The politics and purpose of ‘Blood Brothers’
Mini-lecture series for GCSE #1
This is the first of four mini-lectures designed to support Year 11 students in their revision of GCSE Literature. It was first delivered to pupils at Hethersett Academy on Thursday 28th February 2019.
Since its origins in Ancient Greece, theatre has been political. Classical playwright Aristophanes used satire and comedy to challenge the politics of his day. Shakespeare set many of his plays, like Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus, in a political sphere in order to question and probe how far politics help or hinder societies. 20th Century playwrights such as Willy Russell, JB Priestley and Edward Albee responded to and criticised the rapidly changing political landscape around them through their plays.
What is political theatre?
Political plays work to bring about change. They express dissatisfaction with society. They aim to condemn and challenge unjust systems. They may accuse one part of society seen to be at fault. Whilst political theatre will still hope to entertain audiences, its main purpose is to provoke careful thought in audiences. The desire is that audiences will leave the theatre as changed people, more aware of social issues and how to improve the world around them. Because of its interest in community and the underdog, political theatre is often left-wing and critical of capitalism and materialism. It encourages audiences to be more tolerant and accepting of others.
Our key text Blood Brothers is undoubtedly political. It was written to provoke change in late 20thCentury society. It puts a mirror up to the inequality and exploitation of Thatcherite Britain. It exposes many aspects of our society as cruel and unfair. It dramatizes the tragic consequences of unjust politics in order to teach the audience how to make the world a better place.
This lecture will talk you through some of the key political aspects of Blood Brothers. We’ll start by looking at the key features of political theatre and how Russell uses them. We’ll move on to an exploration of the alienation effect and where this concept comes from. We’ll then look in detail at the narrator as a political figure in the play.
Features of political theatre
Political theatre is generally made about the people, for the people, by the people. Let’s break this down a little. Firstly, political theatre is made about the people, usually meaning working class people. Russell clearly is interested in the plight of working class people: the play opens with the focus on the character of Mrs Johnstone and establishes her very early on as a victim of an unfair society. The stage directions describe her as thirty about looking “more like fifty”, emphasising the harsh impact of a difficult, struggling life. Although some of the play does grant us a window into upper-middle class life, Russell draws the focus back to the effects of political and economic systems on working class people encapsulated by the Johnstones. Like much political theatre, Russell includes every-day, colloquial language, including dialect in Mickey’s “gis a sweet” and without censoring the harshness of profanity and swearing.
So, like other political plays, Russell writes about the people, but it’s clearly also by the people and for the people. According to the Willy Russell in an interview printed in the introduction of the Methuen edition of the text, Blood Brothers was originally performed in a secondary school in a suburb of Liverpool in 1982 by the Merseyside Young People’s Theatre Company. So it was originally performed by young local people, for young local people. The fact that it was put on in a school shows how interested Russell is in the community, and probably not very motivated at all by money — we all know schools don’t have a huge amount of excess cash for things like plays. Russell also mentions that the reason he left the staging relatively simple, with few props and little scenery, was so make it easy to put on in any location. This use of expressionism (for example in the fluid transitions between time frames and the minimalistic set design) allows for the play to travel round easily, thus reaching more parts of society. It is in its very design, about the people, by the people and for the people.
A condemnation of society
And like other political plays, Russell in many ways has written a condemnation of society. What is he condemning? For me, Russell criticises three main elements of late twentieth century society.
For Russell, society is inherently unfair because your life opportunities are determined by your class. He criticises the fact that your life not by your merits, not by your hard work, and not even by your education. He condemns the fact that in 1980s Britain, your life was determined by the class of the family in which you are born. He uses the twins Mickey and Eddie as allegories for this. As brothers, they should have equal opportunities in life. However, Russell makes it clear remarkably early that this is not the case. Age just seven, when we’d like to believe that children are innocent and pure, the contrast is stark: Edward is described in the stage directions “bright” and “forthcoming”; he is generous and curious, while Mickey is envious of his brother Sammy and knows swearwords and is already deeply suspicious of others. Costume is often used to emphasise the difference between them, and as we know the gulf between them, caused solely by class, grows and grows, leading to Mickey alone, jobless and “dejected” and Edward powerful, educated and moneyed. Russell is keen to emphasise that it’s the Mickey’s unjust situation in life propels him to crime. For me it is interesting how inequality leads inevitably to tragedy, but not just for the poorer members of society. Both Mickey and Edward are killed at the end; both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons are left broken and bereaved. Russell clearly wishes to demonstrate how inequality is deeply damaging not just for the working classes, but for everyone. Therefore, Russell uses the twins as allegories: they represent how the class system leads to deep set injustice and tragedy in society.
2. Capitalism and materialism
More specifically, Russell condemns capitalist societies which prioritise the gaining of money above personal happiness. Russell reveals how capitalist societies exploit people, brainwashing them that spending money is the only way to achieve satisfaction. Mrs Johnstone’s powerful song in Act 1 repeats the heart-breaking words “nothing’s yours”: she realises that in a money-hungry world she is powerless. Despite being vulnerable and poor, companies have persuaded her to part with her money to buy things from ‘Catalogues’. Despite paying what she can, she then defaults on her payments. The catalogue men take back her items, and don’t give her back her money. She is left even worse off than before. Painfully, Mrs Johnstone is aware of how she is exploited in society. in Act 2, When Mrs Lyons offers her money to leave her happy new home, Mrs Johnstone admits that she would only buy “junk” with the money. She now values family and friendship over materialism, but this won’t stop the capitalistic machinery manipulating society as a whole into being cogs in the consumer wheel.
Russell criticises the violence of society through the playground games of the children in act 1. Because we might expect children to be innocent and vulnerable, the fact that these children play such violent games, characterised with guns, bombs and explosions, shows how they imitate the dangerous world around them. Through the character of Sammy, we see how these violent games can turn all too quickly into real crime involving knives and ultimately guns.
4. Political and economic policies
Lastly, Russell condemns what he saw as unfair economic policies that left working class people vulnerable. During the 1970s-80s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced changes that destabilised many parts of society. Recognising they were no longer making money, she closed the mines, sending whole communities into unemployment. She privatised industries such as the railways in an attempt to make them more efficient. When recession hits, the middle classes are often protected from problems: they can use their education to find other work. However, Russell shows that when economic problems fall on a country, the working classes are left vulnerable and unprotected. Russell dramatizes this powerfully through the song ‘Sign of the Times’ in Act 2. Mr Lyons sings casually, almost happily as he fires worker after worker. The irony in the happy tone of the song and the devastating impact on society is powerful here, and serves to demonstrate that Mr Lyons is unaffected by the downturn while he sends others to struggle. He uses harsh and impersonal language to describe the men and women losing their jobs, saying they are “surplus to requirements”. He fails to understand the real impact on their lives. Russell shows the extent of the damage through the Dole-Ites. In this group of characters, all looking unsuccessfully for work and being forced to go on benefits, he adopts features of Greek Tragedy. In Greek Tragedy, a chorus of actors would be used to show the impact events had on wider aspects of society. Here, Russell uses to the chorus to condemn the political decisions that left so many powerless and struggling.
So we’ve already looked at what political theatre is along with its key features. We’ve looked in detail at what aspects of his society Russell is exposing as unjust and unfair. Take a minute to look over your notes and review what you’ve learned. What is important? What do you want to make sure you don’t forget? What words do you want to incorporate into your writing?
We’re now going to move on to think about alienation effect in more detail and how it’s used for political purposes.
The Alienation Effect
Lots of us are already writing really brilliantly about how Russell uses the alienation effect in Blood Brothers. As a reminder, this means the moments in the play when Russell suddenly reminds us that the play isn’t real.
He does this at regular intervals throughout the play: at the start, the narrator opens with “Have you heard the story of the Johnstone twins?” He establishes the narrative as a “story”, because it is just that; it isn’t real. He explicitly tells us it is a fiction. In the same way, Mrs Johnstone goes on to sing “Tell me it’s not true, say it’s just a story”. It’s highly ironic, because while she’s singing this tragic song with huge amounts of sadness and pathos, we’re aware that in actual fact, it is just a story. It isn’t real. It isn’t true. It’s just a piece of theatre that we’ve paid to go and see. Russell repeats this song right at the end of the play, just after the tragic deaths of our protagonists. It’s incredible how at the tragic climax of the play, when we’re likely to be feeling really invested in the lives of the characters and really shocked and saddened by what has just happened, Russell chooses for Mrs Johnstone to sing a song that will inevitably break the effect: she is reminding us it’s not real life.
Why does he do this?
He does it in order to jolt us out of the spell of the theatre. He doesn’t necessarily want us to feel emotionally invested with the characters. He’s not here to entertain us. The characters are fictional. There is very little point in feeling saddened by the deaths of two people who aren’t real and never existed. Instead, he wants us to feel saddened by what these characters represent: the injustices of real life. By dramatically reminding us that it’s “just a story”, he jolts us into realising that the real issue are the issues occurring in society every day. He forces us to care not just about the fictional world on stage, but the real world in which we live. The alienation techniques he uses alienate us from the artificial world created on stage, and force us to look at the world around us.
20th Century Political Theatre
Whilst Russell makes great use of alienation in Blood Brothers, he wasn’t the first to develop the techniques. In fact, they stem from a rich history of 20th Century political theatre. As we know, the 19thand 20thCentury was a time of huge inequality and change in Europe. People all over were developing new political ideas in an attempt to solve social problems. Carl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1843; Russians revolted against their aristocratic rulers in 1917; fascism gained traction in many European nations. Alongside the burgeoning political debates, many artists and writers became involved in the struggle to improve society. The theatre was one such area that was used to provoke social change.
Throughout the 20thand also today, plays are seen as part of upper middle-class society. It’s typically expensive to go to the theatre — if I go to the theatre it will often take me back £30-£40 pounds a ticket. Because of its price and its status in society, it often attracts elements of the bourgeoisie, the upper-middle classes. Often, these are the very people that need to change in order to improve society. So, some playwrights during the 20thCentury decided that the theatre was the perfect place from which to re-educate the parts of society that have the most power to improve the lives of everyone.
One such playwright was a man called Bertolt Brecht.
Writing in the 1920s in Germany, just before the rise of Nazi power, Brecht believed that social change was urgently needed. He asked the following:
“How can theatre be entertaining and instructive at the same time? How can it be taken out of the hands of intellectual drug traffic and become a place of offering real experiences rather than illusions? How can the unliberated and unknowing man of our century with his thirst for knowledge and freedom, the tortured and heroic, misused and inventive man of our terrible and great century, himself changeable and yet unable to change the world, how can he be given a theatre which will help him be master of his world?”
So, he saw the inequalities of the world around him, and he wanted to make a difference. As a playwright, he wanted to drastically change the ways plays were performed and written; he believed that the theatre could help bring about social change. He wrote plays about everyday working people and placed. The Threepenny Opera, for example, is about beggars, criminals and prostitutes in the Victorian era. Mother Courage is about a woman who survives by selling junk from her wagon while tormenting and using her children. Brecht was the very first person to develop the alienation effect or in his language, Verfremdungseffeckt. He made his characters deeply unlikeable so we can’t be too emotionally absorbed in their stories. He also shows the machinery of staging on stage, so an audience would see the actors changing costumes or scenery. He might have the director of the play sitting on stage, watching the performance from a chair to one side. He does this to show that what we are watching is not reality, but just the playwright’s point of view. Like Russell, Brecht would use music and songs to jolt the audience out of the action and to provide commentary on the events on stage. All these examples of alienation force us to interrogate what we see, and how it relates to real life. Alienation doesn’t draw the audience in; rather it causes the audience to jolt out of the emotional events on stage to cause us to participate actively in how change in society can come about.
So it was Brecht who first developed the concept of alienation in theatre, in order to re-educate his audiences.
Clearly, Russell is indebted to Brecht. As well as his use of songs and reminding us the play is “just a story”, he explores the plights of working class people within the struggles of their society. He also uses the narrator a source of alienation throughout the play.
He also uses the narrator as a kind of on stage director. Frequently, the narrator looks as if he’s in charge, almost as if he’s controlling the events. He invites Mrs Johnstone on stage at the start, saying “Then bring her on and come judge for yourselves / How she came to play this part”. Again, he uses the language of the theatre in “play this part” and shows himself to be a kind of stage manager firstly to emphasise his power and control, and to hint at the fictionality of the play. It isn’t real.
Later, in the happiest moments of the play, when Linda, Mickey and Eddie are spending carefree time together as teenagers, he uses powerful imagery to remind us that they are “lambs” in springtime, with slaughter inevitably on the horizon. His refrain of “the devil’s got your number” which is peppered throughout the play reminds us of the tragic ending. All of these serve to reinforce the alienation effect: the narrator powerfully and constantly reminds us that we’re watching a fabrication.
So the narrator works well to reveal the artificiality of the play. Clearly, in real life, we don’t have narrators walking around behind us, telling us what’s going to happen in our futures, or commenting on the things we are doing. The narrator is an expressionistic character: he isn’t realistic. He also lifts the story of Mickey and Eddie into the realms of fable, legend and myth. Right at the start, he uses the word “slain” to describe the ultimate end of the twins. This word comes more from Medieval Arthurian romance, than from 20thCentury social realism. The word “slain” shows that not only will the twins die, but also echoes the language of legends and fairy tales. The story becomes a myth – like Little Red Riding Hood or Pandora’s box. Myths, of course, have educational value: Little Red Riding Hood warns us against venturing too far into the unknown. Pandora teaches us to be wary of our curiosity. In just the same way, Blood Brothers teaches us about the injustices of an unequal society. The deaths of Mickey and Eddie become like a fable or an allegory: a story used to illustrate a deeper message.
Most powerfully, the narrator breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience with the most important question of the play: “And do we blame superstition for what came to pass? Or could it be what we, the English, have come to know as class?” He’s talking directly to the audience and asking us to consider the causes of the tragedy. The question forces the audience to really think about the answer. For me, it’s clear that Russell doesn’t blame superstition. Superstition is merely a tool of injustice. The true cause is, of course, class divisions and the inequality it involves. In breaking the forth wall and directly asking the audience to consider our own view, Russell uses the alienation effect brilliantly to provoke social change.
Here’s an overview of the things I’ve talked about this afternoon. We’ve talked about:
- What is political theatre?
- Features of political theatre.
- Russell’s condemnation of society.
- Alienation effect
- 20th Century Political Theatre
We’re going to finish by practising some of what you’ve learned.