The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Robert Tressell (or Noonan, or Croker) died in 1911, and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was published (thanks to the enthusiasm and editorial skill of much-maligned Jessie Pope) in 1914. The book shows the lives of painters and decorators in Mugsborough (Hastings) during a recession when their skills could only be sold at an insultingly cheap rate; it conveys Tressell’s anger at the waste of talent and contempt for human lives that seemed to be built in to the capitalist system. A popular edition after the War became an underground classic, and an unofficial bible for socialists.
These early editions were highly abridged, taming Tressell’s original sprawling manuscript into something publishable. Fuller texts have been published since the sixties, though it is worth noting that it was Jessie Pope’s version that during the thirties had a crucial impact on readers (including George Orwell and Jack Jones).
Since the thirties, too, there have been several attempts to stage the novel. Joint Stock produced a much-praised version in 1978, for example, and other adaptations have proliferated among left-wing theatre groups.
The latest stage version began life at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and is now at Chichester. This one succeeds very well at putting Tressell’s highly individualised group of workmen onto the stage, but the novel has qualities that are highly resistant to adaptation.
For a start, the book lacks a coherent structure. Individual episodes are highly effective, but they don’t make a shapely whole. The book ends with a crisis solved when one of the working men turns out to have been a rich idealist observing working conditions. He doles out largesse like one of Dickens’s Cheeryble brothers, to produce a happy ending, but hardly one that suggests a thought-through solution to the social problems so vividly exposed in the novel. The formlessness matters more in a two-hour play than it does in a novel.
Even more difficult in the theatre is the character of the hero. Owen, a skilled painter brought low, is always right. He knows more than the others, and lectures them about their false consciousness, and the book never looks at him objectively. You can just about get away with this kind of character in a novel, but on stage he inevitably comes across as preachy, even smug, because he always knows how right he is, and how deceived his fellow-workers are. The novel does a difficult balancing act; Owen impatiently criticises his workmates for their acquiescence in the system that exploits them, but the novel understands them. It presents them with an exasperated sympathy, and is rarely contemptuous. There were moments in this adaptation (such as the scene where the workers can’t even organise a works outing sensibly) when they are made to seem like clowns, which is a pity.
Perhaps there is a more fundamental problem with the book, in that it is running two arguments at once, and sometimes confusing them. The first, and most convincing, is that capitalism, especially during a recession, gives the workers a very raw deal. The key scene is the one where Owen demonstrates “the money trick”, proving with bits of bread and pennies that the current system of exchange is rigged so that the employer always wins. This is the best scene in the novel, and in the Chichester adaptation it comes across brilliantly.
But Tressell’s heart was in the Arts and Crafts socialism of William Morris, and his book’s other main argument is that the capitalist system leads inevitably to shoddy workmanship. The decorators of the novel are constantly required to cut corners and bodge their work, in order to maximise profits. Tressell was drawing on his own experience here; as a skilled painter and signwriter fallen on hard times and doing hack work, he was asked to produce fast work below his best standard, and it pained him. Yet in the novel he can only generalise from this experience by a sort of sleight of hand. The bosses of the novel are caricatured as a tight-knit cabal, with crushingly obvious names like Sweater, Rushton, Didlum and Grinder (portrayed in the stage adaptation by actors wearing grotesque masks, which is true enough to the spirit of the book). They can get away with anything they want to, including the provision of seriously substandard goods. Each boss has a monopoly in his own field, and the market is quite unregulated by competition.
Yet something must have regulated the market, because houses built in the period 1890 to 1910 are not only still standing, but many of them (to my taste anyway) are exemplars of domestic architecture. The standard of building is markedly higher than that found in much of the architecture produced by municipal socialism in the last half-century – the already crumbling tower blocks and the drab estates of council housing. As I listened to Owen’s idealistic speeches preaching the socialist future, I wondered how Russians or Poles or Czechs would react to his belief that under socialism the quality of consumer goods would rise, and municipal corruption would disappear. In the Northern cities of Britain, too, there are many people who would far rather live in a terraced house of the early 1900’s (probably built by the local factory owner to house his workforce) than in one of the award-winning projects erected by the social idealism of the 1960s.
History has not been kind to the idealistic socialism preached by Tressell through his mouthpieces, Owen and Barrington, but the depiction of the harsh effects of recession is still pertinent (as is the scene where the councillors bail out their own failing firm with public money.
A few months after the book’s publication, of course, there was another recession. The start of the War left many businesses paralysed because of general uncertainty about the future. Tressell’s decorators, dependent on short-term contracts, would probably have been out of work, like many of those for whom enlisting in the Army became an option that would at least have kept their wives and children supplied with a regular allowance.
What would Tressell’s attitude to the War have been, had he lived? It’s hard to say. He was originally from Ireland, and in the 1890, when he went with his daughter to Johannesburg as a well-paid skilled construction worker (and, incidentally, led a successful protest against the employment of black skilled labour) he helped form the Irish Brigades, an anti-British force that fought alongside the Boers in the Second Boer War. Whether or not he actually played any part in the War is unclear.
He returned to England, and in the early twentieth-century seems to have shared the anti-German feeling of the time. He adapted his craft skills to potentially military uses. As his Wikipedia article explains it: “he now was designing aircraft, which he hoped would be accepted by the War Office. In 1905, his designs were rejected, and he turned leftwards once again.”
Tressell was obviously a complicated man; his novel does not resolve all his contradictions in an artistically satisfying way, but it gives a picture of working-class conditions at the start of the twentieth century that can be found nowhere else.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

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