Theatre Review: ‘The World Turned Upside Down’
History from below
‘The World Turned Upside Down’, National Theatre, London. (Available in Penguin Books.)
Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down tells of the other English Revolution—the one that did not succeed; that was not led by Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax; the revolution that wanted to turn the world upside down. This is not the revolution that most histories revolve around. It is probably far more interesting. As Hill puts it, some of the figures in this story “speak more directly to us than Charles I or Pym or General Monck, who appear as history makers in the text books”. At the time of the Civil Wars (1640s) and in particular in the period immediately after the execution of Charles I, England was rife with subversive ideas. A melting pot of dissenters, levellers, diggers, ranters, and early Quakers; every level of English society, including the church and the army, was touched by the passion of revolution.
The common link was religion. From Cromwell downwards, those who were interested in changing the world sought authority and respectability from the bible. Those who opposed revolution used the bible to justify repression. For some, revolution meant a new way of approaching God; for others, the ranters in particular, revolution meant the end of the doctrine of sin and the idea that God inhabited everyone and everything; in effect the dissolution of religion.
The most interesting character was the digger Gerard Winstanley, whose ideas were briefly outlined in the Socialist Standard in June this year. Winstanley wanted a community without money, buying and selling, wage working, without army and law. Although the disasters of the digger experiments (strife within and brutal repression from without) caused Winstanley to recant somewhat on aspects of his more extreme views, he stood for common ownership of the earth by locally self supporting communities. Nor were his views utopian. Winstanley had practical views on the organisation of production; which may not have resulted in the abundance that is now possible, but which might have led to the majority being immeasurably better fed, housed, and clothed.
Hill’s book is history from below, the story of the common, though extraordinary, people of the time. Keith Dewhurst has made a valiant attempt to turn this huge canopy of religious and revolutionary fervour into a play. The stage is crammed with incident; the execution of Charles I, Winstanley’s insolence, (he refuses to doff his hat to Fairfax, a mere “fellow creature”), his anti-property and law views, the disputes between capitalist and landlord, the confrontations between army and people, the extreme sexual liberation of the ranters, disputes between property based, and real concepts of freedom; and the ultimate failure and disillusion of all except Winstanley. All this and more is crammed into the two hours traffic of the stage.
Why does the play fail? Ultimately, what it does not bring out is Hill’s main thesis — that this was a period of real potential for an alternative society. Looking back now, one can say that it was bound to fail. But, argues Hill, looking at it then it was different; for the people involved an alternate society seemed viable. Perhaps in attempting to present a grand sweep of mid-seventeenth century history, Dewhurst was too ambitious. He might have succeeded better had he concentrated more on one digger community, and allowed the turbulent and exciting background to emerge through it. However, the play is yet another reminder of the long history of communist ideas, and as such is another blow at the absurdity of private ownership.