Theatre Review: ‘The Machine Wreckers’
Reformers and Revolutionaries
‘The Machine Wreckers’ by Ernst Toller, National Theatre, Cottlesloe
Socialists are likely to find The Machine Wreckers, a play about the English Luddites, of interest—though they may be surprised to discover that its author was a German expressionist playwright, Ernst Toller, most of whose plays were written whilst he was in prison.
Toller was associated with an attempt to set up a Soviet-style republic in Bavaria at the end of the First World War, and when this failed he was sentenced to five years for treason. Whilst in prison he read widely. As he wrote in his biography:
“I read Marx, Engels, Lassalle, Bakunin, Mehring, Luxemburg, the Webbs . . . In my prison cell I discovered socialism, and for the first time I saw clearly the true structure of society today, the conditions that make war inevitable, the terrible perversity of the law that allows the masses to go hungry while a few go rich, the true relationship between labour and capital, the historical significance of the working class” (I Was A German, translated by Edward Crankshaw, 1934).
Toller had clearly read Lord Byron’s passionate speech against the Frame-Work Bill (1812), which made the breaking of machine-frames, used in the textile industry, a hanging offence. The Machine Wreckers begins with an imaginary exchange in which Byron’s humanity is set against Lord Castlereagh’s Statesman’s voice. Quoting Malthus Castlereagh chillingly argue that since the miseries of plague, war and family are “God-ordained”:
“The more the infant ranks are thinned by Death
The better for our children and our land.”
Toller shows us what such sentiments meant for working-class life in Nottingham in the early years of the nineteenth century. But more than this he examines working class responses to the introduction of machines and the dehumanising excesses of early capitalism. Should the workers die with the rebellious John Wibley who wants to destroy the machines, or the revolutionary Jimmy Cobbett who asks, “what if you laboured to produce for all, and not for Mammon—for service, not for gain?”, and imagines a world in which the machine is “no more your enemy but your helper.”
Writing about The Machine Wreckers Toller is clear that the clash between reformers and revolutionaries is at the heart of the play, and perhaps significantly it is the reformer Wibley who engineers the death of Cobbett by conspiring with the factory owners.
The play works best when it shows, in naturalistic fashion, the monstrous slavery and poverty which were the lot of many workers in the early nineteenth century. At this level, as one newspaper critic has it, the play shocks and grips. Ironically, the expressionistic devices—a blindman lead by a deaf mute, the character of Old Reaper supposedly representing suffering humanity seeking God, and the attack of the off-stage machine all stroboscopic light and hissing steam—dilute the impact and make the play seem dated and often pedestrian.
The playing is unambiguously first class and if some of the author’s stylistic devices—here faithfully reproduced by the director—are a source of weakness, the blazing vitality of the dialogue (particularly the exchange between Cobbett and the factory owner), the continuing relevance of most of the major themes, and the entirely appropriate rage which Toller clearly feels when depicting the grim reality of working-class life, make this a compelling piece of political theatre.