"Sam Thompson changed the face of Ulster theatre and influenced later playwrights...It is a mark of Sam Thompson’s importance to Northern Irish drama that everything he wrote caused frissons of alarm among the sensitive members of our ruling class.’ John Keyes
Reflections on Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge
The protests by workers over the threatened closure of Harland and Wolf shipyard has once again focused attention on the workplace that more than any has come to exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of the labour movement in the north of Ireland. The labour history of the Belfast shipyards has been one of militant trade union struggles but also of blatant discrimination which, in periods of heightened sectarian tension, resulted in the mass expulsion of Catholic workers and also of so-called “rotten prods” – those workers from a Protestant background who identified with trade unionism and socialism.
The playwright Sam Thompson (1916-65) would have fallen into this latter category. A painter by trade (from the largely Protestant working class district of Ballymacarrett) he was also a committed socialist and trade union activist whose opposition to sectarianism had cost him his job with the Belfast Corporation. He was also a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. It was Thompson’s experiences within the labour movement and northern society more generally that informed his most famous work – Over the Bridge. Written in 1957 the play tackled the anti-Catholic sectarianism within the shipyards and the challenges that presented for the trade union movement.
In the repressive political environment at the time the subject material of Over the Bridge was highly contentious. From the outset Thompson expected difficulties in getting the play produced. In 1958, when he approached the Group Theatre artistic director James Ellis with a manuscript, he warned the young actor that he had a play “you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.’ Indeed, the story of two year long struggle to stage Over the Bridge probably illuminated as much about northern society as the content of the play itself.
The sensitivity of the political and cultural authorities to works such as Over the Bridge is explained by a number of developments in the late 50s and early 60’s that served to destabilise the northern state and undermine the political monolith of unionism. The first of these was the revival of armed struggle during the IRA border campaign (1956-62). The second was a deterioration in the economy linked to the decline of traditional industries such as textiles, linen making and ship-building. In this period the north recorded levels of unemployment significantly higher than other regions of the UK.
The political consequence of this was a fraying of unionism both to the right - with the emergence of loyalist groups and sectarian street agitators such the young Ian Paisley – and also to the left - with a rise in support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). Even though the NILP had a very modest social democratic programme and also accepted partition its increasing popularity did point to a level of discontent amongst the Protestant working class. The response of the Unionist government to these developments was to strengthen its commitment to preserving the status quo. Any suggestion of reform – of making the state more accommodating towards Catholics and nationalists – was firmly rejected. The Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough – who had a long record of anti-Catholic rhetoric - argued that the commitment of nationalists to “an all-Ireland republic" made reform impossible and that the only correct Unionist response to calls for reform was "resistance".
Part of this policy of resistance was the government's close monitoring of the media and arts. One of institutions most involved in preserving the status quo was BBC Northern Ireland. Though notionally independent it was closely aligned with the Stormont government. Like many other employers it operated a policy that minimised the employment of Catholics and excluded them completely from senior positions. The output of BBC Northern Ireland was subject to blatant censorship while discussion of pressing social issues was perfunctory. References to the north from media sources outside of the state were also monitored. There are records of officials making complaints to the BBC in London over programmes on its national network. For example, in 1958, Alan Wicker made a series of reports about Northern Ireland for the BBC’s Tonight programme, but only one on betting ships was ever broadcast due to pressure being exerted by Stormont.
One area of the arts pushing at the boundaries was drama. A strong theatre tradition had developed in the north and by the late fifties three companies – the Ulster Group Theatre, the Belfast Arts Theatre and the Lyric Players Theatre - were operating in Belfast. The Ulster Group theatre placed a particular emphasis on promoting valuable local work and had earned a reputation for refusing to play safe. In 1958, its production of Gerald McLarnon's The Bonefire – a frank treatment of loyalist bigotry - stirred considerable controversy in the press and at Stormont. One review in the Belfast Telegraph described McLarnon's play as "a vomit of disgust".
The authorities’ determination that this experience should not be repeated set in motion the two year struggle to bring Over the Bridge to production. The Group Theatre’s artistic director James Ellis accepted the play in 1958, and after approval from the Reading Committee, rehearsals commenced. However, the production immediately ran into opposition. The Board of Directors of the Group voiced their disapproval and intervened firstly to demand changes to the script and then to axe the production altogether.
The efforts to suppress Over the Bridge were led by the Chair of the Group J. Ritchie McKee. He was the brother of Cecil McKee - a former Lord Mayor of Belfast who – a year previously - had used his office to denounce the staging of The Bonfire. The position of McKee was also reinforced through his role as Vice-President of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts - a governing body established by the Stormont government to promote a unionist orthodoxy within the arts sector. The Council’s role in funding of local theatre (including the Group) gave it significant influence over what was produced. It was this combination of financial and political pressure - greatly enhanced by the unionist alignment of the members of the Board of Directors of the Group - that resulted in the first attempt to produce Over the Bridge being suppressed. This blatant act of censorship was hidden behind the spurious claim by the Group that it was following a policy “to keep political and religious controversies off our stage”.
However, this was not the end of the struggle to bring the play to production. The pronouncement by the Board of Directors provoked a string of resignations. Ellis and many of the actors split from the Group Theatre to set up their own ad hoc company which had getting Over the Bridge into production as its sole purpose. In January 1960 (two years after it was presented for consideration) Over the Bridge finally made it to the public stage. The play received a rapturous reception from audiences and reviewers - being described by one critic as “a brickbat hurled violently against bigotry”. Performances at the Empire Theatre in Belfast attracted record audiences with an estimated 42,000 people seeing the play over a six week run. It subsequently went on tour and gained acclaim in Dublin and Glasgow, before eventually arriving in London's West End.
The plot of Over the Bridge revolves a group of trade union activists based in one of the workshops at the Belfast shipyard and their efforts to contend with a severe downturn within the industry as well as rising sectarian sentiment. While the workshop is the main setting for the drama there are also a number of scenes in the small kitchen house of one of the characters.
The opening scene of the
play takes place in the yard with workers attending a trade union meeting
convened by Davy Mitchell - the most senior trade union official for their
section. The main subject for discussion is the union’s proposal
for a ban on overtime as a means of rationing out the diminishing amount
of work. Despite the expression of support for this position there
are indications that solidarity among the workers is coming under strain
- with some looking to individual solutions such as a win on the pools
or - in the case of Davy Mitchell’s brother George - ignoring the union’s
directions altogether. This individualist creed is expressed most forcefully
in a later domestic scene in which George’s wife Nellie unashamedly boasts
that "When it's a case of the weakest going to the wall, I take damn good
care I'm one of the ones that's pushing them agin' it"
As the drama progresses we get a better sense of where the various characters stand. There is the Warren Baxter - an activist from a younger generation - who while formally supporting the positions put forward by Davy Mitchell - also sees the trade union structures as means for his own advancement and is prepared to pander to the prejudices of Protestant bigots to promote himself. We also see how the employers - in the character of head foreman Mr Fox - play on economic anxieties to advance a corporate interest. In an a speech to the workers he attempts to push the concept of “shared interests” - alerting them to the dangers posed to their industry by foreign competitors: "Good team work will see us through"; "If every man feels a sense of urgency for the job he's working on, it will go a long way towards holding our own against the Germans and Japanese".
We see the growth of sectarian sentiment through the character of Archie Kerr - a former trade union militant who has come under the influence of Evangelical Protestantism - engaging in malicious gossip against the Peter O’Boyle character - the only worker from a Catholic background in their section. He not only resents O’Boyle’s position on the union committee - which he views as evidence of the advance of Popery - but also the Protestant workers who voted him into that position. In a confrontation with two of his workmates he makes the threat: "When the time comes for a showdown we'll not only number the Popeheads as the enemies of Ulster, but we'll have to take into account mealy-mouthed Prods like you who aid and abet them". It is also made clear that this rancour is not confined to one character but is reflective of growing sectarian sentiment within the workforce. This is revealed by the character of Ephraim Smart – a young apprentice and tea-boy – who reports that "a Prod vigilance committee" has threatened him with a beating if he continues to fill a "Taig's can".
This threat is brought to the forefront of the drama with the breaking news that an explosion at the yard has left a worker critically injured. The cause of the explosion is not established but the rumour that it was an IRA bomb is enough to set in train the terrifying ending to the drama. As a sectarian mob forms and Catholics flee the yard the defiance of O’Boyle in the face of the threats poses a challenge to his workmates. It is one they completely fail. The arguments against solidarity are made most forcefully by the careerist Baxter. He places the blame for their predicament on the intransigence of O’Boyle – accusing him of putting them all in danger because of his desire to “make a martyr of himself'. Later he appeals to the basest instincts of self-preservation: “it's about time we thought of ourselves and got out of here before that mob goes into action”. Most of the workers clear out of the workshop before the mob closes in. The only ones left are O’Boyle and the veteran trade unionist Davy Mitchell who – in a gesture of solidarity – takes up position next to his Catholic co-worker. A crescendo of shouting and banging ensures as the mob approach the workshop and the two men await their fate. While the beating they receive isn’t seen the darkened stage and the accompanying sound effects leaves the audience in no doubt what has occurred.
In last scene of the play there is the shocking revelation Davy Mitchell has died as a result of the beating. At the family home his relatives and friends are preparing for the funeral. Among the mourners are a number of workmates who had abandoned him at the critical moment and are now remorseful over what has happened. Their sense of quilt and despair is articulated by Warren Baxter who weeps over the coffin and bitterly laments how “so-called workmates walked away because they said it was none of their business. None of their business, that’s what they said, then they walked away”.
Given the events that came in years following its production Over the Bridge can be seen as possessing a prophetic quality - a type of literary precursor of The Troubles. At the very least it identifies the pressures within northern society in the early 1960’s that make the upheaval and violence that ensued towards the end of the decade more understandable.
Where Thompson’s work is undeniably accurate is in its presentation of the weakness of the trade union movement in the face of sectarianism. The attempt to ignore discrimination and oppression – and holding to the belief that these can be circumvented through a concentration on limited class issues - prove to have disastrous consequences in Over the Bridge. It also proved to have disastrous consequences in the society that existed outside of the drama as trade unions adopted the role of defenders of the status quo in the north. And this is not just historical. The stance of the trade union movement remains unchanged. Today its main demand is for the restoration of the Assembly and its primary activity is facilitating a programme of austerity. The claim for such an approach – which echoes the arguments made by the trade union officials in Over the Bridge - is that this somehow will mitigate sectarianism and economic hardship.
The parallels between the period of Over the Bridge and the present also exist in politics. Like today the early 60’s was seen a time of change when the old political allegiances appeared to be breaking down. Evidence for this was the rapid rise in the support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party which, at its height of its popularity, won 25% of the vote in an election to the Stormont Parliament. This is significantly higher than the current parties identified as “others” (Alliance, Green & PBP) are achieving. Yet just a decade later the Northern Ireland Labour Party had slumped to less than 2%. Its modest social democratic programme and accommodation to partition proved to be totally inadequate the face of the increasing polarisation of northern society. Are the “others” of today really any different in their approach and would they fare any better in the face of a new crisis within the northern state? The evidence is that they would not. They are a lot weaker than the old NILP both in terms of support and, more importantly, in their politics (which have not even risen to the level of social democracy).
Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge continues to be relevant because it reveals the fundamental and unchanging dynamics of society and politics in the north of Ireland. Firstly, that the northern state is structured around sectarianism; and secondly, that the organisations that offer leadership to the working class, be it trade unions or reformist parties, offer no challenge to the status quo. While such perspective may be viewed as pessimistic we must start with reality.
Working class activity in the north, such as the struggle to save the Harland & Wolff shipyard, should not be dismissed. At the same time activists cannot limit themselves to the role of uncritical supporters of trade union sanctioned strikes and demonstrations. We need to go beyond this and make the argument that the creation of a working class movement with a solid foundation requires the questions of national oppression and sectarianism to be addressed. Of course the contention that workers need to concern themselves with political as well as economic issues is a direct challenge to the existing leadership. Unfortunately, many of the left groups that should be at the forefront of this have accepted the confines set by the trade union movement - limiting themselves a narrow “bread and butter” type approach or else collapsing into identity politics. They fail to grasp the essential truths that Sam Thompson dramatised so powerfully fifty years ago.
A CLASS APART: SAM THOMPSON'S
"OVER THE BRIDGE", ITS CONTEXTS AND RECEPTION
Author(s): Michael Parker
Source: Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), Vol. 8, No. 1, IRISH ISSUE (Spring, 2002), pp. 227-243
Published by: Centre for Arts, Humanities and Sciences (CAHS), acting on behalf of the
University of Debrecen CAHS
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41274169
Celebrated in London, Sam
Thompson’s “Over the Bridge” is as powerful today as ever
The Over the Bridge controversy