Saturday 15 September 2007

To Understand Northern Rock Go and See Odet's play "Awake and Sing"

Last night I went to see Clifford Odet's play "Awake and Sing". Odet was a twentieth century American playwright, born in the early 1900s and died of cancer in 1963. He was a socialist and at one time a card carrying communist, which resulted in him being hauled before McCarthy's UnAmerican Activities Commiittee. As a member of the pioneering theatre collective known as "The Group" he developed his writing talent and scripted other memorable plays such as "Waiting for Lefty."

Set in the 1930s Depression the play is both humourous yet deeply moving, telling the story of a working class Jewish family struggling to survive the grinding poverty and insecurity inflicted on them. We witness the strain placed upon their relationships by their plight but also their enduring humanity, self sacrifice and determination to win through.

The irony of watching a play set in the Depression was not lost on many in the audience on the day queues were forming outside Northern Rock offices as investors feared for their savings. The play is at the Almeida theatre in Islington, not far from Karl Marx's old drinking haunts. Alive today, Engels woould have been buying his mate Karl a few pints of porter to celebrate his theory of the inherent instability of capitalism being proved accurate once again.

The significance of staging Odet's play now is not just the timeliness of its subject. Odet was writing at a time of immense upheaval and change in the world, when new social forces were coming onto the scene. He was one of a wave of artists, writers, economists, social theorists and political activists who played a critical role in not only describing the new world they were experiencing but also explaining it and above all else motivating people, giving them confidence, to change it.

Odet and many of his progressive contemporaries gave people the belief that by reaching into their shared humanity they could not only cope with what the world threw at them but could change the world itself. They could do so by solidarity. A simple message that we can deal with this together.

The advent of globalisation over the last 30 years means that we are in a similar period of immense and dramatic change. Just as the artists, writers, theorists and activists emerged in the 1930s to describe and explain this change so today we are witnessing the beginnings of this reinterpretation of the world and the blossoming of campaigns, social movements and artistic initiatives to give people hope.