Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Agitprop is a difficult art but it can be poignant at times


Difficult to find this book. I finally found a copy in the USA from Saint Mary’s University Library, via Amazon.com.

Nine plays altogether, some very short, and one bigger, Eight Men Speak. They are strongly inspired by the Communist Party of Canada and particularly Tim Buck, their general secretary, who was arrested with seven other militants and sent to prison for five years for what we have to call today political reasons hidden behind the disturbance they may cause to public order based on a special section of the penal code, section 98. Note the present French Prime Minister, previously Minister of the Interior invoked that famous public order that might be disturbed if the humorist Dieudonné was allowed to performed in a show of his in 2014. That shows there still is some relevance in that play, indeed. There in the prison there was an attempt against his life by some prison warden though it is not clear how with five bullets he managed to miss him. It might have been more for intimidation, but nevertheless that was preposterous.

The play became famous because it was banned, the theatre managers who tried to program it in their theatres got their license cancelled at once, and some parts of it were played or at least read in public meetings, etc.

But the other eight plays or stage productions were all dealing with social problems at the time of the Big Depression in Canada: “Theatre – our weapon,” “Unemployment,” “Looking Forward” (living on relief and yet after twenty years of regular paying of your mortgage, when only two years are left, your house is foreclosed by the bank), “Scientific Socialism” (a confrontation of H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw at Hyde Park Corner, both with the slogan “Scientific Socialism,”  the Fabian militant and the supposedly communist author of The Open Conspiracy, both rejected by the audience and finally pushed aside by a real communist working class speaker and his audience), “Unity” (in 1933 calling for the unity of socialists, communists, trade-unionists and non-affiliated workers in order to avoid fascism, this play is going against the Komintern order not to unite with the social democrats, or other brands of reformist socialists), “Joe Derry” (an illustration of the class against class strategy of the Young Communist League for young people), “War in The East” (the Japanese war against Formosa, Korea, Manchuria and China and the myth of Japanese soldiers killing their officers and joining the Chinese soldiers to the music of the International), and “And the Answer is” (the only play that does not oppose working class people and capitalists, but oppose simple and poor people to middle class wealthy women who are bigots and unable to share even a room with some people who need it).

This theater, except the last play, is pure agitprop typical of the 1920s and 1930s. It is based on the division of society in two classes: the working class and the capitalists, both dressed in class uniforms. The strong presence of communist ideology with some original points at times like calling for unity with the socialists in 1933, hardly six or eight months after the elections that enabled Hitler to be appointed Chancellor. But this call was going against the Komintern, though it was quite obvious the division in Germany was the key for Hitler to get through the 1932 elections and it was to bring Popular Front governments in Spain and France.

The second leitmotiv is the coming war, meaning the next World War that was the centre of these plays, especially “War in The East” that dealt with the Japanese offensive in Asia. The third theme had to do with class struggle, social problems and the repression of any organized action of the working class as being subversive. The USSR or Russia were the constant ghosts behind the scenes, either as a menace or as a promise.

But, once again, except the last play, all these plays do not explore any psychology on the side of the characters. They are one-sided and clear-cut. The situations then are just as much caricatural as you can imagine. There is hardly any poetry, except what we could call the poetry of the mottos and slogans. That reminds me how Richard Wright will be proposed later in the 1930s by the US Communist Party to become the political writer of the party, writing slogans and pamphlets.

The objective of this theater is not to explore any complicated situation. It is to entertain a working class audience with working class language and working class politics. The objective is not to get the support of people who are not convinced already, let alone who are hostile, but to reinforce the conviction of those who are already convinced.

Of course agitprop does not work beyond the short period directly concerned and the precise issues at stake in that short period for one single unified group of people. Agitprop is not necessarily leaning to the left, though it is commonly known on this side of the political palette.

A great agitprop author is Mayakovsky but he often reached out and could produce great poetic texts, like in A Cloud In Trousers. Another famous playwright in the field is Bertolt Brecht, though he often reached the psychological exploration of his characters and situations that are seen as dialectically contradictory and not just in black and white. He often uses a lot of grey and at times some colors. Some of his plays, though attached to particular event, like the Spanish Civil War, still have a great power because of this widening of the psychology of the characters.

This rare book then is a testimony about that period, though there is no black character in these plays, even if some could be black, though it is not mentioned, and we wonder why Richard Wright was involved in this work, except as some trail blazing experience he needed to mature into the powerful author he was to become.


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