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The Subterranean Theatre

The Spanish Civil War was a clear call to arms. Here was a focal point with which he was familiar, similar to the struggles he had engaged in with the Wobblies on the New York Waterfront. The civil war entered the European conscience in deciding between, fascism, communism or social democracy, and proved ultimately both inspiration and nightmare. It demanded his full attention and involvement as the cause was so clear; an elected government had been overthrown by the military and people, particularly in the cities, had risen up in its defence.  

Merseyside Left Theatrewas formed with a radical manifesto that declared, ‘We are a political theatre involved in the struggle for socialism.’  It sought out a working class audience to bring to them the ‘most urgent political issue of the day – the need to rouse support for the Spanish people in their fight against international fascism. Their first plays were ‘Guernica’ and ‘Spain’, and they toured the region appearing in theatres, church halls and on the streets. There was a ready response, and many of their productions played to full houses.

Jerry Dawson, George’s friend and one of the theatre’s leading lights, commented that ‘Merseyside Left Theatre were lucky. They had a man who had worked with The Wobblies in America. He could set the cast firmly in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He had led the Liverpool contingent in the Hunger March of 1922. He could carry the American Struggle across the Atlantic and make it British.’

John Garrett, the middle son of seven, remembers his father George talking of the children he had witnessed when he was young, wearing hand me down clothes from recently deceased relatives: ‘these children walking around in grown-up’s clothes reminded him of a children’s theatre group. The children dressed in these almost bizarre clothes, however, didn’t strut and sparkle…they slunk around…totally ashamed.’ That George should witness this poverty and relate it to theatre is no surprise. His great talent lay in seeing the drama in everyday circumstances, and to represent authentic voices without side effects or farce.

George’s return to drama brought a more collective way of writing and protest to his art. Just as the Wobblies provided him both with industrial protest and cultural inspiration, so the Left and Unity theatres were to act as presentiments to another war. When the International Brigades returned from Spain following the defeat of the Republican forces at the last battle of the River Ebro in 1938, it must have been clear to George that the phrase Left Theatre had daubed on walls, ‘Madrid Today – Merseyside Tomorrow’, was soon to become reality.

In 1939, with the outbreak of World War Two, he again returned to sea, sailing on the Nagara from Liverpool to Buenos Aires, the city to which he had first stowed away more than quarter of a century before. As Jerry Dawson was to wryly remark, George ‘was allowed to work once again, so that he could risk his life for his country.’

George did his bit, but always the street fighter, the activist, the man on the ground, it may have been he felt out of step with this new ‘people’s war’ mentality. He knew well the experiences of the unemployed after WW1, and how workers fared both during and after state conflict. The Second World War was far less eventful for George than WW1, and after completing a few trips he worked through the worst of the blitz as a night watchman on the Bootle Docks.

Just one short story, The Maurie, comes from this period, but it is in this story, finally published in full in 1999, in which he returned to the phrase Subterranean Theatre. It is a phrase he used again and again,and one that could well be applied to his own life as a writer and dramatist, as he laboured below decks to create a body of literary and propagandist work about the life and conditions of the working classes.

Following the war George was still active, creatively as a writer and actor, and as an activist and advocate. He co-wrote two major plays staged by The Unity Theatre; One Hundred Years Hard, commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of The Trades Council, and Man with a Plan, a production designed to support the claims of the Labour Party in power, and keep them on the path of nationalisation. Both productions successfully toured across the North-West. His unpublished notebooks also reveal his private writings, including a part-finished script for another play set at half-time during a football match.

By the mid 1950’s, time, according to Jerry Dawson, seemed to be passing George by. But he remained active around the Seamen’s Reform movement, writing, printing and distributing leaflets to push the Seamen’s Union towards a democratic structure. However, aside from one far-sighted letter published in 1957 in the Liverpool Echo calling for a regeneration of Liverpool’s waterfront, it seems George wrote very little. He worked for ten years as night watchman on a Shell tugboat until he retired.

In many ways he had seen it all and done it all; written and published his short stories, developed his plays, lived among Hollywood actors in New York, and tramped across Latin America. He’d served in two world wars, been torpedoed and taken prisoner, escaped, and fought on, for the unemployed, for his fellow workers, and helped found a theatre that still exists today. All this was while sustaining a relationship and a large family. Only a true understanding of the odds he faced can give us a sense of perspective for what he achieved.

In 1966 he spoke at several meetings in support of the seamen during their first official strike since 1911. At one of the meetings he threw his own bus fare into the collection and walked home. He died later that year of throat cancer after a life given over to creativity, art and struggle. He went out the way he had lived, supporting the underdog, the restless and the poor. He left behind a body of work to be proud of, and a legacy as one of the most significant working class writers of his generation.