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Men Should Weep - Ena Lamont Stewart Rediscovered

If things had worked out differently, writer Ena Lamont Stewart would
have lived long enough to bask in the overdue success of her 1947 play,
Men Should Weep. As it is, by the time her searing depiction of Glasgow
tenement poverty during the depression was first rediscovered by John
McGrath's 7:84 company in 1982 as part of their legendary Clydebuilt
season of lost working class masterpieces that also included Joe
Corrie's In Time O' Strife and Robert McLeish's The Gorbals Story,
Lamont Stewart was already seventy years old. Any sustained drive for
writing she may have harboured would soon be lost with the onset of
Alzheimer's Disease and her eventual death in 2006.

By that time, Men Should Weep had long been regarded as a modern
classic, and had been named as one of the hundred most important plays
of the twentieth century in a list compiled by the National Theatre in
London. If that company's 2010 production went some way to prove that
Lamont Stewart's play had a significance way beyond its immediate
locale, the National Theatre of Scotland's brand new touring production
should give it even greater weight.

Why, though, has it taken so long for a play that falls somewhere
between Sean O'Casey and Arthur Miller in its all too human portrait of
social ills, to be recognised at last? Did it slip through the net
following its initial success in its original production by the
left-leaning Glasgow Unity company because of its warts and all
portrayal of its subject? Was the play's neglect a by-product of an
ongoing rivalry between Glasgow Unity and the better-resourced Citizens
Theatre? Or was it simply that the play's writer was a woman? The truth
is that all of these factors contributed to the silencing of a unique
voice that was never fully allowed to flourish in its own lifetime. But
there were other, more fundamental reasons too.

“I think at that time Scotland had a tendency to celebrate the new,”
writer and broadcaster Kenneth Roy points out. “Then something else
comes along that's new, so everything that went before gets spit out,
and people tended to be forgotten quite quickly.”

Roy was a friend and long-time champion of Lamont Stewart, and wrote
the programme notes for the 2010 London production of Men Should Weep.

“I met Ena in the early 1970s,” Roy remembers. “I was working at the
BBC, and we were both living in Prestwick. I literally bumped into her
one night, so I knew her as a friend before I ever read the play. At
that point Ena was very neglected as a playwright, which was a source
of great pain to her. She hadn't been recognised much since the Glasgow
Unity years, and she struggled to make a living.”

Lamont Stewart augmented her salary working as a librarian by
contributing features to the woman’s page of The Herald.

“She used to talk about two of her plays she was particularly fond of.
One was Men Should Weep, and the other was an earlier play called
Starched Aprons, which was really about nursing and hospitals, and came
from a time when Ena worked in a hospital. She didn't think Men Should
Weep was a better play, but she did think Starched Aprons was as good.
Of course, Starched Aprons is never done, and Men Should Weep is done
all the time.”

Like Men Should Weep, Starched Aprons was born of both compassion and
anger at the world Lamont Stewart saw around her. Where, though, did
that anger itself come from? And what caused her to be so infuriated by
one rejection that she went home and tore up every copy of her play
that she had?

The daughter of a Glasgow minister who served one of the city's poorest
districts, Lamont Stewart grew up in a musical household that may have
influenced the discordant symphonies of criss-crossing speeches in her
plays as much as her powerful first-hand observations. It was her work
as a receptionist at the the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in
Glasgow that exposed Lamont Stewart to the devastating effects of
malnutrition, and which subsequently influenced Starched Aprons.

Lamont Stewart married actor Jack Stewart, and became involved with
Glasgow Unity Theatre, then a firebrand operation in direct opposition
to the middle-class drawing-room dramas patronised by well-to-do
society types. Lamont Stewart claimed the characters of her plays
possessed her as she went about her domestic chores until she had no
choice but to set their voices down on paper. After the success of
Starched Aprons, in which Roddy McMillan was cast over Jack Stewart,
Men Should Weep was written in what must have been a manic weekend. By
this time, Lamont Stewart's marriage was in freefall, and the prospect
of being a single parent was looming.

Whether accidental or not, Men Should Weep's themes of weak,
emasculated men and strong matriarchs keeping body, soul and family
together were as personal as they were universal. By the time of Giles
Havergal's 1982 production at a time of mass unemployment under
Thatcherite rule, with women-run support groups for striking miners
only two years away, Men Should Weep looked like prophecy.

“I think the play does have some sort of contemporary relevance,” Roy
agrees. “It's a very human play, and human plays tend to last, but I
think any kind of documentary reading of things, and there's an honesty
to that in the way there is with Arthur Miller. But also I think you
could overplay certain parallels. The sort of poverty depicted in the
play, for instance, is seemingly awful compared to the level of poverty
now, so the lengths you can make parallels are limited.”

Whatever comparisons that might be made between then and now, between
the 1947 and 1982 productions, both Men Should Weep and its author were
ignored. This was in part due to the collapse of Glasgow Unity, as a
post World War Two Socialist idealism drifted into financial
mismanagement. The main obstacle to seeing Lamont Stewart's work
onstage, however, was Osborne Henry Mavor, aka playwright James Bridie.

Mavor had co-founded the Citizens Theatre in 1943, and one would have
thought it the logical home for Lamont Stewart and the Glasgow Unity
generation. Mavor told Lamont Stewart to her face, however, that under
no circumstances would her work be seen on the Citizens stage.

“She couldn't get her foot in the door,” says Lamont Stewart's son,
Bill Stewart. “She felt that she was kept out of it because she was a
girl, and she was an unattached girl. After that she wrote a lot of
stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were, and there
were another couple of plays that made her feel better about herself,
but by the time she was hailed a success she was far too gone with
Alzheimer's to bask in any kind of glory. But she was someone who saw
things as they were, and managed to put that on paper in a direct and
witty way.”

Stewart was only three when his mother penned Men Should Weep, but over
the years has seen numerous productions. While he expresses
reservations about former Citz director Giles Havergal's expressionist
1998 revival of the play, Stewart hails the 2010 Lyttleton Theatre
production as “fantastic. I'd never seen such a well-filled theatre.
The actors were top drawer, and there was clearly no penny-pinching
going on. As a play I think it's still pertinent, and I only hope this
new production stays true to its intentions.”

As Men Should Weep's accidental unofficial guardian, Roy too is acutely
aware of preserving Lamont Stewart's belated legacy.

“It was such a male chauvinist society then,” Roy bemoans, “and it was
very difficult for any women writers to make an impression. Ena kept on
writing, and would send scripts off which wouldn't even be acknowledged
or returned. For any creative person it would be difficult to maintain
confidence in your own ability after that, but she was a tremendous
character. She was always thought of as as Communist, but she was
actually just a great critic and observer. Some of her abilities were
actually journalistic. She observed the society around her, and had
this uncanny ability of scraping up language and turning it into these
great works of art.”

Men Should Weep, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 16-October 8,
then tours.
Supported by Bank of Scotland
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, September 10th 2011

ends

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