John Galsworthy’s Strife in a 1988 BBC television production directed by Michael Darlow was the fifth presentation in the Screen Plays BFI Southbank season ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’. The following was written as the programme note for the evening.
Strife was one of a quartet of plays that John Galsworthy wrote between 1906 and 1910 that established him at the centre of the ‘New Drama’ movement of the Edwardian theatre. The premiere production of each were directed by Harley Granville Barker, who as an established playwright recognised the importance of the text but also brought a detailed naturalistic aesthetic to their staging. Galsworthy said that could never ‘quite shake off the sense of cramp in writing for the theatre’ but he proved to be as successful in this form as he was with his ‘Forsyte Saga’ novels.
First performed in March 1909, Strife concerns the clash towards the end of an unofficial strike between management and workers at a tin-plate works. But as many critics have pointed out, the play is less about politics than about the human clash between Roberts, the leader of the men (played in this 1988 television production by Timothy West) and Anthony, the Board Chairman (Peter Vaughan).
The play unfolds across just five hours on a single afternoon and moves from the Boardroom to the homes of the key characters and outside to the site of a open-air meeting. Director Michael Darlow brings a tightly controlled style to the studio interiors, using powerful symmetrical compositions, while the exterior sequences are shot with more flexibly deployed video cameras.
1909 was the year of what was known as the Osborne judgement, which made it illegal for the rapidly growing trade unions to use members’ contributions for the support of Labour MPs. It was also a period of very significant industrial unrest, with severe repressions of many strikes, especially in Wales. As D. A. N. Jones noted in a Radio Times feature at the time of the broadcast, ‘Michael Darlow has made Galsworthy’s play even more Welsh. He thinks the tin-plate works is at Wrexham – though Strife was shot in Ironbridge, a suitably Edwardian setting.’
Early 1988 saw significant industrial disputes come to a head amongst nurses, seamen, miners, teachers and car workers. In February, Steve Lohr in The New York Times summarised the politics of the moment in this way:
The current labor unrest has unfolded at the same time that the union movement’s retreat under Mrs. Thatcher appears to be ending. Reversing years of decline, some unions reported increased membership in recent months. Moreover, after steep falls, strike activity rose in 1987, though it remains far less than in the late 1970’s… With British unemployment falling since mid-1986, workers now have less fear of losing their jobs. . And suddenly union militancy seems to be back in fashion. (‘In Britain, renewed labor unrest’, 14 February 1988, online here).
In Radio Times, Peter Vaughan, Timothy West and Michael Darlow all applied the word ‘apposite’ to the play at that moment, with Darlow quoted as saying Strife is ‘apposite to the rather extreme age we live in now’. In one of the ironic juxtapositions of television scheduling the production was broadcast on the evening of Sunday 12 June 1988 directly after a recording of the previous day’s Trooping the Colour ceremony.
For all the attempt to position Strife as a play for today in 1988, Galsworthy’s play is primarily concerned with a clash of egos. As Jan McDonald has written:
Galsworthy took great pains to present in as unbiased a manner as possible, both sides of the Capital versus Labour debate, using similar dramatic, structural and rhetorical devices to do so. His purpose is not to investigate two conflicting political philosophies but to examine the implacable conflict between two men, who are at once the heroes and the villains of the piece. They differ only in their social status and their politics. Their determination (or obstinacy), their single-mindedness, their forcefulness (or violence) and their unshakable conviction in the rightness of the cause they support, show them to be brothers under the skin. (The ‘New Drama’ 1900-1914, London: MacMillan, 1986, p. 125)
Reflecting this focus, the play gives little sense of the details of the dispute and concentrates beyond the boardroom clashes on an emotional sympathy with the men and their families. Each opposing party also has a female voice, and the women put the personal sufferings of families before any issues of principle. For some critics, this view of the world is too sentimental, too individual and too balanced, as Ian Clarke has written:
What I see as the really problematic result of Galsworthy’s strategy is its denial of the validity, or even the possibility, of working-class political activism. The driving force behind the strike derives not from class solidarity, ideological commitment or a sense of communal injustice but from Roberts’ personal zeal… With the exception of Roberts, the workers as a group are shown to be almost totally incapable of concerted political activity. (Edwardian Drama: A Critical Study, London: Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. 71-72)
This is an analysis with which the dramatist would surely have agreed, for as Galsworthy later reflected on the play:
It has always been the fashion to suppose that it is a play on the subject of capital and labour. But the strike, which forms the staple material of the play, was only chosen by me as a convenient vehicle to carry the play’s real theme which is… violence; Strife is indeed a play on extremism or fanaticism… [People] should go to Strife to see human nature in the thick of a fight, the ‘heroism’ of diehardism, and the nemesis that dogs it. (H. V. Marrott, The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy, London: Heinemann, 1935, p. 637)