The list of playwrights who have had two shows running concurrently on Broadway is exclusive, indeed. With The Pitmen Painters, opening Thursday at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Lee Hall joins this charmed circle.
Lee who? Hall, in his mid-forties, may never achieve the name recognition of the 11-year-old miner's son who leaps from strike-crippled coal country to the hallowed halls of the Royal Ballet School. Born as a screen character, Hall's fictionalized alter ego lives on in the international hit musical Billy Elliot, its book and lyrics by Hall, its score by Elton John.
The Pitmen Painters, based on a book by the art critic William Feaver, is at heart a documentary. In 1934, under a grant from of the Workers' Education Association, a group of miners intent on self-improvement sign up for a class in art appreciation. (In Hall's play, their first choice is economics, but they're unable to find a tutor.)
Getting nowhere with artspeak about the Renaissance, the lecturer puts them to work on artwork of their own, on the principle that doing will teach them to see. Lo and behold, they show some talent and make a splash in the gallery world as far off as London. Despite temptations for some to go it alone, solidarity prevails, but the hoped-for realignments in the art world and society come to nothing. (In historical fact, though not in the play, the Pitmen Painters established a permanent collection of the works they considered their best.)
I first heard of The Pitmen Painters in April, when Hall and I met to discuss Billy Elliot, then (as now) running strong at the Imperial Theatre. Developed in Newcastle, and subsequently seen in a critically acclaimed, sold-out run at the National Theatre in London, Pitmen had then recently been set for a limited New York run with the lavishly praised original cast intact.
I remembered Hall speaking of The Pitmen Painters as a bookend or pendant to Billy Elliot, but when I bumped into him outside of the Friedman Theatre before a preview last week, he blue-penciled my recollection. "I think I said a prequel," he said.
A musical vs. a straight play. Fantasy vs. documentary. A celebration of individual talent that must break free vs. a lament for a collective that elected to stay true to its roots. In many ways, Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters are polar opposites. Yet the correspondences run deep.
"If you're Billy Elliot or me, you get out and comment on the life you come from from outside," Hall told me in April, "but they stayed miners, never broke rank, and commented on that same life from the inside. When the mines were nationalized in 1947, it created huge opportunities. The idea was that the whole country would profit from ownership of fundamental resources, and that education, health care, and transportation would become open to everybody.
"A whole generation of writers from working-class backgrounds came out of that and were allowed to flourish: people like Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett. For me, youth theater was an after-school activity, but it was very serious. People came to talk to us about Brecht and Stanislavsky. I learned all I know about theater by the time I got to university. Today it's impossibly difficult for kids to get out. The routes are no longer available."
Arriving onstage filtered through Hall's imagination, the Pitmen Painters bear family resemblances to the characters in Billy Elliot to a degree than can be almost comical. "At the risk of being totally boring," Billy's ballet teacher tells him, "dancing is as much about you discovering things about yourself as it is about discovering about dancing." The miners' art-appreciation instructor preaches a similar gospel: "There's no secret to art… there's nothing to 'understand'—the point of painting is how it makes you feel."
After a preview last week, Hall and I picked up where we had left off months before.
Matthew Gurewitsch: Maybe Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters are bookends after all…
Lee Hall: They are in the sense that they bookend the apotheosis of our nationalized mining industry. Most British people have forgotten this, but when the mines were nationalized in 1947, there were probably 1,500 to 2,000 mines, all privately owned, mostly by lords and ladies who happened to own vast tracts of land that had mineral deposits underneath. They got paid handsomely when the mines were brought into public ownership. It was a symbol of tremendous national pride that such an important natural resource should be held for the good of all. Productivity and safety standards rose dramatically.
But by 1984, when Billy Elliot begins, the Conservative Party, which was in power, had a different ideology. In order to break the political bond of public ownership, Margaret Thatcher had to destroy the industry. At the beginning of the miners' strike, there were still 100 mines, with 250,000 people working underground. Now there are fewer than 5,000. Our energy industry is based on the exploitation of the poorest people in the world. We get our coal from Colombia, where they use child labor, or the Ukraine or other parts of the former Soviet bloc, where safety standards are akin to those in the 1890s. Coal remains our principal source of electricity—and two-thirds of the deposits are still down there in the British coalfields. It's not that we've run out of coal. We've run out of political will to bring it up.
Gurewitsch: In Billy Elliot, the snooty secretary of the Royal Ballet School is turned on to discover that Billy's father actually works underground. The heiress Helen Sutherland, the first patroness of The Pitmen Painters, seems similarly aroused by the notion of men who work underground. Are you being satirical?
Hall: There's something exotic about mining, about guys who work so hard with their bodies. For a lot of people the miner is the ultimate symbol of male strength, fortitude, and toughness. The conditions they work in are so horrible. But I think that for liberal people, miners also represented a sense of working-class nobility. There were monthly disasters, and people would lose their lives. But they were a community. The work they did was so dangerous. And they comported themselves with such dignity.
Gurewitsch: The miners in The Pitmen Painters dress for class in suit and tie. Photographs from William Feaver's book—the principal source for the play—show that the artists in the Ashington Group did dress this way. It's a revealing detail. Touching, too.
Hall: Their work was so filthy, so physically degrading. I think it shows a sense of pride that they would put on their Sunday best in order to go and learn and paint or draw. Such a sense of self-respect. I didn't really think about it, because I knew that's what that class of people did.
Gurewitsch: By making works of art of their own, the Pitmen Painters became increasingly astute commentators on art. In the play, they often seem more open-minded than Richard Lyon, their teacher. When the group goes to see Chinese art in London, for instance, they get it. He doesn't. And he puts them down.
Hall: A lot of what the miners say about art in the play comes from Pitmen Magazine, where they wrote for their fellow workers. Lyon's dismissive sentiments, which are very similar to those found in an essay by Sir Kenneth Clark, don't necessarily seem snobbish to me. He couldn't appreciate what these guys could see simply because they had an unmediated perspective, which was probably much more akin to how we'd see it now. Unlike his contemporaries Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, who were up to the moment about European modernism and experimentation, Lyon was still almost Edwardian in his pursuits. He was kind of a failure as an artist, but that didn't stop him from being brilliant teacher and doing extraordinary things. You don't have to be right all the time to do good in the world.
Gurewitsch: Mostly through the character of Helen Sutherland, the play keeps circling back to economics. There's that dust-up with the group when she wants to buy a miner's picture for two—well, OK, three—pounds. Then she sets off a crisis of conscience for Oliver Kilbourn by offering him a stipend to paint full time. And then there's that extra fillip when Oliver meets another protégé of hers, the abstract artist Ben Nicholson, who gives an insider's view of what it means to be a professional artist…
Hall: By that point we've seen her patronage as very benign and hopefully liberating. But there is always an exchange. All art rests on the economic reality that the artist has to feed himself in order to make the art. The guys in the Ashington seemed at the most radical outer fringes of the avant-garde, the ultimate in expressive freedom. But economically and politically, they're just as circumscribed as I am or you are. There's no such thing as freedom of self-expression as the Romantics imagined it. There are always responsibilities. There's always the hard work of creating the conditions in which you make those formal or personal experiments. Getting down to the desk, getting the commission, cultivating strong relationship with directors, theater companies, actors… all that is just as important to my work as the words that I type or the ideas that I have.
Gurewitsch: Have class issues in Britain changed fundamentally since the period you depict in the play?
Hall: After the Second World War, there was a lot of disenchantment on both sides of the wealth divide, but there was also a political consensus and the effort to renew a fissured society. A lot of what's good about Britain came from that. I've benefited immensely from it. Now I'm terribly worried that the structures are being dismantled. People only pretend the specter of class has gone away. Part of the political point I wanted to make is that we do have a class system. There's an upper-class lady in a stately home, a middle-class, educated teacher, and there's the proletariat. I wanted to write a play in which they help each other rather than smashing each other up.
Gurewitsch: There's a great sense of regret at the end of the play, when Lyon has moved on to a position as professor at the Edinburgh College of Art and the painters back in Ashington are feeling very much abandoned.
Hall: Every play about a teacher has the Pygmalion/Frankenstein myth built into it. The point of a teacher's work is to create something independent, so the very relationship that allows that to happens must fall asunder. That's the apotheosis. In a sense, the end of a love affair.
Gurewitsch: Is any of the dialogue in the play verbatim from sources?
Hall: Not exactly verbatim, because obviously I wasn't around when these people were talking. I had access to a lot of sources, including Oliver's diary. I was very interested to get under the skin of what they were doing, even when it didn't suit my purposes. Everything in the play happened. The works of art you see in the show are the works of art they made. I didn't invent any to make a point.