Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Give us the money Lebowski (and bourgeois?)

September 11, 2009 · 3 Comments

So it seemed like everyone was enthralled by the play, The Pitman Painters, last night. It was amazing, simply put.  However, as I have already mulled to a few of my classmates, I am uncertain of its socialist/communist tendencies. I felt more like it was a critique of socialism (which I realize is not the historical case). It ended up just feeling very nihilistic to me, rather than inspirational. Maybe nihilism isn’t the best word but if nothing else the play was laced was dramatic irony. I look at the play, and I think of all the dreams, passion, and attempts to stand up on one’s own feet, and all I see is failure. Small details like the unemployed guy (dies when he enlists) or Oliver (stays a pitman; I’ll talk more on this as it is arguable he succeeded), or even their teacher (who gets the great position yet will soon be forgot and left to obscurity) are quite noticeable; however, it is the grander theme of a system or dream letting us down is what leads me to feel this falls into the realm of nihilism rather than a socialist commentary. The last scene in particular shows this I think. Oliver has turned away from the bourgeois’ attempt to enslave him with money (hurray for the working class!), and he paints a banner for the socialist movement. Everyone is having a beer and cheering, saying “surely they’ll have to listen to us now.” But we as viewers know this not to be true. And then, when you think it is only a subtle joke between you and the playwright, the projector lights up explaining to us that there was never and academy at Ashington and the group broke up soon after the play took place. We further understand that the socialist movement in Britain did not succeed; they probably all died poor miners. In all likelihood (as Paul pointed out) Margaret Thatcher personally beat up each of the Pitman Painters.

The only thing I could think of as a positive explanation was this: the play was supposed to represent a moment, a snapshot, of human existance where people got it right. Just like in a painting, for one second the world is still and clear. We have no idea what Mona Lisa did right after her portrait was taken; she could have been attacked by wild dogs. However, in that one moment truth was found. And then the moment passes, we become disillusioned, our skills fail us, or our dreams betray us.

But onto happier things: I loved the accents, not just because linguistic anthropology has always given me goosebumps but also because I thought it is an interesting device to show class struggle and friction; it is something we rarely get to play with in the United States (other than your usual southern jokes). What I liked best was how we as the audience were able to understand the pitman more clearly as the play went on, as if we were becoming part of their group, integrating as the art instructor did. This might have been done on purpose, or their might not have been any change at all to the dialogue and I was simply able to understand more easily. Either way, it was a neat technique.

Anyway, cheers

Categories: Andrew R
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   abarron76 // Sep 11th 2009 at 05:04

    I didn’t think the play was nihilistic at all. Not in the slightest bit. It was an uplifting work that conquers the idea of definition by class. It demonstrates that any human can accomplish whatever he or she desires with the right sense of motivation. So while there are instances of tragedy (death of the young man, Lyon’s descent into mediocrity), the Ashington group has clearly enjoyed some longevity and long-lasting respect. A discussion of socialism is not the point of the play.

  •   fitzgerald // Sep 11th 2009 at 12:43

    I’m not sure if it was critiquing socialism, but I don’t think it was promoting it either. Either way, I would have to say that perhaps nihilism isn’t the best word. Though the miners continued with their jobs and the socialist dream was never realized, I feel like the message was one about the possibility for change. Though it didn’t work for the miners, I think the play is a warning to us that only as individuals can we change; we cannot look to ideology (i.e. socialism in this case) as a way to liberation. Change/rebirth can only come from within. In the miners case, this came out in the form of painting. However, they betrayed themselves when they attached to the socialist movement. Personal growth must be done alone and not with the help of outside forces.

  •   russella // Sep 13th 2009 at 05:58

    Pervoi: Nihilism may have been too strong a word indeed; however, I don’t think that there was much in the way of uplifting messages. There surely was an attempt. But in the end they conquered nothing. Further, I would argue that they attained no longevity what so ever, as Rebecca points out in a later post the Ashington group was more a zoo exihibit. Maybe that is why the play was made, to show the atrocities of the upper class upon the lower, but it nevertheless shows that they were not able to retain fame without becoming a trend.

    Vitoroi: I didn’t even consider the seperation of group and self to be part of the message– which in rhetrospect seems silly. As a group they were a commodity but seperately they were actually able to attain self-improvement and success. The line where the head guy refuses to sell a painting unless the money goes back to the organization sticks out in my mind especially.

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