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November 28th, 2010

The Pitmen Painters

After almost two weeks back home, we had not yet seen a play--a state of affairs that clearly could not be allowed to continue.  And Ellen found tickets for The Pitmen Painters on TDF.  So last night, after bidding our latest houseguests a fond good-bye and scarfing some tofu and kale with oyster sauce stir-fry, we wrapped ourselves against the wolf-wind that howls down Riverside Drive and headed downtown to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (which is a lovely small theater, by the way, and one of my favorites).

The Pitmen Painters is based on a Real Life Story.  In 1934, the Worker's Educational Association in Ashington, Northumberland hired an MA in Art History from Durham University to teach them Art Appreciation.  Since they'd never heard of Michelangelo or Rafael, wouldn't know chiraoscuro if it bit them on the nose--never, in fact, seen many pictures of any kind--his usual teaching method of showing slides of Famous Paintings and lecturing about them wasn't going very far.  So he got them to appreciate art by making it themselves--by painting scenes from their lives and showing them to the group, which would then discuss them.

They got quite famous, the Pitmen Painters.  They did group exhibitions in Newcastle and London and Henry Moore took an interest in them.  I don't know how many men were actually in the group, but five of them seem to be responsible for the bulk of the surviving paintings, which are now collected in the Woodhorn Colliery Museum.  These five men, and their teacher, Robert Lyon, are the heart of Lee Hall's play.  So are any number of cool ideas about Art, Class, and Socialism, with nods to War, Poverty, and the Place of Woman In the Early 20th Century as appropriate.

There are some mighty fine moments in this play--when the men go to London to see an exhibition of Chinese scroll painting and argue about perspective and tradition and how art is about transformation, I nearly cried.  And there are some rousing speeches about class and education and socialized medicine and selling out.  While it was going on, I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because of the very fine cast, who were all in the original production.  Christopher Connel, as Oliver Kilbourn, the most committed (and possibly the most talented--although I confess I liked Harry's streetscapes better) artist of the group, was particularly fine, partly because of his almost supernaturally deep and resonant voice, but mostly because he could go from funny to nearly tragic in a heartbeat without falling into bathos. 

Yet, in the end, I have to say that The Pitmen Painters doesn't quite work. Its characters aren't so much individuals as they are types of the struggling lower classes.  The speeches on socialism and art and self-expression and feeling tip into the inspirational as the same points get repeated in different ways.  The ringing paeans to the glory of art began to sound slightly defensive and maybe even desperate in the face of the horrors of WWII and the rigors of life in post-war Britain.  Still, it's immensely good-hearted (like Billy Elliot, which Lee Hall also wrote), nicely-structured, both funny and moving, and it's about how art can set you free.  While I was watching it, I loved it.  It wasn't until I started to think about it afterwards that it started to unravel.  And it certainly made me think.

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To All Those Who Have Added Me

Welcome--and thank you very much.  I'm flattered and pleased--and a little afraid that you've been lured here under false pretenses.  You see, I don't post much about writing.  Mostly, I do play reviews (I don't go to a lot of movies) and travel posts. Sometimes I complain about my WIP.  Sometimes I burble about a book I love.  As I prepare to teach a 6 week course in writing fantasy for children this summer, I will probably post some ruminations about writing exercises and process, but really, unless somebody pushes the right button, I'd rather talk about writing than write about it. 

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