it's just a bad system: A Marxist reading of Trevor Griffiths Comedians

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1998
24 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)



1. Introduction

2. A Marxist reading of Comedians
2.1 The defectiveness of the socio-economic system
2.1.1 The concrete material circumstances
2.1.2 The defectiveness of the socio-economic system
2.1.3 The defectiveness of the educational system
2.1.4 The defectiveness of marriage and the family
2.1.5 Conclusion
2.2 Capitalist repression and its challengers
2.2.1 Bert Challenor: Comedy as escape
2.2.2 Eddie Waters: Comedy as remedy
2.2.3 Gethin Price: Comedy as refusal

3. Conclusion: Repressive Tolerance or Revolutionary Commitment?


The question of whether and how to combine left-wing political commitment and writing for the stage has been causing considerable doubt among radical playwrights for some time. Radical Marxists tend to point out that writing for a predominantly bourgeois audience of playgoers is incompatible with the Marxist claim to address the proletariat and form a class consciousness that, for them, is the necessary precursor to revolutionary change, while others support an “interventionist” position of Marxists in bourgeois cultures.1 This dilemma has led the playwright Trevor Griffiths away from writing for the stage. Instead, he has focused his output on television productions that are supposed to be watched by a mass audience rather than an elitist one, although it has to be conceded that productions like these are often scheduled at late-night times where working- class audiences are likely to miss them, while prime-time entertainment, which usually works against the interests of the proletariat, is rendered more easily accessible.2 Nevertheless Griffiths has produced a number of plays for the stage, the most notable of which, Comedians (1976), will be discussed in this paper.

In his introduction to Plays One, Griffiths remarks about this drama that it eschews political theory, professional ideologues and historically sourced discourse on political revolution […] in favour of a more or less unmediated address on a range of particular contemporary issues including class, gender, race and society in modern Britain.3

Unlike in his earlier plays, Griffiths tries to present an analysis of the way repressive ideologies work not merely by filtering them through the ideas and theories of sophisticated and educated characters, but instead by exposing the way these ideologies function in contemporary British society. This society is represented by a class of aspiring comedians in an evening school in a Manchester suburb.

Prior to analysing Comedians, the Marxist approach employed in this paper has to be legitimated. There are various grounds of legitimating the validity of Marxist criticism as a potentially fruitful approach:

1. Despite the breakdown of Communist regimes since 1989, it has to be kept in mind that the critical approach offered by Marxist studies has not really been discredited as a method. Marxists would argue that so far there has been no social and economic order of duration based on the original principles of Marx and Engels, although the Marxist ideology still continues to serve as a legitimation for repressive systems all around the world. Apart from that, when Griffiths was writing Comedians in the 1970s, the Marxist alternative was still a matter of serious debate among leftist intellectuals, with strong Western communist parties successful e.g. in Italy and France.

2. In addition to this political defense of Marxist criticism, one can argue from a biographical angle. Trevor Griffiths has made it clear on various occasions that his work is to be seen in the context of his socialist commitment. Thus, even if I do not suscribe to the ideology of Marxism myself, this approach clarifies the structure and content of Griffiths’ play:

In my case, I feel very responsible to the Left, to the history of the Left thought and Left action – socialist, communist, revolutionary – whatever. […] The way people ought to organise their lives is not within capitalist structures, that’s what I’m saying. And that’s why my plays are never about the battle between socialism and capitalism. I take that as being decisively won by socialism.4

Consequently, this commitment is manifest in Griffiths’ plays, and I will argue that Comedians promotes a Marxist agenda by attacking the capitalist socio-economic system it is set in and negating the notion that it is viable and effective to change this system in a reformist, social-democratic tradition, suggesting instead that the only way to overcome the system’s defectiveness is by initiating violent revolution and class war.

Central to any Marxist interpretation of cultural productions are the essential premises underlying the Marxist ideology and its view of socio-economic reality. I will refer in particular to Marxist concepts about the commodity, the family, and the role of ideology.

2. A Marxist reading of Comedians

2.1 The defectiveness of the socio-economic system

2.1.1 The concrete material circumstances

Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians is an instructive illustration of the Marxist postulate that literature does not exist in some timeless aesthetic realm, as was claimed by the New Critics in the first half of the twentieth century; rather, like all other cultural manifestations, all literature is the product of socio-economic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written. This concern can be illustrated by the fact that Comedians is extremely context- bound:

- Apart from the caretaker and the club secretary, all characters in the play are rendered as individuals with full names that help to identify important characteristics of their appearance and socio-economic status in the play’s reality. 5 Thus Mick Connor can be identified as having (Catholic) Irish roots, while George McBrain’s name hints at a Protestant or Presbyterian Ulster counterpart. Likewise Sammy Samuels carries his Jewishness in his name.6 This method serves to show that the characters themselves are an apparent embodiment of the stereotypes that are explored in the play. The exceptions to this rule – the caretaker and the club secretary - are noteworthy, since their lack of individuality suggests that they stand for abstract structures like the capitalist educational and socio-economic systems, respectively.
- The play is painstakingly located in “a secondary school in Manchester, about three miles east of the centre, on the way to Ashton-under-Lyne and
the hills of east Lancashire” (193).7 Similarly, the bingo-hall setting of the second act suggests a distinctly British socio-economic context.
- There are several references in the text to politicians (e.g. Ian Paisley, 195), film stars (Telly Savalas, 200) and comedians (Frank Randle, George Formby and others, 228) that reinforce the concrete temporal and spatial location of Comedians throughout the play.
- The bingo-hall setting serves to remind us that the reality of a society arranged in classes is inescapable. The working-class comedians provoke unease and tension in the theatre audience, which is required to identify with the working-class club audience: “This is not a world or culture that the majority of the theatre audience have access to. Its inappropriateness produces a laughter that illustrates graphically the class-division that Waters wishes to eradicate, and that Price will shortly articulate.”8

Having thus demonstrated how the socio-economic reality of the play is established, I will continue to show how this system is presented as defective on various thematic and structural levels of the play, namely the depiction of the socio-economic reality in general, the educational system, and the bourgeois institutions of marriage and the family.

2.1.2 The defectiveness of the socio-economic system

As early as in the initial stage directions we are offered, in condensed form, a glimpse of the defectiveness of the contemporary British socio-economic system in general and the educational system in particular. The secondary school that provides the setting of most of the play “doubles as evening centre for the area” (193), offering evening courses in “yoga, karate, cordon bleu cookery, ‘O’ level English, secretarial prelims, do-it-yourself, small investments and antique furniture.” (ibid.) All of these offerings do not evoke the impression that those who attend them can gain significant improvement of their socio-economic status. Instead, all that is on offer is the possibility to catch up with skills that should have been trained in regular primary and secondary education in the first place, to act out one’s frustration and aggression, or to escape the bleak prospects of one’s own economic conditions by indulging in private and non- committal hobby-horses. Even where skills useful for improving one’s economic status are offered, their use value is qualified as “’O’ level”, “prelims” and “small”. One cannot escape the impression that the installation of evening courses are but shallow gestures of bourgeois self-contentment, the equivalent of the proverbial crumbs from the bread of the rich who are unwilling to offer any substantial help for the proletariat to rise above their status and escape poverty.

The society presented in the play has to deal with instances of frustration and aggression to an extent that makes it necessary to institutionalise opportunities to direct uncontrolled and potentially dangerous anger and violence in controlled and supervised activities – or to offer individual means of escape that add to the ones already available on the level of mass culture (cf. Ged’s statement that the TV series Crossroads helps him sleep, 204). Behind this strategy lies the bourgeois fear that the working class might unite and initiate a violent revolution against bourgeois political institutions. The observation that this capitalist system is unable to cope with its defectiveness on its own is reinforced by the fact that it has to take recourse to fighting techniques from the Far East, cooking skills from France, and furniture from remote ages. In other words: The socio- economic reality of the play – the British Midlands of the 1970s – shows severe signs of functional and endemic systemic defectiveness. This defectiveness can be observed in other bourgeois institutions as well, as the following subchapters on the educational system and the family will demonstrate.

2.1.3 The defectiveness of the educational system

The social shortcomings of the educational system are presented explicitly at the beginning of the play. The schoolroom that provides the setting of the first and third acts is described as “smallish” (193), analogous to the “small” stage of the bingo hall (234) that offers equally confined possibilities of self-expression. Furniture, lighting and equipment all bear the signs of neglect: The room’s furniture consists of “about a dozen chipped and fraying desks, two dozen chairs set out in rows facing the small dais on which stands the teacher’s desk” (193).


1 Cf. Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), pp. 165, 169f.

2 Griffiths points out that he “chose to work in those modes because … I have to work with the popular imagination … I am not interested in talking to thirty-eight university graduates in a cellar in Soho.” Quoted after Itzin, Stages in the Revolution (cit. note 1), p. 169.

3 Trevor Griffiths, Plays One (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. viii.

4 Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler, “Trevor Griffiths: Transforming the Husk of Capitalism” Theatre Quarterly 22 (1976), pp. 45f.

5 John Bull points out that “Griffiths has brought them together as an apparent embodiment of the various stereotypes upon which the humour of the TV series [ The Comedians ] depended …”. New British Political Dramatists (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 142.

6 An example for a play depicting deindividualised characters would be Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, in which most prisoners are lettered instead of given a real name that might suggest their individuality.

7 All quotations from the text are taken from Trevor Griffiths, Plays One (cit. note 2), which reprints the revised 1979 text of the play.

8 John Bull, New British Political Dramatists (cit. Note 6), p. 145.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


it's just a bad system: A Marxist reading of Trevor Griffiths Comedians
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (English Seminar)
Hauptseminar Trevor Griffiths: Comedians
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
405 KB
An analysis of the contemporary drama "Comedians", by Trevor Griffiths, utilizing a Marxist approach to show Griffiths' depiction of the defective state of capitalism
Marxist, Trevor, Griffiths, Comedians, Hauptseminar
Quote paper
Karsten Runge (Author), 1998, it's just a bad system: A Marxist reading of Trevor Griffiths Comedians, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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