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Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the 'Thirties

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2009


The British working-class pageants of the nineteen-thirties were curiously cross-bred between, on the one hand, the resolutely bourgeois civic pageants which had become popular around the turn of the century and remained so still, and, on the other, the new Soviet style of mass-declamations with agit-prop intent. Often ignored even by left-wing theatre historians, these pageants drew on other influences varying from endemic communal forms of creation such as choirs and processions to the work of contemporary, left-leaning ‘high art’ poets and musicians. Here, Mick Wallis looks in detail at one such pageant, Music and the People, mounted in London in April 1939, and at the tripartite five-day festival of which it formed a part. He goes on to explore the politics, aesthetics, and logistics of this long-neglected form of popular performance. Mick Wallis, who teaches drama at Loughborough University, has recently published on using Raymond Williams's work in the integration of practical and academic approaches to teaching. His one-man act, Sir John Feelgood and Marjorie, was an experiment in popular form for the sake of left-wing benefits.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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1. Programme, Pageant of South Wales (1939). Bibliographical details of this and all other pageants mentioned in the text will be found in a later article in New Theatre Quarterly.

2. For Unity, see Chambers, Colin, The Story of Unity Theatre (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989);Google ScholarDawson, Jerry, Left Theatre: Merseyside Unity Theatre, a Documentary Record (Liverpool: Merseyside Writers, 1985);Google ScholarTuckett, Angela, The People's Theatre in Bristol, 1930–45, ‘Our History’ Pamphlet No. 72 (London: History Group of the Communist Party, 1979).Google Scholar The strongest recent claim for the political effectiveness of agit-prop is made in Samuel, Raphael, MacColl, Ewan, and Cosgrove, Stuart, Theatres of the Left, 1880–1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America (London: Routledge, 1985).Google Scholar For a range of Popular Front theatrical activity, including pageants, see Kirwan, Bernadette, ‘Aspects of Radical Theatre in England in the 1930s’ (doctoral thesis, Loughborough University, 1989).Google Scholar Popular Front pageantry appears to consolidate from 1937, typified at first by relatively small events such as the ones held at Manchester and banned in Dundee, cited in my next article. Larger in scale is the Pageant of Scottish History (1938). The major examples are Towards Tomorrow (1938), Music and the People (1939), The Pageant of South Wales (1939), and Heirs to the Charter (1939).

3. The relationship is vital and cannot be ignored. For a good mediation between more abstractable questions of form and political priorities, see Stourac, and McCreery, , Theatre as a Weapon: Workers' Theatre in the Soviet Union, Germany and Britain, 1917–1934 (London: Routledge, 1986).Google Scholar Pragmatic accounts from the left based on the (ultimately proper) assumption that theatre should enlighten have tended both to efface the operation of desire in the performance contract, and to suppress either or both the specificity of performance and its partiality as one of a set of political practices. It would be good to see a non-Hegelian version of Frederic Jameson's ‘political unconscious’ applied to these materials, something to unlock the structures of feeling inhabiting scenarios at the levels both of ‘theatre’ and of ‘performance’. For a definition of these levels see Schechner, Richard, Performance Theory (London: Routledge, 1988).Google Scholar For a counter-narrative to that given by Samuel, in Samuel et al., op. cit., see Jones, Leonard, ‘The Workers' Theatre Movement in the Twenties’, Zeitschrift fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, XIV (1966), p. 259–81Google Scholar, and The Workers' Theatre in the Thirties’, Marxism Today, XVIII (1974), p. 300–10.Google Scholar

4. Agit-prop depends much on the phatic tropes of repetition, binary opposition, and the construction of crescendi by augmented repetition (Murder, m-u-r-d-e-r, MURDER!). These syntactical tropes typically reflect into simple linear and/or symmetrically-organized dramatic shapes. Both support the localized delivery of schematized versions of Marxist critique as part of the exhortation. They might then at a superficial level seem good game for both ‘post-Marxist’ and ‘postmodern’ appropriations of Derridean deconstruction.

5. For hostile accounts of the political turn, see Dewar, Hugo, Communist Politics in Britain: the CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War (London: Pluto, 1976);Google ScholarBornstein, Sam and Richardson, Al, Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1935–1945. A Study in the Relations Between Vanguard and Class (Ilford, Essex: Socialist Platform).Google Scholar For benign accounts of the turn's cultural manifestations, see Clark, John, Heinemann, Margot, Margolies, David, and Snee, Carole, eds., Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979);Google ScholarFyrth, Jim, ed., Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985).Google Scholar Trotsky made clear that the main threat of fascism was its determination to extinguish the organizational and institutional bases of socialism. The CPGB for its part, under Harry Pollitt, for a short time proposed a struggle on ‘two fronts’: with the British state against fascism, and against it as the instrument of the capitalist class. But Comintern imperatives prevailed.

6. See, for example, Edgar, David, ‘Festivals of the Oppressed’, New Formations, 3 (Winter 1987), p. 1932.Google Scholar The mass die-in was a regular feature of CND activity in the 1980s, a theatricalized demonstration in which parade turns to tableau-image, often accompanied by short agit-prop sketches and sometimes supporting a spoken address. Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s came near to an ‘organic’ politics based in popular culture and self-organization. In the dominant apparatus, the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games have produced an ersatz notion of international community by means of televised pageant since 1985; JeanMichel Jarre in the late 1980s provided a distant echo of Leger's plan to turn Paris into a lightshow for the Front Populaire, Jarre manufacturing pseudo-religious plenitudes for punters in Houston or London with himself as hero-priest; and by celebrating the history of their region's res stance to Paris, including the Revolution of 1789, through a sentimental and reactionary pageant enacted by locals, the inhabitants of the Puy de Fou in France have created a tourist industry to revive the flagging local economy. My disclaimers about my own relationship to the material signal neither an adherence to the outmoded and reactionary attitudes of literary New Criticism – a sort of agnostic close reading – nor to the banal cataloguing procedures now largely abandoned in the writing of theatre history. But such a false signal may be a necessary risk. The intention here is to open this material up, not close it down.

7. I suggest but make little theoretical progress with a development of Raymond Williams's coinage ‘structure of feeling’ into ‘structure of desire’ in Wallis, Mick, ‘Present Consciousness of a Practical Kind: Structure of Feeling and Higher Education Drama’, in Morgan, W. John and Preston, Peter, eds., Raymond Williams: Politics, Education and Letters (London: Macmillan, 1993).Google Scholar

8. Otherwise unascribed facts and opinions relating to Bush derive from a number of conversations I held with him in 1984–85. See also Watson, Ian, ‘Alan Bush and Left Music in the Thirties: an Introduction and an Interview’, Gulliver, XXIX, German-English Yearbook (Berlin: Argument-Verlag, 1978);Google ScholarBush, Alan, In My Eighth Decade, and Other Essays (Kahn and Averill, 1980).Google Scholar

9. See, for example, Samuel, in Samuel et al., op. cit., p. 58 ff.. The WTM sketch ‘Their Theatre and Ours’ places agit-prop culture in direct opposition to opiate bourgeois product. The working-class Herbert Hodge and Robert Buckland's Where's That Bomb? for London Unity (1937) skits its working-class writer-hero for indulgence in the easy expressivity of agit-prop rhetoric. The play's humour contains a strong vein of self-effacement. Articles tracing tropes of rhetorical negotiation/embarrassment from British agit-prop into Popular Front product are in preparation.

10. The London Music Festival effaces the fact that the condition of its own existence is as a commodity, with cosy talk of family parties.

11. Circular letter, n. d.

12. Eisler wrote in 1935 that he admired his ex-tutor Schönberg, though for the reason that the decadence of his music was perfectly expressive of the chaos attending capitalism's death-throes see Eisler, , ‘Schönberg’, in his A Rebel in Music, ed. Grabs, Manfred (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1978).Google Scholar By 1939 two things had happened: Schönberg had left expressionism behind to return to natural harmonics; and he had been exiled by the Nazi threat from Austria to the USA, where Eisler also arrived in 1938. For accounts of Eisler's Popular Front cantatas, see Betz, Albrecht, Hanns Eisler, Political Musician (Cambridge University Press, 1982).Google Scholar

13. Op. 14, dedicated to Montagu and Enid Slater. The Sunday Times of 12 March 39 gives the title as ‘Anthem for Englishmen’. The eventual title is notably both more secular and more internationalist.

14. From the play of that name written for the Group Theatre. Montagu Slater situates the Group aesthetically in ‘The Turning Point’, Left Review (1935), p. 15–23

15. This account leaves the Queen's Hall concert here, still only at the Interval. The audience returned to John Ireland's setting of John Addington Symond's poem ‘These Things Shall Be’. Dennis Noble sang baritone throughout.

16. Lenin, V. I., What is to be Done?Google Scholar

17. This reprivileging is concomitant with a shift in the understanding of how ‘our epoch…has simplified the class antagonisms’ (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto) and favours a generalized understanding of ‘oppressor and oppressed’ (ibid.) over specifics. In the British context this reprivileging occurs on the ground of the ‘William Morris’ tradition.

18. This has a precise echo in Montagu Slater's ‘Women's Chorus’ for Towards Tomorrow, the Cooperative Pageant of 1938.

19. Slater, Montagu, ‘The Turning Point’, Left Review (1935), p. 1523.Google Scholar More is of concern here than the immediate question of a tradition. There are important ‘formal’ questions relating both to the historical analysis of poetic discourse and much more immediately to the contemporary poet's finding a ‘popular’ voice. See the Slater article, and Margot Heinemann, ‘Three LeftWing Poets’, in Clark et al., op. cit.

20. Lindsay, Jack, Fanfrolico and After (London: Bodley Head, 1962), p. 274.Google ScholarEngland my England (London: Fore Publications, 1939) describes itself as ‘a Pageant of the English People’ and declares that ‘Communism is English’. It opposes the Second World War, a position that Lindsay was to reverse before the Communist Party did. He joined both the Army and the CPGB in 1941: call-up came on the day before Hitler launched the attack on the Soviet Union. Unquoted opinions ascribed here to Lindsay are derived from an interview, December 1985.

21. Lindsay, , op. cit., p. 263.Google Scholar

22. There are many versions of the declamation, which was cut to make it performable in different performance conditions, and updated by hands other than Lindsay's with the progress of the Civil War: see, for instance, the three versions dating from 1937 to 1939 at 1937/23 in the Lord Chamberlain's Collection at the British Library. To stress the variety of situations: On Guard was licensed for a first performance by Unity at Shoreditch Town Hall in April 1937 (though see Chambers, op. cit., p. 84, n. 23); shared the programme with Where's That Bomb? and Odets's Waiting for Lefty at a benefit for the Spanish Relief Fund at the Phoenix Theatre on Sunday 2 May; and was given at an IB rally at Trafalgar Square that July. The poem as printed in Cunningham, Valentine, The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980),Google Scholar is neither the original nor a performed version. A brief formal appreciation is given in Watson, Don, ‘Poetry and Politics: Mass Dedamation and the 1930s’, Artery, V, 3 [No. 19], p. 25–7.Google Scholar

23. Lindsay, Jack, Five Thousand Years of Poetry (London: Left Book Club, n. d.)Google Scholar

24. The account which follows derives from two textual sources: the synopsis printed in the programme to the festival and a lacunose script-scenario in duplicated typescript in the possesion of Alan Bush. The latter is probably a near-final version.

25. See Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London: Gollancz, 1963)Google Scholar, Chapter IV, and my next article. Swingler's immediate target is almost certainly the Merrie Englandry of dominant cultural accounts of history, which looked back to a constructed era before (left-wing) class-consciousness. While his insistence on the class nature of feudalism could still logically allow a notion of a natural social contract or even ‘Saxon precedent’, his swipe at a sentimentalized history of innocent beginnings is plain enough. But the assault on dominant ideology has reverberations in his own narrative.

26. For an assault on attempts to ‘save’ Marx from his assumption that there is such a thing as ‘human nature’ see Geras, Norman, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (London: Verso, 1983).Google Scholar For a Popular Front account, see Burns, Emile, What Is Marxism? (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1939).Google Scholar The presence of a species of ontological utopianism in Marx may be accounted for by his debt to the idealist Hegel. Althusser, , in Essays on Ideology (London: Verso, 1984)Google Scholar remarks that as Marx developed his thought, the term ‘alienation’ progressively disappeared from his writings. Its persistence in Marxism may be accounted for in general terms by the necessary dialectic between science and ideology (as defined for a time by Althusser) within the historical struggle. In times of political expediency and physical as well as ideological onslaught it may be expected that these earlier formulations will gain greater currency. The worst result in this case is an analysis of the historical juncture in Manichean rather than more complex dialectical terms. But this may suit the political situation. Though for an insistence that the ‘worst in this case’ is nothing less than a betrayal of the working class and socialism, see Dewar, op. cit., p. 129 and 141. I have suggested that any teleological utopianism in Swingler's text has its legitimation as an expression of the living tradition of socialist aspiration, underwritten by his albeit modest ‘deconstructive’ gestures. In the swim of history the dialectic between idealist and materialist formulations (because of and within consciousness) will remain – until we reach Utopia, that is.

27. Programme scenario. This identifies by name the actors of ‘Two Players’ and ‘Two Singers’, and it may be that they spoke some or all the text for their groups. The Dancers may, by implication, have moved to a voice-over or spoken ensemble.

28. ‘[Man] opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces.’ ‘By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature’ (Marx, Capital).

29. For Marx, humanity's productive articulation of the rest of nature gives rise to an ‘objective force’ (the organized means of production) to which humanity is bound in its own ultimate interest: ‘[Man] not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will’ (Marx, Capital). The condition of class society is that one group controls that objective force for its own benefit. While the notorious base/superstructure metaphor might seem on the basis of this to consign cultural realities to a secondary level of materiality, that of ‘effects’, poststructuralist currents within Marxism have recovered or at least constructed a sense of a structural totality in which the historical effectivity of ‘culture’ is recognized. Swingler's text emphasizes its insistence on the materiality and effectivity of cultural production by recounting music's ‘own’ grand narrative. This produces a ‘culturalist’ inflection to the argument: a sort of inverted base/superstructure metaphor in which a true human potential calls, through the agency of art-based-in-material-production – as intuitive theory, an organic understanding – for progress towards the emancipation of humanity from class society.

30. See, for instance, Rudé, George, Ideology and Popular Protest (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980).Google Scholar Marx, in the Introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, writes that ‘Theory…becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses’. And see Rosa Luxemburg for a negotiation of the idea of ‘spontaneity’.

31. A comparison of this with Lindsay's own theoretical work demonstrates the conceptual shifts attendant on finding negotiable metaphors. It can be said, following Macherey, that as a dramatic transformation of historical substrate (the culture and politics of Revolutionary France) this portion of Swingler's text, as all other rhetorical texts, is situated between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’. As a piece of Marxist analysis, it stands nearer to ‘science’. As a piece of Marxist pragmatics or faith, it stands nearer to ‘ideology’. It is not necessary to be a naive empiricist to find the distinction useful. British Marxist literary theory of the period, to which Swingler's text is closely allied, is largely considered to be impoverished compared with continental examples. See Caudwell, Christopher, Illusion and Reality (London: Macmillan, 1937);Google ScholarWest, Alick, Crisis and Criticism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937).Google Scholar

32. This is necessarily a sketch. A full discussion would need to mobilize not only Lacanian psychoanalysis (especially as mediated by film theory, while not inattentive to somatic realities) but also anthropological models, and the sort of specificities engaged with by Haug, Wolfgang Fritz in Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986).Google Scholar See Schechner, op. cit. (especially Chapter 8, ‘Magnitudes of Performance’), for a mediation between somatic and semiotic dimensions.

33. Authentic presence need not be real, but constructed diegetically, and still achieve spectacular effect. I shall argue this for the closing sections of Heirs to the Charter (1939).

34. This is only briefly to situate Bush in relation to the choirs: see Note 8. In his practical involvement with popular music-making, Bush was following in the footsteps of his mentor Rutland Boughton: see Hurd, Michael, The Life and Time of Rutland Boughton (London: Routledge, 1962).Google Scholar Boughton moved from reforming the Edwardian choir festivals to founding the (utopian) Glastonbury Festival with Reginald Buckley, and both wrote about the project. See Boughton, Rutland, The Reality of Music (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934)Google Scholar for a resolutely biological-materialist account of the origins and history of music. Stalin's ‘proletarianized’ academy was busily producing such narratives, typically fetishizing a mechanical notion of the concrete.

35. The Committee comprised: Bush, Clark, John Allen, Parry Jones, Alan Rawsthorne, Randall Swingler, representatives of the LLCU, WMA, Labour Stage and LCS Education Committe, Barbara Allen (theatre designer), Michael Ross (painter), a chartered accountant, and a concerts manager. Composers: Frederic Austin, Alan Bush, Erik Chisholm, Arnold Cooke, Christian Danton, Norman Demuth, Elizabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Alan Rawsthorne, Edmund Rubbra, Victor Yates, R. Vaughan Williams. This section is based on papers in the possession of Alan Bush, too numerous to cite individually.

36. Acting Chorus: Ashford, Bromley, Clapham, Eltham, and Epsom and Elwell Labour Choirs, Greenford Co-op Choir, Hendon Left Singers, Lasindon Ladies' Co-op Choral Society, New Progress Choir, Rhondda Unity Male Voice Choir, Unity Male Voice Choir, West London Co-op Choir. Mass Chorus: Bexley Heath, Enfield Highway, Kentish Town, Redhill and Reigate, Surbiton, Tooting, and Tottenham and Edmonton Co-operative Choirs, East Ham Co-operative Choral Society, Edgware Co-operative Musical Society. A ‘name’ was sought for the role of Announcer. In the event the role was split between Wilfrid Walter and Ronald Kelly.

37. One of their aims in adapting the Charles Jennings libretto had been to restore the ‘revolutionary’ chorus excised by earlier editors and producers. The institutional nature of Towards Tomorrow typifies Popular Front cultural production. Mounted by Cooperators, its artistic principals were all Communist Party members. This seems genuinely not to have been regarded as entrism, rather as an obvious thing to be doing in the circumstances. It is unlikely that the Party at an official level valued these activities as a political end. Bush, who joined in 1935, remarked in conversation that the Party ‘rather discouraged us from wasting time on matters of such unimportance’. Heirs to the Charter (1939) as a really was a different matter.

38. See Fyrth, Jim, The Signal Was Spain: The British Aid to Spain Movement (London: St Martin's Press, 1986).Google Scholar The Minutes of the Festival Committee Meeting for 1 March 1939 indicate that 20 of the young Basque refugees then at the Barnet Children's Home were to be invited to come and sing in the pageant. Many benefit and memorial meetings for the Brigade continued to be held at this time. As was seen above, The Pageant of South Wales ends in similar fashion.

39. Notwithstanding the religiosity of procession, spectacular plenitude, and fetishized text, most Popular Front pageants remain resolutely secular in normal ideological terms. An exception is the Pageant of South Wales, designed for a community in which the traditions of nonconformity and socialism were and remain closely interwoven. For ‘interpellation’ see Althusser, Louis, Essays on Ideology (London: Verso, 1984).Google Scholar Ideology ‘hails’ (interpellates) the individual as subject: the subject is constituted in ideology. A pageant may hail spectator or participant as subject of a community or interest. See for example my discussion of the Sherborne Pageant (1905).

40. The Sunday Times, 12 March 1939.

41. Goss to Clark, 20 January 1939. His name appears in the programme, which may simply have been wishful thinking. But Bush recalled that he was there.

42. Ibid.

43. Goss to Clark, 11 December 1938.

44. Circular letter, n. d. (op. cit., Note 11).

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