If you’re starting to think the game might be fixed, this could be the play for you. At least two press night audience members had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience when they first read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s early twentieth century underground classic.
In the early 1970s, Ricky (then Eric) Tomlinson read it in prison, where he was doing time for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ – in reality, trying to convince builders to join a nationwide strike for better conditions. Suddenly everything fell into place, and he became a convinced socialist.
In 1999, an elderly man gave his battered/well-loved copy to his sullen, somewhat detached grandson, who read it in his Wallasey bedroom. Suddenly everything fell into place, and there was no time to waste being sullen and detached when there was class war all around. The Communist Manifesto was next, and here he is now, typing this review.
But there’s far, far more to it than the speechifying preachiness that detractors accuse it of. There’s an array of characters (with descriptive names such as Sweater, Slyme, Hunter and Crass), all of whom are three dimensional, because their place in the order of things is so thoroughly examined. There’s also a lot of humour (come on, the papers are called ‘The Obscurer’ and ‘The Daily Chloroform’). So how could you adapt the thing, and make it fit into just over two hours of stage time?
Veteran radical writer Howard Brenton admits he’s been quiet for the last couple of decades, but the current economic crisis seems to have rekindled his fire, and belief in the possibility of social change. Aside from a modern day bookend to the original story – which adds nothing – it is a good translation. The main workers (the ‘philanthropists’) are given enough time to become more than caricatures, while the parasitical capitalists/local politicians are believably swinish without ever being cartoonish. Tressell’s dissection of capitalism in ‘The Great Money Trick’ (or “Money the Principle Cause of Being ‘Ard Up”) is followed by ‘The Great Oration’ – where the possibility of an abundant and fulfilling new order is sketched-out.
Tressell – who would die in Liverpool Royal Infirmary en route to Canada – was deeply pained by the realisation that society could be so much better if organised properly, and painted the working class as foolish and ignorant for failing to reach his level of understanding. It seems that in this age – when most people are deeply distrustful of those in power – Brenton wanted to avoid the novel’s rather pessimistic ending. But while our rulers are determined to force us back into Tressell-era poverty, a mass fightback has yet to emerge. Perhaps for this reason, Brenton’s optimism seems rather forced, and the last lines (“Knock it down! Build it properly! Build it new!”) beg the as yet unanswered question: how?
Having said that, it is very encouraging to see such questions posed to large audiences, at a time when great upheaval seems imminent. Things have certainly changed a lot over the last century, but those changes have just made The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists more relevant than ever.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Albert William Cambria Ford.