By Hillary Taylor
In 1947/8, the Communist Party Historians’ Group obtained permission from the Party’s Political Committee to plan a series of events commemorating the tercentenary of the English Revolution. In January 1948, members of the Medieval and the Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century sections of the Group met at the Garibaldi Restaurant in Clerkenwell, London, to plan the proceedings. The prominent Marxist historians Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm were among those in attendance. The 1949 anniversary programme was to include a play about the English Revolution. A copy of the script for a short, anonymously authored play entitled Liberty on Trial has been preserved in the Historians Group files at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in Manchester.
Liberty on Trial is not an aesthetically accomplished piece of theatre. Set in 1637, the play opens in a room near a court of law with a number of men in ‘sober Puritan dress…earnestly’ discussing current events. The characters are a Who’s Who of future Parliamentarians: John Bastwick, John Pym and John Selden are present onstage and are later joined by ‘a man to be reckoned with’: Oliver Cromwell. The action then moves outdoors, and the play concludes with a passing encounter between Cromwell and the king. Charles I describes Parliament as a collection of ‘canting hypocrites’, demands to know Cromwell’s name, and replies ‘Cromwell, eh?’ before walking off stage.
As a potted history of the causes of the English Revolution, Liberty on Trial is more stimulating. Charles I’s reign is presented as an unmitigated disaster, its only ‘successes’ coming at the expense of ‘the laws and liberties of his own subjects’. In the course of their discussion, the characters provide a comprehensive list of the crown’s more controversial policies. As Charles has refused to call Parliament since he dissolved it in 1629, he has used his royal prerogative to raise revenue via alternative channels; In addition to ship money, he has levied tonnage and poundage on imports and exports, granted monopolies ‘without regard for the people who will suffer from them’, and revived a lapsed custom which fined men who owned lands worth at least £40 and who failed to present themselves for knighthood at his coronation. Although the characters speak in favour of ‘improvement’, they claim that the drainage of the fens (also undertaken to boost the crown’s income) has violated the liberties of the subject. They discuss the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud’s destabilising reforms to the church, and the Earl of Strafford, the architect of policies which helped spark the Irish Rebellion in 1641, stands in as a symbol of monarchical absolution.
There is an air of historical inevitability to Liberty on Trial. The characters spend a considerable amount of time anatomizing Charles I’s flaws. The king is described as a ‘tragic’ figure who is too ‘stupid and obstinate’ to ‘stop and think’ about the deleterious effects of his policies and possesses an ‘unerring instinct for doing the wrong thing’. Cromwell, by contrast, is presented as an agent of larger forces: he declares himself an ‘unworthy instrument’, adding, ‘God gave me words to stir the minds and hearts of the people’. He later says: ‘I would rather remain quietly at home, farming my land; but if God’s work is to be done, I must play my part’. In a moment of heavy-handed foreshadowing, Cromwell predicts that England will eventually ‘be drenched in blood’.
In the absence of additional documentation, it is difficult to establish who exactly wrote Liberty on Trial and whether it was ever staged in public. The Group’s minutes suggest that the Communist writer Jack Lindsay was to discuss the play with the writers of the Unity Theatre group, which was founded in 1936 and had links to the CPGB. Assuming that the play was written by an individual or individuals who had some connection to the Party, Liberty on Trial is neither as ‘didactic’ nor as ‘dogmatic’ as one might expect. In focusing on the constitutional debates of the 1630s, it ignores the radical critiques and ruptures of the subsequent decade. It offers no account of the contradictions and structural antagonisms of seventeenth-century society. At no point do the characters break the fourth wall and declare that a ‘bourgeois revolution’ is imminent. No mention is made of ‘feudalism’ or ‘capitalism’, with the crown and its critics serving as the respective agents of each mode of production. Details about the class composition of the play’s characters – lawyers and yeomen on the margins of gentility – are either confined to the stage directions or obliquely provided in the course of the dialogue. Indeed, with its emphasis on the erosion of civil and political liberties and the personal foibles of the monarch, the play bears more than a passing resemblance to the historical analyses of the Revolution that Christopher Hill had critiqued in his English Revolution 1640 (which was originally published in 1940 and reprinted in a special edition for the 1949 tercentenary). It also has little in common with earlier fictionalized treatments of the English Revolution written by Party members who were not professional historians; despite his apparent role in commissioning the play, Jack Lindsay’s own 1649: A Novel of a Year, which was published in 1938, is not reflected in the script.
Why was this decidedly un-Marxist account of the English Revolution produced under the auspices of the CPGB? If the script preserved in the Group’s working papers was indeed performed during the tercentenary events, it was presumably intended to provide a non-specialist audience with a politically useful account of their national past. Perhaps the play was meant to provide the audience with a refresher course on the English Revolution, reminding them of the timeline of historical events they would have learned in school. More importantly, it may have been designed to provoke discussion and criticism; the audience could reflect on the discrepancies between its comparatively orthodox account of the seventeenth century and those offered in various Party organs, before being prompted to find the former wanting. If nothing else, Liberty on Trial demonstrates the degree to which members of the Historians Group transformed both popular and academic understandings of the English Revolution in subsequent decades.
Hillary Taylor is a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge. Her work – some of which has been published in Radical History Review – explores various aspects of social relations in early modern England. She received a PhD from Yale in 2016.