The Pitmen Painters  is currently playing in NYC at the Manhattan Theater Club — click on live link for further information.  This review, written when the play was in London, may interest you. 

Guest review by Mark Haggard, Cambridge, UK

… a rich tapestry of art, drama and recent history … with personal recollections of Richard Lyon …

What makes a particular play run and run?  No single property surely, but some of them are well illustrated by The Pitmen Painters now back at London’s National Theatre for the third time, and for a 4-month season.  I would hazard that two such properties are interrelated:  breadth of appeal and the efficient weaving of an optimum, slight, degree of ambiguity (ie several messages, none too heavily stated), achieved by having several strands in the dramatic development interwoven with enough coherence to not fall apart.  Rank ambiguity is tolerable in the visual arts because we can choose to walk to the next picture, but not in a play;  we can’t reasonably disrupt the performance by leaving before the end of the first act.  Waiting for Godot was a success but a rare one, in what is historically a very minority taste.

Lee Hall, who counts Billy Elliot among his past successes, knows the formerly industrial North East of England well.  The Pitmen Paintersis is based on William Feaver’s book of the same name that tells the story of the Ashington group of painters, active from the mid 1930’s till the early 70s, but who fell into obscurity during the 50s.  This award winning joint production of the National (Cottesloe Studio Theatre) and the Live Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne was brought back earlier this year to the larger auditorium at the National Theatre (with an accompanying exhibition of some of the paintings) to great critical acclaim and a sellout, and here it is back for a third Fall-Winter season.  English speaking theatre enthusiasts everywhere should find it rewarding and largely accessible.  There’s quite a strong Geordie (Newcastle) dialect, which hasn’t been moderated because it underpins much of the cultural tensions and humour.  The rather long build up in the first half of the play may make it difficult to see where the drama is going but does afford an opportunity for the ear to attune.

Hall succeeds with the many-stranded Pitmen Painters in several ways, so that playgoers can come away with very differing though favorable reactions to it, and even differing views of what it’s mostly about.   The core plot is quite simple, which permits the layering.  A group of miners in the mid-1930s in Ashington, a mining town near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, wish to better themselves through the Workers’ Educational Association.  As the result of a coincidence, they settle on wanting to learn about art.  Lecturer Robert Lyon from Newcastle starts off with theory and history, but for these practical men, the greater interest lies in the practice of painting.  Lyon responds with composure and patience, urging them to find their own styles, which turn out to vary — by no means all “primitives”.  As adult education, the art class is a success and more.  The group journeys to another world, that of exhibitions and aristocratic patronage, first as viewers, then as exhibited artists themselves.  Success tempts them to develop further in new ways.  In the chief turning point of the play, one of them comes close to accepting aristocratic patronage to leave mining, but does not.  This turns out beneficial for his painting because, come the war, mining is crucial for wartime production.  They all continue (but for one who’s unemployed so called up for military service) to work a full (long) shift down the pit.

In a sense there isn’t a denouement that this lengthy description might give away.  The early post-war socialist developments such as nationalization of the coal mines mark the waning of the artistic movement.  Some of the broader social ideas of which WEA was a part at the time seemed on the way to achievement, but patterns of patronage, spending power and consumption changed within a few years as society rebuilt.  The group’s subject matter had remained parochial while everything except war production contracted, but it continued so through the large upheaval and forward-looking expansion that followed.  Their artistic moment had passed, a predicament no means unique given 6 years of all-out war.  It’s useful to remember that although Russia lost far more population, Britain depleted a far higher percentage of its national resources than any other country to ensure victory;  WWII still dominates national consciousness.

Skillfully interwoven with the main plot are sub-themes that provide the layers and make it hard for anyone not to find an area of interest:  the noise and danger of mining; class; education and the North/South divide; private/public ownership of the means of production; the communicative values of abstract art and whether simple geometric shapes are a confidence trick;  the difficulty of making any objective artistic judgment outside one’s own cultural tradition; and the essentially local — and not transportable — nature of ties and cultural capital of the British working class, underlying as it did the lower labour mobility seen till the post-industrial age from the 1990’s.

For me, a quietly handled moral frisson was the crux of the play.  Lyon writes a thesis on the group of painters that he has nurtured without consulting or even telling them, and in 1940 is appointed (it’s implied at least partly as a consequence) as Principal of Edinburgh College of Art.  By today’s standards of mobility, he would have had to be moving on soon anyway, but we’re shown clearly that he doesn’t keep in contact as much as he’d promised.  Is his excuse of long working hours in wartime when few teachers remained valid?  We’re left wondering how things might have turned out if the shepherd had stayed with his flock.

But more importantly, what uncomfortable mixture of mild exploitation, patronization and experimentation without participant consent can we now see embodied in Lyon’s thesis?  For some, the dilemma of exploitation that lies in discovery and presentation of provincial talent may come to mind more readily by recalling Gee’s Bend quilters who were widely exhibited in important galleries in the last decade.   In a masterly piece of writing, Hall brings the audience into some complicity with Lyon.  Amid the dialogue in and around the art classes, the painters have to learn to talk about art so as to comment on one another’s efforts.  Their first utterances with art-theory, Freudian and Marxist ideas, are of course clumsy;  realistically portrayed, and kept this side of caricature these mingle seamlessly with the general situation comedy.  But in laughing at these, and in particular at the apparent incongruity of psycho-babble in broad Geordie dialect, are we too reaching back across 70 years to patronize and objectify the painters? 

The play is brilliantly directed by Max Roberts.  Some of the scenes near the beginning and end are longer than necessary to support plots and characterization, perhaps a price paid for supporting multiple sub-themes.  But just when dramatic development around the art class seems to be stagnating, it’s moved on by the introduction of the aristocratic patron.  Short inter-act scenes at the mine, on a bleak night-time station platform, make up for their simple sets with powerful use of lighting and sound effects.  The above-centre projection screen serves triply:  for Lyon’s initial lantern-slide show to the class, for time and place scene indications, and to show the many paintings that characters are viewing or doing within the play.  This succeeds totally and seems well in place in the contemporary world of widespread electronic projection.

There were more painters than the drama could include.  Selection and simplification create the small number of specific dramatic tensions there’s time for the dialogue to support:  the Marxist, the opportunist, the legalistic bureaucrat, and the one with the true artist’s soul.  Lyon is the catalyst and the action revolves around him so he is fixed, in the sense that any of his personal development is outside the scope of the play and hence has to be minor.  As the prime mover and link to the art world, there’s only one of him whilst there are many miner-artists. 

Robert Lyon died in 1959, and I last saw him perhaps a year before.  The inevitably limited understanding of adult character in a very young person, such as I was as the time, limits the comments that can be usefully made.  I remember him as less staid than the stage character, more spontaneous and communicative, occasionally even impish, but from other things that I know, I think the charge of opportunism does stick.  Lyon was an important impresario in British, particularly Scottish, art in his time.  He was a competent but not great artist himself, with a style on which it’s difficult to pin a label.  In a late scene in The Pitmen Painters, set in 1944, Lyon is executing a portrait of Oliver Kilbourn, conversing with his subject on the past and on the various artists’ destinies.  The screen shows us the finished portrait, which was criticized at the time for not bringing out well the force of Kilbourn’s character, and one can see why.

On the other hand Lyon’s 1945 portrait of my elder brother as a 6-year-old is charming and does capture much spirit.  There are two traceable portraits of my stepfather Richard Elmhirst (who within the last few months of his US citizenship, in August 1945 refuelled the Enola Gay  on a Pacific island airstrip for its fateful mission, but that’s another story).  One is by Lyon from the mid 50s, and the other by the well-known American abstract expressionist Mark Tobey, from the late 30s.  Tobey achieved what Lyon did not in bringing out character on canvas. 

But perhaps as an educator Lyon made possible the Ashington painters and hence this play by bringing out character in other ways.

The Pitmen Painters plays at the National Theatre, London, through January 18, 2010.  [The play is currently at the Manhattan Theater Club in NYC;  tickets are available through December 13.