Forgotten plays about the Spanish Civil War

Post date: 03/11/2021

Dr Simon Breden describes how left-wing theatre groups and playwrights, including International Brigade veterans, depicted the struggle in Spain while the civil war was unfolding and in its aftermath.

Breden is a lecturer at the University of Duesto in Bilbao and author of ‘El Unity Theatre y la Guerra Civil Española’ (Unity Theatre and the Spanish Civil War], (Madrid: Guillermo Escolar, 2020). This piece first appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2021.

Jack Lindsay’s ‘On Guard for Spain’ (1937) performed by Bristol Unity Players’ Club in Winterbourne, June 1938. (Warwick Digital Collections)

Relatively little has been written about British theatrical responses to the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps this is due to the ephemeral nature of theatre, but most examinations of literary responses to the war have focused on poetry and prose. However, at the instigation of Professor Emilio Peral Vega of the Complutense University in Madrid, as part of a government-funded project, Métodos de propaganda activa en la Guerra Civil (Methods of Active Propaganda in the Civil War), seeking to discover unpublished works on the subject from around the world, my research has uncovered a strong and prolific theatrical current in the UK that had largely been forgotten. 

My recently published collection compiles a selection of eight plays staged by Unity Theatre companies around the UK between 1936 and 1946, all but one previously unpublished and located in archives in the UK and the US. All of these plays focused centrally on the Spanish Civil War, seeking to inform working-class audiences about what was going on, or on the International Brigades and the importance of the Spanish Civil War within the context of a wider worldwide struggle between communism and fascism. 

As the very name of the company implies, the Unity Theatre was closely tied to the Communist Party and its calls for a government of national unity to combat the rise of fascism. Unity also developed a close collaboration with Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, generating a nationwide network of amateur theatre companies reporting to the Left Book Club Theatre Guild. 

This network would send out recommendations of plays written for a left- leaning working-class audience, therefore offering a theatre programme completely distinct from the popular mainstream theatre of the era, which offered little comment and no leadership on the subject of Spain.

The scale of Unity’s effort cannot be sufficiently stressed: my research uncovered records of at least a dozen more Spanish Civil War plays, although I have not yet been able to track down these scripts.

The plays compiled in my book, ‘El Unity Theatre y la Guerra Civil Española’ (Unity Theatre and the Spanish Civil War), were written by left-wing writers and International Brigaders, some of whose names are now largely unknown. 

Perhaps the most famous piece is Jack Lindsay’s ‘On Guard for Spain!’ (1937), which has enjoyed a long publication history, more often as a poem rather than a play. However, it was conceived as a piece of theatre, a ‘mass declamation’ as he termed it, to be performed by a chorus of voices: it was enormously popular in the early years of the war, becoming the most frequently performed play on the Spanish Civil War, staged many times by Unity companies all over the UK.

However, it was not the first play on the subject: Randall Swingler’s ‘Spain’ (1937) was the earliest response, performed at the Unity Theatre’s Britannia Street venue, and containing all the major hallmarks of these pieces: a preoccupation with explaining the nature of the conflict, connecting it to a wider global struggle, and offering a damning indictment of the Conservative government’s policy of non- intervention.

The collection’s other plays include two sketches by Edgar Criddle for the Liverpool Unity Theatre, ‘Insurgent’s Aid Committee’ and ‘Before Guernica’ (1937), both satirising the rebel forces and the complicity of the UK government in their atrocities. 

Two further plays examine the International Brigades centrally: JS Frieze’s ‘We Fight On’ (1943) and Ted Willis’ ‘All One Battle' (1945), both plays written after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, with the Second World War well underway, and designed to suggest that the fight against fascism had started with the Communist Party’s leadership forming a working-class army in Spain.

The propagandistic bias of these plays is evident, but it goes some way towards helping us understand the concerns of the British public and the efforts of the British Communist Party and the Comintern to present a particular narrative of the events from 1936 onwards. 

Two plays remain, which we may slightly set apart from this purely propagandistic intent, although they both quite clearly display their leftist sympathies, as they attempt to show a more human side to the conflict rather than simply making broad political statements.

The first is Carmel Haden-Guest and Robert Orchard’s play ‘Madrileñas’ (1937), which shows us the Red Aid offices in Madrid under siege. Haden-Guest’s visits to Spain and her humanitarian efforts resonate clearly throughout a piece that attempts to show the suffering of Spanish civilians under intolerable circumstances. 

At this point I should note that I have been unable to find any record of the co-author Robert Orchard, and would be delighted if any readers happen to have any information at all on who he was.

The second play is George Leeson’s ‘This Trampled Earth’ (1946), the only full-length play in the collection. With echoes of Lorca and Lope de Vega, the play presents a Spanish village attempting to resist its Falangist mayor, and seeks to generate a great deal of empathy with the repressed ordinary townsfolk depicted.

Leeson was an International Brigader and one of the men captured at Jarama in Harry Fry’s machine gun company. At the time he was already translating Lorca and Alberti and he would later become the general manager of the Unity Theatre in London.

The personal involvement of both Haden-Guest and Leeson in the conflict produced the two most naturalistic plays depicting ordinary Spaniards and the situation in Spain as directly witnessed, rather than the more dispassionate external perspective on the conflict that the other playwrights in this collection had provided.

My book presents all these plays in English alongside my translations into Spanish. The introduction, also in Spanish, summarises the British literary responses to the war and seeks to place these rediscovered plays within the more familiar context of Spanish Civil War poetry and prose. They offer a valuable window into how resonant the conflict was at the time and how it polarised public opinion.

Most importantly, it restores the Unity Theatre to a place of prominence at the forefront of literary responses to the war, demonstrating the extent of its engagement, through the creation of a variety of new plays in different registers, performed by hundreds of amateur companies around the country.

Posted on 3 November 2021.

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