Glasgow Unity Theatre existed from 1940-1951. The aim of the company was to create ‘a native theatre, something which is essentially reflecting the lives of the ordinary people in Scotland’. However, to help them achieve a ‘native theatre’ the company’s first professional production was a Russian play, Maxim Gorki’s (1868-1936), The Lower Depths. The focus of this article is to examine how the staging of a play by a man considered the founder of Russian social realism, resonated with Unity’s desire to reflect the lives of the Scottish working class.
The Lower Depths premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902 with Constantin Stanislavski acting and directing. In his autobiography, Stanislavski relates a conversation with Gorki that took place a year before the play was staged, in which the playwright described his idea:
It was to be laid in a poor lodging house, stuffy atmosphere, wooden bunks, during a long monotonous winter. The people had been bestialized by the hideousness of their existence, they had lost patience and hope, and being depleted of patience they nag each other. Each one tried to prove the other is still a human being.
As Stanislavski alludes to, the play depicts the lives of several characters brought together through poverty into the cellar of a homeless shelter or lodging house. There, the characters move through various bleak interactions until the eventual suicide of the Actor, which is met by ambivalence. The play’s setting, characters and lifestyle are clearly Russian. In Laurence Irving’s 1911 translation the characters discuss paying for goods in kopyeks, and the character names: Luka, Kvashnya and Vassilisa, ensure that the viewer is left in no doubt as to where the play is set. As such, as writer John Hill noted, it seemed a curious choice for a company committed to developing ‘a theatre indigenous to the people of Glasgow in particular and Scotland in general’.
Glasgow Unity was formed in December 1940, as combination of the Glasgow Corporation of Transport Players, the Jewish Institute Players, the Glasgow Workers’ Theatre group, the Clarion Players and the Glasgow Players. Bill Findlay noted that ‘each had left wing leanings’ and that the Glasgow Players (formerly The Scottish Labour College) had been founded in 1915 ‘by the Red Clydeside leader John Maclean’. David Hutchinson, in A History of Scottish Theatre, described Unity as first and foremost ‘committedly proletarian’. The company turned professional in 1945 with Robert Mitchell, an electrician and union convenor, as their first director.
Unity’s two major interrelated aims were to develop Scottish plays and Scottish actors who, in Mitchell’s words, would not have to ‘first spend years of his life getting the Scots quality knocked out of him’, and also to use theatre as a means of representing the lives of ordinary Glaswegians on stage. In its 1943 Manifesto, Unity’s members described the aims of the company:
We in Glasgow Unity Theatre are a group of Glasgow workers interested in the theatre, who intend to put on real plays for the entertainment and education of our fellow workers. Our main purpose is to build a people’s theatre in Glasgow. All our activities are centered to this aim, for we believe that Glasgow has a great need for a Real Theatre, where life can be presented and interpreted without prejudice or without being biased by the controlling interests which have so far strangled the professional theatre.
Bill Findlay noted that ‘Real Theatre’ would come as a consequence of having a company of actors drawn mainly from a working-class background ‘who would look to their own lives in developing a company style that was true-to-life, and who would operate as a democratic, co-operative ensemble’. To this end, Unity’s personnel were drawn, according to John Hill, ‘from the ranks of ordinary working people, whose background and everyday life is identical with the masses who form its audience’. Thus, Unity aimed to develop a synergy between the material presented on stage and the audience that viewed it. To do so, Robert Mitchell turned to Maxim Gorki.
Mitchell’s adaptation of The Lower Depths played at the Athenaeum in Glasgow in April 1945. Clearly, its urban setting and lower-class characters mirrored Mitchell’s wish to present plays about working class, urban experience. Colin Chambers observed at the time, that the production resisted ‘any attempt … to become ‘Russian’. Moreover, Findlay suggests that one of the most radical elements of the production was its ‘departure from the convention in Scottish theatre of the time to deliver lines in accent of the London West End Stage’. However, this is not immediately evident in the text. The following is taken from Mitchell’s adaptation:
Mied: All crooks are clever, I know. They couldn’t do a thing without brains. An honest man is right even if he is an idiot. But a crook must have brains. But speaking about camels, you’re wrong. You can ride them. They have no horns or teeth either.
The same section from Laurence Irving’s translation reads as follows:
Myedvyedyeff: Sharpers… they’re all clever … I know! They ‘ave got to be clever. A good mn he – may be stupid and good, but a wrong ‘un, ‘e’s bound to ‘ave wits. But, that camel, yer know … yer can get me on ‘im … ‘e ‘asn’t no ‘orns, not no teeth.
Irving’s translation was first performed in December 1911 at the Kingsway Theatre in London and a brief comparison of these passages demonstrates that, if anything, the dialogue written by Irving is more colorful, fuller of colloquialisms and local dialect. Mitchell’s version is not written in Scots or Glaswegian dialect and the colloquial energy evident in Irving’s translation is absent. Indeed, Findlay goes so far as to call the language in Mitchell’s version ‘relatively colourless and … in some respects, lifeless’.
However, what does come through is the relative mundanity of the conversation as the characters fill their time without dramatic drive. This hints that the impact of the play lay in both the themes of the play and in Mitchell’s choice to have his actors interpret and deliver the lines in their own dialect. Indeed, Findlay suggests that there was an attempt to ‘Glaswegianize’ the dialogue in performance. Thus the performance did not simply fail to adopt a Russian idiom as suggested by Colin Chambers, but actively chose to adopt a Glaswegian one, thereby enhancing the social realist aesthetic and transposing Gorki’s depiction of a disenfranchised and ‘bestilaized’ poor to the slums of Glasgow.
It is worth recalling that Unity was not the first company in Scotland to stage The Lower Depths. The Scottish Repertory Company staged a performance of Irving’s translation in 1914 at the Royalty Theatre in Glasgow. This production starred the Russian actress, Lydia Yavorska, and so the production would have presumably emphasised the characters and their struggles as Russian; as an insight into the lives of foreigners far away. Unity’s production, through the ‘Glaswegianised’ delivery, would have highlighted to the audience that these themes were as present on the streets of Glasgow as they were in Moscow.
The production was a critical success; it transferred to London and was revived for the Edinburgh Festival in 1947. Despite this and other successes, Unity folded in 1951. Unity’s failure to progress resides in a number of factors. The main one was its competition with the Citizens’ Theatre for funds from the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). CEMA was the precursor of the Arts Council, and in its 1946 charter it set down that it was concerned with funding the fine arts exclusively.
Perhaps ironically, its attempts to reflect reality contributed to Unity’s demise. A perceived lack of professionalism in its actors compared to the Citizens’ company, which John Hill noted, ‘on their formation had hired an English director … and a nucleus of West End actors’ meant CEMA looked more favorably on supporting the development of the Citizens and its aim, according to Hill, to ‘improve the cultural tastes of the nation’, rather than reflecting the lives of the urban poor.
Finally, to return to the central question of why Mitchell turned to Gorki in order to express his desire to develop a ‘native drama’. Mitchell’s choice reflects the men’s shared belief in depicting life stripped of simple narrative resolution; a desire to challenge audiences with moral ambiguity and, crucially, to do so using their own voice. All these elements are exemplified in a production that, as Bill Findlay noted, had a ‘special significance as an exemplar of the ‘artistic policy’ of Unity.
Stephen Collins is lecturer in Performance at the University of the West of Scotland. He combines a background in practice with his academic work. As a practitioner, he helped to establish the James Town Community Theatre in Accra and has worked as a director and facilitator throughout Scotland. As a researcher, he has a particular interest in post-colonial theatres and the legal and cultural status of performed heritage.
Colin Chambers (1989) The Story of Unity Theatre, Lawrence and Wishart.
Bill Findlay (1998) (ed.) A History of Scottish Theatre, Edinburgh University Press (including chapters by David Hutchinson).
Bill Findlay (2008) Scottish People’s Theatre, Bell and Bain.
John Hill (1978) ‘Glasgow Unity Theatre: The Search for a ‘Scottish People’s Theatre’’, New Edinburgh Review, 40.
Konstantin Stanislavski (2015) Stanislavski’s Legacy, trans. Elizabeth Reynolds Hopgood, Routledge.