“Conflict” a popular British challenge to predatory capitalism near 100 years ago

By Lucy Komisar

Fascinating to see play written in 1925 that has the politics of a play that could be written today. It was penned by Miles Malleson, a prominent playwright, screenwriter and actor of the time who used his work to promote progressive politics. He was a socialist, pacifist and supporter of women‘s suffrage. This is very finely, subtly directed by Jenn Thompson.

Just listen to what a character says about the 2% and the 8% 100 years ago. That a very small number of very rich (his 2%) plus the strata just below (8%) ran the system, and everybody else was the underclass. So now it‘s the 1%, the 10% and the rest of the underclass

Graeme Malcom as Lord Bellington, Jeremy Beck as Tom Smith and Henry Clark as Ronald Clive, photo Todd Cerveris.

There‘s an elegant drawing room with a red damask settee and the painting of a show spaniel. A couple is returning from a night out. But, there‘s a guy outside stalking. Is this a thriller?

Major Sir Ronald Clive (a snooty Henry Clarke) wants to marry the Lady Dare Bellingdon (very assertive Jean Shelton). Those types always have a few important-sounding words before their names, major, sir, lady. She says no.

Digging deeper, it turns out the “stalker” Tom Smith (a frightened, withdrawn Jeremy Beck) was at Cambridge when Clive was there, then fell on hard times when his father‘s business collapsed.

Clive is spiffy upper class. Smith‘s coat is frayed at bottom. His eyes are bleary. He wolfs sandwiches offered him. He chugs whiskey. He is desperate, emaciated.

Jessie Shelton as Dare and Jeremy Beck as Tom Smith, photo Todd Cerveris.

Clive and the Lord Bellington (a self-important Graeme Malcolm) are not evil, just insensitive, uncaring. The older man says he has tried to rehearse his story. “I don‘t believe he means it.” But Clive surreptitiously gives him 25 pounds.

So now Malleson sets up what will happen to these characters. He establishes the clash of values and what that means for British society post World War I and before the depression. And by the way what might happen if those poor had a few advantages.

Because 18 months later, Smith, with the 25 pounds, has pulled himself together. He‘s the local Labor Party candidate. Imagine what a few pounds can do to put you into the political competition. Though of course he had the advantage of an education that put him in Cambridge. Now, he wants to abolish the capitalist system. Lord Bellingdon at first doesn‘t recognize him, then is fascinated.

Smith challenges that the family has 30 rooms in two houses, in which 20 people look after two people. Bellington hadn‘t thought about it. Nor about what one million British citizens get compared to 40 million. Daughter Dare wants to know more and invites him to tea.

Jeremy Beck as Tom Smith, Jessie Shelton as Lady Dare, Harry Clarke as Clive, photo Todd Cerveris.

Now, she now says to Clive, “what are we doing about the poor… the need to deal with infant mortality, better spread of free education, improvement of health.

I liked the cynical landlady (Amelia White) who was not impressed by the Labor speech. She said, “They come in their cars and they are sweet to you one day of the year.” Smith gets to address the crowd, that “socialism is the hope of the world.”

It‘s all a bit melodramatic and didactic as such plays might be nearly 100 years ago. But well performed as Mint productions usually are. And an important look back at the struggle then for housing, health care, education still being waged against the pernicious system Smith attacked but never defeated. Important in the history of political theater.

“Conflict.” By Miles Malleson, directed by Jenn Thompson. Mint Theater, The Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York. 212-947-8844. Opened June 21, 2018, closed July 21, 2018.

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