A play about the Chartists whose characters include the young Friedrich Engels? Don’t get too excited.
Holding Fire, a new play being shown at the Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank as part of the “Renaissance and Revolution” series, depicts the last years of Chartism as a mass movement, opening in 1837 when debates between the reformist “moral force” wing and the revolutionary “physical force” wing were raging.
Given how much working-class history is simply ignored in art, seeing these events and themes explored is thrilling at first. (This is particularly true due to the creative use the action makes of the structure and open air space of the Globe, for instance by having orators at a Chartist convention make their speeches from the galleries of the theatre.) But once the excitement of seeing Chartism on stage wears off, Holding Fire emerges as a mess, with lots of incoherent bits of history and ideas acting as the back-drop to a not very inspired love story.
The lovers, two domestic servants in a northern English country house, become Chartist sympathisers, but they are not involved at all in the moral vs physical force debates, or indeed in any discussion of political ideas beyond articulation of a crude anger at mistreatment by their employer and various other bourgeois authorities. Debate is the preserve of the movement’s leaders, which not only makes the various parts of the play seem disjointed, but betrays the elitist sensibilities of the playwright Jack Shepherd.
Irritatingly, the sympathies of the play are with the moral force Chartists; even more irritatingly, the writer seems to be unaware of this political choice, simply assuming that the moderates are reasonable and that the revolutionaries are hot-headed and bloodthirsty. Moral force is represented by the highly sympathetic William Lovett; physical force by the lairy and untrustworthy Fergus O’Connor. The play ends with in 1867, with an aged Lovett declaring that with Disraeli’s Reform Act — which left the great majority of men still without the vote! — the bulk of the Chartists’ goals had essentially been achieved.
(Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the young Engels appears in the play, his views are a risible pastiche of Marxism. All the hoary old myths are trotted out: Engels believes the worse things get the better; is hostile to the fight for political liberty; and wants a society in which people behave “like ants in an ant-hill”. Never mind that it was precisely because they opposed such ideas that Marx and Engels saw the Chartist movement as so important...)
Evidently, Shepherd believes that the cause for which the Chartists fought is now wildly out of date — and no doubt most of the heavily middle-class audience at the Globe would agree. In the first place, of course, not even all their formal demands have been won: we do not have annual elections, and if we did, the course of the class struggle in this country might have been very different.
But in any case, the Chartists fought for the vote not as an end in itself, but because they wanted working-class power to change society. Chartism was the first mass revolutionary movement of the working class — anywhere. No wonder the British ruling class resisted it so fiercely. Our rulers only granted workers the vote once they had made it safe, by reshaping and strengthening the state machine so that parliamentary elections would no longer suffice to put the working class in power, and establishing a a greater degree of hegemony over the working class.
It’s not that I expected Shepherd to put forward the full Marxist programme; but I think his failure to recognise the essentially modern nature of the Chartists’ struggle underpins Holding Fire’s failures as a play.