyrics for some of the production's songs are included.

[Included in a file of programmes, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/15]

Bulletin of the Left Book Club Theatre Guild, January 1939Bulletin

The Left Book Club was formed in 1936 by the publisher Victor Gollancz to provide cheap editions of books on social or political issues (with a left-wing bias) to a mass audience. Within three years it had more than 50,000 members and nearly 1,000 local discussion groups. In the late 1930s the LBC diversified and formed a Theatre Guild. This bulletin includes an outline of the tasks and organisation of the Guild, together with news about the activities of local groups.

[Included in a file of correspondence with the Left Book Club Theatre Guild, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/6]

Left Book Club Theatre Guild circulars about censorship, 1939Circulars

Plays performed by the LBCTG had, like all plays to a paying theatre audience, to be submitted for censorship to the Lord Chamberlain's Office. These circulars include a report on the shutting down of a performance in Chester by the theatre manager, when the uncut version of the play 'Waiting for Lefty' was performed, and lists of words to be cut from the plays 'ARP' and 'Rehearsal'.

[Included in a file of correspondence with the Left Book Club Theatre Guild, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/6]

'On Guard for Spain', 1938On Guard for Spain

Photograph of a production of Jack Lindsay's "massed chant" 'On Guard for Spain' at Winterbourne, near Bristol. The piece (about the Spanish Civil War) was first performed at a Trafalgar Square rally in 1937, and performances of the piece by amateur political theatre groups (including those linked with the Unity Theatre and Left Book Club) became a popular way to engage a mass audience at rallies, fundraising events, and local political and trade union meetings. Versions of the script and more photos are included in our digital collection on the Spanish Civil War.

[Included in a file of photographs from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/1]

'Distant Point', undated [1940s]Set design

Set design and two photographs of a production of 'Distant Point', a socialist realist play about Communist society written by the Russian author Alexander Afinogenov. 'Distant Point' was performed at the Unity Theatre in London in 1940 and 1941, so these photos may show a production in Bristol from a similar date.

[Included in a file of photographs from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/1/6]

'Theatre', Spring 1947Theatre

Front cover of a magazine produced by Bradford Civic Playhouse. The emphasis (at least in this issue) is on theatre as an international medium. The publication includes articles on 'A French Hamlet', 'The theatre in Europe', 'Films in France', 'Theatre in Berlin' and 'Jamaican renaissance', as well as articles on children's theatre and critics. The Bradford theatre was originally funded by royalties from the local author J.B. Priestley.

[Included in a file on working class theatre, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/X/3/1]

Development of the Unity Theatre, 1947Letter

Letter from Oscar Lewenstein, General Secretary of the Unity Theatre Society Limited. He summarises the key questions for the organisation raised at the annual conference, including the formation of mobile groups.

[Included in a file of correspondence and circulars re the Unity Theatre Society and with various Unity Theatre groups, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/11]

Mobile theatre, 1952Leaflet for the Rochdale Pioneers

Advertising material for two productions of the Unity Mobile Theatre - 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (an adaption of the novel by Robert Tressell) and 'The Rochdale Pioneers' (about the formation of the co-operative movement). The productions were intended to tour small theatres and town halls across the country (although ideally within 100 miles of London).

[Included in a file on Unity Theatre, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/674.2/5]

'The Road to Life', [1955]The Road to Life

Unity Theatre programme for 'The Road to Life', adapted from an autobiographical novel by A.S. Makarenko, set in a Ukrainian reform school during the early 1920s. It includes biographical information about the Soviet writer and background information about the Unity Theatre.

[Included in a file of correspondence and circulars re the Unity Theatre Society and with various Unity Theatre groups, from the archives of the Bristol Unity Players' Club; document reference: MSS.212/A/2/11]

Fundraising appeal for the Unity Theatre, 1957Fundraising appeal

Circular issued by the Unity Theatre. It appeals for funds to help keep "one of the lone cultural outposts of the Labour Movement" open, and includes information about the theatre's aims and productions.

[Included in a file on Unity Theatre, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/674.2/5]