Ena Lamont Stewart was the daughter of a Scottish minister whose church was in the Glasgow slums. Her upbringing caused her to develop a profound interest in and compassion for the poor, particularly the light of poor women. Married to an actor, she also became interested in theater. Because she was a woman, she was never fully accepted into the circle of male playwrights, directors and producers. Nonetheless, MEN SHOULD WEEP, written in 1937, was recently voted one of the hundred best British plays. It has an enormous cast which makes it very difficult to produce. Unlike all but a few plays, the cast is female heavy. The National has mounted an extremely effective revival of MEN SHOULD WEEP under the sensitive direction of Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Bush Theatre, one of London's most important centers of new writing for the stage.
I was particularly interested in seeing this play. My grandmother grew up one of thirteen children in the Glasgow slums. She was a fierce woman, to put it mildly. She got out at the turn of the twentieth century and, with my grandfather, lived a version of the American dream though their social world was the small Scots enclave in Northern New Jersey. All the Scots' colorful language and tendency toward emotional overstatement was passed on to their children.
MEN SHOULD WEEP takes place forty years after my grandparents left for America. It is the depression and the Morrison family live in an overcrowded Glasgow tenement. In their small apartment are John and Maggie, John's mother and their five children ranging from six to early twenties. John seldom has work, though he doesn't try very hard to get it. Their family support is depedent on what the grown children bring in plus John's mother's small pension and the genersosity of Maggie's sister. As in Lorraine Hansberry's later A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the tenement environment is a major destructive force on the family and the giant, multi-level set gives on a sense of the depressing dramas being played out all over this building. Another tenement nearby physically collapses. What we witness in the Morrison apartment is a collapse of morale.
I thought of Sean O'Casey's plays about the Dublin slums as I watched MEN SHOULD WEEP. As in O'Casey's work, the men are weak and the women are survivors. The men try to enforce a rigid moral code on the women, but the women know that conventional morality is irrelevant in their world. One daughter has managed to escape by moving in with her boss. She has a good home and nice clothes and wants to help her parents financially, but the father won't take "a whore's earnings." The mother will if it means a better home. There is a gossipy but supportive community of women who see men as the common enemy. Maggie and John love each other, but it takes a crisis in the marriage to get John into a steady job. He is a master at articulating his failure but then passing the blame on to something or someone else.
At first the play seemed like unrelieved gloom. The youngest son has tuberculosis, the older daughter hates her parents and her home and the older son is a gambler married to a "fancy woman" who despises his weakness. But the play is leavened with humor and it is worth sticking through the relatively glum first half to get to the vibrant second half. At the interval, I wondered what the playwright's politics were -- why had she written this grim picture of slum life? A few minutes into Part Two and one could see that her primary interest was gender politics -- how strong women can survive despite weak men. For some, the Scottish accents will be a problem -- I was raised on them and loved hearing all the old Scots aphorisms and insults that I have known since childhood. I could hear my grandparents and my mother in the women's banter.
The production is nearly flawless. It has been running for a while and there were a few moments when an actress would overplay her role and mug a bit. However, like O'Casey's work, MEN SHOULD WEEP veers from comedy to melodrama and Rourke and her cast tried to keep the acting totally honest. The cast drew cheers from the audience at the end which they richly deserved.
Other people wrote better, more nuanced, versions of this sort of play -- Sean O'Casey, Lorraine Hansberry and the master, Clifford Odets. But MEN SHOULD WEEP deserves this fine production and only a well heeled, subsidized theatre like the National could afford to revive it.