Miners used to be left-wing dramatists’ catnip. The visceral, often fatal, nature of their work, as well as their leading position in the labour movement, saw them become the roaring lions of socialist drama. Death and Revolution is a heady mix. As ever, real politics and drama were intertwined: it was no accident they were a popular subject for TV plays and series during the 1970s as that was when the National Union of Mineworkers brought down the government of Edward Heath. But after the disastrous 1984-5 strike, the mining industry rapidly shrank into insignificance and the once-mighty NUM became a sad shadow of its former self. When NUM President Arthur Scargill left Tony Blair’s Labour party in 1996 hardly anybody noticed.
Even if they were still a force with which to be reckoned, miners would likely have lost their leading position in contemporary drama as radical playwrights now focus on issues of gender, race, sexuality or immigration. And, despite being seen by some as nostalgic for a mythical socialist past, even Jeremy Corbyn does not propose reopening those mines shut down by Margaret Thatcher. It is therefore intriguing that Maxine Peake – Corbyn’s greatest supporter in the acting world – wrote her second play, Queens of the Coal Age, about miners.
Women Against Pit Closures
Reflecting contemporary sensibilities Peake’s protagonists are however not miners themselves but their wives, specifically four members of Women Against Pit Closures who occupied a mine over the Easter weekend of 1993 in protest against the Conservative government’s winding down of the industry. As this was a real incident, we all know in advance that they fail to halt the closure programme, so the play needed to be more just four women talking on a darkened stage for a couple of hours. The Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre’s production actually does amazingly well to convey the impression of being down a mine: those involved deserve all the plaudits available. The skilled cast similarly invests life into the words they are given. But there is not much that can save a play that lacks drama, which is, unfortunately, the case here.
Lack of Drama
Peake partially succeeds in investing the four women with some individuality. One of them is Anne Scargill and Peake makes something of her desire to be independent of a prominent husband known as ‘King Arthur’. But there is little tension between the four protagonists: they are all united in their objective, except towards the end when they argue over when the occupation should end, a disagreement which is quickly and amicably resolved.
The lack of drama might be due to Peake’s relative inexperience as a playwright. But it is also likely to have something to do with her politics. Peake is from the furthest reaches of the left: she was literally a Communist and her play is essentially a celebration of a particular sort of working-class struggle. This means she fails to ask politically awkward but dramatically interesting questions, for hers is a ‘committed’ play. Criticism of Arthur Scargill’s leadership during the 1984-5 strike is confined to the pit manager who is, of course, a ‘scab’. Peake even uses the play to defend the NUM President from some of the wilder accusations of the tabloid press. The complicated issues thrown up by the strike – the lack of a ballot, the fact that not all miners supported it - are substituted for simplistic class analysis. So, we are told for example that Thatcher wanted to kill off the industry as revenge for what the NUM did to Heath. The economic issues are passed over. And hyperbole is just a speech away. For asking her to undress while under arrest, so they could ostensibly look for drugs and offensive weapons, Anne compares a police officer to a Nazi concentration camp guard. A humiliating request it certainly was; but the Holocaust it definitely was not.
These moments of agitprop sit awkwardly in what for the most part amounts to an ersatz Victoria Wood comedy, one in which low humour, the occasional fart, and female bonding are to the fore. I’m unsure what impact the politics made on the rather elderly and inevitably middle-class theatre audience in which I sat but they laughed at the jokes and liked the nostalgic references to early 1990s TV shows.
Agitprop has a long history. It can be useful as a means of transmitting political messages in a non-political setting. Sometimes it makes great drama: when writer Jim Allen collaborated with Ken Loach they sometimes produced committed work with humanity and humour. Perhaps in the future, a more experienced Peake can emulate that example. Even so, I am sure Queens of the Coal Age will go down well at the Durham Miners’ Gala, now it is an annual fixture for Corbynistas. It will reinforce the views of those already committed to the traditional socialist vision of the nobility of working class struggle. But, for me at least, this simple-minded and uncritical retelling of what proved to be a futile gesture needed more than political clichés to lift it beyond the humdrum.